Is that job already taken?

What is the better metaphor for the role of elders in the United Methodist Church: Watchman/woman or Shepherd?

John Wesley most often made reference to the way Ezekiel speaks about watchmen. He spoke often of being clear of the blood of those who did not listen to his preaching. He had Ezekiel 3 and/or Ezekiel 33 in mind.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:17-19, NIV)

But Ezekiel also speaks of shepherds.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-6, NIV)

Yes, I know these are not the only two metaphors for the work of an elder, but today this is where I am looking.

On the one hand, I am drawn toward the metaphor of the shepherd because it plays toward my gentle and nurturing side. But, of course, in Ezekiel 34, God seems pretty set on assuming the title and role of shepherd for himself.

Could it be that it is God’s task to gather up the lost, bind up their wounds, and provide them with food?

Could it be that the task of the elder is more to be a watcher on the wall than to be a shepherd in the field, to study and speak the word of the Lord? Is that perhaps what Paul is saying to Timothy?

These are honest questions. And I know the answer is probably more both/and than either/or, but I do wonder if we run the risk of usurping the role of Jesus when we see ourselves primarily as shepherds.

The lepers of Samaria

I was reading in 2 Kings last night when I came across a story I had forgotten from previous journeys through this book. In 2 Kings 7:3-20, we learn the story of the lepers of Samaria.

The background is this. The city of Samaria, the capital of the divided kingdom of Israel, is under siege and conditions have gotten bad. People are eating anything they can find, including their own children. (2 Kings 6:24-29). In the midst of the famine, the prophet Elisha declared that within 24 hours, wasting and famine would be replaced by abundance and plenty. The officials of Samaria did not believe such a thing was possible.

The story turns then to four men with leprosy who sat at the gate of the city. They were desperate. They decided together to go over to the enemy camp of the besieging army. If the enemy took them in, they would not starve. If the enemy killed them, they would no longer be suffering and dying.

When they got to the enemy camp, though, they discovered it empty of people but full of food and treasure. The Lord had set the enemy to flight. They had fled in panic leaving behind all their provisions and treasures. Alone in the midst of this bounty, the lepers went from tent to tent, feasting and gathering up treasures, until a thought struck them.

“Then they said to each other, ‘What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report to this to the royal palace.’” (2 Kings 7:9)

It is a fascinating story, and I have left many interesting bits out. Go read it yourself if you like. Here are a few stray thoughts that it stirred up in me.

First, the lepers played a crucial role in the revelation of the hidden good news. These men were outcasts and desperate. There really is nothing noble in what they did, but in the midst of their desperation, they were the only ones to venture across to the hostile camp where good news was waiting for them. There is a truth here about us. When we are at the edge life or death, we can be driven to discover good news that was waiting for us all along.

Second, those inside the city were trapped by their fear, the false security of their walls, and their unbelief in the providence of God. Even after the lepers reported what they had found, the leaders were terrified of a trap and slow to hear the good news.

Third, good news must be shared. If the lepers had feasted and reveled alone while the starving city close by suffered on, they would have been fit for punishment. Holding on to the good news for our own joy and need is wrong. This is a tale about the necessity of evangelism, perhaps?

I’m sure there is more treasure in this story than I have unearthed, but reading it last night was one of those moments where the joy of reading the Bible came to me again. Read your Bible prayerfully. Ask God to teach and shape your life by the Word. You will discover good news lying hidden there in its pages.

Trying to figure out how to think about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner

I fear opening up a firestorm here, but I am at a loss.

I’ve seen all the coverage of Bruce Jenner deciding he should be called Caitlyn Jenner and how far Jenner has gone to cut, slice, and reshape his body. According to one story, Jenner has had facial surgery, surgery to reduce his Adam’s apple, and breast augmentation but has not had surgery on his genitals.

From a non-Christian stance, I don’t understand why this is seen as a reasonable thing to do rather than as a form of mental illness. This 2004 article about why John Hopkins stopped doing sex re-assignment surgery comes down on the side of mental illness. This 2014 piece in the Wall Street Journal by the same author — the former head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins — cites research studies and argues that people such as Jenner should be getting treatment rather than surgery.

I know there are whole fields of social science and social theory dedicated to the proposition that sex and gender are socially constructed ideas, and advocates of these theories reject the kinds of arguments made by the psychiatrist above. (Here is one example of such a rebuttal.)

Shifting back to Christian concerns, I know as well that the theory of the social construction of knowledge is based on the theories of atheist philosophers such as Karl Marx and Michel Foucault and rejects the idea that their is any truth beyond what humans agree is truth. In other words, the theories of gender at the base of most of culture’s conversation about sex and sexuality are at their foundation antithetical to the idea God exists and that God’s truth might be something beyond and above our comprehension. Those foundations make me resist the counsel of such theories.

