Author’s Note: This is the first part of a four-part series in a new stretch of blog posts I’m calling “The Hard Things.” There are so many things in humanity that are difficult to discuss for various reasons. You name something hard to talk about, and there’s usually a one-word answer for why it’s difficult. Sex? Awkward. Politics? Contentious. Mental health? Complicated. Religion? Personal.
I’m calling the first series of posts “Insecure.” I’m really excited about this one because I think insecurity a topic most if not all of us can relate to and, at least I think, doesn’t get as much attention as a topic, particularly in the Christian atmosphere. So let’s go. – ZH
The other night, I sat at our kitchen table, head down, moisture on my forehead. My anxiety had peaked.
“Everything OK?” my wife asked kindly.
“Eh, not really,” I said. “I feel off.”
After a couple minutes of hemming and hawing, I was able to get it out — I was feeling really insecure. I had no reason to, no real reason at least. In my head, anyway.
“I’ve always been this way,” I said. “Ever since I was younger.”
Insecurity has plagued me for most of my life, and while it’s taken a lot of days off in my adulthood, it still comes roaring back every now and then. And I’d wager that I’m not alone. After all, we’re surrounded by things and people that can flick that insecurity switch in our brains.
Insecurity, if you’ve somehow never heard the term before, is the feeling of not being comfortable with yourself. If security means comfort and contentment, confidence and constancy, insecurity is the opposite.
Actual quantification of humanity’s insecurity is hard to come by. In a blog post on the website of The Scientific American, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen says the best two figures that could describe insecurity are these: the 13 percent of Americans that experience social anxiety disorder and the 40 percent that identify as shy. Both social anxiety and shyness relate, she argues, to the fact that we’re not comfortable with ourselves.
But why do we end up this way? Why do we define ourselves with this term? How do we get there? I think there’s at least three main reasons at the root of most of our insecurity — whether that feeling pertains only to certain areas of our lives or exists as a constant companion — and they all have to do with how we feel.
We feel insufficient, not doing enough.
I’m not somebody who’s looking to fill my calendar with things. I like having free time and space to do whatever it is I want to do during my day. But even with this free time, intentional or not, I often feel like I’m not doing enough, like I’m not carrying my load as part of society, or not measuring up to what is expected of me.
For something to be incomplete, it has to be started but not finished, begun but not ended. It can refer to a piece of art we’re creating, a business transaction we’re facilitating or a book we’re reading. There’s something done, but it’s not fully complete or finished. Simply by existing in that state, the project or book or artwork stands on the precipice of completion. It’s like standing on a fence post. You can go back to where you started or on to the other side with a gust of wind or a little burst of energy, either positive or negative, internal or external.
We can feel insecure when we haven’t yet done what we feel what we need to do, especially when compared to someone else who has accomplished much more than we have at our age or even younger.
Every so often, I’ll have a conversation with someone about another person who is my age or younger, and one of us will remark, “What were we doing when we were their age?” Most of the time, it’s something relatively less remarkable or profitable, at least on the surface.
For many of us, our comparative insecurities in the productivity field don’t come from comparisons to celebrities or athletes, but those around us — the ones who seem more spiritual, who got that raise and promotion before us, whose marriage looks more sparkling and golden than ours.
We feel incompetent, not skilled or smart enough.
The scenario I described in the opening of this piece revolved around incompetence, or at least feeling that way. I had discussed things with someone who was objectively much smarter and, at least on the surface, much more self-assured that I, and it made me feel incompetent.
Whether it’s in on a work project, some home repair effort or simply in conversation with a friend, we can often feel like we don’t measure up to another person or some sort of standard we’ve established in our mind. This comparison is the basis of many insecurities, I think. Much has been written and said about how negatively comparison affects a person, how much comparing yourself to someone else can actually hinder growth.
Insecurity can arise in this arena, especially around insecurity itself. You look at someone who’s clearly self-assured and confident in who they are and wonder why you can’t be that way. What have they got that I don’t? What do they know that I don’t?
While females most assuredly struggle with this, I believe males maybe have a much harder time with this kind of insecurity. It starts when you’re young on the playground, when races take place to see who’s the fastest to go across the monkey bars. As you get older, it becomes sports: who makes more baskets, who runs the fastest, who throws the ball better. If (or when) you learn you can’t be a professional athlete, it’s about money and success: who has the better job, who has the nicer car.
Really, it comes down to this: who are we?
We feel inadequate, not enough.
For the insecure, “who we are not” is the comparison. Ultimately, it goes beyond what other people are like and what they have accomplished to a version of ourselves that we dream to be one day. We conjure up this picture of who we are not yet, maybe even who we should be right now, and when we find ourselves less than, we fall into insecurity.
Whether it’s from religion, music, movies, art or social media, we are bombarded by ideas and about who we could be if only we did this or paid for that or took this time or effort. If we are unable to make that effort — withheld by finances, talent or some other unmovable barrier — we feel we have failed, and thus, we are failures. And even if we are able to make that effort, but still fail, the feeling remains.
Religion has a certain way of, in my experience at least, enabling this insecurity. Religious practices and institutions are, on their face, all about making yourself more into the image of something, more like an ideal or a standard. And while that is not necessarily bad, and those ideals can even be good aspirations, improper teaching about those standards can lead to heavy shame and guilt and immense insecurity. We feel like we won’t be a true fill-in-the-religion-here until we meet all the standards and goals set before us by some religious teacher or moral behemoth.
These feelings get at the very heart of who we are, our identify, our selves. What we do and what we are skilled or talented in can change and vary with the season. We may be in a job that we are good at or have completed a particularly difficult task, so we feel good about those parts. But who we are permeates everything.
Thus, this insecurity is the most damaging and crippling. If we can’t be confident and comfortable in who we are, the most basic and fundamental thing about us, what can we be secure in?
After an incident of school violence, the national conversation turns to two things mainly: mental health and gun control. While both are worthy topics of discussion and worth the time and worth the action, I’m afraid that something gets lost — the mental health of the students who were nearby, saw their classmates gunned down or simply heard the shots and experienced fear.
Most survivors show resilience. But others — particularly those who believed their lives or those of their loved ones were in danger or who lack social support — experience ongoing mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and about a third develop acute stress disorder. Research also suggests that mass shooting survivors may be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters.
Amy Novotney, Monitor on Psychology, September 2018
These people often get lost in the discussion afterward. Maybe we believe that the grief counselors and assistance provided to those survivors is enough. And to be sure, that effort is to be applauded and appreciated.
But what about when the counselors leave? What about when those students have to get back to their normal day-to-day lives? Sometimes, even if the best counseling occurs, this happens:
Both were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during the February 14th, 2018, shooting that left 17 people dead. Both survived the school shooting—the deadliest since the Columbine High School massacre. Now, both are dead of suicide within a single week. Sydney Aiello, a 19-year-old Parkland graduate, killed herself with a gunshot wound to the head last weekend, the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office told NBC News. Her family told CBS Miami that Aiello had struggled with college because classrooms scared her and she had survivor’s guilt following the death of her friend in the shooting. A week later, on March 23rd, the Coral Springs Police Department announced that a current Stoneman Douglas sophomore (whose name remains unreleased at this time) had died in an “apparent suicide”…
A decade after Columbine, survivors told ABC News that they remained haunted by flashbacks, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt; the two Parkland student suicides evoke the death of Greg Barnes, a star Columbine basketball player, who took his own life two weeks after the first anniversary of the massacre. On Monday, the father of a first-grader killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was found dead of apparent suicide, the Hartford Courantreports.
