New Anglicanism

"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" - Jesus (Gospel of Matthew 13:52)

2 notes &

Part 2: An appeal – on the basis of Scripture – to my Sydney friends to re-think their position on women, ministry and authority.

The last of my six posts on women, ministry and authority. My initial plan was to do an appreciative critique of the respective books by John Dickson and Michael Bird. I agree with Dickson’s main argument, but believe he should go further (especially in the area of women and prophecy as one mode of preaching). I am in even greater agreement with Michael Bird—especially his treatment of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, understood in the context of false teaching in Ephesus.

Where I differ from them both is with regard to headship, and it is this I want to explore in this post (although not specifically in response to Dickson or Bird).

To this point I have made two main contentions:

1. That the use of authenteō  (‘dominate’) in 1 Timothy 2:12 signals a significant distinction from the much more commonly used exousia related terminology. The two terms are not essentially synonyms, and our exegesis needs to weigh why such a rare verb is employed, and where it has distinct nuances not conveyed by our English word ‘authority’. To understand the term as ‘to dominate’ is well-established lexically, and makes better sense in this context.

2. The treatment of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as a unit raises the key question of why Paul refers to Eve’s deception (v.14). I have argued that his, together with verse 13, is best understood as part of a mini-narrative statement that summarises Genesis 2-3, as an example of the woman (Eve), not having been informed directly by God, being made vulnerable to deception by false teaching (the serpent), and prevailing over Adam as a result. This makes for a more cogent reading of this passage as a whole, set against the backdrop of warnings against false teaching that concludes chapter 1, and sets the scene for chapter 2. The ‘order of creation’ interpretation has significant exegetical difficulties.

I find myself wondering why this focus on limiting women in leadership and the contexts of ministry has become such a key (and apparently defining) issue of our times.

The answer, I assume, is the desire to be faithful to Scripture. Fair enough. I have the same desire.

Yet my point is a matter of fact: there is no passage in Scripture that clearly or unambiguously says women are not to have authority over men. None.

There is one verse (1 Timothy 2:12), explicitly expressed in the context of responding to false teaching which states that women are not to ‘dominate’ over men, within a unit (2:11-15) that raises a range of contextual issues and difficulties, whatever we conclude. This is a most insubstantial basis on which to establish one of the key defining issues of our times.

What then, of ‘headship’, and notions of ‘submission’?

In this context I now want to add a third contention to round out my critique of complementarian perspectives, with an alternative analysis of the metaphorical sense of ‘head’, and addressing the issue of ‘headship’ in non-authority related terms. ‘Submission’ (better ‘subordination’) need not be understood in hierarchical terms, especially when understood in terms of mutuality.

This is my third contention: nothing should be said of the ‘headship’ of a man over a woman (or husband over a wife) that cannot be equally be said of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Talk of differing levels of authority between Father and Son, and of a hierarchical understanding of intra-Trinitarian relationships, takes us into dangerous theological territory.

‘Headship’ is an unhelpful term that obscures more than it clarifies, and should be dropped from use for the purposes of dialogue. Whatever complementarians understand by ‘headship’ should be expressed in clearer terms (which reflects a range of conclusions in any event).

Let me be upfront with my reasoning: the metaphorical sense of kephalē has a well-established semantic range. The term ‘headship’ is not synonymous with kephalē, but a construction based upon one particular construal of the metaphorical application. By using ‘headship’ all other potential metaphorical senses are excluded, and unhelpfully conveys the impression that it is synonymous.

As an alternative, I shall argue that a non-hierarchical understanding of the intra-Trinitarian relationships provides a better model to understand how a husband is the head of the wife (or male of female) within a relationship of equals, reflecting inter-dependence, mutuality, individuality and difference.

[Please note: the initial part of what follows is derived from some of my own previous material prepared for a more popular, non-academic audience.]

Caution is especially in order when we consider the Trinity. The inadequacies of using analogies are well known, but the conceptual paradigms in play are just as capable of pre-determining the resultant shape as analogies and metaphors.

If you are not overly familiar with the history of Trinitarian formulations, hang in there with me for a moment. Western traditions are characteristically construed in terms of the Athanasian Creed, with its definitive ‘Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence’ distinctions (elaborating on earlier terminology credited to Tertullian and integral to Nicean orthodoxy as ‘three hypostases in one ousia’). Eastern models explore a different conceptual paradigm, especially in viewing Trinitarian notions as ‘energies of God’.

Now none of the formulations above are mutually exclusive, but starkly illustrate one thing: there is no one paradigm capable of fully explaining or shaping our understanding of the Trinity. The danger of over-emphasising one paradigm is offset by allowing a number of other models to sit alongside one another.

For example, there is some legitimacy in recognising that the actions of God may be considered in terms of particular functions or ‘modes’ of God (so Barth), but an overemphasis on this results in the error of ‘modalism’. Similarly, an over-emphasis on the distinctive ‘persons’ of the Trinity can lead towards an effective ‘tri-theism’ (belief in three Gods).

It is for these reasons that warnings about the inherent dangers in becoming overly focused on understanding the inner realities of the Trinity in terms of hierarchical order are very real.

A hierarchy is the arrangement of items or people as ‘above’ and ‘below’. When related to questions of authority, hierarchy devolves into ‘chain of command’ and ‘obedience’ types of relationship, understood as roles or fundamental order. Hierarchy is essentially unilateral –the exercise of authority moves in one direction and has little or no room for reciprocity or mutuality.

It is particularly with the latter in view that hierarchy is recognised as (at best) a very limited paradigm for understanding the Trinity, and more often, a very dangerous trajectory for construing relationships between Father, Son and Spirit.

Over against such hierarchical thinking, theologians from early times have affirmed the importance of ‘mutual indwelling’ within the Godhead – perichoresis for those familiar with this rich term. Of ancient usage and derived from Greek with the sense of ‘containing around’, T F Torrance characterises the term as a ‘dynamic three-way reciprocity’ between Father, Son and Spirit.

It is precisely because of the unilateral character of hierarchy, with its ‘chain of authority or command’ sense of order, that serious caution is needed in allowing such a paradigm to shape our perceptions of the mystery of the Trinity.

Now my background is more in the area of New Testament theology than historical or systematic theology, so in this post I will consider how Paul views the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit. What I will propose ends up looking much like perichoresis, but I have come at it from a different direction.

In short: I do not believe ‘hierarchy’ is adequate or even helpful in understanding the use of ‘hypotasso’ (‘subordination’) by Paul (and elsewhere in the New Testament). The use of human relationships as paradigms in exploring the Godhead will always be inevitably and significantly limited. When we recognise the counter-cultural critique made by Jesus of those who exercise authority within the human realm (Matthew 20:25-26), in contrast to the ways of the kingdom-reign of God, even more caution is needed.

Here, I need to touch on a few initial comments of a more technical nature, but hang in there with me.

There is a notional distinction made between ‘working relationships’ within the Godhead (known as the ‘economic Trinity’), and the ‘essential being’ of God. However, the distinction is arbitrary, and it is widely held that we can know nothing of God’s ‘essential being’ other than what is glimpsed through God’s dealings in and through creation. There is no other ‘portal’ into perceiving God other than what is discovered in the realm of history as God has engaged with his world.

God is as God is observed to be, inasmuch as we finite beings can discern the being of God.

Why is this significant? Because the distinction between the ‘subordination of the Son’ in terms of God’s outward ‘working relationships’, and that of more essential and eternal dimensions to the inner being of God is not so neatly delineated.

Now all this is much discussed and nothing particularly new. Yet it shapes how we approach Scripture. What do we observe of God, and the interaction between the distinctive entities of Father, Son and Spirit?

We can note that there is not reciprocal identity—each person of the Trinity is distinct and not to be confused. And without making the error of suggesting that there was a time when the Son did not exist, we also observe the Father is the kephale – source of the Son, and the Son is ‘begotten’ of the Father, while the Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father.

While the hot issue is whether the Son’s submission is eternal (and if so, whether this is functional or ontological), I wonder whether the wrong question is being explored. It is less about the timeframe of such submission, but rather how that ‘submission’ is understood. Is it necessarily a hierarchical notion, of command and submission?

In what sense may we understand the ‘submission’ of Jesus to Father? In similar terms, we hear of the ‘obedience’ of Jesus to the Father, although this is largely to be understood in contrast to the disobedience of Adam to God. Jesus, the new man and ‘second Adam’ was and is obedient, while the original Adam was wilfully rebellious. Such obedience is also a reflection of love and trust here. The willingness to be obedient is the outworking of such love.

In like measure, talk of the submission of Jesus to the Father is better located in the sense of the depth of respect and love. The will of the Father becomes the will of Jesus. The ‘convergence of will’ better reflects what we observe about Trinitarian relations.  The Trinity exists in the ultimate ‘oneness of mind’ and purpose, and it is in this—and this alone—that we discover the possibility of ‘mutual submission’.

The adoption of some form of ‘hierarchy’ as a paradigm to understand relationships within the Godhead take us in the wrong direction, and places strain on the affirmation of ontological equality (ultimate equality of ‘being’). Yet the biblical windows into the inner realm of the Trinity lead us elsewhere, to a mutual indwelling and complete alignment of values, will and purpose.

In similar measure, the reduction of human relationships between males and females along the delineation of roles and hierarchy of order is ill-considered. The goal set before the fellowship of God’s people, those transformed in their thinking towards the will of God and participating in the Spirit, is to be of one mind, that is, the same mind as that of Christ.

I have spent much time on the relationship between the Father and the Son, especially as reflected in the use of kephalē (‘head’). I return to my original assertion: Nothing should be said of the ‘headship’ of a man over a woman (or husband over a wife) that cannot be equally said of the relationship between the Father and the Son.

Drawing these two threads together, I argue that the relationship of husband as the ‘head’ of the wife (as expressed in 1 Cor. 11:3) need not, and indeed should not, be understood within a gender-defined hierarchy of authority.

It should also be pointed out that the fuller consideration of 1 Cor. 11:3-13 concludes with an affirmation of inter-dependence (verses 12-13), and makes no role differentiation between the ministries of husband and wife (both may ‘pray and prophesy’, verses 4-5). The import of this passage is addressed at cultural practices of dress, and especially headwear. At one level, Paul starts with a word play between physical and metaphorical uses of ‘head’, but the language of ‘authority’ is only expressed with reference to the woman/wife (v.10). Even more strikingly, 1 Cor. 14:26 makes it clear that when coming together ‘each one’ (with no gender exclusions) ‘has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation’. The one criterion for such ministries is that ‘all things be done for building up’. Why introduce gender-based restrictions on such ministries where scripture does not do so?

A concluding brief comment is appropriate with reference to 1 Cor. 14:34-35:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church

It is clearly recognised that this cannot be an absolute restriction on women (or wives) speaking. Debate has been over what form of speaking is in view, and this post is not intended to review these, but rather to propose what I find a compelling contextual interpretation. The form of speech in view is before us in the text: it concerns wives asking questions of other wives’ husbands in public assembly (v.35).

Something of the cultural dynamic in play here may be illustrated by a passage by the Roman historian Livy (recreating a speech from M. Porcius Cato).

What kind of behaviour is this?

Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked your husband the same thing at home?

In measures very similar to working in cross-cultural contexts today, cultural sensitivities are to be weighed when gospel witness may be otherwise compromised (e.g. for the appropriate clothing and social engagement by women when working in societies where these matters are culturally sensitive). This passage may readily be understood in such terms.

Much more could be said, but it is hoped that this contribution may clarify how someone else who shares evangelical convictions and commitment to Scripture views these issues, and may, just possibly, provide cause for some reconsideration of the basis for complementarian positions.

2 notes &

An appeal – on the basis of Scripture – to my Sydney friends to re-think their position on women, ministry and authority.

I am under no illusions that this post will change anything, but it needs to be said in any event. I am not alone in believing the Anglican Diocese of Sydney makes a very significant contribution to the wider life and ministry of the church beyond Sydney. However, in my judgement, the single biggest obstacle to Sydney-trained clergy finding senior leadership positions beyond the diocese is the prevailing adherence to restricting women in ministry, authority and leadership.

Against this backdrop, I want to urge those in Sydney (and elsewhere) to reconsider their understanding of complementarianism. My thoughts will be in expressed in two posts, the first focusing on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and questions of ‘creational order’ and ‘authority’. Please note, however, that these brief comments are in no way intended to be comprehensive or expressed at the level of detail that they deserve. Rather, I aim to draw attention to a handful points that I believe might be reconsidered.

