Tag Archives: Theology

When everything seemed chaotic and directionless, we see God working in the details

I love the book of Ruth. OK, we have the same name but that’s not the reason. The reason is because most of the Old Testament involves grand sweeping stories of whole nations – and one nation in particular. The scene from the reader’s point of view seems panoramic. Like those opening scenes of a big Hollywood blockbuster – except that’s where it stays. And sometimes the view is just too wide to see everything. It stops us engaging on a personal level with the characters a lot of the time.

Except for the odd short book or story that takes us right into the heart of one family or one person. The book of Ruth is one of those. It hones right into the lives of three principle characters – Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.

It’s a beautiful story of loss and love and faith and hope. It shows us God’s sovereignty. We know this because from these humble beginnings, the very last verses in Ruth 4 tell us:

This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. (Ruth 4:18-22)

Ruth and Boaz are King David’s great-grandparents.

But there’s another lens we need to see this story through. And this comes from the very first verse of Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. (Ruth 1:1)

The book of Judges is the backdrop against which the book of Ruth is set. So what is happening in the book of Judges? Judges, on the surface, looks like a simple list of judges who rule the Israelites after Joshua dies. It’s not that simple but now’s not the time to get into that (although perhaps we will sometime soon because it’s one of my favourite books in the whole Bible). Even with a list of some quite good judges, most of them are pretty shoddy. God raises them up, but they end up doing things so wrong, there’s peace for a bit and then things get worse before God raises up another judge.

The whole book is really a litany of disappointments, wars, competing interests, paganism and apostasy. This goes on for about 400 years from Joshua to the last judge before Saul. That’s a looooong time for things to go badly. That’s the difference between now the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, the rise of the Puritans and the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock.

The book of Judges says twice “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25). It’s the last verse in the book in fact, just to make the point. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The law of Moses was forgotten (or ignored) and everyone just did their own thing. We see this clearly in the actions of the judges. Some good, some bad – but none of them great. And while God is present throughout the book, His people are not obedient and pay more attention to, and take more authority from, the pagan Canaanite peoples around and among them – exactly the opposite of what God had been telling them for hundreds of years.

It’s against this backdrop that we read the book of Ruth – against 400 years of strife and conflict. And that is why it is so startling. While the book of Judges plays out, God is working intricately in the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz to bring about his purposes. He lifts the famine that brings Naomi back, He blesses her with Ruth who’s fierce loyalty makes her leave her own people and country to follow her mother-in-law, He brings Ruth to Boaz’s field, and so on and so on. God’s work saturates the pages of Ruth. And while on a societal level He is ignored, in these pages, God is the focus of all the activity.

His presence is in the fine detail, and yet the purpose is long lasting – eternal even. He works to bring Ruth and Boaz together who will birth the line of David. The first real king of Israel and the one whom is promised to return in some form. David is the seat of prophecy for Jesus. Matthew 1:1 provides “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” But David is also the first “type” of this kingly persona that Jesus will supersede. Just as Jesus fulfills and supersedes Adam as God’s first-fruits (1 Corinthians 15:45), and Moses as prophet, so Jesus is the messianic return of David – the true king.

I think of all those people like us living in the time of the judges – ordinary people trying to live their lives the best they know how. Tilling their fields, tending their herds, arguing with their husbands, counting their money, paying their taxes, shouting at their kids, laughing at silly jokes, fearing the unknown, worrying about the future – just like us. 400 years of people just like us in a time which, when you look back was chaotic and directionless, but at the time must have just been their “normal”. And in that 400 years, God is working things for His purposes – the present purposes of bringing Ruth and Boaz together, the intermediate purposes of bringing the line of David into being and long purposes of laying the foundations for the coming of His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

That, to me, is stunning. God is so powerful and sovereign over the whole thing, and yet He is so present in the details. In fact, when we recognise His presence in the details, His power over all is amplified.

Just remember the next time you are in the book of Judges. While this is playing out, while the judges are scrapping and fighting and failing, while the people were searching for a leader, God was working in the lives of just three people in a tiny town to bring into effect His ultimate saving plans for Israel and all the nations – for all of us.

It makes me wonder, what is He doing today? He is present in all of our lives and all of our details. We won’t know of course until we walk with Him in paradise and understand the full intricacy of His plans. But it is worth remembering – not only is He there, but he is working. Things may feel chaotic and directionless to us, but God’s plans are happening.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10-11)

The pitfalls of “Oh so relatable”

It’s nice when people say they like my stuff. I write about things because they are issues that I wrangle with, or because its bits of the Bible I like, or sometimes just because I’m a chronic over-sharer. But when people say “oh, she’s so relatable” I feel a little worried and I have to assess what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. Not because I don’t want to be relatable, but because “relatable” has taken on a meaning of its own these days.

To relate to someone used to simply mean, to empathise or make a connection with someone. “To relate” was a verb – a doing word. These days, to be relatable means showing characteristics, attitudes and behaviours that are considered “the norm”, or that are thought to be the position of the most people. Saying someone is relatable means they represent that majority. It’s a noun – something we ascribe to someone.

The trouble is that terms like “relatable” have become woven into our modern fabric of what is considered to be what normal and reasonable people think and feel. And that’s a judgement call based on what side of a particular issue you’re on.