Jared Keller, Pacific Standard, March 25, 2019
When we talk about this most recent school shooting, let’s not forget the people who survived. Let’s honor the ones who have passed, and let’s pray and express sympathy for the family and friends of the alleged gunman, who took his own life after the shooting according to news reports. But let us — Christians, non-Christians, men, women, children, adults, politicians, non-politicians, everyone — remember those who are still here.
Mental health efforts aren’t a sprint to be completed as soon as humanly possible just so we can take a seat on the sidelines. They’re a lifelong marathon requiring water, food, sports drinks, encouragement, new shoes, training and a desire to run the race to completion.
Note: I first wrote this essay in May of this year. I’ve let it hang — for obvious reasons, I’m not looking forward to the criticism I’ll likely get — but recent comments about Beth Moore (again) caused me to reconsider. So here it is. – ZH
My whole life — preschool to now — has been shaped by women teaching me things.
My mother taught me how to read. My elementary school teachers, two women, helped me learn math and writing and history. I had female English, history, science and math teachers throughout middle and high school that were key in my learning.
Ms. Boado helped me in my writing development. Ms. Coates challenged my tendency toward careless errors — I learned that phrase from her — in math. Ms. Epling helped me understand some basic scientific concepts I still remember. Ms. Morcom taught me Spanish, a small chunk of which I can still recall thanks to her, and she was a genuinely nice person.
Ms. Wolferman encouraged my passion for history and research. Ms. Chernin made 12th grade English a blast and was a special person to a lot of us in her class for her attitude toward us goofy seniors, and introduced us to the musical Camelot and nether purses (that’s from Canterbury Tales, by the way). Ms. McElwain wrote me up for talking in class for the first time ever, but also tolerated my semi-apathy to science and math enough to teach me some things.
Note: I may have misspelled or misremembered some of those names, and for that I’m sorry, but for some of them, it’s been 15 years since I’ve been in their classrooms.
I had fewer female professors in college, but a couple were instrumental in my education in various ways. Janna Anderson helped craft my journalism skills and served as a great encouragement. Maureen Melita, my Italian professor who I didn’t really care for at the time, showed great patience and forbearance with this guy who didn’t take the classes in the proper way and struggled with languages.
But in church, women have been virtually absent from my spiritual education since elementary school. The churches I’ve attended have, nearly universally, selected women to serve as the bakers and cooks, entertainers and singers.
I don’t think it was ever done out of sexism, at least not intentionally. And many of those women, if not all of them, took to those roles joyfully and excellently.
But as I’ve gotten older and matured in my understanding of faith and the Bible, I’ve come to believe something radical: women can and should preach in front of men and women. There’s no biblical reason for all women to be relegated to those other roles.
Timothy and the Corinthians
The most oft-cited passages regarding women teaching and preaching are 1 Timothy 2:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. I’ll take these individually, respectively.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
In these verses, Paul seems to indicate that “a woman,” in contrast to the “women” that he refers to earlier in this section, should not be allowed to teach or exercise authority over a man, at least in his places. Instead, she’s to be quiet, silent.
“…As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
This seems pretty straightforward to me that women should keep silent in the churches, that it’s “shameful” for them to speak in church.
I walk away from these passages, on the surface, and get frustrated. It’s incredibly sexist. And this is the problem we get when we take the Bible out of context and apply certain verses universally and uniform without understanding the full meaning.
So as I move forward, I want to stress that I’m going to be using the Bible not as a smooth rod, but a stick that has edges and contours, something that doesn’t always say the same thing but has different meanings to different people at different times. After all, it’s 66 books by several authors written at different times to different people.
Teaching and Exercising Authority
In this second section of 1 Timothy 2, Paul is discussing attitude and action within the church service. In v. 8, he says that “the men should pray…in every place.” Also, women should be dressing “with modesty and self-control,” according to v. 9.
Then there’s the transition to women learning quietly and not teaching or exercising authority. Here are my problems with the modern application of 1 Timothy 2:12-14:
There is no indication that this is his practice in all the churches, something he indicates elsewhere about other practices and principles.
We don’t know exactly what Paul was referring to here. It could have been a specific woman, a specific group, a specific instance or a universal reality. But there are times where Paul does say something applies universally. He does in the 1 Corinthians 14 passage, “as in all the churches of the saints.” In v. 8-9 of this passage, he says that he desires “in every place” for men to pray and women to dress “in respectable apparel.” If he was speaking the inspired word of God, wouldn’t he be careful to say this is a universal application.
The second indicator of this is his transition from “women” to “a woman,” and “they” to “she.” Instead of continuing the original train of thought to apply teaching to all of a sex, Paul shifts to an individual. This could be an individual case to Timothy. We don’t know. He then returns to plural “they” in v. 15, which could be the children of the woman to which he is referring.
Third, the verb epitrepō, translated “I do permit,” is in the present tense. This is a sign that he is speaking presently, in his current time, and thus does not necessarily mean universally for all time future. He could just have easily said, “I will never allow women to teach men.” This could be just Paul’s rules and understandings for this church in particular.
The words translated “teach” and “exercise authority” may not mean those things so simply.
I want to key in specifically on the exercise authority part. The word authentein is used just once in Scripture — like the word for “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16 — so we have little context for how it has been used. However, the HELPS Word-studies gives some good help here.
The Greek non-conjugated word authentéō is derived from the stems autós, meaning “self” and entea, meaning “arms, armor.” So its literal translation is to arm yourself. The HELPS Word-studies continues: “Properly, to unilaterally take up arms, i.e. acting as an autocrat — literally, self-appointed (acting without submission.” So really, if we’re to take this word literally, the translation should be that a woman should not exert authority on her own accord over a man. That does not preclude her from earning it the right way.
Next, I want to cite Gail Wallace of the Junia Project: “There is also the possibility that the verb didaskein (to teach) is linked here to the verb authentein in what is called a hendiadys (two words joined by a conjunction to make a single point). ‘Don’t eat and run’ would be a modern example. So a better interpretation might be ‘don’t teach in a domineering way.’”
I think that’s a good example for both women and men: don’t teach people in a domineering way, taking authority on for yourself unilaterally.
Additionally, as Wallace also writes, the Greek verb exousia is used in multiple other contexts when speaking of authority in church. Why wouldn’t Paul just use the same verb here if he meant the same thing?
There just might be a context and specific application for this instruction for that time period, that group, that people.
Paul instructs Timothy earlier in the letter to “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to maths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4). So there seems to be an indication that either Timothy reached out to Paul with this problem, or Paul knew there was an issue and wanted to address it.
Then Paul strangely introduces an idea of Adam and Eve and who was deceived and transgressed. Paul’s written about Adam before, when he wrote about sin in Romans 5. Paul wrote, “…just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (v. 12-14).
So Paul saying in v. 13-14 — “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” — can’t be a contradiction of what he said before in Romans, but a further context. It does not have to be an explanation as to why women or this woman was to remain quiet. Maybe she was to remain quiet because she was saying things incorrectly, and Paul was writing this sentence to give the correction.
Shameful to Speak?
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul kicks off by instructing his readers to “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” He says that he wants “all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (v. 5). He does not restrict that to men or women, as he seems to have the ability to do in other passages.