Let me declare myself clearly, at least so that readers may know where I am coming from. I entered Moore Theological College in 1981 with moderate yet conservative views on women, authority and leadership. During my final year I decided to revisit the biblical basis for this position, examining each passage independently, collectively, and alongside a theological understanding of ‘authority’. I still recall my surprise at how tenuous is the biblical argument for what is now termed complementarianism. I exited from my time at MTC as an ‘emerging egalitarian’.

Summary of this post:

1. Our interpretative approaches must view 1 Tim. 2:11-15 as a unit, not as one or two stand alone verses. The interpretation of verses 11-12 must account for verses 13-14, and make sense alongside 2:15.

2. Despite all-too-frequent claims to the contrary, authenteō was a rare verb in the first century, and an unusual word choice. It would have signalled to the first hearers that something more specific was in Paul’s mind, not conveyed by his usual exousia related terminology. Readers of plain English translations would be better served by the use of another lexically established term such as ‘to dominate’, to alert them to the fact that this is not a regular word for ‘authority’.

3. Interpreters need to address why an unusual word has been used here (authenteō), and in particular what is distinctive in this verb over exousia related terminology.

4. In formal terms, verse 13 ‘for Adam was created first, then Eve’ is not a theological statement, but a mini-narrative summary. When combined with verse 14 it alludes to the narrative movement in Genesis 2-3 as a whole. Any theological significance needs to be inferred, and understood in the context of 1 Timothy 2 as a whole.

5. On the basis of ‘using Scripture to interpret Scripture’, the closest parallel to verse 13 is 1 Cor. 11:8-12. This is a tightly expressed unit where Paul does specify the theological significance (the wife has her own authority, v. 10), and it leads us away from any creational hierarchy along gender lines, more specifically affirming inter-dependence and mutuality (verses 11-12). Crucially, this fuller parallel passage does not make any role differentiation, and is applied to cultural issues of headwear.

6. The most significant interpretive crux in understanding 1 Tim. 2:11-15 is located in the rationale contained in verse 14: ‘and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.’ This key verse is too often overlooked, and unless it refers to a female gullibility, it is most cogently understood with reference to women being targeted by the false teachers in Ephesus.

In brief, if the ‘creational order’ emperor is not entirely naked in 1 Tim. 2:11-15, he is certainly light on in the clothing department, especially if it reduces male-female relationships to gender hierarchy and male authority.

Beyond the catch-phrases

One of the frustrations is in the adopting of ‘catch-phrases’ that do little to clarify the distinctive features of various positions. I am very happy that women are ‘equal but different’. Egalitarians are just as ready to affirm that males and females complement one another in the created scheme of things. Where we differ is in perceptions of a gender related hierarchy of authority, and in role-delineated asymmetry of relationships.

The exegetical weakness of complementarianism

There are a number of points in which the arguments for various complementarian positions are open to significant criticism from an exegetical point of view:

Genesis 1

It is unsustainable to establish any role or authority differentiation on the basis of gender in Genesis 1. The image and likeness of God is reflected equally between male and female (Genesis 1:27), and both receive the mandate in 1:28 (‘”Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth”, (ESV). The ‘earth creature’ identified in 1:28 (Hebrew ‘ha ’adam’) contains both male and female. Few argue for gender differentiation on the basis of Genesis 1.

Genesis 2

The second creation account recorded in Genesis 2 has a different narrative structure compared to Genesis 1, although some features should be read alongside the first creation account. The initial focus is on the ‘earth creature’ (‘ha ’adam’, unhelpfully translated at this point as ‘man’; perhaps even better as ‘soil creature’, so John C. Holbert, Telling the Whole Story, 49), and the incompleteness of creation to this point is signalled by the statement that ‘it is not good that the soil creature should be alone’, with the ‘it is not good…’ standing in contrast to the refrain of ‘it was good’ in chapter 1.

It is only after the creation of the woman (‘issa’) that the ‘man’ is so designated (‘is’). Phyllis Trible expresses it cogently:

The new creature, built upon the material of adam, is female, receiving her identity in a word that is altogether new to the story, the word issa. The old creature transformed is male, similarly receiving identity in a word that is new to the story, is. (Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 97).

The designation of the woman as ‘helper’ (‘ezer’) is sometimes suggested as indicative of a subservient or assisting role. This is unsustainable, and reflects unfortunate connotations associated with the English term ‘helper’ that are absent in the Hebrew. This term is most often used in the Hebrew Bible of Yahweh who comes to the aid of Israel. There is nothing inherently subservient in the term. In fact, the significance runs in the opposite direction, underscoring the inadequacy of the earth creature prior to the creation of the woman. Without the woman, the earth creature is not up to the task, and creation is incomplete. None of the animal world satisfies this inadequacy (2:20), and only the woman would become the ‘suitable partner’.

As with Genesis 1, there are also no grounds for hierarchy or role differentiation in Genesis 2.

Material that comes after the initial disobedience, and as part of the consequences of the fall (such as Genesis 3:16), is not ‘creational’ and need not detain us here.

1 Timothy 2 and the ‘order of creation’ argument.

If the ‘order of creation’ argument is not to be found in the creation narratives (certainly not explicitly), why has it generated such a central place within complementarian theology? At the very least, it needs to be noted that the identification of male and female relationships along some creational role differentiation or hierarchy of authority has (at best) very slight biblical basis.

The primary text cited in this regard is one verse, 1 Tim. 2:13 – ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve’. This verse needs to be treated in context, and as part of a wider unit. One of my criticisms of complementarian exegesis is that discussion often appears to overlook passages taken as a whole (as also reading 1 Cor. 11:3-7 without reference to verses 8-12).

As I have noted in previous posts, this passage (1 Tim. 2:8-15)  as a whole has a number of exegetical difficulties. I Howard Marshall, writing in Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey (edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Daniel Treier, N.T. Wright), notes:

Certainty in interpretation of this difficult passage is difficult to achieve, but there is at least sufficient doubt concerning the validity of the patriarchal interpretation as a ruling for practice today to make it very unwise to impose it upon the church. (167)

The weakness in complementarian interpretations is most acute when it comes to 1 Tim. 2:14: ‘Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.’ Claims that complementarian exegesis essentially maintains the traditional interpretation of the past 2,000 years overlook the reshaping of interpretation of 2:14 in particular. It is now rare to hear an exegete maintain the notion that women are more gullible and therefore prone to deception, although this was certainly a commonly held view until recent years.

It is interesting how it is assumed that ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve’ is a theological statement. If so, Paul doesn’t clarify what theological conclusion we are to infer. In form, 1 Tim. 2: 13 and 14 is the summary of a mini-narrative, and we still need to infer what the ‘theological’ point is. Would we approach it differently if we were to consider ‘John the Baptist came first, then Christ’? This was a comparison Calvin noted in his commentary, before observing that ‘’Still, Paul’s argument, that a woman is to be subject because she was created second, does not seem to be very strong, for John the Baptist went before Christ in time and yet was far inferior to Him’. Calvin did see it as a ‘theological’ statement, just not a very strong one.

The closest parallel to 1 Tim. 2:13 is found in 1 Cor. 11:8-9:

For man did not come from (ek) woman, but woman from (ek) man;neither was man created for (dia) woman, but woman for (dia) man.

Paul does draw conclusions regarding authority in verse 10, but this almost certainly refers to the woman’s own authority: ‘for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her ownhead(NIV 2011). Ciampa and Rosner (First Letter to the Corinthians), conclude a lengthy discussion: ‘The woman’s head is not one over which others have authority. God has granted her authority to pray and prophesy’ (533). Most compellingly, Paul makes his theological point absolutely clear in verses 11-12 (signalled by his use of plēn – ‘nevertheless’):

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from (ek) man, so also man is born of (dia) woman. But everything comes from (ek) God.

The mutualising effect of ek and dia in verse 12 is striking, and inter-dependence ‘in the Lord’ is consistent with Paul’s ‘one another’ expressions elsewhere. It is not that the universal truth that all men are born of women that is novel ‘in the Lord’, but that ‘the new creation in Christ relativizes the distinctions between men and women in a way similar to the observation based on the distinction between Adam and Eve and the rest of us’ (Ciampa and Rosner, 536).

This fuller passage suggests that Paul does not view creational order in terms of gender hierarchy of authority, but a partnership where the distinctiveness of each sex has a place alongside the other. Thiselton summarises the point well:

‘Paul insists that true human relationality entails otherness and indeed respect for the otherness of the other as a necessary basis for true reciprocity, mutuality and relationality that constitutes what it is to be human’ (First Letter to the Corinthians, 843).

Returning to 1 Tim. 2:13-14, and guided by the parallel passage in 1 Cor. 11:8-12 which underscores gender inter-dependence, what are we to make of the references to Adam and Eve, and especially Eve’s deception?

I am increasingly of the view that verse 13 is less of a theological ‘creational role’ nature (which would apply to all men and women, in all contexts), and more of a narrative line that sets the scene for v. 14. Being formed first, Adam had been directly instructed by God. The woman being formed later was therefore deceived when exposed to the false teaching of the serpent. The passage makes much more sense understood with reference to women being targeted by false teachers in Ephesus, and then dominating men as a result of their ignorance (in that context). It is also quite consistent with Paul’s reference to Eve’s deception in 2 Cor. 11:3, where it is used by way of a warning to all with regard to the dangers of false teaching.

1 Tim. 2:15 also makes sense in this Genesis 2-3 context, especially if the definite article ‘the childbearing’ indicates the specific childbearing of Jesus, ‘born of a woman’ (note Galatians 4:4).

Since writing the above, I have discovered it is almost exactly the conclusion of Ben Witherington III (Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Vol. 1). Witherington argues that this passage ‘amounts to something of a midrash on portions of Genesis 2:7-3:12’, with the point being made that Adam had been instructed directly by God, but Eve’s knowledge of the prohibition was derived from Adam, ‘and apparently he did not do a very clear or good job of it’ (228). This then highlights the contrast between Adam who was not ‘deceived’, and the woman who was ‘truly deceived’ (i.e. taken in by the false teaching of the serpent). Witherington (229) summarizes:

I suggest that the reason why Paul mentions that Adam was formed first, before he speaks of Eve, is to remind the audience of the context of the story in Genesis 2. That story is quite clear that Adam alone was formed and was present for God’s original instructions about what was prohibited. Eve was not there for proper divine instruction, and thus was more susceptible to deception. Nothing is said here about the woman being more susceptible by nature to deception, unlike what we find in, for instance, Philo (QC 1.23.46).

In similar measure, Witherington concludes with regard to 1 Tim. 2:15: ‘The point is that it was through woman that the fall came, and through woman redemption came as well’ (230).

Women, ministry and ‘authority’

My reading of most complementarian conclusions is that they reduce male female relationships to some form of hierarchy, with the main distinction with regard to ministry being that women should not receive the same level of authority as men.

I have already argued that authenteō cannot sustain the weight of this position (see my previous post here). This was not at all a common verb in the first century (only four known occurrences prior to this passage), and it is a semantic error to speak of it as having a ‘root’ meaning. Usage in a couple of passages close in time to 1 Timothy suggests that the sense of ‘to dominate’ reflects something of the distinctiveness of this verb, if not something stronger (‘to domineer’).

All authority is God’s authority, and we are called to submit to the ministry of God in and through whomever God pleases. Authority is not located in any office or ministry in and of itself, but through the enabling and gifting of God, and the faithfulness of the person (male or female) in undertaking the ministry.

The theological inconsistency is most striking in distinguishing the authority of a preacher, over against the ministry of prophets. Women may prophesy (so it is said), because they are subject to evaluation, but may not preach or teach, for this is an authoritative ministry. Yet are such proponents really suggesting that preaching and teaching are not also subject to scrutiny and evaluation? Are we not to weigh teaching in terms of faithfulness to God’s Word? In either case, whether preaching or prophesying (and I believe the two are often the same), we do not bestow authority on anything, but rather recognise the authority of a ministry that is faithful to God’s Word and where it is discerned to be an authentic ministry of God.

In short, I believe the demarcation of male ministry as having a higher level of authority than that of women is being read into the biblical text, not based upon it. I am appealing – on the basis of Scripture – for complementarians to re-think their theology in this area. It is coming at a great cost to the mission and ministry of the church.