I’m only beginning to try to grapple with this. The Bible appears to me to be pretty clear in its view that male and female are categories of creation. I don’t see any support for the notion that we can choose what we are. So even as the entire culture celebrates and applauds, I have a hard time avoiding the conclusion that Jenner’s suffering requires something other than a scalpel, a lifetime of hormone injections, and a new TV show.

What do you think?

What the Bible says about female clergy

Ben Witherington III from Asbury seminary shares an old post he wrote aimed at all the common arguments why women should not be clergy or leaders in churches.

The post goes into a fair amount of detail and exegesis. It serves as a caution against assuming we understand everything in the Bible. If you find the post too dense, I suggest you pick up some of Witherington’s books. I’ve found them to to be excellent and his insights into the New Testament always valuable.

Of course, there are people who disagree with Witherington’s argument on the issue of women in leadership. I am persuaded by his case, though. And I am grateful that it is made without declaring the Bible — or Paul — simply wrong or outdated.

Here’s how he ends this blog post:

As I have learned over many years…. the problem in the church is not strong and gifted women. We need all those we can get, and were it not for them, many churches would have closed long ago. I remember so vividly meeting the babooshkas– the grandmothers in the Moscow Baptist Church, who had stopped Stalin from closing the church by standing in the door and not letting his troops enter and close it down. Thank God for strong, gifted women in the church. No, the problem in the church is not strong women, but rather weak men who feel threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even by dubious exegesis to prohibit them from exercising their gifts and graces in the church.

Making sense of bucket three

United Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton was gracious enough to engage in a Twitter exchange with me recently, which given all the important things he has to do is likely not the best use of his time.

Hamilton has a proposed a principle of biblical interpretation that appears to have a lot of support in our denomination. In a nutshell, he argues that texts in the bible can be sorted into three different categories or “buckets.” In the first bucket are all the texts that truly reflect the eternal will and character of God. In the second bucket are the texts that reflect the will of God in a certain time and place but no longer apply to our different context. In the third bucket are texts that never reflected the will or character of God.

For quite a long time, much of the church has recognized the existence of the first two buckets. It is a Christian commonplace that the coming of Jesus Christ changed the relationship between human beings and the law of the Old Testament. The way I’ve seen of talking about this is to say that the law could be divided into three categories — civil, ceremonial, and moral — and only the third is still binding today. This view is reflected in the language of the United Methodist Articles of Religion’s discussion about the Old Testament, for instance.

This two bucket approach is not reserved for the Old Testament alone. Scholars have also argued that some of what authors such as Paul argue in their epistles are similarly meant for a particular audience in a particular place and should not be taken as eternal decrees binding forever on the church. There is a lot to argue there, but the principle that some of Bible is directed at a particular context or problem is not widely disputed.

So, I have no problem with the first two buckets.

What has caused me trouble since I first read about Hamilton’s three buckets approach is that third bucket.

I don’t have a problem with saying that some of the verses in the Bible do not reflect the will and character of God. For instance, the men demanding Lot throw his daughters out in the street to be raped are not speaking on behalf of God. But that is not Hamilton’s point. What he argues is that there are some passages in Scripture that claim to represent the will and character of God but do not. We might say they are mistakes or lies or fabrications or even blasphemy.

One thing that is not clear to me is how we should fill up this third bucket. I posted a question to that effect on Twitter and eventually Hamilton graciously responded with a few tweets:

In Hamilton’s book on the Bible and elsewhere he argues that we should use Jesus Christ as a kind of filter to help us read the Old Testament. Based on what we know of Jesus, we screen out parts of the Old Testament that don’t fit with our understandings of Christ’s character.

I have no standing to argue with Hamilton, and so do not wish to frame what I’m about to write as an argument. It is more my testimony, a discussion of why I find this whole third bucket concept troubling. Clearly, there are a large numbers of United Methodists who do not share my struggles, so hear this for what it is, one imperfect man’s difficulty.

I’m not sure how to rank my struggles, so in not particular order, they go like this.

The Trinitarian Concern: At my most recent meeting with my supervisory committee, the first question they asked me was to explain the Trinity in three minutes or less. I’m sure my answer left something to be desired, but I passed the test. The one sentence summary is that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one. I don’t know how to use Jesus as a filter to read the Old Testament without dividing the Trinity against itself. I believe that Hamilton would say we are not dividing the Trinity but using the clearest revelation of the nature of God to strain out the imperfect or mistaken pictures of God. But I can’t make my brain do that because our Trinitarian claim is that every action of God in the Old Testament was an action taken by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Old Testament is just as clear about the character of God as the New. When God called for vengeance on the Midianites in Numbers 31, the pre-incarnate Christ was the one calling for that. That is just as much a revelation of Jesus Christ as the Sermon on the Mount.