The rest of the chapter is directed toward, mostly, the right way to speak in tongues and understand it and prophesy. He then continues to say that “the women should keep silent in the churches,” in this context. To apply this one instruction universally is a little confusing for a few reasons.
In this very letter, Paul doesn’t restrict women as a whole from prophesying.
Just a few chapters earlier, Paul writes, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her heard, since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (1 Cor. 11:4-5). He speaks almost as if it’s a given that women prophesy, something that usually happened in a group context.
So this seems to me to be a contradiction, unless the 1 Corinthians 14 passage is designed to speak to a specific group of people. It could be that the women in that church were being disruptive and needed to be silent.
The culture of the time could have precluded thorough understanding, something Paul would likely address in a section about orderly worship.
“The Corinthian church was perhaps the most diverse in composition – including those fluent in Greek and those with just enough to get by. Some of those speaking during worship may have had strong accents of a non-native Greek speaker, making understanding difficult for some hearers. So they might ask those around them to explain what they were hearing. Due to their cultural upbringing, women were handicapped with a very short attention span, as short as fifteen seconds. When they were not being directly addressed and/or didn’t understand what was being said, they would quickly begin chatting amongst themselves. Men and women may have sat separately. If this was the case, wives may have shouted across the divide to their husbands to ask them to explain. Therefore, the wives are instructed to respect the others in worship and remain silent and ask questions once at home.”
As Marg Mowczko puts it, “If the intent of verses 34-35 was to silence women who were disrupting congregational meetings with inconsiderate chatter, then these verses cannot be used to silence women who have a valid speaking ministry.”
Why would Paul use a word like “shameful” for something so innocent as women speaking in church when he’s clearly not opposed to it on other occasions?
The Greek for shameful here is aischron, which means “shameful.” The verb form is aischunó, which means “to dishonor, make shamed.” It seems outside the character of Paul and even Jesus to say such a thing about women in general speaking in church. If they were to act dishonorably or to disrupt the order of the service, then that would imply shame. But simply speaking doesn’t indicate, to me at least, universal sin or disobedience.
The Problems with Saying No
As I’ve said previously, I’ve grown up in a Christian culture that excludes women from teaching the whole church.
It’s something I just went along with for a long time. Like many things growing up in a Christian culture, you hear something that is supposedly from the Bible and you accept it. But as you get older, and you learn how to read the Bible for yourself, you may start to question some of the general teachings you grew up with and think differently.
Going public with this will undoubtedly cause people to think I don’t trust the authority of the Bible, that I’m just a liberal giving into my feelings and, at worst, that I’m not a Christian. This leads me to two problems I have with this culture of saying no to women when it comes to preaching to all, including men.
There is real sexism and misogyny accompanied with the conversation, and that is not Christ-like.
Beth Moore is a Southern Baptist, evangelical Bible teacher who ticks most of the boxes for belonging to the “right tribe,” but she’s not been on board with the way these teachings have been handled. In a recent tweet thread, she wrote that what she wants is for people to “grapple with the entire text from Mt [Matthew] 1 thru Rev(elvation) 22 on every matter concerning women,” to tackle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians 14 “alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired & make sense of the many women he served alongside.”
But most eye-opening to me was the next message, sent across two tweets.
“I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016. A fog cleared for me that was the most disturbing, terrifying thing I’d ever seen. All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture…Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses & misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.”
This is someone who would know what misogyny looks like far better than I ever will. This is someone who knows the Bible better than I do, who has been a Christian longer than I have. And she’s seeing misogyny in how this is being handled?
Nowhere in the Bible, and never in the life of Jesus, do we see negative treatment of women because of their gender as Christ-like. And unfortunately, for some, this conversation does include that kind of treatment.
This issue reveals a lack of understanding of what the Bible is.
Many men who preach the complementarian gospel will say that it is not a matter of gifting or quality of women. It’s simply the created order and what God says.
I have a lot of qualms with that, mainly that the created order doesn’t say that. The created order says that animals came first, and then Adam, the man, followed. Then Eve, the woman, followed him, because, as the Genesis 2 account records, “it is not good that the man should be alone” (v. 18).
If we take what the Bible says seriously — and we should, whether this story is recorded history or a tale told to educate us on creation and the origins of humanity — we should understand that we cannot do what we’re supposed to do as humanity without women. That does not exclude her from being in our pulpits.
Also, in a pure order standpoint, if man came after animals, but man was called to rule over animals, wouldn’t woman coming after man indicate that she was to rule over him? That’s a side track though.
The Bible is a series of letters and stories and poems and wisdom literature written thousands of years ago in a diverse land by a diverse people in different languages. To apply them directly to our context without taking into account what was happening at that time is irresponsible. If your mother said back in 2000 that you needed to hang up the landline before getting on the Internet, you’d do that. But you wouldn’t give that same advice now. It’s unnecessary and inapplicable.
That’s not to say the whole Bible is like that. There are plenty of amazing and wonderful passages where we can apply the wisdom and words shown directly to our circumstances, or we can take the concepts of what it means to follow God and consider our lives in light of them.
And that’s not to say we can’t learn anything from these passages about women in church. It’s good and right for us, men and women, to not be chatty and distracting in church. And it’s good and right for us to be respectful of the service, of the people who spend the time planning and executing worship for us to participate in. But to make direct application is to ignore what I believe the Bible really is: a diverse book designed to show us people’s experiences with Jesus, and sometimes, we get some really good wisdom from it.
Why Complementarianism Isn’t All Bad, Sometimes
While I feel that complementarianism has definite theological and social flaws, I have seen instances where it’s been put into action as a concept but not in an oppressive and sexist way.
At my parents’ church, which I attend for several years, women regularly get up to share their testimonies during revivals and other special services. My mother and father have co-taught mixed-gender Sunday school classes on parenting and marriage. At another church I’ve attended, women have given devotionals on Sunday mornings, and a few participated in a panel on mental health in front of the church in a definite educational and teaching environment.
After sending this piece in its first form to my mother, she reminded me of a church I went to growing up. A woman was the children’s minister and actually preached a sermon on Sunday one time when the pastor was out, “at (his) request, of course; she didn’t just sneak in there,” my mom wrote. Another woman served as a deacon.
But the hardcore complementarians, I’ve seen, leave no room for things like that. What I believe was one of the main thrusts for Beth Moore’s tweets was an article by Owen Strachan, a theologian at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, written a few days before. It name-dropped Moore and J.D. Greear (incorrectly, I might add) as “two popular Southern Baptist voices” that “endorse(d), in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body”.
Along with saying women do have a place in the church — “women are free, gloriously free, to evangelize, witness to the glory of God in the secular workplace, and serve on the mission field (ideally on teams populated by men who can serve as pastors)” — Strachan said “women should not preach or offer public teaching in the gathered worship service in local churches.” Like many complementarians, he wrote that the stance wasn’t about women’s competency, abilities or knowledge, but simply about the created order.
“Elders must not allow such a sinful practice; to do so is to bring the church body into disobedience against God. Southern Baptists have no such historic practice; John Piper has encouraged no such practice, nor has any leading complementarian affiliated with the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood; the early Baptists, Reformers, Puritans, Edwardseans, and confessional Presbyterians and Anglicans never made such a move.”