No more so than in Christian circles. We are called to be growing disciples of Jesus who gather in His name and are a priesthood of believers, displaying His glory to the ends of the earth.

How we do that has been a matter of great conjecture throughout history.

On one end of the spectrum, you might have Humanity – by that I mean all compassion, all about the feels and the person. At the other end you have Theology – and by that I mean dry and lifeless and highly academic. On that spectrum then the application might end up as Relatable on the one side and Sanctimonious on the other. See my diagram below (and if you follow me regularly, you’ll know I do all my own graphics).

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If we are all about the Humanity, we can fall into the trap of thinking God just wants us to be happy, or that God is all about love (but forget the judgement for sin part). It can even make us so indistinguishable from the world – so relatable in fact – that we don’t look Christian at all.

On the other hand, if we all about the theology, we can forget that our churches are made of real life people who live in the real world with difficult jobs, and fractured relationships, and high anxiety and eating disorders and abuse and debt and all the things that go along with being a human. We can be so academic in our theology that we forget to care. We become sanctimonious, dolling out judgement from our ivory tower – forgetting that we are called to love as well as to teach and correct.

We need both Theology and Humanity. I don’t mean that we go half way and sit on the fence without going one way or the other. No, we are Christian and we will boast in Jesus Christ and that precludes fence sitting. It calls for boldness and it calls us to be active participants in the gospel.

How do we do that with Theology and Humanity? We need to know our scriptures so we can be discerning and wise in our own lives, and true and honest Christian brothers and sisters to each other. We need enough theology that we know when to correct each other and hold each other accountable, but we need enough Humanity so we can support each other in love and understand the context we are all coming from.

If I am a sanctimonious ass, I will not be able to talk to drug addicts or porn addicts or prisoners or people who are bonking outside of marriage, or divorcees, or transvestites, or people who have fallen away or drunkards or people who have been abused or gay people – or anyone who is outside what I think is proper.

If I am a relatable flake, my theology might be cherry picked to fit what will make people happy, or make them like me more. I might even not have a good grounding in the Bible, either because my focus is on the people rather than the scripture, or because I read it, but don’t study it theologically.

So I want to be relatable – but as a Christian would understand it. I want to re-define this term for Christians. We should be relatable in that we acknowledge our failings and flaws. We empathise with each other and seek to understand where we are coming from. We walk with people who are not the perfect model (which is about 100% of us!). This is what Jesus did – he walked with people. He sought out the people who were the opposite of the perfect model. He hung out with criminals and outsiders and foreigners. He talked to them. He loved them. He brought them along with him.

But he pulled no punches in his teaching. He corrected them. He rebuked them. He told them the truth.

Jesus was relatable (he was fully man as well as fully God). Jesus had humanity – he understood people and treated them with love and compassion. Jesus had the ultimate wisdom of theology – he taught clearly and explicitly what following meant, both in terms of our eternal salvation, as well as the cost to us in this life.

Our theology needs to be applied in real life contexts. That doesn’t mean we bend the theology to fit. But it does mean that we lift our theology off the page and apply it unique and individual situations – just like Jesus did.

So hopefully I am relatable in that I am a single mum of two boys, holding down a full time job, studying theology part time and writing instead of doing any housework. But hopefully I also apply what I am learning through Christ in wise and discerning ways – imperfectly, but trying.

To help us all do that, I can highly recommend some kind of formal study. There are heaps you can do online – and from any country:

There are others you can do on campus or by evenings/intensives (I’ve been doing a Bachelor of Theology by this method for the last 6 years at Sydney Missionary and Bible College):

And if you think that’s not for you – maybe think again. The last time I was at uni, we hand wrote our essays and laughed at why we would need this new-fangled thing called the “world wide web” when we had a library just over there!! That’s how fast the world has moved since the 90s. I’m just saying maybe you could do this, individually or with your study group.

But, in the meantime, if you want to do some more reading to supplement your Bible study, these authors are a good source (some are more nerdy than others, but its good to have a range, right?):

You can also keep up to date with conferences – my readers in other countries – please leave comments on good conferences where you are (although they also have online resources at some of these below)! In Australia:

So lets be real people, people. But let’s know our theology and lets live it, with obedience and wisdom and reverent awe, faith and joy – and with our eyes on him.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

 

Growing in Christ-likeness doesn’t mean giving up your personality

Do you snort when you laugh? Do you get frustrated with your kids? Does your house look like a bomb site? Do you like a drink with dinner? Do you like dressing up? Do you laugh at slightly inappropriate things? Does the odd swear word slip out?

You’re not alone.

A follower recently reached out expressing anxiety and confusion about what she was supposed to look like as a follower of Christ. And she is not alone either.

The anxiety comes from two things. First, we compare ourselves to others. Second, we know that we are not matching up to what we see in the Bible.

Let’s take comparison. We all know we do it, and we all know it’s a fatally flawed way of looking at the world. But we still do it. We compare ourselves to those people in church who are just amazing at doing Christian life. We compare ourselves to Instagrammers who post filtered shots of themselves hanging out in a beautiful garden with coffee and a Bible. We compare ourselves to the people we see on Facebook who talk about how intentional they’re being in their Christian parenting or how blessed they are to be serving madly at everything.