My next post will consider ‘headship’, with an appeal to drop the term and consider with greater clarity what is being based upon Paul’s use of kephalē.

0 notes &

A critique of ‘God’s word then and now’ by Tony Payne

Part 4 of my various responses to the Matthias Media book, Women, Sermons and the Bible. Here I engage with Tony Payne’s chapter, ‘God’s word then and now’ (slightly amended 20/6/14)

This is not a stand-alone contribution. A number of contributors to this volume had pointed to the importance of this chapter for the methodological approach taken by the collection as a whole, and indicated their support for Payne’s treatment. It therefore is a critical contribution.

Does it deliver? While the opening three or four pages are promising, I have to say I ended up very frustrated with the argument as presented. Before I detail some of these concerns, I need to start with some more general observations regarding Payne’s style of presentation (also true of Bolt’s chapter at various points).

Read together, Payne and Bolt seem (to me) to have a wider interpretive agenda. They appear to be suspicious of any appeal to historical reconstruction, let alone consideration of cultural or social dimensions to Scripture. To Bolt, that is ‘digging below the text’ (165 of 271 – section 4b). Let Scripture interpret Scripture. We have very limited need for any understanding of historical, social or cultural contexts, as any such consideration will supposedly make our reading contingent and less assured.

To do this, both Bolt and Payne repeatedly seek to diminish any talk of ‘gaps’ between ‘then and there’ and ‘here and now’. Any such gaps, they affirm, are of no great significance and easily addressed by a plain reading of Scripture. Even more sinister, they seem to suggest, the naming of such gaps is for the purpose of evading and setting aside clear instructions and commands within Scripture, and is deemed as less faithful or obedient to God’s Word.

Let me be upfront in my response to this approach. Not only is it somewhat astonishing in its naivety from an academic point of view, I would suggest that it is also disrespectful of Scripture, which is given to us well and truly embedded in the messiness of human history, and invariably and wonderfully located in social context and cultural clothing. That is part of the richness of God’s Word, and its incarnation within God’s world, just as Christ himself was embedded (incarnated) historically, socially and culturally.

Attempts to minimise these dimensions is to strip God’s engagement and presence through his Word in a vain attempt to discover some kind of cultureless and socially removed entity. Assuredly, God’s Word transcends history, culture and society, and challenges and transforms them, but it can never discard them. This approach by Bolt and Payne is a form of hermeneutical Docetism.

God’s self-revelation is conveyed through words (or ‘speech-acts’). Words only function within the context of societies, and invariably reflect and convey culture. It cannot be otherwise. Any notion that translation is primarily a matter of word for word correspondence is very mistaken and seriously misleading. Words and language shape how we think, concepts that we work with, how we process information, how we explore or express experience, what we value and the worldview of a culture in which communication is located. Scripture comes to us embedded in all of the above, and our understanding of Scripture is enriched and deepened the better we understand the multiple contexts of every passage (social, cultural, historical, literary, canonical and theological).

It is simply not an option to discard social, historical and cultural considerations, and just focus on the words and text before us, as if they exist in some cultureless bubble. The appeal to allow ‘Scripture to interpret Scripture’ (valid as it is) does not resolve the issue of exploring social, cultural and historical contexts, for the Scriptures to which we might turn are themselves inevitably culture-bound, and located in social and historical contexts.

Payne’s critique of John Dickson (and Michael Bird).

I had to reread Payne numerous times to identify just how he thinks Dickson’s hermeneutical approach differs from his own. It seems tangential to the major focus of this chapter, the ‘gap’ and ‘horizons’ hermeneutic Payne associates with other evangelical approaches to exegeting and applying Scripture with regard to the ministry and place of women in New Testament mission and churches, and in our context in our part of the world today.

Payne identifies both Dickson and Bird as adopting a ‘two-step’ schema of using exegesis to determine the ‘meaning’ of a passage in its original context, followed by a consideration of our present day context and exploring the ‘significance’ of 1 Timothy 2 when related to contemporary practices of teaching. It has to be said that there is nothing particularly radical about such an approach, and it does not require a specific adoption of a ‘horizons’ hermeneutical model. Payne seems to be damning Dickson and Bird for the scholarly company they are claimed to keep.

Such an approach is standard practice, as reflected in (for example) Matthias Media’s own publication by Andrew Reid, Postcard from Palestine: A hands on guide to reading and using the Bible. In the MM website product description, it affirms that ‘God has a message for us’, but the ‘only trouble is that this message was originally delivered several thousand years ago in Palestine… Postcard from Palestine shows you how God’s Word, originally delivered so long ago and so far away, is still addressed to us today.’ In other words, we need to move from ‘then and there’ to ‘here and now’, and the book presents a model for bridging this historical and geographic gap.

Methodologically speaking, I do not believe Dickson (and Bird) are doing anything different to this, albeit with a little more recourse to informed understanding of the original context. Payne clearly has problems with their contention that Paul has a specific form of teaching in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12, and as a result restrict the significance of this passage to a similarly narrower expression of teaching in today’s context. To depict this as resulting from a different hermeneutical model seems largely contrived to me.

The superficial nature of this critique can be illustrated from Payne’s own chapter and approach. When later exploring ‘his’ proposal of a hermeneutical model, Payne suggests there is a need to go deeper than the surface ‘particulars’ to discern a deeper meaning, the underlying theology (196-7). That Payne can propose this, as if most other scholars and theologians (including Fee and Stuart, Dickson and Bird) have overlooked this side of interpretation is truly astonishing. This is a standard exegetical and hermeneutical consideration, explored with much greater sophistication by the likes of Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (IVP, 2010). Suffice it to say that it is much more elaborate than Payne’s caricature of ‘correspondence of particulars’ (186).

As another example, Payne notes that first century Mediterranean culture of ‘kissing’ as a greeting may be different from our Australian culture of greetings (so it’s now OK to identify a ‘cultural gap’?). Payne’s approach: he can identify a functionally equivalent gesture within our contemporary social context that conveys the ‘underlying vision of the good’ (199). That is exactly what Thiselton’s horizon model does, and what Fee and Stuart do!

Let me pose a question at this point: why do we focus so strongly on 1 Timothy 2:12, while I barely hear a word in Payne’s chapter about 1 Timothy 2:9? It is very specific, and there is no obvious reason why it would cease to apply directly: ‘women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.’ Now maybe Payne does urge the women of his church not to attend gatherings with braided hair, or with gold or pearls – or perhaps he reconstructs an historical context that allows him to modify such a clear exhortation?

Dickson (and Bird) would have every right to suggest their hermeneutical approach has been caricatured in this chapter by Payne, reduced to a simplistic schema and set aside with superficial critiques, before being contrasted with an approach commended by Payne that ends up looking an awful lot like Dickson’s own methodology (and as previously employed and published by Matthias Media itself).

There are a number of other features of Payne’s chapter I find quite disturbing, especially given the endorsement given by other contributors. I will only identify some briefly here.

Reductionalism and Gordon D Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

It is not clear quite why Payne chose to focus on Fee and Stuart’s book in his engagement with Dickson’s book. I am not aware Dickson made any reference to it, and it is a popular level treatment (now in its 4th edition). Both authors have far more sophisticated treatments elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Fee and Stuart are much more nuanced than Payne suggests, and indeed most of the counter-examples to their approach that Payne proposes are in fact mentioned and discussed in their text.

As a reader (and knowing Fee and Stuart’s work in various arenas), I came away feeling that Payne has presented another ‘straw man’ caricature (and there are a good many in this MM book!). We urgently need to revisit our approaches and models in reading/hearing Scripture and deepening our exegetical and hermeneutical models, but this chapter in this MM publication is so skewed it is singularly unhelpful.

Why not at least refer to some of the writings of Kevin J Vanhoozer? (eg. Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Zondervan, 1998; or First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics. IVP, 2002). Or alert the reader to more extensive discussions in Craig G Bartholomew’s seven volume ‘Scripture and Hermeneutics’ series? And I certainly think Anthony C. Thiselton deserves more than the briefest of passing mentions that he receives, as also Miroslav Volf’s very accessible Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (2010).

My criticism is not that Payne has failed to mention or interact with such work. My frustration is that this chapter does not appear to have been informed by or reflect much awareness of such treatments, and the generalisations here look pretty weak in their shadow. Even popular treatments can reflect deeper foundations.

Historical ‘reconstruction’ and theological constructions of history

While Payne acknowledges the need to locate texts within historical contexts, he appears very suspicious of historical ‘reconstruction’. Indeed, in summarising Dickson’s critical method, he describes it as ‘a combination of close exegesis and historical reconstruction’ (endnote18). I would have thought ‘close exegesis’ was highly commendable, so it appears to be the latter element that Payne finds problematic.

Historical reconstruction, Payne says, is very speculative and open to a range of views (as reflected in the frequent lack of scholarly consensus). While Fee and Stuart rightly note that the reconstruction of context needs to be ‘tentative, but informed’, Payne responds that ‘this is hardly a solid rock on which to build obedience to the word of God’ (192). Rousing rhetoric indeed, but it reflects a serious misunderstanding of ‘history’.

All history involves ‘reconstruction’. We cannot go back to the past, let alone reproduce or repeat it. We can only ‘reconstruct’ our understanding of the past, and this inevitably involves interpretation, selectivity, a variety of perspectives or vantage points, and the gathering of a range of data and sources.

Dickson is not employing a ‘reconstructive’ version of history, over against other varieties of historiography. Whichever way you approach it, it will be positing or narrating an historical reconstruction. You cannot find hermeneutical fault with Dickson (or Bird, Fee and Stuart) for employing historical reconstruction. We all do it on a daily basis, and Payne does it himself (see endnote 17, with reference to the significance of understanding something about first century Pharisees as an alternative voice and object of Jesus’ critique. Payne notes ‘it is impossible to discuss Matthew 5 and the way Jesus reads and applies Old Testament Scripture…’ without reference to our (reconstructed) historical understanding of the Pharisees).

I would point Payne to N.T. Wright’s significant treatment of critical realism and historical disciplines (over against post-modern challenges) in the opening section of volume 1 of his Christian Origins and the Question of God project. Under the section heading ‘Tools for the Task’, Wright provides a superb description of traditional biblical scholarship in the service of a ‘hermeneutic of love’, starting with authorial intention and moving into communal and relational dynamics of meaning and significance. Wright refers to ‘continuing meaning’ with reference to significance (Vanhoozer speaks of ‘intended and extended meaning’).

There is similar confusion when it comes to Payne’s discussion of the philosophy of history, and his proposal that all that is required is to locate history theologically (187-9). Now I agree with most of what Payne affirms: that in common with the first century, we are still within the same eschatological period (O’Donovan has been described as a ‘dispensationalist’ for similar views), and yes, in common with all humanity, I am a fallen creature. Where I differ-markedly- is in the remarkable conclusion Payne draws that ‘nothing of significance separates us from the hearers/readers of the New Testament’, standing with all those ‘living in these last days, applying the now-fulfilled Old Testament Scriptures directly to our lives at the end of the ages’ (189). Again, the rhetoric is stirring, but this does not eradicate the historical movement, even when understood within biblical categories of time. We are now a day closer to the Lord’s return than yesterday, and God’s purposes continue to develop. We are not in a static place in history, and it is for each generation to discern how the underlying ‘good’ is given expression in differing times and places.

In short: Payne’s positing of a theological and eschatological view of history (the last days) does not lessen the historical, cultural and contextual distance we encounter when reading Scripture. Exponents of a biblical version of ‘horizon’ hermeneutic identify the same eschatological dimension, and affirm no less the eternal truth and significance of God’s Word. Yet our understanding of that Word is deepened and much richer when we appreciate the particularities of any given context.

There is so much more to Payne’s chapter that calls for comment. His treatment of ‘New Testament exegesis of the Old Testament’ touches on well-recognised questions, but I do not believe they invalidate exploring authorial intent and original context as starting points. More is going on in this process, and it is misleading to equate it essentially with exegesis and hermeneutics. I would point the reader to G. K. Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Baker, 2012), and his associated Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (edited with D.A. Carson; Baker, 2007).

Payne’s lack of interest in authorial intent is curious (evangelicals have been to the fore in retaining an interest in this, over against ‘reader-response’ priority). Similarly, the recognition that subsequent meanings later identified in earlier passages of Scripture does not set aside the original ‘horizon’ (of meaning and significance), but overlays further meaning upon such material. The well-established notion of sensus plenior (‘fuller meaning’) addresses this, and is readily accommodated by exponents of ‘horizon’ hermeneutics.