I have a few problems with this — I’ve already outlined most of them — but the argument that all these people and denominations have not advocated for women preaching and that’s why it shouldn’t happen is a faulty argument. Martin Luther was an anti-Semite (at least late in his life), Jonathan Edwards was evicted from his church for publicly shaming people and mishandling money, and sections of Christians over the years have supported slavery, segregation and more horrendous things we’d never endorse.
“A woman teaching men with authority — week in and week out or every other week or regularly in an adult Sunday school class or whatever — a woman teaching men with authority under the elders is not under the authority of the New Testament. She may be under the authority of the elders, but she is not under the authority of the New Testament, and neither would they be for putting her in that situation.”
Piper extended the concept to women teaching men within the seminary environment, since “the proper demand on the seminary teacher is to be an example, a mentor, a guide, an embodiment of the pastoral office in preparing men to fill the pastoral office.”
Not all women feel oppressed or wronged by this approach. And I’m not saying that it is always lived out practically as sexist and misogynist. But some have clearly had experiences where it has been that, and we need to hear those stories.
The Benefits of Saying ‘Yes’
I don’t know if some of us fully capture how impactful women were on the history of the Christian religion.
It starts with the Old Testament. The prophetess Deborah — yes, a prophetess, someone speaking God’s words — was called a judge of Israel in Judges 4:4, and “the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (v. 5). This was at a time when Israel did not have a king, but judges who led them in making decisions.
There’s the stories of Esther and Ruth, recorded in Hebrew Scripture. Esther was a Hebrew girl who was brought into the house of King Ahasuerus and saved her people from genocide by being a leader. Watch the Veggie Tales version, it’s actually pretty good. Ruth was a foreign woman whose example of faithfulness and hard work was so strong — leading by example, at least to me — that she was plucked from poverty by Boaz and became a forerunner of David and Jesus.
The Samaritan woman at the well became an evangelist and taught men and women about who Jesus was. Priscilla and her husband Aquila corrected Apollos’ teaching in Acts 18 and led a house church. Phoebe served Paul by delivering the letter to the Romans and was referred to as a deaconess by Paul at the end of that missive.
The Bible is full of women who served and led and taught in a culture that relegated women to second class most of the time, and the Christian church, while undoubtedly led by men, was kickstarted by women faithful to Jesus who went to tell the dejected disciples about the Savior’s resurrection.
The benefits of saying “yes” to women are many. We get to continue this rich biblical tradition of letting women be as much a part of the church culture as men. We shake the bonds of veiled sexism and misogyny that we call being “faithful.” We get to learn from women, some of whom have been silenced by well-meaning but misguided theology, who have a lot to offer. We get to show the world that we, like Jesus, value the women who have been discarded and miscast by society.
Women can, and should, preach and teach in church. Who knows what we’ll learn when we let them in?
I’ve been reading the book “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” over the last few days. It’s very different than the movie made of it — which I love — but it follows the same basic premise.
There’s a kid named Craig Gilner, and he’s depressed and anxious because, well, he’s a teenager and there’s a lot going on in his life. Written in first person, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” begins with these words:
“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint — it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”
I’ve found in my life that my depression makes me quiet. Not just because I can’t quite get the words out, but because I don’t want the words to come out at all. I don’t want to scare my wife or my family. I don’t want people to question my commitment to x, y and z. I don’t want to talk about it.
But when the words do come out, they’re not very positive, to say the least. I tell my wife that she deserves someone better, someone who has it all together. I tell myself that it would be easier to walk away, to just disappear into nothingness. I tell myself, “Hey, heaven’s already going to be better than this — why not get there sooner?”
I’ve never made a suicide plan. But I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it as I’m driving on a highway and prepare to cross a bridge, wondering if my car could make it through the bridge’s edges if I drove fast enough. I’ve thought about it as stand in my kitchen, looking at the knives stashed in the block on the counter. I’ve thought about it while standing at the top of stairwells, thinking it would probably hurt and would hurt worse if it didn’t work.
I’ve done all this — had these thoughts, spoken these words, held back those comments — while professing Jesus Christ as my Savior. Because it’s not un-Christian to want to kill yourself.
This evening, before heading out to the local county fair, I scrolled through my Twitter and was devastated.
News broke that Jarrid Wilson, a pastor and author, had committed suicide at the age of 30. He was an associate pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, and a co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope. I followed Wilson on social media for a long time, and remember when Anthem of Hope started. I even offered to write for the site when they asked for regular bloggers.
This was a guy who, the day before his suicide was reported, wrote on Twitter, “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”
He was so, so, so, so right. And he lived that message! He was the guy who more-or-less singlehandedly, just through his presence on social media, helped me believe that it was OK to be a Christian who had depression and anxiety, that my mental illnesses did not disqualify me from being loved by God and loved by Jesus.
This makes two people this year who have had singular and significant influences on my life and faith, two people that have died. Author Rachel Held Evans passed away in May.
I usually know how to write a lot, and I started this blog post planning to write a long thing, but as I get into this, I’m losing words. So if this doesn’t come out right, I’m sorry.
I never met Jarrid or Rachel. I listened to podcast interviews, followed them on Twitter, devoured their wisdom. But they’re both gone.
Rachel died of a medical condition, but it was still shocking. Jarrid’s was shocking and unsurprising at the same time.
If you’ve ever considered suicide, you know that sometimes the feeling comes suddenly. I don’t know exactly what happened with Jarrid, and I may never know. But the desire to end it all, to kill yourself, to remove yourself from the world, can build up over weeks and weeks or just occur in an instant, and you’re in a place to make it happen.
Why, oh why, would this happen to a Christian?
Because Christians are people too. We are not superhumans, and we should never strive to be. We shouldn’t consider ourselves or other Christians above the fray from things like suicide, depression and anxiety. If we think that being a Christian means we’re immune, we don’t understand Christianity.
It’s my firm belief that wanting to kill yourself is not anti-Christian or anti-God. Both Elijah and Job, in their desperation, wished they had never been born (1 Kings 19:4 and Job 3:1, respectively), which I think is very similar if not the exact same desire. Even godly men, praised by God Himself in various ways, wished they had never existed.
Committing suicide does not condemn you to hell if you are a Christian. It does not exclude you from God’s love. It does not, I repeat, DOES NOT mean you are a coward.
Many Christians do not understand mental health. They do not understand the depths of it. They don’t understand. They just don’t get it.
Over the next few days, I will be posting some writing I did a while back on mental health and being a Christian. I wrote them a few months ago, not even sure what I was going to do with them, but Jarrid’s passing seems like a good time to share these things. Written in better times, those posts will do a lot better helping explain where I am than what I’m writing right now.
Living in the South, I’ve learned there are a lot of people that take pride in where they go to church.
Maybe it’s that way in the North too, but there’s something special, it seems, about your regular place of worship in the Southern United States that it becomes a line in obituaries and a talking point for local politicians. I’ve covered county-, city- and state-level politics and government for about 3 years now, and almost every one of them will list their church and how involved they are in it on their resumés.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about being excited to go to your church, or being appreciative of the work a church or a few churches do. We should work to make our churches places where people want to be, where people can hear about Jesus, grow and mature and love one another well.
But there’s a pattern I’ve noticed, especially as I’ve written at times somewhat critically of the church at large:
“Don’t criticize the church. It’s not productive. It pushes people away from the message. You’re just saying what Christian haters are saying.”