That’s not me, we think. I feed my kids toast for dinner when I’m too tired to cook. I waste too much time looking at cat videos when I’m lying in bed at night, knowing I should be going to sleep. I like to hang out with the girls over a drink and laugh a little bit too loudly. I’m not godly. I’m not this picture of quiet Christian respectability.

When we compare ourselves to what we see in the Bible, we feel inadequate, small, helpless. I don’t have the faith of the bleeding woman or the disciples that drop everything and go, or Paul, or Barnabas or Timothy. They gave everything. They lived their faith deeply and passionately.

That’s not me, we think. I like wearing nice clothes. I like going out for dinner. I like having enough money to go on holiday.

Here’s the thing though. We need to stop trying to measure up to other people. Firstly, because they have their stuff going on as well. They aren’t perfect. And if they are further along the Christian journey that us, we need to look to them for inspiration, not comparison. Talk to them. Learn from them. But see them as the real, flawed humans that God knows they are. Only God is perfect.

Also, have confidence in yourself. In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul says “By the grace of God I am what I am.” God made us in his image and He saved us at our most broken. We are how we are because of God and He loves us. And we are jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-9) – we are supposed to be jars of clay! So we don’t glory in our brokenness, but we can recognise it and take heart that God loves us and chose us because of who we are in and of ourselves, not in spite of what we’ve become.

That’s not to say we can’t improve. We should and we must. But not because we come out unfavourably by comparison to other flawed humans – because we are so deeply grateful to God that it spurs us to action. This spur is a response to what God has done. If we don’t feel this spur, then we need to go back to the cross. It means we have forgotten (as humans are prone to do) or drowned out the truth of the cross with the noise of the world. We need to re-remember and re-orient ourselves back to Him.

We also need to be close enough to Him (through prayer and mediation) and His word (through Bible reading, church and small groups) to be able to self-reflect. I am me, by the grace of God I am what I am – but where are my rough edges? Where do I need to rein in my worldliness? We do this by looking at our motivations. You might like to wear nice clothes. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. But are you wearing them because you are wanting to attract attention? Are you wearing them to show off?

Similarly, if you’re posting things on Facebook, is it to share joyfully? Or deep down, is it to show off? To make others feel a little jealous?

If we look at our motivations honestly, it will show us where our rough edges and blind spots are – where we need to do some business with God and ask the Holy Spirit to help us progress this good work that Jesus started in us. It is OK to be motivated by taking pleasure in things God has blessed us with. It’s not OK to want to dabble in sinfulness, or lead others into sinfulness too. That’s a sign our hearts are not where they should be – and again, we need to go back to the cross.

J. C. Ryle in his book Holiness (I HIGHLY recommend reading it – it speaks beautifully and truthfully into this issue) says “A true Christian is one who has not only peace of conscience, but war within. He may be known by his warfare as well as by his peace.”

This is so true. We have the peace of God, and yet we struggle with our sinfulness. And bizarrely, that’s a good sign. It means we are aware of humanity’s proneness to wander. It means we are struggling with things we are supposed to be struggling with. But the struggle is not the star of the show. God is.

This is a journey and the focus is God. See my awesome sketch below showing the journey…..

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We are broken and imperfect but we are justified. We are sinful but we are being sanctified. And Jesus will complete this good work in us but we have agency and the ability to make choices.

This does not mean that a sanctified person becomes some kind of Christian robot. We are not all supposed to be clones. You are YOU. God loves us in all our uniqueness and rubbishness. In God we can be more ourselves than anywhere else because He knows us inside out – there is no hiding from Him.

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10).

The Christian journey is not about fading into the shadows so that we all merge into an amorphous Christian blob. We let our sinfulness diminish as our focus on Christ increases. And we keep our unique personality and experience that has shaped us, just re-oriented toward God, rather than ourselves. That remains just as unique and individual in how that re-orientation is expressed in your life through your personality.

Self-reflect. Learn. Grow. Sanctify. Be yourself, but be yourself for God. And you will be more you than you ever were before.

Does the Bible oppress women or not?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. A while back I wrote a blog on sexual coercion in marriage  followed by a live Q&A on the same subject with GuruNow  (you can watch it here). There were a lot of questions and a lot of discussion afterwards – it touched a nerve for a lot of women. What was apparent was many feelings of frustration, feelings of being treated differently – not in the “equal and different” sense but in the “equal but inferior” sense. What it brought up for me, was a tangle of doctrine and culture that had apparently become intertwined over the centuries and that desperately needed to be untangled.

Over the years, the church has been accused of oppressing women and allowing abuse to happen. There has been an equal push of denial from the other side. The result is each camp has been pushed to opposite extremes with one side pushed into an (apparently) increasingly conservative corner and the other pushed into feeling they actually have to fight for their corner. The result is women feeling further ignored, frustrated and oppressed. The result is also the church feeling under attack from within. Neither of these is a good outcome.

To find equal ground we have to strip away centuries of cultural barnacles and try and get to the truth. When I say “truth” I mean the truth as communicated to us by God Himself. What did God say? What did Jesus communicate? Are we equal and different? Or equal and inferior?