Denigration of scholarship

 ‘We are left in the hands of the scholars, hoping that the tentative but informed reconstruction we are following is the correct one (even though the scholar in the cubicle next door disagrees) so that we might obey the voice of the living God and not come under his judgement’ (193). Payne appears keen to affirm that all may engage with God’s word directly, and we do not need any ‘reconstruction’ through scholarship. Well, yes and no. I am also keen to encourage your ‘average punter’ to read the Bible for themselves, and commend approaches such as the ‘Swedish Method’ in this regard (

However, this is also simplistic. We need scholars to work through the tens of thousands of manuscripts to determine the most likely text of Scripture. And we need scholars to translate the dead languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into whatever language is needed before we can even have a page in front of us, or performed so that we can hear it. And while we can start reading when we have a reliable text and translation before us, scholars can potentially deepen our understanding of passages, and clarify their meaning and significance. God has been good to us over the millennia in raising up scholarly servants of his Word who continue to assist God’s people in our understanding of the Bible, and in countless more instances than we recognise we are riding on the backs of much scholarly research and ‘reconstruction’, whether concerning language, culture or history.

Bridging the gap: horizons and hermeneutical models.

Both Payne and Bolt adopt a method of telling a narrative (very post-modern!) that gives rise to grouping a number of scholars into one general category. The problem is, this approach doesn’t allow for the distinctiveness of various contributions, including significant critiques of other approaches that Bolt and Payne set side by side. A point of criticism is then made of one of the named scholars, with the implication that such a criticism is equally valid of the other exponents.

An illustration of this is quite stark with regard to Hans-Georg Gadamer, and his ‘horizon’ approach to hermeneutics. As Payne tells it, driven along by the ‘prevailing hermeneutical wind’ initiated by Gadamer (with the suggestion that such approaches are suspect as being essentially shaped by cultural winds), the likes of Anthony Thiselton, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, are grouped into a ‘horizon’ hermeneutical approach. That is fair enough. John Dickson and Michael Bird are added to the mix by association, although without any specific reference on their part (that I am aware of) to the ‘bridging horizons’ hermeneutical model.

A quote from the highly respected moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan is later introduced. O’Donovan’s concerns (as explained by Payne) are with the amoral worldview in which our contemporary horizon is embedded.

Payne summarises O’Donovan’s position as suggesting ‘that the two-horizons hermeneutic is an ultimately doomed attempt to mend this radical breach that our modernist view of history has created’ (note, these are Payne’s words, not O’Donovan’s). Payne’s quote from O’Donovan then addresses the futility in ‘fusing’ two moral horizons together, where the modernist horizon will invariably absorb the ancient.

The two-horizon model appears dead in the water, at least as Payne tells it.

What Payne has not clarified for the reader is that O’Donovan’s comments are addressed specifically at Gadamer’s historicist and moral paradigm, shaped as it is from his stance as a mid-twentieth century German philosopher. In technical terms, this is a heuristic critique. The philosophical location out of which Gadamer speaks cannot be ‘fused’ with an ancient biblical worldview.

The problem is not with the model as such, but its employment by Gadamer. O’Donovan does not have the adaption of this hermeneutical model by the likes of Thiselton in his sights (nor Fee-Stuart etc.). Indeed, O’Donovan does not even refer to Thiselton. As employed by Thiselton, the new horizons model is used to allow the contemporary reader/hearer to better identify and be informed and shaped by the biblical horizon (and worldview). Thiselton has not bought into the philosophy of history that O’Donovan criticised in Gadamer, but demonstrated that the model can be appropriated and helpfully employed in an explicitly Christian context where there is a high view of Scripture, and an acceptance of a biblical worldview. In fact, subsequent to the material quoted from O’Donovan (as cited by Payne), extensive interaction has occurred between O’Donovan and other biblical scholars and theologians exploring hermeneutical approaches in ways that challenge and critique our contemporary world and moral horizons (see A royal priesthood?: the use of the Bible ethically and politically : a dialogue with Oliver O’Donovan, edited by Craig G. Bartholomew (and others); Paternoster Press/Zondervan, 2002).

In brief, O’Donovan’s line of criticism has not undermined the two-horizon model in itself. Gadamer’s employment of the model has flaws, but others (such as Thiselton) have relocated the model (heuristically speaking) and employed it within a biblical worldview and theological framework.

Rumours of the death of the new horizons hermeneutical model are premature! Payne’s grouping of Gadamer’s approach with Thiselton and Fee-Stuart overlooks the ability of the latter scholars to discern and critique failings in Gadamer and address them in their adaptation of the model. O’Donovan’s criticism of Gadamer does not apply to whole group as identified by Payne.


This has been a long response to Tony Payne’s chapter, reflecting in large measure the extent of my frustration with what is offered there. It seems to be that his critique of Dickson is tangential at best, and the attempt to find a hermeneutical issue to explain Dickson’s conclusions is largely contrived. Dickson has employed well-established and quite mainstream critical and interpretative methods.

In the process of critiquing Dickson, Payne draws in a wider range of considerations and targets for critique, and it is in his diminishing of historical, cultural and social considerations that I am most troubled. Payne seems most concerned with the horizon model of hermeneutics. The purpose of the horizon model is to find avenues to connect up and bridge the historical, contextual and cultural gaps that exist between reader/hearers today, and what are in reality ancient texts, recognising them as God’s living Word that continue to speak into today’s world and audience.

It is in this spirit that I finish with a quote from Gordon Fee:

This let us say with uncharacteristic passion: the ultimate aim of exegesis (as I perceive it) is to produce in our lives and the lives of others true Spirituality, in which God’s people live in faithful fellowship both with one another and with the eternal and living God and thus in keeping with God’s own purposes in the world…

I would therefore make bold to insist that proper exegesis should be done in the context of prayer, so that in our exegesis we hear the text with the sensitivity of the Spirit. Only as we ourselves do our exegesis in the proper posture of humility—on our knees, as it were, listening to God—can we truly expect to speak the Word of God with clarity and boldness so as to comfort, inspire, or speak prophetically to God’s people, the people for whom these texts were written in the first place. (To What End Exegesis? 280).

0 notes &

Part 3: A critique of Women, Sermons and the Bible. Essays interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice.

The focus of my critique to this point has been with Dr Claire Smith’s contributions to this volume, which collectively form the most substantive foundation to this Mathias Media response to John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice.

A summary of my critique of Smith’s approach is as follows:

What at first appears as a significant response undermining Dickson’s argument is in large measure because Smith has redrawn the playing field and relocated the goal posts. The cornerstone of Smith’s analysis is the claim that Dickson has proposed a novel and otherwise unattested ‘meaning’ for didaskō as ‘laying down and preserving’, and opens the way for a detailed discussion of semantic meaning and lexical domains (Smith, 91). I have argued that Smith is mistaken in framing the debate in this way, and that Dickson appears to be using ‘meaning’ in a looser sense than strict semantic analysis.

A simple test can be applied, which substantially undermines her critique. In Part 2 of Dickson’s book (HHV-R), Dickson continues to use the standard gloss for didaskō, ‘to teach’ (26, and throughout this section). Dickson does not appear to be proposing a different ‘meaning’ for didaskō at all, but arguing for a specific type of teaching understood in this context, at this time. If Dickson is rejecting ‘to teach’ as the semantic meaning, he would surely have stopped using it as his gloss.

In other words, contrary to Smith, the debate is not a matter of semantic meaning, but contextual interpretation regarding the specific type of teaching in view in 1 Tim. 2:12. Ironically, this ends up being a very similar approach to Smith’s own contention, that didaskein in 1 Tim. 2:12 refers to a specific mode of teaching, which she claims ‘here means intentional, formal, regular teaching or instruction’.

And now to Peter G Bolt’s contribution, focusing on Dickson’s presentation at a historical level.

As I have stated before, the longer I reflect on this chapter, the more curious it strikes me to be. Bolt alternates between a catalogue of apparently suspicious examples of historical method, and then occasional references to Dickson in the same context, without detailing why JD is categorised in the same way. It seems to be damning Dickson for the company he keeps (or is claimed to keep).

Bolt commences with a note regarding ‘shift story’ narratives, ‘becoming a popular genre in Christian scholarship’, and ‘usually away from a conservative evangelical position’. Nice start – just sow the seed that Dickson may no-longer be identified as a conservative evangelical.

There is nothing new in ‘shift story’ narratives. C S Lewis had a shift story from atheism to faith. St. Paul details a significant shift story in Philippians 3. And perish the thought some scholars may re-examine some previously held interpretations regarding Scripture and come to differing conclusions. Having sown the seed that such shifts are more likely to be away from a ‘conservative evangelical’ position, Bolt then acknowledges ‘a certain rhetorical power’, ‘especially if the personal reputation or status or charisma’ of the narrator adds to the appeal.

Bolt then directs the reader to consider whether Dickson has ‘understood God’s word aright’. Dickson would not for a moment suggest otherwise. But Bolt’s introduction left me wondering why he felt the need to frame our reading of Dickson on such terms. To adopt a courtroom analogy, this strikes me as pretty close to ‘leading the witness’…

Bolt then outlines his understanding of Dickson’s contentions in two categories: firstly: a ‘lexical claim’ that ‘to teach’ in 1 Timothy 2:12 (as examined and ‘found wanting’ by Claire Smith). I have suggested above and in previous posts that reducing Dickson’s proposal here to a ‘lexical claim’ overlooks a wider contextual interpretation that seems to me to shape Dickson’s position.

Secondly: ‘certain important claims about ‘history’ that underlie Dickson’s call for a shift. Even here there are really quite extraordinary asides: ‘Leaving aside questions about the pitfalls and the proper role of history being used in the service of contemporary practice’, with a endnote reference quoting a complaint of Paul Barnett about ‘professional ancient historians’ who ‘by-pass the primary historical phenomena documented within the New Testament itself, pursuing instead its consequences in later times’ (as quoted by Edwin Judge).

If Bolt is ‘leaving aside’ such questions, why raise it? If Bolt is accusing Dickson of such an approach (which is simply laughable!), why not come out and say so? My disquiet is that Bolt introduces this side narrative, and keeps it running throughout his chapter. He doesn’t leave it aside at all, but keeps it right up there alongside his consideration of Dickson’s approach as an historian (without drawing any direct connections).

At this point (220), Bolt labels Dickson’s ‘major historical claim’ in terms of being ‘an historical model’. This struck me as curious upon first reading. The way Bolt has framed it, it is not that Dickson has reviewed ‘primary historical phenomena documented within the New Testament itself’ (so the implication is), but introduced ‘an historical model’. And it becomes this ‘model’ that is the focus of Bolt’s critique (and obvious suspicion).

Again a further suggestion of ‘novelty’. As Bolt frames it, about ’30 years ago, a handful of interpreters within evangelical circles began to adopt and apply a particular historical model to the understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12…’, citing a ‘Brethren Symposium’ (Olive Rogers in particular), John Stott, Gilbert Bilezikian, JI Packer, Graham Cole and now ‘John Dickson (2012)’.

But has Bolt represented things reasonably in this schema? I do not believe so. The approach taken by each of the above named is not a recent ‘model’ – the model is a time-honoured approach of locating a document within an historical context (and as contributing to our understanding of that context).

The historico-grammatical approach adopted is not a recent innovation – I trained at Moore College at much the same time as Peter Bolt, and I’m pretty sure this was the method commended and modelled to us at that time. What brought some new insights was the application of such an established method to our understanding of not only this passage, but the Pastoral Epistles as a whole. Edwin Judge is widely recognised as a pioneer in approaching the New Testament documents with a keen appreciation for the world and the period in which it was located.

Furthermore, is there anything novel in Dickson’s historical method in pointing out that the emerging gospel traditions were in a stage of formation and transmission, initially essentially in oral forms, and only in part in written forms? Surely not.

No less an authority than former Archbishop of Sydney, Donald Robinson, highlighted the fluid state of this period in the opening paragraphs of his inaugural Moore College Lecture (published as Faith’s Framework: The Structure of New Testament theology (Albatross, 1985), notes as follows:

As a collection of canonical scriptures, this New Testament was the product of a long and relatively obscure process by which the churches of Christendom partly recognized, partly created an authorized standard of faith and doctrine. As such, it was essentially an instrument of an emerging catholicism… The churches of the first century did not have this constitution, nor did they exist as a universal body. (11-12)

To us, the books of the New Testament stand so far apart from all other writings of the Christian era that any question of possible rivals seems remote.