I know some of my blog posts in the past have ruffled people the wrong way. I’ve gotten texts, Facebook messages and calls from well-meaning and often-right friends and family members saying, “Hey, you might want to dial it back a little bit.” I’ve deleted a couple blog posts over the years. One was about how I found K-LOVE incredibly dull and immature, that they should be “more real” when it came to Christianity, and the other I can’t remember right now.
I’ll say this now: K-LOVE serves a purpose in the body of Christ, and as much as I may have qualms with them and their methods and the music they play, they’re just doing their thing, and if people love Jesus more because of them, awesome. Far be it from me to slam them outright without acknowledging what they do and their ministry.
Please don’t make that the only takeaway from this.
But there are some things I can’t let go, and today, that thing is my desire to see the church at large change. And that change, I believe, starts with pointing out flaws and weaknesses from the inside.
This is not intended to be a Trojan horse situation. I’m not going to try to blow up the church from the inside. The purpose of this is an antibiotic. You take it and ingest it to root out what’s bad in you, to bring you healing and redirection. I don’t intend to fix all the problems with the church — that takes more people, time and money than I’ll ever have access to, and changing hearts, which I can’t do, only God can.
But I think it’s important to say this: The Church is not God. Your church is not God. My church is not God. So why do we treat it that way?
Churches — whether it’s the building or the people that gather there at least once a week — were never treated as perfect entities in the Bible. The New Testament church spent a chunk of its time trying to root out the issues and problems within its various branches. Paul’s 1 Corinthians is all about errors in the way the church was handling itself, and several sections of the New Testament speak about false teachers and the need to correct actions and attitudes within the church.
The Bible never calls on us to defend the church, either a single building or the whole institution. Paul regularly praises the faith of those who believed, the individuals, due to his teaching, but he often used that as a set-up to say, “But you’ve got this wrong. You’ve messed this up.”
I’m reading through the book of Romans right now, and I’ve tried to approach it differently than I’ve ever looked at a book of the Bible: trying to see it through the eyes of its original audience. Of course I can never do that perfectly, and I’ll bring my personal biases and perceptions and perspectives into the exercise.
But as I’ve read through Romans, especially the first few chapters, I’m seeing that it’s really about Paul showing the Jews in Rome, to whom he is writing, how messed up their attitudes are. He spends the second half of chapter 1 talking about the sinfulness of the unrighteous, that “they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die,” but “they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (v. 32).
So the Roman Jewish Christians are probably feeling pretty good at that point. “Yeah,” they might have thought, “we don’t do that stuff. We acknowledge God.” But Paul had another one coming for them.
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you the judge, practice these very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:1-2).
The Greek “anapologétos,” used for “have no excuse,” is literally derived from the words “not” and “to argue a case.” The Roman Christians could not argue a case for their righteousness. They did not have enough evidence to be convicted of Christlike-ness. That’s why Paul said, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5).
Of course, Paul didn’t stop there. He told them what it meant to be a Christ-following church in later chapters.
I’m not claiming to be on the same level as Paul — I didn’t get blindsided on the Damascus road and then spend “many days” with the disciples in Damascus (Acts 9:23) — but I think there’s something to be said for his approach.
Of course we’re willing to criticize churches that aren’t ours. I’m guilty of it. I’ve done that mess where I talk about another church that has this backwards theology or messed-up approach to mental health issues. But when it comes to our church, our place, or even “the church” at large, I’ve found that we’re often blind, either intentionally or unintentionally, to our weaknesses and, more often, the need to fix them.
The church, globally or locally, is not our object of worship. It’s not the perfect being that created us and gave us life. It’s not the perfect being that saw our sinfulness — saw the things that made our churches weak — and gave us salvation and new life in Him. It’s not the perfect being that lives and moves in us, guiding us to obedience and praise.
So we should be willing to admit our weaknesses and not be afraid of a little criticism. Far too often, it’s well-warranted. Some churches and Christians, after all:
Exuded and still exudes racism, sexism and homophobia.
Supported and still supports political candidates who speak out of both sides of their mouth when it came to matters of faith.
Why do we need to be afraid of being called out for our sins and mistakes? Shouldn’t we want to change? Shouldn’t we want to be conformed to the image of Christ? The Imago Dei who loved prostitutes and tax collectors, who was not afraid to identify Himself with the “least of these,” who was deemed a rabble rouser for not following the status quo of His day, whose followers were deemed to have “turned the earth upside down” (Acts 17:6) when they loved Jesus and loved people.
Let’s be welcoming of criticism, no matter where it comes from. After all, the Church isn’t God. It doesn’t warrant our apologetics.
According to a 2015 study cited in the article, around 23 percent of the U.S. population identified themselves that way. Seventy-eight percent of that group said they were raised in a religious group before quitting it as an adult.
Looking at the numbers, some of it is understandable. Forty-nine percent said they left because they didn’t believe anymore, 20 percent said they didn’t like organized religion and 18 percent said they were “religiously unsure/undecided.” The numbers were broken down even further, and it’s those items, as well as some of the open-ended answers, that I wanted to look at in this post.
Focus on power/politics: Four percent of those surveyed said they left their childhood faith because they felt “religion focuses on power/politics.” The open-ended answers included things like “I think religion is not a religion anymore. It’s a business…it’s all about money.” Another said that they “see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting.” Yet another cited “too many Christians doing un-Christian things.”
Rational thought: There’s no number for how many think religion excludes reason and rational thought, but one of the open-ended answers was this: “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.” Seven percent of responders said their “views (on religion) evolved,” and 1 percent stated they “went through a crisis of faith,” which could come from examining rational thought in light of religion.
No time: This statistic stood out to me — 2 percent of responders said they were “too busy” for religion, and that’s why they left. One stated simply, “I don’t have the time to go to church.” Seven percent of those surveyed said they were “not interested in/don’t need religion.”
Organized religion: Twenty percent of those surveyed said they left because they “dislike organized religion,” with 15 percent saying they considered themselves “anti-institutional religion.” One person said they “no longer believe in organized religion…I just believe that religion is very personal conversation with me and my creator.” Another person, who actually didn’t fall into this category, stated that they believed in a higher power, “but I don’t need a church to do that.”
I know the whole survey wasn’t about former Christians, but you’ve got to imagine that the majority would fit that category. And the reality is that I think faith in Jesus can answer all those questions and provide guidance — and I’ll get there later. But first, we need to think about what we as the institution of Christianity might have done to put people in that position in the first place.
As far as it depends on us
Something that Paul says in Romans has stuck with me since I read it is a simple instruction he gives to his audience with ramifications for us. And while it’s simply put, how it’s put into action seems to be quite difficult. Romans 12:16-18 states:
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
If we can be honest, the human institution of Christianity has not always done a good job of doing these things. While many Christians and many churches are good, committed and peaceful citizens of their communities, contributing in positive and powerful ways, there are some that take a different approach.
As reported in multiple media outlets, Pastor Hope Carpenter was speaking recently at a church in South Carolina where the pastors, John and Aventer Gray, have come under fire from the Greenville News newspaper for their extravagant spending. Carpenter loudly proclaimed that she was “rooting for” the Grays. Then, almost out of nowhere, the tone shifted.
“I cut people,” she says. “I’ve got a knife right in that pocketbook. Greenville News, come on.”