Much is made of Genesis 2:18 in which God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” For a long time, the assumption has been that as man was created first, he is more important. Women were created second and are merely helpers. What this ignores though is the ontological equality – that is, as image bearers, men and women are equal in being. One is not inferior to the other.

What it also ignores is the nature of the term “suitable helper”. The Hebrew word that has been translated as “helper” is ezer and it is used elsewhere in the Bible in a context that challenges our understanding. In Psalm 89:17 “For you [God] are their [the Israelites] glory and strength.” The last word here has been translated as “strength” but is ezer. God is Israel’s ezer.

John McKinley* notes that “the issue in ezer is neither equality nor subordination, but distinction and relatedness. She is to be for the man as an ally to benefit him in the work they were given to do. Just as ezer tells of God’s relatedness to Israel as the necessary support for survival and military perils, the woman is ally to the man, without which he cannot succeed or survive.”

For me, as a woman, that’s pretty huge. I am to man what God is to the Israelites. Someone without whom the other party can’t do what they need to do. So our function is ezer. How that is expressed in our lives is as unique and varied as our individual contexts (and there is is a lot to be said about this – perhaps a blog for another time!)

We are meant to be different so that what man is missing is supplied by woman, and vice versa. This is not oppressive. That feels liberating to me.

BUT – it also seems clear to me that this has become part of a cultural attitude to women that feeds the idea of inferiority. Even by Jesus’ time there was a large cultural divide between men and women. Some of this is (in every culture) based on our obvious differences – we are physically different, we (generally speaking) think differently, communicate differently, approach issues differently, respond differently (remember I said generally speaking!).

For the Jews, a biological difference (menstruation) created a ceremonial difference. A time of menstruation was niddah where a woman was considered un-clean and was not “clean” until menstruation was over and a ritual cleansing had occurred. What is important here is that “clean” and “unclean” have no moral judgement attached to them. It is not “good” or “evil”, it is solely a diagnostic for a person’s state and ability to be in the presence of God. Many things could cause a state of uncleanness and Leviticus is chockers full of how a person becomes clean again. What is key though is that, since people in a state of uncleanness couldn’t stand before God, and menstruation occurs regularly but in changeable cycles, the chances of being in a state of uncleanness regularly and unknowingly was too high. This meant that women could not take ceremonial roles in the tabernacle. By the time we get to temple, a biological difference has become entrenched in the cultural consciousness.

Of course there are many other factors at play but the entanglement of religion and culture is what can make things problematic. When we strip this away, what does God say? The story of the bleeding woman in Mark 5 gives us a clear window (there is a Bible study on this here). This woman had been ceremonially unclean for years. Jesus shouldn’t have gone near her let alone engage with her. What Jesus’ simple action does is remove the barriers of clean and unclean for women – women became liberated to be disciples in whatever physiological and biological state they were in at the time. By his actions, Jesus affirmed functional difference in a variety of settings, he freed them to follow him.**

So we are to men what God was to the Israelites. We are ontologically equal and functionally given a specific and different role as ally, but without which men cannot succeed. And Jesus up-ended any ceremonial barriers – while recognising biological difference, we are freed to be disciples and engage in religious and faith matters.

So lets turn to Paul’s letters which have caused much controversy and pain over the years. Firstly, he talks about women submitting to their husbands. This is uncomfortable and feels wrong. But again, we forget the context:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:21-28)

There is whole books written on this subject (and rightly so) but here’s some takeaways:

  • Submission is mutual – we submit to each other. The emphasis is not on the woman alone.
  • Submission is voluntary – we submit to God willingly and voluntarily. Submission cannot be forced or coerced in any way. If it is, it is NOT submission and husbands cannot expect or demand it. God does not expect or demand it. Husbands must be the kind of person to whom submission is willing and voluntary.
  •  Submission is a response – The onus is actually on the husband. He must love his wife as he loves his own body and as Christ loved the church (Christ died for the church). Our submission to God is a response to this great truth. So it must be for women. Our submission can be faked to break an impasse, but the onus is not on us to forever be submitting to make things right. It should be a response to the love and sacrifice of the husband.

But sadly culture has not used this passage that way. It have been taken out of context and used by people who will use whatever tool will get them what they want, or feel they deserve. This is a gross misuse of scriptural truth.

We see this particularly in 1 Corinthians 7 – another passage that has become misused and even weaponized.

“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

Firstly, what is this “marital duty”? It sounds old fashioned, like we’re supposed to “lie back and think of England”. The original Greek that “duty” is translated from is opheilo. This word is usually used to translate a commercial debt and the only place it is used in a non-monetary sense is in Romans 13:8:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

This “duty” is love! The husband owes a debt of love to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. This is different to how we imagine it to be – and how it has unfortunately been used in the past.

What about bodily autonomy? In the women’s movement this has been such a key issue. As physically weaker (generally speaking) and culturally subordinated, there has been centuries of our bodies being used and abused without our consent or permission. Culture in fact, has perpetuated it. In Australia, marital rape was not made illegal until 1981 (and not in all States and Territories until 1992). As recently as 2018 in the UK, a study found that “more than a third of over-65s” do not consider forced marital sex rape, along with 16% of people aged 16 to 24. Overall, one in four Britons believed that non-consensual sex within marriage did not constitute rape.”***

In 1 Corinthians 7, it looks as though the Bible is saying that our husbands have authority over our bodies in just this kind of fashion. Except it doesn’t say that. Look again:

“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

Neither person has authority over their own body but choose to yield it to each other in an act of mutual giving. It doesn’t say that the woman doesn’t have authority but her husband does. No. It says she doesn’t but yields it. So who does have authority? If we don’t, and the husband doesn’t – who does?