It is far from novel to draw attention to this period, with the questions it raises about formative gospel traditions, and where differing modes of teaching are to be located. As a question of historical method, it is thoroughly mainstream.

Bolt’s terminology also skews Dickson’s position. He asks whether ‘the situation that prevailed prior to those events [formation of the canon, arrival of the printing press] is entirely different from the state of play subsequent to those events’ (249). Does Dickson (or the others) ever claim it is entirely different? They do suggest some significant changes in circumstances came about, but this is not to claim everything is entirely different. The fact that some significant continuities of faith and belief bridge such gaps would be affirmed as much by Dickson as by Bolt. Bolt is presenting an exaggerated version of Dickson, before discrediting such a view. It is more straw man than substance.

The adoption of this label ‘model’ to Dickson’s approach also allows Bolt to quote Dicksons’s Macquarie University mentor, Emeritus Professor Edwin Judge. As all of us who have learned their historical craft under Judge, he is renowned for his disavowal of sociological models when derived from ‘South Seas islands’ and imported back two millennia into another culture and time.  Bolt quotes Judge’s criticism of ‘models’ as though it is relevant to Dickson. But Dickson has employed classic Macquarie historiography in his approach, and nothing resembling the sociological models denounced by Judge. This is simply mischievous of Bolt (and Dickson’s supposed ‘misleading dichotomy’ between the ‘New Testament’ and ‘history’ in endnote 30 is quite implausible).

Let it be said: John Dickson, of anyone emerging out of Moore College in recent decades, has exemplified the use of good historical methodology in the service of presenting the ‘historical’ Jesus and early church alongside the faith claims and traditions as presented in the New Testament documents. He is to be commended for the sophistication in which he has done so. The examiners of his Macquarie doctorate clearly thought so. This attempt to discredit Dickson as an historian is truly troubling.

Bolt then moves on to the positing of a ‘huge gap’ between the first century and the present day. I shall have more to say in this with regard to Tony Payne’s chapter, but note once again that Bolt has exaggerated the claims associated with this. Not everyone who identify significant areas in which gaps exist between the first century world reflected in the New Testament and our own necessarily go to the extent of Gotthold Lessing’s ‘ugly, broad ditch’ (Bolt, 249-250).

Various forms of ‘gap’ undeniably exist. There is a language gap, cultural gaps, context and issues type gaps (e.g. we do not generally struggle over food offered to idols in our part of the world). Denial over the existence of such gaps is naïve. Better to explore such gaps, and in so doing to identify areas of continuity (human nature, God’s character and purposes etc) and ways to bridge such gaps (which is the constructive contribution of many evangelical hermeneutical models). More on this in my next post regarding Tony Payne’s chapter.

My final focus will be on Bolt’s treatment of 1 Timothy 2:12, where he resorts to sweeping statements that are surprising, to say the least. To quote Bolt:

It is a common strategy to suggest that 1 Timothy 2:12 is not clear. However, the only possible element that is unclear is the presence of the word authenteō, since it does not appear elsewhere in the Bible—even though, thankfully, it occurs frequently enough outside the Bible to remove any real doubt as to its meaning (‘to have authority’). In this verse, Paul prohibits a woman from teaching or exercising authority over a man, and from the context, this relates to what is going on in the public assembly. There is no need to go digging below the text here to understand what is forbidden, for the teaching that is being forbidden is that done by a woman towards a man.’ (288-289)

Where to start with such a sweeping summary? Let me list some of the interpretative issues that Bolt’s summary overlooks, and eclipses from view from the general reader:

1. The verb ‘I am not allowing’ is in the present tense – the interpreter or translator must decide if it refers to a specific circumstance (as it does usually for Paul), or is of universal ‘all times and places’ significance. Grammatically it can be either.

2. Despite Bolt’s (astonishing!) assurance that authenteō occurs ‘frequently enough’ (well, only if you tally up about a thousand years of later usage), the verb appears to have been very rare at the time of 1 Timothy 2:12 – why such a rare verb, and does it have any distinctive nuances when considered alongside more common terms for authority? It has a wider range of established meanings than ‘to have authority’ (to limit it to this is a form of the ‘root fallacy’).

3. Does the verse refer to ‘woman’ and ‘man’, or more specifically ‘wife’ and ‘husband’? The Greek terms can refer to either.

4. Dickson has raised the valid question as to what activity ‘to teach’ refers to.

5. 1 Timothy 2:12 may be considered essentially ‘clear’ from an interpretative point of view (notwithstanding the above), but only if you detach it from its immediate unit. Once we ask how this verse relates to the explanatory verses that follow (note the ‘for’ that links verses 13 and 14 to v.12), things are far from ‘clear’. When verse 15 is included (and not conveniently detached), understanding verse 12 within the full unit in which it is immediately located is even less clear.

6. What are we to make of ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve’? And why does Paul mention that Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and became a transgressor? How do these explain the injunctions in verse 12? I would be genuinely interested to hear how Bolt understands verse 14.

In brief, to suggest that all this is really ‘quite clear’ is misleading. Is this ‘digging below the text’? No, it is taking a close look at the text in front of us, and exploring it in context.

One continually repeated statement regarding authenteō is to quote a 1984 NTS article by George W. Knight, who concluded that the term essentially means ‘to have authority’ in a neutral sense (a conclusion supposedly confirmed in a couple of subsequent studies).

Köstenberger is frequently cited in this regard, who in turn quotes Baldwin, who quotes Knight, who quotes linguistic specialist J. R. Werner’s conclusion: authentein essentially means ‘to have authority’ in a neutral sense. Except that Werner didn’t conclude this. Werner subsequently made it clear he has been misquoted, and that Knight substituted his own conclusion and for some reason attributed it to Werner as an independent authority (see Philip B Payne, Man and Woman: One In Christ. Baker, 2009, pages 365-369 for details and documentation).

Does all this matter? I would suggest it is highly significant, and all-too-often repeated as a ‘given’, an assured result of research. Yet this overlooks key questions. Why did Paul use an extremely rare verb when he had far more common terms to use if he simply meant ‘authority’ in a straightforward sense. To repeat my quote from Claire Smith on such matters: ‘it is at the very points where the meanings of words do not overlap that we find the distinctive contribution that a chosen word makes to the meaning of a sentence. It helps tell us why the author chose this word and not that word’ (121; emphasis original).

Bolt’s approach ends up placing enormous emphasis on the notion of ‘authority’’, and I argue that this rare verb cannot bear the weight of this as an interpretive crux. One thing that emerges from lexical research into the usage of authenteōis that it does reflect distinctive elements (perhaps influenced by the noun), including the capacity to prevail or to dominate – ‘to have one’s way’.

What would be my rendering of this passage? It is something like this [with my contextual reading in square brackets]:

A woman is to learn in peace and in all obedience [in contrast to those women stirred up by the false teachers]. I am not allowing [in these circumstances] a woman to instruct or dominate over a man, rather she is to be in peace.


0 notes &

Part 2: A critique of Women, Sermons and the Bible. Essays interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice.

Part 2

Firstly, Claire Smith’s various critiques. These three chapters provide the most specific analysis of Dickson’s argument, and the most sustained rebuttal. It is not my purpose to engage with this, but I do believe some of the points of critique appear well made, and (in my view) JD has overstated the disjunction between transmission of apostolic teaching that constitute essential gospel traditions, and broader ministries of teaching that reflect the wider biblical narrative. He had already modified this in his second edition, and brought the focus more specifically to the place of teaching within the Pastoral Epistles as the faithful articulation of the apostles’ teachings.

Semantics and sense: the word ‘meaning’ means what it means… in context.

The rub of Smith’s response is that Dickson’s understanding of didaskō is ‘a radically different meaning’ from widely accepted senses, and that the activity referred to by the verb is to be distinguished from the content of the noun. To make her point, Smith provides a summary of various word study dangers and well-recognised associated ‘fallacies’ (drawn in large measure from her doctoral work).

Nothing controversial here, but I do question whether Smith is being entirely fair with Dickson at this point. He has written a popular level work, and it seems to me that he has abbreviated the articulation of his argument given it is not intended be read as an academic paper. The second, revised edition sought to bring more nuance to things, but even here JD is writing in essentially popular mode. To resort to the strategy of alleging a ‘basic linguistic error’, and that ‘Dickson seems unaware of these errors’ (122) is harsh, and where some latitude for looser modes of expression would be more gracious.

Having read Smith’s chapters, I went back and re-read Dickson (revised edition of HHV). Upon deeper reflection, I believe Smith has misunderstood Dickson, and misrepresented him as a result. I do not for a moment believe this is intentional, but it results in an overly confident critique landing blows on a position I do not believe Dickson is arguing, and falls far short of completely discrediting the central proposals of HHV-R.

My reading of Dickson is not that he is proposing a new semantic ‘meaning’ for didaskō, where (unless I am mistaken) he essentially agrees the word means ‘teaching’, but a contextual argument for a more specialised function of teaching. However, these are matters for Dickson to address and clarify, and I encourage Smith to allow JD room to clarify and amend his views in the light of comments. Has she checked with him to see whether she has heard him accurately and represented his views fairly?

It is at this point that something also needs to be said about the curious pre-occupation in this volume on Dickson’s original version, not his expanded and revised second edition (especially seeing he had graciously responded to their request and provided them with a pre-publication manuscript of the second edition some nine months prior to the publication of this volume). Why did they still choose to base their critiques on his first edition, and somewhat clumsily seek to add further comments acknowledging some shift in thinking and clarifications in the second edition? It would be expected in an academic context to address the more recent and elaborated edition where Dickson has responded and clarified his views. To leave this substantially to an appendix (for those who have the energy to get there), and otherwise largely through a series of endnotes in the main text, strikes me as most unhelpful and doesn’t model a mode of conversation that is entirely fair to Dickson.

A simple test can be applied as to whether Smith has been fair and reasonable to Dickson: does he recognise his views in the way she has construed them, and has she identified the key points at issue? This is for Dickson to answer, but I suspect he would be most unsatisfied with how he has been represented (I would be!)

As noted above, the major focus in Smith’s critique is her contention that Dickson is proposing a novel and otherwise quite unattested ‘meaning’ for the verb didaskō. Is it not possible that he (given his more popular mode of presentation) has used ‘meaning’ in a looser way than the strictly semantic studies sense? My reading of Dickson is that his looser use of ‘meaning’ is a type of shorthand for ‘refers to a more specific mode of teaching understood in this context’. Smith is holding Dickson to a narrow specialist semantic use of ‘meaning’, while he appears to me to be using it in a looser ‘functional’ sense that employs ‘meaning’ as shorthand for what a word (‘teaching’) essentially referred to as understood in that context.

At this point Smith makes the distinction between ‘meaning’ and the ‘referent’ (74-75), which is fair enough if Dickson is claiming semantic innovation or development – but I don’t hear him arguing that. Is Smith right to insist on a narrow and specific technical use of ‘meaning’ in this context? Well, not if her own dictum of understanding the sense of a word by the company it keeps (78) applies to Dickson’s own writings. ‘Meaning’ has a semantic domain, and I would suggest Dickson is quite at liberty to use it in a looser sense than Smith is assuming as the ‘correct’ meaning for ‘meaning’!

In summary, Smith is holding Dickson to a narrow specialist semantic use of ‘meaning’, while he appears to me to be using it in a looser sense that employs ‘meaning’ as shorthand for what a word (‘teaching’) essentially referred to as understood in that context.

If it is the case that Dickson is not proposing a novel and otherwise unattested ‘meaning’ for didaskō, but a contextual application of the term, then a substantial part of Smith’s critique proves irrelevant, and many of her jibes about Dickson’s competence in semantic studies unwarranted. The issue in hand moves to what types or functions of teaching may be referred to in the context of the Pastoral Epistles, and that is a more productive area for discussion relating to Dickson’s argument.