The Lack of Imagination Concern: Some of the candidates for the third bucket get there because we can’t understand or imagine God doing some of things that the Bible says God does or did. To be completely frank here, I don’t think my imagination is a good standard by which God should be judged. If things that I could not imagine happening were used to throw texts out of the Bible a lot of what Jesus did would have to be ripped out of our New Testament. When my imagination becomes a box into which God must fit, I get a God no larger than my imagination. That is an idol, one I’d rather not depend upon.

The Pretty Full Bucket Concern: If Numbers 31 outrages us so much that we say it must be a lie about who God is, what do we do with the Exodus? Let’s be clear about this. In the Exodus, God killed thousands of children and babies. Do we third bucket that, too? Numbers 31 is a fairly obscure chapter. The Exodus is central to the story of all the Bible. That whole Passover celebration was precisely in response to the death that God unleashed on the Egyptians. Passover does some important theological work for Christians, too. If we take out every chapter and verse of the Bible that shocks us, how much will be left for the first two buckets?

So how do I answer Hamilton’s questions in his tweets?

The only answer I have is that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and I am not. I do not understand how the Son could command the death of children and also die on a cross for the sins of the world. I don’t understand that, but in the end I think that is my problem not God’s.

I know that answer is not very persuasive to “thinking Christians” or skeptical non-believers. It does not make the Bible more reasonable or attractive. It does not make it easier for me to explain God in a way that won’t offend people. Since I’m still trying to break out of the sin of seeking to please people, it would be easier for me if I could toss stuff that confuses and scares me in the third bucket, but I simply don’t know how to do that and say what remains deserves the respect and attention of our congregations.

I’m not prepared to start tossing parts of the Bible in the third bucket. I do not know how I could do that and still stand up every Sunday and preach from the Bible. Personally, I could not do that.

The sting of Amos

I wanted to share some observations from reading the Book of Amos this week.

Amos opens with a litany of sins of the peoples. Damascus has threshed Gilead. Gaza and Tyre have taken whole communities captive and sold them to Edom. Edom — the land of Esau’s descendants — has taken the sword against its brother (Jacob’s people). Ammon has “ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead.” Moab has burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king.

The particular accusations are likely worth careful study, but we see a litany of sins related to war against the people of Israel and Judah, and even against their brothers the Edomites.

Amos then moves on to list the sins of Judah and Israel. Judah has rejected the law of Yahweh, not kept the Lord’s decrees, and been led astray by false gods. Israel has sold the innocent for silver and the needy for sandals, trampled the heads of the poor, denied justice to the oppressed, engaged in profane sexual relations, refused to return garments taken in pledge, and gotten drunk in the house of God on wine taken as fines.

I’m not sure if Amos’ charges against Judah reflect a protest against the Davidic kingdom and temple or the more usual complaints of Baalism. In Amos 6:5 the prophet appears to take a jab at David and the luxury of his kingdom, so I don’t know if these accusations against Judah might reflect the tensions between the two kingdoms. In any event, the criticisms of Judah are remarkably different from the complaints against Israel, which the prophet repeats and deepens in chapter 5.

Here the list includes: turning justice into bitterness, casting righteousness to the ground, hating the one who upholds justice in the court, detesting the one who tells the truth, levying straw taxes on the poor, taxing the grain of the poor, oppressing the innocent, taking bribes, and depriving the poor of justice in the courts.

Amos lashes out at the leaders who indulge themselves in luxury and care little for the poor and weak. He mocks their outward piety. One of my favorite verses is 5:14:

Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.

That “just as you say he is” hits with a zing. I don’t think it should hit us with any less force than it hit Israel.

In 8:11, the prophet famously warns about coming drought of the hearing of the word of God among the people. Yahweh has attempted to discipline them with crop failures, lack of rain, and plague, but they have not turned from their evil ways. So, now they will be deprived of the very word of God. I have always taken this to be reference to the killing and carrying off of the religious elites and the prophets by invading kingdoms.

As I reflect on the church today, I wonder how we might hear Amos’ warning. In Amos the neglect and oppression of the poor and weak leads to a loss of the word. Retreat to empty ritual and blind luxury robs the people of God’s presence.

As the churches commonly known as the mainline have lost contact with the poor and the weak, I wonder if that has placed us under the judgement of Amos’ prophecy. Could it be that our struggle to grasp and proclaim the Word authentically and with power is the product of our treatment of the poor? Is God with us? Or is that merely something we are saying to ourselves?