Just prior to our passage, in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul says “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

God has authority over our bodies.

This obviously will be hard teaching for some, especially because bodily autonomy is such a key pillar of the women’s movement. And I understand why. Issues of permission and consent are so profoundly significant for anyone, particularly women who, culturally, have been subordinated for so long. But Christianity has always been counter cultural and the comfort that I (or rather the Bible) gives, is that God deserves this authority because we were created as His image bearers, and He cares so deeply for us (body and soul) that He sacrificed His only son for us. What is also important – and so central to the reason for the fight for bodily autonomy – is the man/husband doesn’t have authority over it. And if they claim it, this is also a gross misuse of scripture.

Of course, Paul in various texts talks in ways that seems to diminish women. I’m not going to explain that away or pretend it doesn’t mean what we think it means. In various places, we are told to wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-6), we are told to be silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34) and should be silent and not teach (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not the place to exegete all these passages, but what I will say is that these letters are responses to pastoral issues. These letters are the pastoral outworking of Jesus’ teaching in the context of what is. This teaching is descriptive, not prescriptive. That doesn’t mean that we should disregard it as being only relevant to Paul’s time, there are still biblical truths to abide by. So no, we don’t cover our hair, but there is still teaching on humility that is relevant.

Where does this leave us?

Well, there is an awful lot to unpack in here, but I hope this is a neat summary of some of the issues I think have been misused by our culture over centuries. The Bible places equal dignity and importance on men and women. It also shows that we have some key differences, and crucially a functional difference. But that functional difference does not diminish us. The Trinity shows the ontological equality of the godhead, and yet they can have functional differences that in no way makes one superior or inferior to the other.

Further, I hope we, as women, can have confidence in our standing before God. When scripture has, or is, used against women (and sadly even weaponized against women sometimes) it is a gross misuse. There is a reason for it (pride, greed, arrogance) but no excuse.

Culture has twisted what is God’s good creation. In a broken world, women have been treated as “equal” (in a theoretical sense) and inferior (in the practical sense). This is not what I see in scripture. What I see is a massive gap between what God intended for us, and what we have made. That will always be the case with everything until the last day. Until then, know that scripture, when stripped of culture and its use for personal gain, is pure and clear and beautiful. Until then, embrace that we have a God-made functional difference with a specific purpose – we are to men, what God is to the Israelites.

But because of our cultural advance, so many cultural icons and views are embedded to such a degree that there is still a subconscious bias, sometimes even a conscious decision, to view women as inferior. It’s not just the views on marital rape. Until the 1980s in Australia, a woman couldn’t get a passport without her husbands permission. In the last 40 years, a woman was still sacked if she got married and/or got pregnant – and it was an expectation. To fight it as unfairness got you a soft smack on the butt and a wink at best. In 1997 in the UK, new Labour leader Tony Blair presided over a new government that included over 100 female politicians. They were called for a group photo and the headline was “Blair’s Babes”. If that wasn’t patronizing enough, in 2014, new Conservative leader David Cameron was photographed with his 80 female politicians and they were tagged “Cameron’s cuties”. And that’s just in first world countries. Our culture is so far behind treating women as equal.

Of course, in response, we can run the risk of swinging the pendulum too far the other way. This is understandable from a group of people who feel they have been silenced for hundreds of years. We must be guided by scripture though – not what our gut says. Our gut will send us into freeze, flight or fight. We need to train our instincts to send us to God’s word.

So, until the last day, know that God did not create you to be, nor does he see you as “someone’s babe”. Until then, know that if you see a misuse of scripture, or an injustice in the name of scripture, have confidence to use your voice. Speak to your pastor. Speak to a Christian friend. Speak up. Don’t be guided by hurt, be guided by scripture. If we hold fast to that, we will avoid pushing the pendulum too far the other way in reaction and will hopefully, under God, find the truth again expressed in our culture.

The gospel is not the issue. Sadly, as with everything, people are. Let us equip ourselves with the truth and build our confidence and our identity in that.

 

* John McKinley, “Necessary Allies: God as Ezer, Woman as Ezer,” lecture, HIlton Atlanta, November 17, 2015, mp3 download, 38:35, http://www.wordmp3.com/details.aspx?id=20759 quoted in Aimee Byrd, No Little Women, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2016, p25-26

** Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p117

***https://www.theweek.co.uk/98330/when-did-marital-rape-become-a-crime

 

 

 

“I believe! Help my unbelief!” The struggle I have between God and me (Mark 9:14-29)

At church yesterday we recited the Apostle’s Creed. It’s a statement of belief and I love hearing the voices of the congregation together as one voice saying this. I believe these things. So why then do I struggle with faith sometimes?

I believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and yet I struggle to have faith in the possible outcomes of his infinite power – for the job I need, for the child to heal, for an authority to act kindly, for the relationship to mend. If I believe in all these things, why don’t I have enough faith in the other?

Image result for apostles creed

Maybe this is you too. And maybe you feel like sometimes its not so much that you don’t have faith in God, so much as not having faith in yourself – “Why would God listen to my prayers?” or “What could my prayers possibly do?”

Perhaps its because we know that God’s plans don’t always reflect what we’ve prayed for. The relationship doesn’t mend. The loved one doesn’t make it. The job disappears. So it makes us reluctant to express faith in God’s outcomes because we don’t necessarily understand them. We pray “if its your will, Lord….” as if to give him (and us) and “out” if it doesn’t pan out the way we hope.

Nothing says this more clearly than the man in Mark 9:14-29. A father has brought his son to see Jesus to be healed. The disciples had been unable to heal the boy. When Jesus arrives, the man says to Jesus “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22).

This to me, feels like the “If it is your will, Lord” prayer. We don’t want to presume (isn’t it arrogance to demand a result?). We’ve been disappointed before.

The man is quite sharply rebuked by Jesus: ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” (v23)

This is challenging. Is he saying that if you have enough faith we can do anything? Does that mean if we can’t do it, we don’t have enough faith? If we pray to heal our disease, and I still have it, does that mean I don’t have enough faith? No. That puts too much power on us as the individuals. And it brings in a high level of uncertainty to something that is already certain – that Jesus is enough.

If I start thinking “if I’m not healed is it because I don’t have enough faith”, then I also start thinking, “how do I know if I have enough faith? Does that mean I’m not saved if my faith isn’t strong enough?” This would be a shockingly cruel burden to place on someone.

BUT if we have faith in God, everything is possible. This is what we focus on. We must pray knowing that everything is possible. We must have confidence. We must be expectant. God can. And sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. Not because he is capricious and random, but because he has a bigger plan. So just as we pray knowing that he can, we must accept the outcome in equal faith because we know there is a bigger plan. If we achieve the former (praying expectantly), we can have a tendency to feel blindsided – but I believed. Yes. But keep believing. Because we can have confidence in the bigger plan. Praying expectantly and then feeling blindsided means our faith was  in our own prayer – and we are disappointed that it didn’t work out. If we truly have faith in God, we will pray knowing he can, and accept whether he does or doesn’t.

The man replies to Jesus “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v24). I so get this! I believe! But my faith wafts about depending on how confident I feel. I know its not supposed to be about how I feel, but in how sovereign I know God is – but I’m human.

Its also because there is a key difference between faith and belief.

Put it this way, I can believe that I would probably survive a car crash if I got into one – but I wouldn’t have faith in it. I wouldn’t drive having faith in that belief.

We can believe the Apostle’s creed, but often we don’t live as though we have faith in it. Having faith requires a complete trust that if you closed your eyes and fell backwards, that someone will catch you. And that’s not a state we attain and then stay in – that can be affected by how we slept, how our day is going, how our circumstances are. So we need to re-calibrate every day.

We need to pray to God to help our unbelief!

We should read the Apostle’s Creed. And we should believe it. And then we must live as though we have faith in it. How do we live in this faith? Knowing that God can do anything and everything. We can’t. The faith is not in ourselves. Our faith is in God. And if we ask, we should ask confidently, because everything is possible for those that have faith in him. That doesn’t mean everything will happen. It means that if we have faith in him, we have access to all the things that God can do in his infinite power. So everything is possible.

Pray knowing everything is possible. Live knowing we have access to this power.

 

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

This is an enduring question – for both Christians and non-Christians. For Christians, this can be a question spoken in pain and grief as we seek God’s presence among our trauma. For non-Christians this can be a logical question – if he is real, why doesn’t he just show himself and then we can dispense with all the doubt?

The thing is though, he did show himself. I mean, God was actually with his people in the wilderness and they still grumbled and complained. In that sense, how much evidence is enough? I get that non-believers dismiss the evidence of the Bible. It’s not an unbiased view. But it is the view of the people who believe they saw God. So I understand that people wouldn’t believe unless they themselves had been the witness, but we must allow for the validity of other people’s own experience. We believe things people tell us without witnessing it ourselves all the time. A friend of mine told me about a terrible week she’d had. I believe her, even though I wasn’t a fly on the wall.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should believe everything blindly. That would be unwise. If a biased media tells us something, we should question. If a corrupt authority tells us something, we should fact check. But in checking these things out for ourselves, we must allow for the possibility that its true. We are a very cynical generation. We tend to jump to a conclusion of falsehood almost as a faith position. If we hear something from [insert political leader’s name of your choice here] we may believe or disbelieve them on principle – because we have faith in our position. Its something we believe without any particular evidence either way.

In the same way, some people believe what is in the Bible because it is the eye witness testimony of people who were there. Others won’t believe even if God was travelling with them in the wilderness. That’s to be expected – it’s been the case for thousands of years.

What we see in Mark’s gospel in Chapter 9 is a famous episode called “The Transfiguration”. It’s where Jesus is transformed:

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4). In Luke, this is expanded to “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29) and in Matthew’s gospel he says “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2).