Now I should note that while I am not altogether convinced by JD’s narrowing of didaskō in 1 Timothy 2:12 (nor of Smith’s similar narrowing of its sense to ‘formal’ and ‘intentional educational’, 131), I do think he is raising a valid line of contextual interpretation. It does not stand or fall on whether he can establish a new and otherwise unattested ‘meaning’ for didaskō, but rather mount a case for a more specific function of teaching or instruction in this context. Just as it is well-recognised that broader literary, cultural and historical contexts are considerations in establishing meaning in specific instances, so too Dickson is quite legitimate to appeal to wider contextual factors to contend for a specific sense of didaskō in 1 Tim. 2:12.

The point where I am in complete agreement with Dickson is that teaching in the Pauline churches is far from equivalent to modern practices of preaching. I will take this point further in response to Bolt’s chapter, but I believe it is had to identify anything comparable to preaching in the New Testament in the context of actual church assemblies. Any exegesis that concludes that whatever is in view in 1 Tim. 2:12, the teaching is more or less synonymous with preaching is importing a mode of instruction for which we have scant New Testament evidence.

Smith sets her own reading of these passages (essentially 1 Tim. 2:11-12) alongside those of Dickson. Now I need to acknowledge I haven’t read Smith’s own book (God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says About Men and Women), but she does acknowledge she offers nothing new to the debate (70, and 165, endnote 1). I am very familiar with the other secondary literature to which she references and don’t see anything particular new in her summaries. It is a well-rehearsed position, and one I find quite unsatisfactory exegetically and theologically.

Smith criticises JD for not referencing recent treatments that espouse positions akin to her own. I should point out that Smith is either unaware of or chosen not to reference a number of substantial challenges to her preferred viewpoint, especially some that have discredited studies that she is very reliant upon.

Two examples of very surprising omissions are Linda Belleville’s treatment of 1 Timothy 2 in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, edited by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothius (IVP, 2005). This volume represents some substantial scholarly treatments of key biblical texts, together with theological and methodological methods – not a single reference to this significant contribution appear anywhere in this text.

Even more inexplicable is the absence of any interaction with Philip B. Payne’s Man and Woman: One In Christ. An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Zondervan, 2009), despite Payne contributing extensive and original research on key issues addressed in Smith’s chapter. Smith makes much use of Andreas J. Köstenberger’s studies, including his syntactical studies regarding the significance of oude in 1 Timothy 2:12. Payne has published detailed research on this topic (note also his 2008 NTS article), presenting a convincing case for quite different conclusions, while mounting a number of telling criticisms of Köstenberger.

This is also true of Smith’s references to recent research relating to authenteō in 1 Tim. 2:12. She cites some (relatively) recent articles by Wolters, Huttar and Baldwin as the foundation for a sweeping conclusion that ‘there is no basis for the claim that authenteō in its wider use (or in 1 Timothy 2:12) had a negative or pejorative connotation’.

This is a sweeping overstatement of the actual lexical data (Baldwin identifies a semantic range of usages, from ‘to rule, reign sovereignly’, ‘to control, dominate’ (including a hyperbolic sense: ‘to domineer/play the tyrant’); ‘to act independently’; through to ‘be primarily responsible for or to instigate something: see H. Scott Baldwin in Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas R. Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin, eds., Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Baker Books, 1995), 73). Now not all these relate to transitive uses (as in 1 Tim. 2:12), but it does reflect something of the semantic range associated with the verb.

It needs to be noted that Baldwin’s study reflects usage over fourteen centuries, and only a bare few instances of authenteō can be identified anywhere that is contemporary to the use in 1 Timothy 2:12. Despite claims to the contrary, it still appears to be a very rare verb in the first century CE. We have only a handful of possible occurrences of the verb prior to 1 Tim. 2:12 (the clearest is a piece of papyri known as BGU 1208, dated 27/26BC from Herakleopolite in Egypt), and another astronomical use the next century. The earliest clear instance that might be rendered ‘exercise authority’ is ca. 370 CE (Saint Basil, The Letters #69, line 45), some three hundred years after 1 Tim. 2:12.

Those wanting much more detailed analysis really must consult the extensive chapter in Philip B Payne (Man and Woman: One in Christ, 361-398). There is an amazing amount of misinformation regarding authenteō that gets repeated uncritically.

Let me outline a summary of flaws in the studies Smith (and Bolt) appear to be reliant upon, especially with regard to authenteō:

1. They perpetrate the ‘root fallacy’ approach of concluding that ‘authority’ is the ‘unifying concept’ and ‘root meaning’ for authenteō (see Baldwin, 73, 79). Smith herself, in her critique of Dickson’s suggestion of a ‘default’ meaning of didaskō, notes that it ‘is a particular risk if a meaning or connotation of a word is thought to be the ‘default’ meaning of a word’ (123), something the studies she cites frequently do.

2. Such claims invariably result in reductionist statements that overlook the diversity of meanings reflected in different contexts, and the wider semantic range identified with such words.

3. They clump usages drawn from much later periods, with the danger of importing anachronistic uses back into earlier periods (especially later ecclesiastical usages of authenteō).

4. A repeated misconstrual of how authenteō functions in the key citation in BGU 1208 – traced back to the claim made by George W. Knight that in this instance the verb is best understood as ‘to assume authority’. Serious questions have been raised over Knight’s treatment at this point (see Payne, 366-368). Any readers citing Knight’s study need to be aware of these questions.

5. The impression is given that authenteō is a straightforward verb, essentially equivalent to having or exercising exousia (Paul’s more standard term for received authority). The use of authenteō has a number of other nuances lost when given the generic gloss ‘exercise authority’.

We may observe Smith’s own dictum with reference to other terms, ‘it is at the very points where the meanings of words do not overlap that we find the distinctive contribution that a chosen word makes to the meaning of a sentence. It helps tell us why the author chose this word and not that word’ (121; emphasis original). I totally agree! My question is why Smith has totally ignored that with regard to the rare verb authenteō, alongside the much more common terms of having or exercising exousia (also noting that she has derived this dictum from Baldwin, with reference to authenteō – 83, and endnote 28).

Now all this sounds very detailed and complex, but that is the point. In a number of areas Smith’s treatment does not stand up to more detailed scrutiny. A fuller rebuttal would require a treatment equally long as Smith’s material, so I can only outline some other areas where I find her treatment unsatisfactory.

Firstly, Smith wants to limit the import of Paul’s injunction to essentially ‘certain activities in the Christian gathering’ (130-31), on the basis of the reference to prayer (2:1-8), the phrase ‘in every place’ (2:8), and concern for who should lead and take responsibility for teaching the community (2:11-3:15).

This is an undue narrowing of the scope of these verses. In any of the preceding injunctions, while including application within the assembly, does Paul anywhere suggest they are in any way limited to the assembly? The reference to prayer ‘without anger or quarrelling’ surely extends beyond the assembly. Similarly, the instruction that ‘women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works’ (2:9-10, ESV) – surely this is not limited to the assembly alone?

The context does not suggest any such limitation or distinction between in the assembly, wider social contexts, or even within the home. If anything, the move from the plural (2:9-10) communal injunction, to the singular ‘woman’ in verse 11, signals a more generic instruction. Smith helpfully goes on to outline a range of other contexts in 1 and 2 Timothy where teachings and learning occur.

The assumption that these instructions are only with regard to the Christian assembly becomes the basis for limiting ‘teaching’ to ‘regular, formal, authoritative instruction’. This limitation has been read into the passage (it certainly is not explicit), and really runs against the immediate context and Paul’s explanatory comments. In what sense can the reference to ‘Eve’s deception’ and transgression be explained in such terms? Did Eve attempt to regularly, formally and authoritatively instruct Adam? In other words, how did Eve’s deception and transgression reflect an act of authority or formal instruction over Adam?

Finally, Smith discounts any significant reference to false teaching that may underlie these particular instructions (as does Dickson). This is largely on the basis that Paul does not prohibit specifically ‘false’ teaching, nor (so they argue) do we have evidence that women were false teachers within the church. This overlooks significant evidence in the text that the influence of false teaching necessitated these instructions, in these circumstances.

This wider unit commences in 2:1, with ‘First of all, then…’ It is clearly and explicitly framed as a response to the immediately preceding verses (1:18-20), which couldn’t be clearer: this unit is a response to false teaching, ‘to wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, ‘some have made shipwreck of their faith’.

The ‘first of all, then’ that commences chapter 2 is a response to this situation, including prayer for peace ‘that we might live a peaceful and quiet life’ (‘peaceful’ is a term that is picked up again and repeated in verses 11 and 12). Furthermore, the ‘first’ implies that this response to waging the good warfare against false teaching is one of a series of instructions that run throughout the chapter, including 2:11-15. This is not conjecture – it is simply reading the text before us, in context.

What do we know from the text of such false teaching? We know that it included ‘myths and endless genealogies’, together with ‘speculations’, with people desiring to be teachers of the law, yet without understanding—ie. ignorant, while making ‘confident assertions’ (1:4, 7-8). Is there anything to suggest that women were specifically targeted? We do know that the false teaching threatened marriage (4:3, and possibly childbirth, 2:15), while in the same social location as reflected in 2 Tim. 3:6, we have key information that false teachers sought to ‘creep into households and capture weak women, burdened by sin and led astray by various passions’.

Does not this theme of waging ‘the good warfare’ make sense of the latter parts of chapter 2, especially the more difficult verses that form the rationale and outworking of this injunction (verses 14 and 15)?

It certainly fits in cogently with regard to the description of the ‘woman’s deception and transgression’ (2:14). What better example of false teaching targeted at a female, with such disastrous consequences. The flow of thought is quite consistent with women being the targets of false teaching, with resultant disruptiveness. It may also account for the clarification that ‘Adam was formed first, then Eve’ (2:13 – the most primitive genealogy of all…)

Understood against this background (all identified in the text), the emphasis then falls less on contrasting the verbs of ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’, and more the way in which this is expressed (‘quietly’ – that is, without causing disturbance), and by not assuming authority to oneself (see Payne’s treatment of this significant nuance to authentein in this context). Reference to ‘submission’ and ‘not assuming authority over a man’ again make good sense in contexts of disruptiveness and possible aggression.

Picking up these contextual clues, 1 Tim. 2 becomes a passage set against a background of false teaching impacting on the church community, and focuses more on relational qualities and attitudes than gender roles per se. Paul’s present tense ‘I am not permitting’ (which he usually employs referring to a specific situation) speaks to a particular time and context. There are general principles and qualities that continue to speak, but we should not think this passage is the final or definitive passage relating to the ministry of women, whether within the church or more broadly in society.

0 notes &

A critique of Women, Sermons and the Bible. Essays interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice. Edited by Peter G Bolt and Tony Payne (Matthias Media, 2014).

For the women in my life - including nieces near and far - all of whom ask great questions and make perceptive comments: I for one want to hear their voices!

This post is the first of four (the next being the most substantial). Part of me is sorely tempted to let this debate pass me by, but the issues raised are profound, and I am disturbed that John Dickson really doesn’t seem to have been portrayed in reasonable terms. 

A couple of initial clarifications are warranted. Firstly, this post is not attempting a comprehensive review of the book as a whole. While I have read the complete book (in e-book format), the depth of my reading is admittedly inconsistent, so what is offered here is focused on those parts that have gained my closer attention.

Secondly, this is a high profile publication, understood in its particular context. The highest levels of leadership from Moore Theological College are involved, and similarly of Matthias Media. While the initial audience appears to be internal to Sydney Anglicans (SA’s), the way in which this is argued and defended is of interest beyond Sydney, and given the (surprising) focus on Dickson’s academic credibility, the reputation of key voices making the case against him is also in view. In similar terms, this response is a telling case study in how SA’s engage in debates that call for a re-assessment of positions widely embedded in SA culture and practice. Surely there is room for alternative positions without personal attacks and disparagement?

It does strike me as a curious publication. Seeking to position itself as a respectful and considered response to the substantive issues, and despite an assurance that it does not want to get into personal attacks (11 of e-book), there is an undue and singularly unhelpful level of jibes, put downs and questioning of Dickson’s academic capacities than I believe is warranted.

Having read major contributions in this area for over 30 years (a process of engagement that started while I was at Moore), it took a reading of the free ‘sample’ portion to entice me to read further. The introduction promises a ‘considered response’ at a level beyond initial web-based responses (in which a number of the contributors also engaged).

Does the rest of the book deliver? Only in part, while being clouded with a heap of other more personal agendas. All in all I find it quite dissatisfying, containing a large quantity of the proverbial straw men, which left me asking: what are they trying to achieve here? And then it struck me – they want to silence his voice. Read from a distance, it comes over as a sustained attempt to silence Dickson’s voice within Sydney.