Not only is that a threat of violence on a free press — which as a journalist bothers me — it’s a self-proclaimed Christian promising violence against people. I don’t know the whole story of the Grays and the newspaper. It’s very possible that the newspaper has been unfair in its coverage or is cherry-picking facts or is making a story out of something that shouldn’t be. But this type of action is certainly not following Paul’s wisdom as shared to the Romans.
I know this is one example, and I’m sure that the Grays, Hope Carpenter and that church in South Carolina have done many, many good things for people, and have represented Christ well at other times. The Grays immediately distanced themselves from the statements, but through a publicist.
But when that’s the image of Christianity that people see, can you blame some for leaving the faith, saying organized religion in general is “more divisive than uniting,” and that “more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area”?
It’s easy for me to cherry-pick Hope Carpenter’s comments, but let’s be real: this isn’t the first time something like that has happened in the same breath as the name of our Savior being said.
Again, this is not about blaming the human institution of Christianity as a whole, or saying that people should just not be part of a church because of one pastor going crazy one time. But it’s high time we think critically about our role as Christians in how our faith and our religion is perceived.
Paul’s wisdom to the Romans, principles that would be well-taken by us, is to do whatever we can to live peaceably with all. To live in harmony with one another. To “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” That’s a very practical and helpful piece of advice.
What have we done — not just one crazy lady, but all of us — that could possibly be putting people off from our faith? What is our responsibility? Some will leave simply because they don’t believe, and that’s fine, there’s not much we can do about that. In fact, 49 percent of those surveyed said they left because they didn’t believe anymore.
But what about those who gave other reasons?
Meeting people where they are
Another great bit of wisdom from Paul that showed itself in his own ministry is found in 1 Corinthians 9. He writes:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them…I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (v. 19, 22-23).
Paul stretched himself to try to understand and relate to his audience for the purpose of salvation, for the purpose of the good news of Jesus. We must must must do the same. We must not be afraid to engage people where they are. We must be willing to accept our own flaws and admit them and try to do better.
In that interest, I think there are good answers to those who have left religion, Christianity in particular, for the reasons listed in that survey. I don’t think the true Christianity, the true faith that saves our lives, excludes them. For example:
Focus on power/politics: The real Jesus didn’t focus on either of those things. Jesus’ life and commands were simple: love God and love your neighbor. In those two commandments, He said, is all the law and the prophets. Being a Christian, a Christ-follower, is not about accumulating earthly power or political influence. It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor.
Rational thought: Paul’s life and writings were full of rational thought. He is more or less the father of intellectual theology. The book of Romans breaks down theology in an intellectual sense, capturing spiritual realities in a human vocabulary. Yes, being a Christian means there is faith in a higher power and supernatural entities. But there is space and room for rational thought.
No time: Being a Christian doesn’t mean you need to be at church from 10 a.m. to noon every Sunday. Those things can be helpful, yes, and there is certainly a need for time with other believers having conversations and being encouraged and challenged in the things of God. But there is time, I promise, to be a Christian, to trust in Jesus. It takes some time, effort and patience to get to that point where it becomes part of you, but it’s worth it.
Organized religion: Jesus didn’t like organized religion either. He spent more time criticizing the organized religion of His day than anything else. He flipped tables and cracked whips in the presence of the organized religion. When Christians organize in churches, we try to provide a human framework and structure to make it easier to access the things we believe we need. But because they are human institutions, they will fail and they will have flaws. We ask that you give us some patience and grace as we figure out how to improve.
Of course those are not in-depth examinations of those topics, but it’s crucial, I think, that we be willing to reach out to people where they are and try to meet their needs on their terms. Of course we shouldn’t compromise what’s really important, what’s really truth to meet their needs, but we don’t need to be so hardline on non-salvation theologies that it cuts off any good conversation or pushes away people unnecessarily.
Being like Jesus is usually a good start
I want to go back to something I said a little bit ago: Jesus was more critical of the religious institutions than those who didn’t belong to them.
That seems backwards to most church experiences I’ve had. How often has a pastor said something to the effect of “the world has this wrong, don’t they? Haven’t you seen it?” Or “there are some who think God is this or that, and they’re missing the point”? Or “America has gone to hell in a hand basket and we all need Jesus”?
While their point may be well-backed up by facts and ultimately true, that type of attitude engenders an environment where world-bashing is easy and analyzing the human institution of Christianity for flaws becomes difficult. After all, we’ll say, the world does this and that.
What did Jesus do? He ate and broke bread with the world, He took the world’s children in His arms, He so loved the world that He came to give it the best news it could ever get. He didn’t do those things only for the religious institutions of the day, but for all.
If we really want people to stay in the human institution of Christianity, we need to be there alongside them as they consider leaving. It doesn’t need to be on this and that condition, it doesn’t need to be with a correcting tone unless Jesus or someone is being misrepresented. It needs to be with “What can I do for you? What questions can I answer? What conversations can I have? How can I love you?”
Love needn’t be trumped by “right theology.” After all, God is love.
I know the title of this post will make some people instantly protective. God’s not a God of confusion, they’ll say. How could you take something as clear as the Bible and get confused by that?
A few reasons: God may not be a God of confusion, but how we talk about Him often leaves me confused. And the Bible isn’t really all that clear, if we’re being honest.
It’s things like clarity and certainty that help people with anxiety, that give us a sense of peace and purpose in a crazy world. But the Christianity most of us follow do little to assuage those of us who think a lot and think deeply.
The reality is that the Christianity that’s real, the Christianity that’s true, allows us freedom to follow God mostly on our terms, in our environments and personalities and likes and dislikes. Of course, that does not give us license to sin willy nilly. But I’ve found out more about following Jesus when I learn it myself in my circumstances and my reality instead of following someone else’s prescribed rules.
The first key to finding this freedom is understanding what makes us a Christian. What does the Bible say? In Romans 10:9-10, Paul explains: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believe and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Being saved? Believe in Jesus and confess it. That’s it. There’s no list of stipulations we have to meet to be a Christian except for those things.
We get into trouble — and my anxiety ramps up — when we begin to place stipulations and clauses in our “contract for being a Christian.” We ask questions like, “How is your time in the Word?” And “how much are you praying?”
Well, if I am spending time “in the word,” whatever that means, how much is enough? How do I know if I’ve met the requirement to satisfy whatever your desire is? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes?
If I am praying, how much is enough? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes?
Inevitably, I’m going to fall short. And in so much of modern Christianity, we define “how Christian we are” by how our actions seem to reflect our faith. While there is biblical basis for that understanding — James 2:17 states that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” — there is no standard given. There’s no specific guidelines. So giving out specific guidelines, while it may be helpful, and implying that faithfulness is measured by a certain level of “obedience” is not biblical, and leads to more anxiety and confusion.
A list of stipulations shows us we will always fall short, and when we define our Christianity by our actions, we will always fall short of feeling that we’re a Christian. The Bible never defines our Christianity by our actions. James says that Abraham’s “faith was completed by his works” (2:22). Our actions are the out-working of our faith and being a Christian, not the essence of it.
The second key to finding this freedom is understanding what the Bible is. Other than the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law, there is no list of rules in the Bible that tells people how to live their lives. Even if there was, the Bible wasn’t written directly for us. It was written for a different people in a different time.
That doesn’t make it useless. In fact, the Bible is stock full of wisdom and guidance that we would do well to heed. But we need to understand that the Bible was not designed as a checklist of rule-keeping. It’s a bunch of letters, histories, prophecies, poetry, songs and advice. But there’s tons and tons of wisdom in there, in both the Old and New Testaments.