On first reading this episode sounds like Jesus and Elijah and Moses are having a bit of a group meeting before the move towards Jerusalem and the cross. Perhaps they’re chatting about how things are going or if everything is going according to plan.

Don’t believe it. Nothing here is by accident. The transformation is deliberate. It is a deeply profound episode because people needed to understand three things:

  1. Jesus was not just a man but something else as well. The transformation to this shining being shows the supernatural nature of his humanity.
  2. People needed to see more clearly who he was and who he wasn’t. If he is in the presence of Elijah and Moses here, then he is neither of those people. We have seen in previous passages that there was much conjecture over Jesus’s identity. This shows us clearly that he is someone and something else.
  3. Jesus is in the presence of God. The references to Jesus’ face shining is a reference to Moses’ radiance after his meetings with God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35). Jesus is speaking to God, in person.

Just after this short episode, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). God himself! And this takes us back to Mark 1:11 where God, during Jesus’ baptism had said “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Why repeat this? Because something new is happening. He spoke these words at the baptism as Jesus’ ministry began. He speaks the words here as we begin the journey to Jerusalem. And the witness is to Peter, James and John who are with Jesus at this episode. Something special is being disclosed to these three.

But Jesus tells them not to say anything until after he has died and risen again. They don’t really understand so instead ask Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). This might seem random but Elijah had been mentioned in Malachi’s prophecies. Malachi had said that God “will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5). And if they had just seen Elijah…..what did that mean…..?

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:12-13)

This passage is difficult, but can be simply put as the restoration predicted as coming from Elijah’s return will be achieved via the suffering of the Son of Man. The reason it is difficult it because Peter and the rest of the Jews were expecting “restoration” to mean something awesome and celebratory and politically liberating. The truth is much harder to swallow.

So not only did God the Father show himself in this passage, we see God the Son here too. God, with Peter – poor dim-witted Peter and the disciples who could not possibly understand what everything meant until they had seen the cross and the resurrection. But blessed Peter who tried and failed and tried again and followed faithfully. God in person with Peter – and Mark writing Peter’s eye witness account.

God was there. He did show himself.

Do we believe blindly? Partially I suppose. I wasn’t there. But there is enough evidence within the gospel as a historical document to show that it is an eye witness account and not a fable or a story. And there is enough evidence of the resurrection to make me stop and look at what happened in the lead up to it. You see, after the resurrection, hundreds of believers were persecuted, exiled, tortured and executed in the most horrific ways – and not a single one said that their accounts weren’t true. If this wasn’t true, I just don’t believe that so many would suffer for the sake of a lie. And these were eye witnesses – not later converts who died for faith. These were followers of Jesus dying over their very memories.

So I believe that God showed himself to Peter and the others. I believe that God walked the earth with his disciples. I believe that he went to the cross for me. I believe that he rose again and now reigns in heaven and walks with me every day.

And while non-believers are still looking for proof, I am content that there is enough evidence to base my faith on. On days when I am seeking his face in my circumstances, I don’t have to go far to remember that God is with us.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

 

Towards a better understanding of sexual coercion in marriage and how Christians can respond

A week or so ago, I wrote an initial piece on sexual coercion in marriage, looking at what it is, whether it is actually a problem and how we should deal with it as Christians. You can read it here:

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

Since then, I have also taken part in a live Facebook question-and-answer session. We ran over time because there were so many questions but hopefully we helped start a conversation.

We talked through 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 and what some critical terms mean – like “marital duty” and “authority over the body” mean. These can be particularly difficult terms for us to wrangle with and have been the source of much damage and distress in the past.

We explain what sexual coercion is with far more depth and nuance – including things like context, intentions versus reception, whether it is a repeated pattern of behaviour and so on.

We tackle tricky questions like “Is it all abuse?” and “Should we submit anyway?”

We talk about how it is damaging to women and to men and to marriages and in what ways.

We start to look how we can continue a collaborative conversation about this – seeking a positive and godly way forward that is biblical and supportive of our bodies, mental health, motions and ability to give joyfully and voluntarily (spoiler alert – its not an easy fix, but its possible if we have a language, have courage to communicate and have humility under He who gave us the picture of what marital intimacy should look like).

I hope you can engage, ask questions, take the conversation to your churches and ministers.

The Q&A session can be accessed here from the Facebook page:

Sexual Coercion in Marriage with GuruNow with Ruth Baker

If you have any questions, thoughts, comments, concerns please feel free to contact me. the work on this will continue so the more input the better. Send me your stories, your observations – anything!

If you feel you are in need of help, please speak to a trusted friend, pastor or professional.

GuruNow is the platform by the way – check them out on Facebook because the cover all manner of subjects from worry and anxiety, to bullying in the church, to Christian leadership and beyond.

 

The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)

Sometimes it seems impossibly hard to be a woman. I have no doubt that its hard to be a man too – but I can only speak for those females among us. For us females, it can feel like an up hill climb all the way sometimes. We have uniquely female medical issues – which are never dignified. We have hormonal fluctuations and emotional swings (that aren’t even hormonal). We have anxieties and paranoias, we have hidden fears and brooding worries that we are, or will, or have, failed. And we carry on. Even when we feel like we are a complete outsider. Even when we feel like we are completely alone. Even when we feel like life will never get any better. We carry on.