Overall I found the contributions by Dr. Claire Smith most stimulating, and generally expressed in careful tones while employing the mode of scholarly interaction (although I have to say there are a few too many cheap shots thrown into the mix than I think are warranted, especially for someone considered to be a friend and academic colleague of Dickson). The irony of Dr Smith doing most of the ‘heavy lifting’ cannot pass without comment. Her three chapters are the most substantial and informative, and I am now greatly enjoying reading the published version of her doctoral thesis. These chapters are the most exegetical and theologically interpretive in the publication. One might observe Smith contributes the most teaching in this volume…

The strength of Smith’s material lies in her critique of Dickson’s particular contentions regarding a very limited ‘technical’ reading of ‘teaching’ in the Pastoral Epistles. There is a case to be answered here, and I look forward to JD’s response. At this stage I would say I am largely in agreement with his ‘modest’ proposition, although I wonder whether he has overstated things at points.

At first appearance, Smith’s critique is exactly the type of engagement Dickson invited, and to a certain extent will be most at ease in responding to – so I will largely leave much of that side of the discussion to JD. Having said that, I do not believe Smith has framed the debate appropriately, and the substantive ‘knock out’ blow she believes she has delivered (in dismissing a proposed ‘novel’ meaning for didasko) is misdirected in taking down a contention I do not believe Dickson is making.

I am less persuaded by Smith’s alternative reading of the nature of ‘teaching’ in 1 Tim. 2:12 as essentially ‘intentional, formal regular teaching or instruction’ (134 of 472), together with the limiting of the application of this unit to within the Christian assembly only. More on these in the next post..

The chapter offered by Dr Peter Bolt, Head of New Testament and Greek at Moore Theological College is a curious one, leaving me increasingly disturbed the more I reflect upon it. It appears to cast doubt on Dickson’s approach to historical method, using Dickson’s own mentor in Emeritus Professor Edwin Judge as a co-opted critic of such an approach by taking Judge’s criticisms directed elsewhere and applying them to Dickson. And as someone trained as an historian in the same school, I find the use of Judge in this way frankly quite ridiculous. The objects of Judge’s criticisms take a quite different approach to Dickson’s historical method, which exemplifies the classic Macquarie discipline of locating an ancient document (in this case the Pastoral Epistles) within an historical context, and asks questions of how such a context may inform our understanding of that text. More on Bolt’s chapter in a subsequent post.

And just by way of signalling where I am going with this, I found the key chapter offered by co-editor Tony Payne the least persuasive of all. Having foreshadowed a substantial contribution addressing how we apply the Bible in today’s world, I have to say this chapter is in my view particularly weak and compromises the credibility of the volume as a whole.

Payne is guilty of simplistically caricaturing a number of well-recognised evangelical hermeneutical approaches, makes assumptions as to what motivates such methods, and then sketches a highly flawed model as an alternative. When comparing this chapter with the much more nuanced and reasoned account of hermeneutics in Mark Thompson’s A Clear and Present Word: The clarity of Scripture (Apollos, 2006), I wonder whether Thompson is entirely comfortable with being associated with Payne’s position. Again, more on Payne’s chapter in a later post.

0 notes &

The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 5


Community, kingdom and the cup of Christ

A printable version is available here.

Matthew 20:17-34

Preliminary discussion

Have you ever found yourself in the position of being part of an inner-circle of a highly sought after group, or given VIP status at an event? Be honest about how you found the experience?

Consider designations of high status in various contexts (for example, frequent flyer tiers and VIP privileges; or senior management access). Do we have any equivalent practices within the church?

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

 (New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

Are there any characters you find it hard to relate to or understand where they are coming from? (If you were asked to act out their role, what would you need to think through or explore to ‘get inside their skin’?)

Some background

In the last study we noted the profound differences in the leadership style and modus of Jesus. His is a leadership that puts the wellbeing of others before his own, and in ways that go much deeper than we can truly comprehend. The compassion, grace and salvation from his hands come at a personal cost that leads to the cross.

The ‘cup’ of the Lord

This passage starts with another word of warning to the disciples about what lies ahead (the third prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection), following 16:21 and 17:22-23). All of Jesus’ teaching at this point needs to be viewed through the lens of the cross and resurrection. This is the ‘cup’ that he must now accept (20:22-23), and the sobering prospect of this adds a further dimension to the credibility of his teaching. Just as Jesus had spoken of loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, he is now to embody the reality of his own words. While many aspects of Jesus’ death are unique to him, the ‘cup’ here is also extended as a symbol for martyrdom.

These are salutary reminders as we enter this stage of our Lenten observances, following in the spiritual footsteps of our Lord as he takes up his cross, and in that ‘cup’ Christ is doing something life-changing on our behalf: giving his life as a ransom for many (20:28). The imagery and the scenario it evokes is a powerful window into the work of the cross. A ransom is a price paid to effect an act of redemption. A life is given and paid, that others might receive life.

All is not right with the world. That much most would agree with. God grieves over the wickedness within the world, and few (none!) of us can distance our own track record into a righteous ‘us’ and wicked ‘them’. We can experience horror and outrage at wrongdoing elsewhere, but we are blind to our own failings.

Much of the teaching of Jesus has affirmed God’s unshakable commitment to uncompromised expectations of righteousness (5:20), and the victory of justice over evil and everything that is contrary to all that is good and right (12:18-21). That comes as a given in God’s ‘job description’. Alongside this we see key attributes in God’s character: a depth and richness of love that extends even to enemies and those who have wronged us, a God of mercy and compassion (e.g. 20:30 & 34). This is not so much God’s ‘job description’, but the type of God revealed in Christ.

How are these two held together (upholding justice while showing mercy)? We cannot ever plumb the depths of such matters, but we are given a picture that tells us where to look is provided here. The ‘cup’ is a symbol of God’s righteous wrath, the type of wrath we hear in the indignation of all who have been wronged and cry out for justice (see Ps. 11:6; Is. 51:17; Jer. 25:15-17; 51:7; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). An appeal for justice insists that such wrongdoing not be ignored or swept under the carpet—it demands an accounting. And in hearing such cries, God has given an assurance that righteousness shall prevail and all wrongdoing be held accountable.

While our hopes hold firmly to the hope in the victory of justice, our hearts are burdened by the knowledge that we can only appeal to the mercy of God. Upon the cross, the cup of God’s wrath is borne by Jesus and the ransom owing to us is dealt with (and much more beside). For sure, this is not the only window into understanding the work of the cross, but it is a profound one.

Status and service within the community of the kingdom

Set alongside the sobering words of Jesus as to the work necessary to establish the kingdom-reign of God, the pettiness of the request from James and John stands in complete contrast. This presumptuous favour is asked by their mother (most likely at their request – older women were afforded some standing to make such a request in Jewish society), but they are the focus of the response delivered by Jesus.

The teaching is directed to all the twelve, and is cast clearly in terms of contrast with the leadership modes of those in power and authority outside the kingdom. In naming rulers who ‘lord it over people’ and act as ‘tyrants’, the disciples would know all too well what such leadership looked like.

Social order in the ancient world is sometimes depicted as a triangle, with the bottom portion (something like 40%) being slaves of some description. They were the property of their owner, and were under their complete authority. Some fared reasonably well, while others had hideous lives and treatment. The words of Jesus in stating that the mode of leadership within the kingdom is to be that of a slave would have been outrageous and shocking. In effect, he turned the whole social triangle upside down.

In identifying a ‘servant heart’ as an admirable quality of leadership we have become overly familiar with the teaching of Jesus at this point, and have softened the radical nature of counter-cultural leadership. Yet this is exactly what Jesus was about to model as he accepted execution in a form reserved for slaves and the lowest of society.

The short cameo story that rounds out this section is located where it is for a purpose. It is shaped around a contrast: the crowd pressing in on Jesus, and speaking sternly to the two blind men whom they think should be seen (perhaps) but not heard. In contrast, the two blind men see something in Jesus others were blind to: as one sent by God and about the work of God (the ‘Son of David’, and ‘lord’), Jesus is someone who can act upon the mercy of God and bring healing. The God revealed in Jesus is identified by Matthew as a God of compassion, while the persistence of the blind men in petitioning Jesus until they received sight stands as an example of discipleship.

Yet the question is posed to those like us watching on: are we blind to our own blindness? Can we learn from the example of the blind men in approaching God in terms of ‘Son of David, have mercy on us?’ When asked by Jesus “What do you want me to do for you?” they did not answer as most would have expected (‘give us some money’), but dared to ask for something much more life-changing: to be healed. These are profound Lenten questions…

Discussion points

In what ways might the style and modus of leadership within God’s people (including Christian leaders in secular workplaces) stand out as counter-cultural approaches to leadership?

In naming slaves as the template for Christian leadership, Jesus used a shocking category: what might some modern equivalents be?

Tom Wright (Matthew for Everyone, 2:61) summarises the lure of ‘power, position and prestige’: we know the church is not immune from such desires. How might we inoculate ourselves from such temptations?

We all know about power games in various sectors of society: in politics; in business or workplace hierarchies; in the provision of funding allocations (whether local or overseas) – how might Christian approaches to leadership function within the pragmatics of contemporary power and authority?

Why was it necessary for Jesus to go to the cross? Discuss making some sense of the crucifixion within the purposes of God. What questions does it raise, and how does a passage such as this help us understand something of the ‘cup’ Jesus accepted.

Jesus again refers to the cup as part of the Last Supper (26:27-29). Does this provide any further to our understanding of his death as ‘the blood of the covenant’?

Other resources

Consider the ‘politics of tables’: who gets to sit where, the difference table shapes make (round verses rectangular or square) etc. Consider how we might reflect the gospel in how we gather at tables—or are there alternatives?

There are many fables of people seeking fame and fortune, who lose something of themselves as a result – can you think of any recent examples?

Action points

Rather than following our usual practice of suggesting some possible action points, in this study we will pose a more person question: how has God spoken and challenged you in this passage (as a group as well as personally)? How might you respond to such a challenge in whatever context you find yourselves?

Going deeper

Some excellent material is available on this theme provided by Dr John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity. You can explore this further through his book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (which you can preview here - )

You can also view John speaking on ‘Humility and Leadership’ via a Vimeo link: and ‘What is humility?’

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The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 4


A community leader unlike any other

A printable version is available here          

Matthew 11:25 - 12:21

Preliminary discussion

The past half-century has seen many rebellions against those in authority (socially, philosophically, politically, culturally). It is simply not possible to generalise about the validity and value of such rebellions – they are too many and varied. However, history does highlight that the overthrow of one regime, leader and authority figure will invariably be replaced by another. The question becomes not ‘will we have leadership and authority?’, but ‘what sort of leadership and exercise of authority do we desire to see?’

Either write up a list of qualities you look for in a good leader, or explore such lists in books or the internet with regard to leadership qualities.

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, 16 and he ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

    18      “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,

    my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.

    I will put my Spirit upon him,

    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

    19      He will not wrangle or cry aloud,

    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

    20      He will not break a bruised reed

    or quench a smoldering wick

    until he brings justice to victory.

    21      And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

 (New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

Can you imagine the reactions of the differing sections of people listening to this? Which sections would have caused shock, while others would hear words of comfort? (If you were asked to act out the role of one of these groups, what would you need to think through or explore to ‘get inside their skin’?)

Some background

If we adopt a mining analogy, this passage is like discovering an incredibly rich location in which a whole variety of invaluable mineral seams all converge and run off in every direction. Drilling deeper at any point will prove abundantly fruitful. There are many theological gems to be discovered here. Our approach, however, will be to survey the wider landscape, and note the connections between the various seams.

This is a biggish unit to explore, and you will invariably need to be selective: you will not come close to exhausting the riches to be explored here! If a central theme is to be located, it is the way qualities of authority and leadership shape the community being gathered by God. Jesus is a leader unlike any other, and as a result his community is unlike any other.

God unveiled, and truth to live by

We live in a world in which knowledge is power, and those with an expertise in a given area can use such expertise either to the benefit of others, or to bolster their own standing and dynamics of control. This is constantly reflected in the life of the church as much as anywhere else in society. In one sense this is good, in that the purposes and knowledge of God are bigger than any individual. They have been entrusted to the one, holy, catholic church of God throughout the ages, and we are called to honour that. Yet it also means that the church as an institution needs to be particularly careful in how ‘knowledge as power’ is balanced by a ‘democratisation of the Spirit’.