And most of all, we have the Word of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). That Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).
The modern church has a long history of making the Bible a list of rules, but it’s conveniently left some things out. For instance, women are allowed to speak in church despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and it seems that a woman not covering her head while praying is disgraceful and dishonoring according to 1 Corinthians 11:4-6.
Since the Bible is not a list of rules, or even “God’s letter to us” — because it’s made up of letters to people from people — we’re freed to read it as it is and gain the wisdom and guidance we need to live as God’s people.
The third key to finding this freedom is understanding who Jesus is. As already stated, the Bible says that Jesus is the “Word of God” (John 1:1), and is the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). But most importantly, a relationship with him looks like rest. He says it Himself in Matthew 1:28-30.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
That’s the words of God, in the person of Jesus. There seems to be some clarification here that when we come to Jesus, we don’t get a list of rules or a standard to uphold. We get rest. Taking his yoke upon us, it seems, leads to rest. It leads to learning.
If we’re not getting that from following Jesus, we’re not following Jesus. We’re following some picture of Jesus that has been created by ourselves or the “Christian culture” around us.
The Bible has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.
I don’t know how many I’ve owned over the years, but I feel that I’ve always perceived it one way: it’s God’s word, given to us from heaven, good for everything that we can ever come across.
Of course, that general view has been slightly altered at different times, but it’s generally been that way. However, in recent months, I’ve begun asking some questions about the Bible that I never asked before, and honestly, was afraid to ask.
Is all of it really from God? Should we trust every single word? Are there errors? Are some of the instructions and commandments morally or spiritually wrong?
It’s in that backdrop that I read Pete Enns’ “How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers — and Why That’s Great News.” It’s available worldwide later this month, and you can read more about it here.
I’ll cover how I view it as a piece of literature — because I’m a writer, I have to do that — and then I’ll tackle the theological points posited.
Enns is a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and host of the podcast “The Bible for Normal People.” His background includes Old Testament interpretation and a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard, and it shows, but in a way that’s digestable.
You might think a book that covers deep theological topics and translation issues might be difficult to read, and that would be perfectly understandable. I bet there are few Christian books that really cover those issues in the way that Enns does. He uses comparisons to his mailman, the New York Yankees and parenthood to get across his points, making the subject matter relatable and accessible. Enns also employs humor quite well most of the time, making even the footnotes worth the read for whatever fun fact might be found.
Enns flows from topic to topic fairly seamlessly, and it’s a fairly enjoyable read, but I do have one qualm with his writing. He often uses the word “reimagining” when it should be a different word, like “re-imaging,” that might get across his point better. And that brings us into the theological part of this review.
Enns’ point is best summed up this way: each book of the Bible was written to fit the culture in which it was written and is best used as a guide for wisdom, not a step-by-step instruction manual that provides a how-to for being a Christian.
When processed, that thought might be difficult for many Protestant Christians. After all, the Bible has been taught to us as God’s word, given to us, completely inspired and inerrant, perfect and completely applicable to us now. To take a different tact than that is in and of itself bold, but Enns’ argument is worth a listen.
Enns argues that the Bible is ancient, ambiguous and diverse, which means that we can’t take each and every command and directive and make it mean the same today as it did when it was written. He says that the Bible itself and the Jewish and Christian traditions that follow it have had the adaptive approach of what God was seen to be, a “reimagining” of who God is.
In the end, Enns says, that’s what his book and the Bible itself is about, seeing who God is through the lens of the author and their experiences and the culture around them. After all, we all do it.
“God is relentlessly reimagined all around us,” he writes. “American Christians have imagined God as feminist, environmentalist, capitalist, refugee, soldier, Republican, Democrat, socialist, and on and on. Some portraits of God I agree with more than others (and let the debates begin), but the act of reimagining God in ways that reflect our time in place is self-evident, unavoidable, and necessary” (157).
Enns cites seeming contradictions in the Bible as examples of that, not the least of which is a couple Christians today take for granted.
The Old Testament seems to describe the coming Messiah as a new king of Israel that will rule over its enemies and provide a land for them. The New Testament re-images that Messiah as Jesus Christ, the self-proclaimed Son of God whose kingdom is not of earth, but of a different realm (John 18:36).
The Old Testament commands that followers of Yahweh make animal sacrifices and men to be circumcised. In the New Testament, Paul re-images what God asks of His followers by saying we need to be circumcised of heart and that the sacrifice of animals was replaced by the eternal and sealing sacrifice of Jesus (just read all of Hebrews).
The practical outworking of some of these contradictions Enns presents, which he acknowledges, is that God is not the direct word-for-work speaker of these passages. It is the authors utilizing their wisdom, which the Bible provides, to re-image God for the time they live in.
Side note: Enns uses the term “reimagine,” which I feel doesn’t accurately capture his point. “Reimagine” almost intimates creating something new, while “re-imaging” means developing a new understanding of. I feel “re-imaging” is more to his point, but that’s just a small quarrel I have.
Anyway, this becomes a challenge for the evangelical reader that might pick up this book. Enns has been criticized in the past for his perspectives on the Bible, particularly his hint toward a lack of God-direct inspiration.
And I can understand the criticisms. Some of his arguments in How the Bible Actually Works seem a bit stretched to cover the Bible as a whole while they may only just apply to that one passage. And he consistently says something the effect of “and there are many more examples” without providing a list or passages to go to.
Perhaps this is an academic’s attempt to make his thoughts accessible to a common audience, and I don’t blame him for trying.
Something else that will also lose some audience is a failure to handle the verse most Christians go to, 2 Timothy 3:16, as the basis for their interpretation of Scripture.
Not One Way or the Other
I firmly believe that Enns doesn’t have the same perspective of the Bible as many people I know or those I grew up around. But I do believe his perspective can fit in or even go with most of what evangelical Christianity believes.
We generally believe that each book of the Bible needs to be read in the context of who wrote it, where it was written, when it was written, etc. So we don’t apply each of the Old Testament laws, but try to glean wisdom from them as necessary.
We also try often to understand what God or Jesus would say or think about a certain issue. We do it every time we answer a “why” question about a piece of Scripture that doesn’t have an obvious answer. Why does Paul say this, or why does David imply that?
I don’t think evangelical Christians need to completely dismiss Enns’ view out of hand. I think you can believe the tale of Jonah is a fictional account meant to encourage Israelites to accept outsiders and realize God cares for Gentiles, as Enns suggests, and still inspired by God.
And I think most, if not all, Christians can abide by Enns words near the end of the book:
“Whatever else we do, and especially with issues that generate so much conflict, wisdom must be pursued by all and invited to take a prominent place in these discussions — if only so that they may remain discussions and not an exercise in lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades. Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.”
*Note: I received a free copy of the book from HarperOne as part of the book’s launch team. Thanks for that and for the encouragement of those who were part of the team, who encouraged me more than they know.
As I perused Facebook and Twitter today, I got sick. I think I ate too much beef.
My feeds today were filled with all sorts of arguments, squabbles, disagreements, outrage and, as the kids say these days, “beef.”
Franklin Graham and Lady Gaga. Cardi B — I’m still not entirely sure who that is — and people who say her latest music video undermines the #MeToo movement. No female directors getting Oscar nominations. Taraji P. Henson making some comparison that got people all upset.