Maybe this is you. Maybe you where a face to make everyone think you’re doing fine,  but on the inside you’re wracked with doubt and pain. Or maybe it’s been weeks, months, even years, and you feel like you just can’t get things to go right. You’ve tried, you’ve fought, you’ve endured, but the battles you’re fighting are on every front and feels like its never going to end. And maybe this follows you to church. You sing the songs, you pray the prayers, you listen to the sermon, but you just feel somehow separate to everyone else.

One of the characters in today’s passage was completely separated.

In Mark 5:21, we see Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee again into Jewish territory and as the crowds press around him, a synagogue leader called Jairus pleads with Jesus to come and save his dying daughter. On the way, Jesus has an encounter with a woman:

“A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.” (Mark 5:24-29)

This story is in the gospels of Matthew and Luke also, but Mark provides the most insights into the woman. Even so, we get precious little about her. We don’t know her name, her situation or even her specific medical condition. What we do know is that she has been bleeding for 12 years and, under the Levitical laws, that means that she has been ceremonially unclean for all that time:

“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Anyone who touches them will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:25-27)

What we need to remember is that all purity laws (male and female) were linked to the temple system – what that means is that the temple, the priests, temple gifts and so on had to be guarded from ritual impurity. Nothing tainted by impurity could be offered up in the presence of God. Just touching, or being touched by, someone who was unclean, communicated the impurity to the other person.

And as an unclean person, you had to keep away. Its interesting that the Hebrew word for “menstruation” here is niddatah, which has as its root ndh, a word meaning “separation”. An unclean person could not go to temple, and couldn’t really be around other people in case of making them unclean and they would have to be purified.

So this woman must have been lonely – and paranoid. Given the separation from people and temple, her condition must have been very public. Everyone would know. Nobody would want to touch her or be near her. She was an outsider (ceremonially speaking), and would have been made to feel like an outsider in every other cultural and social way.

On top of that, physically she must have been supremely debilitated. Bleeding constantly for 12 years. And without modern hygiene products or pain killers. She may have experienced anemia, dizziness and a number of other physical ailments. She must have been exhausted, depressed and emotionally drained.

The gospel says she had suffered greatly at the hands of various doctors and instead of getting better, had got worse. To give us an idea, Adam Clarke’s 19th Century Commentary on the New Testament quotes 17th century Dr Lightfoot who had studied the medical machinations of 2nd Century Rabbi Jochanan.* What Rabbi Jochanan outlined was a series of treatments (if you can call them that) for just such a complaint:

  1. Take of gum Alexandria, of alum, and of crocus hortensis, the weight of a zuzee each; let them be bruised together, and given in wine to the woman that hath an issue of blood. But should this fail:
  2. Take of Persian onions nine logs, boil them in wine, and give it to her to drink: and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this fail:
  3. Set her in a place where two ways meet, and let her hold a cup of wine in her hand; and let somebody come behind and affright her, and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this do no good:
  4. Take a handful of cummin and a handful of crocus, and a handful of faenu-greek; let these be boiled, and given her to drink, and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this also fail:
  5. Dig seven trenches, and burn in them some cuttings of vines not yet circumcised (vines not four years old); and let her take in her hand a cup of wine, and let her be led from this trench and set down over that, and let her be removed from that, and set down over another: and in each removal say unto her, Arise from thy flux.

And apparently there were many others to try if this last one didn’t work either!

Can you imagine? On top of the physical, emotional and mental burden, she had been poked and prodded and no doubt with each prospective cure, her hopes had been raised. And yet, the Bible tells us, she got worse.

And then she hears about a man who can heal.

She doesn’t even approach him face to face. Shame? Possibly. After 12 years of being an outcast I can imagine she’d want to remain as invisible as possible. Of course Jesus realises he’s been touched.

Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”” (Mark 5:33-34)

This is such a beautiful scene. He could have turned round and called her out for touching him – for making him unclean too. But he doesn’t even mention it. Elsewhere in Mark we have seen Jesus changing the understanding of the old covenant law (the sabbath laws in chapter 2 and later food laws in chapter 7). His refusal to rebuke her – his complete lack of attention to purity laws in fact – is a stunning omission here. And this was liberating, for all Jews and particularly women.

Whats also interesting here is the Greek word for “healed” here is the same as “saved”. This is complete restoration. Complete. Restoration.

Who else could give her that?

Who else could give us that?

The doctors could not heal her. The purity laws could not save her. Only Jesus could heal her. Only Jesus could save her. Only Jesus could give her her life back.

Just after this, Jesus completes his journey to Jairus the synagogue leaders house. Jairus’ daughter has died. But Jesus brings her back to life. He gives her her life back.

Who else could give her that but God?

Who else could give us that but him?

I’m not saying everything in our lives will miraculously get better. I’m saying Jesus sees us, saves us and restores us. In the middle of our mess, Jesus restores us. And we follow. We follow because he saved us first. He loved us first.

When you feel exhausted and disappointed and frustrated and hurt and betrayed and confused, when the rest of the world feels relentlessly difficult, the one safe place we have is in him. We are cleansed in him. We are perfected in him. We can find our peace in him.

 

* https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/acc/mark-5.html

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)