This forms the background to the words of Jesus here. He is engaging with religious authorities and experts, well aware of their debates and leadership roles. He is about to cut through their traditions of interpretation of God’s laws, but in Matthew’s account Jesus points to a greater knowledge of God revealed to ‘little children’ in a way that those who are ‘wise and learned’ do not see (11:25). The ‘little children’ here also has a metaphorical sense for those little regarded by society when measured by formal qualifications, yet whose attitudinal qualities of openness to God enable them to see truths. This is an appeal to wisdom traditions, shaped by a respect and awe of God over against human claims of discovering God.

The authority and wisdom of Jesus

Yet here it is more than those who explore wisdom traditions. Jesus is presented as the ultimate embodiment of ‘Wisdom’ in his own being – Wisdom ‘personified’. Jesus as God’s Son has an intimate knowledge of his Father, reveals God’s character and purposes, and has had ‘all things’ committed to him by the Father (11:27).

Jesus has been entrusted with power and authority unlike anyone else, and will exercise it unlike anyone else. The familiar phrases in 11:28-30 refer primarily to the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Some background can be found in 1 Samuel 8, and the request by Israel for a king ‘like all the nations’. In reply through Samuel, God warns that such a king will come at a cost: he will ‘take… take… take… take… take… take… ’ (see 1 Sam. 8:11-16). Kings ‘like other nations’ burden the people with taxation, conscription and quotas – something just as true of life at the time of Jesus.

By contrast, the kingdom-reign of God through Jesus is characterised by a king who carries the load himself, and through whom true rest may be found. The yoke of discipleship, as instructed and guided by Jesus, is not burdensome like the traditions of application in the form of multitudinous legal definitions, but life-giving and restorative (as reflected in the passage that follows).

Re-discovering a disappearing word

Recent translations of 11:29 let us down a bit by following the trend in avoiding a key term: ‘meek’ (praus), and substituting ‘gentle’ and making it an equivalent to ‘humble’. This quality is actually very distinctive, and most often used of someone in a position of power and authority (also used of well-disciplined stallions). When used of kings, it stands as the opposite of playing the tyrant. In contrast to being vindictive or self-serving, the quality of ‘praus’ is to be generous and to consider the fortunes of others.

For Jesus to be a ‘meek’ king, far from an attribute of weakness or passivity, this points to a mode of kingship that is reasonable, characterised by grace and which brings comfort to others.

Deeper than law: mercy, doing good and healing

The Pharisees were obsessed by law-observance—and for good reason. The key explanation provided by the prophets as to why the horrors of the exile in the history of Israel had occurred was summed up by the indictment: the failure to keep the laws of Moses. Great efforts were made to educate and provide guidance in the observance of the law. Much more than an individual failure, whole communities were judged by their toleration of law-breaking, so the need for faithfulness to the torah was an all-of-society concern.

Such issues were well illustrated by the command not to do work on the Sabbath. But what constituted ‘work’? This was much debated amongst the Pharisees, and a ‘boundary’ of definitions was used to give assurance to people that they fell within the observance of the command.

Note carefully: Jesus does not set aside the importance of God’s law (compare 5:17-20), but he cuts right through the notion that the intent of the law can be reduced to a checklist of compliance definitions. There are greater purposes of God running at a deeper level, and they are revealed through using a ‘how much more…’ type of argument.  If an exception can be allowed in various instances, how much more will that which will allow for mercy, doing good or healing be acceptable before God?

In short, the law is not to be our master (as in the Sabbath laws), but provided by God to guide and instruct us. Should we observe one day of rest as a Sabbath day? This passage does not say otherwise, but it does free up the application to address a range of circumstances more flexibly: “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (12:12).

God’s chosen Servant and the mission of God

Just as this section commences with a reference to the authority of Jesus as given by the Father (11:25), so too it concludes with a picture of the mission God had entrusted to him (12:15-21). With reference to a well-known ‘Servant’ passage in the prophet Isaiah, Jesus highlights both the nature and modus of his mission.

In a world of power and military force, Jesus would not resort to retaliation, demagoguery or the sweeping aside of the weak or vulnerable. The imagery is especially evocative: ‘He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick’ (12:20). The quality of ‘meekness’ is given poignant expression.

One final theme is to be noted: God’s purposes in gathering a people is extended to the gentiles (12:18, 21), while the hope associated with his name will be in and through the proclamation and victory of justice over against all other displays of power and authority – something that will take dramatic and dark form as Jesus moves towards the showdown in Jerusalem and the shadow of the cross.

Discussion points

A number of ‘self-empowerment’ gurus speak of our making choices to cast off people around us who hinder or burden us. What do you make of this in light of 11:25-26? What does it say about the values and goals of our western society if such messages are well-received?

What value system do we live by with regard to those who are less able, slower than others, or less educated? How might we distinguish ‘wisdom’ from ‘intelligence’?

In a number of ways it is often true that we get the leaders we ask for. Our expectations for results and success puts leaders under enormous stress, and the pressure to live up to perceived leadership profiles can say as much about the community as the leader. What capacities do leaders have to shape the character and social or spiritual environment of a community, and how might communities encourage the best of qualities to emerge in leaders? Discuss this with reference to your own immediate social contexts as much as the community at large.

In our historic Anglican prayer book (BCP), the sentence ‘Come unto me all who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you…’ features as one of the ‘comfortable words’ that accompany the invitation to the Lord’s Table. How is the gospel truth of this passage enacted in the sacrament of Holy Communion?

Other resources

Consider many stories and films (real life and fictional) that illustrate how difficult it is to reign in temptations that come with being in positions of power and control – eg. ‘Lord of the Rings’, through to more down to earth examples.

Action points

How might we give greater space and voice to the ‘little ones’ in our midst, so that we hear and learn from their insights and qualities?

Consider our support for those in authority (within the church, and beyond), and ways in which the best qualities of leadership might be encouraged.

Going deeper

Interestingly, the next passage (Matthew 12: 22-37) touches on the accusation that Jesus is an agent of Beelzebub (12:24), otherwise known as ‘lord of the flies’. Consider how William Golding’s novel by the same name illustrates dynamics of power, control and abuse (also profoundly reflected in the dynamics and experience of the movie).

The Pharisees did not have one unified code of interpretations regarding the Torah, but several ‘schools’ of approach and application. Craig Keener’s IVP commentary provides a helpful summary.

Tom Wright’s ‘Matthew for Everyone’ (1: 142-143) has a poignant ‘Bishop’s story’ illustrating how this passage speaks into the day to day realities that mark our own experiences, and highlights hope in the midst of very real challenges and trials.

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The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 3


Another way: Christian counter-culture

 A printable version is available here.

Matthew 5:43 – 6:15

Preliminary discussion

Have you ever observed the behavior of toddlers in a playground? What mix of human character traits can be noted, both positively and negatively? What changes as we mature?

Consider today’s news – what range of experiences is reflected? What underlying causes or influences might we detect – again, both positively and negatively? Are these also reflected in our own neighbourhoods and lives, in their own way?

When books, movies and TV explore the realities of life, conflict, tension and polarisation often feature as the craft of shaping drama (whether personal, communal, social, political or global – even sci-fi). Within such works, a desire for finding ‘another way’ of responding often emerges – can you think of any examples?

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

10         Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

11         Give us this day our daily bread.

12         And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13         And do not bring us to the time of trial,

but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

(New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

As you hear this passage, which parts have an ‘of course!’ reaction, and which parts leave you wondering ‘is this realistic?’

Some background

A profound worldview is implied here by reference to the phrase ‘your Father in heaven’ (note e.g. 5:43). Make a note of the number of times the designation ‘your Father’ occurs. This is the reference point throughout: we are to approach life at every point as the ultimate ‘Father’ expects and models.

An important clarification is needed at this point. Not everyone’s experience of an earthly father is a positive one, and this can cause difficulty in engaging in passages such as this one. It is important to hear such concerns, and we cannot offer easy consolation about such experiences. However, passages such as this are not saying God is to be understood just like earthly experiences of fatherhood. It works the other way around: there is an ideal of how fatherhood should be expressed, and the ultimate reality of this is reflected in the character, faithfulness and profound love as revealed in the heavenly Father.

Another way to consider this is to reflect on our deep desire for the ‘ideal father’. What would be the characteristics and qualities of our ‘perfect father’? This gets us closer to how these references to ‘your Father’ feature here.

We may also clarify that God is beyond gender, neither male nor female (while both male and female reflect the image of God). Female imagery for God also features elsewhere in Scripture. Without stripping away all such references to relational qualities of God expressed through such designations, a richer approach is to gather and hold all such references alongside one another. Approaching God through the Aramaic ‘Abba, Father’ is one of the early traditions readily adopted into other languages and cultures as a recognition of rich theological and relational associations of the term – with a familiarity akin to an (adult) reference to ‘Daddy’. The opening address in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Our Father in heaven’ is a profound gospel treasure in its own right. – You may care to discuss this further…

The unit known to us as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is probably one the most familiar parts of this passage, and would otherwise merit extended exploration. For the purposes of our study, however, we will limit ourselves to just a few observations. This prayer is not intended as a rote expression of words and phrases, but taken together is a profound summary statement of the ultimate Christian worldview. This is how we relate the ‘big picture’ of delighting in God being God, and of being committed to ‘God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven’, to the most down to earth realities of seeking our daily bread and dealing with wrongdoing in life (both our own, and also being done to us). Where do we look when life gets tough and we experience all too real trials and temptations?

Praying the Lord’s Prayer should evoke a ready ‘yes!’ (‘amen’) from us. The challenge is to translate such desires and petitions into our day-to-day realities of life. What would this look like?

The rest of the passage (and surrounding paragraphs) spell this out in stark, and often dramatic, terms. Early audiences would relate to the scenarios identified very readily.

We noted in study 2 that this section of Matthew (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’) sees the gathering by God of a new people of God in, through and around the person of Jesus. The invitation into the Kingdom of God that constituted the essential message of Jesus means that the very moment we say ‘our Father’, we automatically have sisters and brothers, we have family—a profound family that extends across the ages and around the globe. We are drawn into the ultimate community, the community of the Kingdom.

One thing is clear, however. This community is not to just live to ourselves, but we are to enter (in God’s grace) into the work and ways of the kingdom—and this is very likely to put us at odds with the ‘ways of the world’.

An enigma emerges at this point. We are called to engage with the world outside the church, and to enter into all manner of cultures and societies. Wherever possible, we are to adopt and adapt our cultures as much as possible, for the sake of the gospel and without compromising our core Christian values (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23).

However, we are also called to be counter-cultural. While accommodating many cultural modes, we are also to be culturally distinctive, and not just go with the flow. In some cases this may involve clear rejection of some of the values, lifestyles and thinking identified with our wider community. In others, it may be redeemed or transformed expressions of a particular culture., to the extent that a gospel influence may bring changes for the better within a culture.

Discussion points

As noted above, early audiences would have related to the scenarios identified very readily – can you suggest some contemporary equivalents in our own contexts?

Are the ‘third way’ alternatives realistic? Aren’t they at risk of turning people into passive ‘door mats’ to be abused by those in positions of power? How might non-retaliatory responses still be ‘strong-in-weakness’? e.g to name wrongdoing and be a means to challenge and potentially transform injustice and abuse?

Where does a ‘community response’ to injustice and wrongdoing fit into such considerations? What is the role of impartial observers, or those who do not have a direct interest?

Other resources

View the following clip regarding the Mennonites, taking note of cultural ‘normality’ as well as distinctive beliefs and practices:

Action points

Consider ways in which you (personally, and as a church) might explain why we may do some things differently from others (perhaps the majority) of our community.

Think through ways in which our distinctiveness as Christians may stand against ‘going with the flow’, and similarly consider areas in which we need to get much better at entering into other people’s social and cultural worlds. Discuss how you might act on these discussions.

*Consider a relationship or person who has wronged you—what gesture, action or response can you act on to address this situation?

Going deeper

Consider as a case study the Amish people. What qualities might our post-modern western culture learn from, and what are the vulnerabilities associated with Amish communities?

Research the theology and practice of restorative justice – how does this give expression to the teaching of Jesus as reflected in our passage above?

See for an introduction:

Nelson Mandela has left many legacies through his life, but perhaps few any more powerful than his striking stories of forgiveness. For a brief account, read