There’s so much bad blood and people disagreeing over things and people mad at each other, politicians, musicians, actors, athletes. You name it, somebody’s mad at it. And all that madness and dispute and hatred festers on social media.
I think it does that for a few reasons. There are millions of people on social media, so it’s where the world interacts with one another. Social media allows people to voice their opinions, however well thought out or flawed. There’s also little oversight or moderation, so we often get to see the worst in others.
Today, I seriously considered quitting Facebook and Twitter. Honestly. I’ve thought about it hundreds of times, but it was fleeting thoughts.
I don’t think I’m addicted to the outrage. I hope I’m not, at least.
But I didn’t quit. For practical reasons, I have to use Facebook and Twitter for my employment as a reporter, but there’s one other major reason, and it goes back to why I got Facebook in the first place.
Becoming an Adult on Social
I almost completely missed MySpace — I had a page for about 90 days, then my parents made me delete it. I did get it kind of secretly, so maybe I deserved it.
I got on Facebook and Twitter during my freshman year of high school, 2007. So I spent the entirety of my high school and college years, save a few months, hooked into the machine.
I used Facebook first. It became the platform for my day-to-day activities, random comments on Carolina Hurricanes games and eventually the venue for me to post links to my fledgling blog, which mostly featured movie reviews. I analyzed my classmates’ comments on what was obviously their romantic relationships and misjudged people’s statements to me. It was the Internet, after all. It’s the haven for misunderstandings.
Twitter became the place to follow bands and athletes to see what they were up to, to keep up with sports news and highlights and find out when the latest track was coming out. As I got further and further into my studies of journalism, I learned that Twitter was a tool for sharing news in real-time and live-tweeting from sports games, much to the annoyance of at least one college friend.
I graduated from college and, a couple years later, found myself utilizing social media in my most recent job, as a newspaper reporter in my hometown. On my professional account, I would tweet often the latest news and highlights from local government meetings while keeping up with the news of the day, local, state and national. On my personal account, I would keep up with my favorite sports teams, authors and musicians, just like before. I’d occasionally post comments about Arsenal Football Club, hoping against hope that one of them would go viral amongst the Gunners’ rabid social media-crazed fan base. None of them ever have, by the way.
I knew those crazies existed beyond Arsenal supporters. I’d see it in response to the latest political development or social event that captured eyes and ears.
But over the last few months in particular — more or less revolving around the government shutdown, funny enough — I’ve gotten sick of it. It’s obnoxious. It’s hashtags and disses, beefs and slams. It’s trying to be first and trying to be funniest. In a lot of ways, social media shows the worst of us. We often take our gut reaction and make it public in the most public way: putting it on the Internet, unfiltered for all to see.
I’m just as guilty, although it’s usually about something as petty as a professional sports team. And most of the time I feel like I display enough patience. (Judge for yourself: I’m at @zacharyhorner21.) I feel like I carry that to Facebook as well.
So while I know I’ve made good use of these platforms in the last 12 years, both personally and professionally, it’s so tempting to leave it all behind, to let the beefs be on buns only and not on my phone screen.
But, as stated previously, I can’t for practical reasons. But because it gives me a window into the world, I need it.
In It, Not of It, As It Were
One of the more popular phrases in Christendom is that we’re called to be “in the world, not of it.” I think it’s been over-used and misunderstood, personally, and we get to see what it really means by looking at Paul.
Paul’s ministry, as outlined in the book of Acts, is one of living, eating and speaking among the people, wherever they were. He went to the synagogues, to the temples and to the places where the intellectuals spent their time. It’s that latter one that’s my favorite.
In Acts 17, Paul is hanging out in Athens and while there, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (v. 16). So he begins talking to people in the synagogue and the marketplace. Verses 17-18 record that he spoke with Jews, “devout persons,” everyday people in the marketplace and Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. It’s the stark difference of his philosophy and religion that catches the eye of the intellectuals of the city, and they take him to the Areopagus, where “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (v. 21).
What Paul says at the Areopagus is worthy of reading itself. He speaks about Jesus, relating Him to the Athenians’ daily existence and their philosophy.
But I want to key in on why Paul was there in the first place. He was out and about, listening to people, seeing people, learning from others about their lives and their existence. It’s because of that experience that he’s able to relate to those who spent their time at the Areopagus.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, we get to see his philosophy and thinking behind his method:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not myself being under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
I love this so much because Paul tells us the key to his evangelism, and thus gives us an important piece of advice at winning the world to Christ. And for me, a reason to stay on social media.
A Snapshot of Reality
“Fake news” is everywhere. It’s in the media, it’s in the halls of politics, it’s in the corporate board rooms, the church sanctuaries. Yes, the church sanctuaries.
I’ve spent years in church, and one thing I’ve noted is that we seem to struggle at understanding why non-Christians do what they do. We care about them and we want to see them changed and following Jesus. And that’s amazing! That’s exactly what we should want. But far too often, we stop there without trying to understand their realities.
When we see someone who identifies as LGBTQ, we want them to be straight without trying to learn why they became LGBTQ in the first place. When we see someone who’s left their spouse, we want them to reunite without figuring out what caused them to leave. When we see a skeptic, we want them to believe without attempting to understand their rationale for not believing.
I’m not saying this is a universal thing, that all Christians and all churches are like this, but I believe that if we as the body of Christ adopted this method, we’d be able to shed the “fake news” we assume about the world and try to understand where people are really coming from.
We assume people LGBTQ rights because they don’t believe in Jesus. We assume people leave their spouse because they’re sinful and lazy. We assume people are skeptical because they hate Jesus and God. While there might be some truths in there, it’s often more complicated than that. The LGBTQ people I’ve known have given differing reasons for their lifestyle choice, and it’s often not simple.
I think of the recent controversy over the kids from the Catholic school and the protestors at the recent March for Life. I’m not going to weigh in on that controversy here, but in that scenario, we learned that it’s much better to wait, to understand what actually happened, where people were actually coming from, before assessing the situation and rendering a judgment. So many people, myself included, grew judgmental and critical of those in the situation before hearing the full story.
In the same way, we need to listen to others and understand their lives, their realities before creating one for them and approaching them based on what we’ve imposed on them ourselves. That’s what Paul did. He spent time in Athens, talked to people and then rendered his perspective and brought it back to the Gospel.
A word about “echo chambers”: Paul didn’t live in one. He spent a lot of time with Christians, yes, but he clearly took the time to understand viewpoints he didn’t share. We should, ideally, do the same.
Dipping the Toes in to Get Wet
In the same way, we should stay on our social media platforms and exist on them each day long enough just to get a snapshot of reality, to see what the culture is like, what it’s doing and what it cares about.
Of course, some of us should set boundaries about how long we spend, what we do on that social media, etc. That’s not what this post is about, but I wanted to re-affirm good boundaries and limits because social media, like most things, can become addicting.
Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Odds are, you found this because I posted a link to it on social media.
Social media can serve a great purpose. We can use it to share about what God is doing in our lives, interact with fans of our favorite sports teams for fun conversations, showcase photos of our meals and new pets and, in some cases, express our opinion on a difficult or controversial topic.
It’s up to you, of course, how much you share. But if you’re on social media now, I encourage you to stick with it. You never know what you’ll learn, and you’ll never know what you learn will mean down the road.