Thursday, May 31, 2012

Accusations & Honor

We stumble dangerously into anachronisms if we lose sight of the fact that the Apostle Paul writes to real people, in real churches, at a definite time in history, dealing with real and pressing situations as the church sought to find its way in representing the kingdom of God while standing against the forces, though defeated by the cross and by the Resurrection, that sought to infiltrate and destroy the people of God---attempting to destroy the church’s ability to stand as witness to its sovereign Lord.  When we take the honor and shame competition of the day into consideration as we read Paul’s first letter to Timothy, while also considering the possibility that in all of his talk concerning overseers, deacons, and widows, that Paul has certain problematic individuals in view, we can move helpfully away from reading this letter solely as some tractate concerning church discipline, and instead read it as a clarion call to a church, through the apostle’s emissary, to continue to align itself with kingdom ideals, seeking the way of the cross and of shame, as all honor accrues to Jesus. 

Bringing honor into focus, and remembering that the activity of the church is designed to ultimately increase Jesus’ honor in the court of public opinion (honoring the man that suffered what was known as the greatest shame, which is a truly radical notion), we hear Paul say “Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching.  For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his pay.’” (5:17-18)  It does not seem unreasonable to propose that Paul has himself in view here in this section of the letter.  One could surmise that Paul is answering accusations that have been leveled against him, as self-defense is a semi-regular feature of the Pauline library.  Most assuredly, the quotation from the twenty-fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, in regards to the ox, is not Paul finding a proof-text in regards to being paid for his teaching, with pay becoming equivalent to “double honor,” nor should it be construed as such.  Rather, the entire section from Deuteronomy must be considered, and the context on offer is that of adjudication. 

There we read “If controversy arises between people, they should go to court for judgment.  When the judges hear the case, they shall exonerate the innocent but condemn the guilty.  Then, if the guilty person is sentenced to be a beating, the judge shall force him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of blows his wicked behavior deserves.  The judge may sentence him to forty blows, but no more.  If he is struck with more than these, you might view your fellow Israelite with contempt.  You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain” (25:1-4).  So the statement about the ox is connected to controversy, judgment, exoneration, sentencing, and the carrying out of a sentence.  If Paul is indeed referencing himself as the elder who provides effective leadership, then he is also demanding the double honor of just treatment.  Why should he receive anything less?  Though he is willing to suffer for his children, he will not be subject to unfounded accusations. 

At the same time, we know Paul does not demand honor for himself, especially considering the fact that he writes things like “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man” (1:13a), while also referring to himself as the worst of sinners (1:15,16).  He is happy to shame himself, with this self-shaming serving as a functional groundwork for what is to come, but he is not about to put up with slander and attacks, which, if we see Paul as the elder, seems to be implied.  Perfectly in line with the Deuteronomy reference, and in another Deuteronomy quotation, Paul goes on to write “Do not accept an accusation against an elder unless it can be confirmed by two or three witnesses” (5:19).   Of course, the possibility continues to exist that the elder is not, in fact, Paul referring to himself in the abstract, and that there is another problem in the church, which also runs back to the idea that this is not to be viewed firstly as words that establish church doctrine, but as words to be understood inside a historical and cultural situation that can, after appropriate processing, be applied as an operative principle for the church at large.    

Widows (part 3 of 3)

Continuing what has turned out to be a rather lengthy dissertation on widows (a normally dismissed and marginalized segment of the populace---Paul’s extensive treatment of widows should tell us quite a bit about the way the church should operate), Paul goes on to write “So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us” (5:14). From whence might this vilification arise?  It could arise from younger widows “going around from house to house,” learning to be lazy, while also being “gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not.”  The directive to marry, raise children, and manage a household fits well with that which Paul also says about overseers and deacons.  The overseer “must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity” (3:4).  Likewise, “Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households” (3:12).

To the avoidance of vilification, Paul adds “For some have already wandered away to follow Satan” (5:15).  Here, he still writes about widows.  Lest we think that Paul is specifically singling out widows, or that he is calling out women in general for being gossips and busybodies, we can readily see that the same type of language has already been on offer in his talk of overseers.  We must not allow ourselves to think that Paul is being overly harsh with the women of the body of Christ.  Rather, we must hear him within the context of his efforts at leveling out the church, realizing that Paul believes that all classes of people are to be treated equally. 

Whenever our initial reading of a passage leads us to believe that Paul is placing general restrictions on a class of people in such a way that could lead to the structuring of spiritual hierarchies, to the demeaning or restricting of a group based on ethnicity (Jew/Gentile), gender (male/female---especially the passages about women being silent in the church), or social status (slave/free/widow/children), or the erection of a spiritual authoritarianism inside the church, it serves us well to re-read and re-think the text until our conclusion concerning the text accords with the egalitarian nature of the church as it was envisioned by Paul (as he attempted to live out and encourage what he understood to be the mission and vision of the church as enacted by Jesus and informed by the prophets).  Paul demands to be heard in his historical and cultural context, as the church found itself attempting to countermand, through the manifestation of the Spirit of God, the spirit of death that animated the world into which the church had been placed and out of which it had been called, that it may serve that world well (a bit of the paradoxical mystery of the faith---called out to be separate so that it may serve and transform, functioning as the kingdom of God and being the point of overlap between heaven and earth---the Temple---as an ongoing foretaste of the new creation and restoration of the earth).    

So as we consider whether Paul is being heavy-handed with groups of women, we can look to the third chapter and read “He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact.  And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap” (3:6-7).  This has followed from “But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God?” (3:5), which has followed the fourth verse and talk of managing a household, controlling children, and maintaining dignity.  Remember, we need to be looking for Paul’s efforts at leveling out the body, in contrast to the culture, rather than setting up hierarchies.  

Taken together then, not only do the words sound very similar to that which is spoken of widows (“for some have already wandered away to follow Satan”), but combined with the need to be well thought of by those outside the faith, we can here sense a prohibition against being a gossip or a busybody, about being lazy, and about going from house to house talking about things they should not.  There’s no reason to believe that this is somehow the exclusive domain of women.  If this is what will give the adversary the opportunity to vilify the church when such activities are undertaken by the widows (those normally dismissed by the wider culture), how much more then when the overseers of the meal table---the ones who would naturally be looked upon with as leaders of the assembly by the surrounding world (though they do not hold a formal position)---engage in the same.  Concurrently, we can notice that the same words are not applied to deacons.  This is understandable, because as table servants, they would not be accorded the same type of respect by those outside the church as would the meal overseer, though those who serve are accorded the highest honor within the church.  Such is the nature of Paul’s witness to the church, as he always has his eye on the church’s interaction with the culture, and its need to be a counter-balance to the stifling of true humanity that takes place in the cultures that do not bow the knee to the Lordship of Jesus.

Finally, rounding out his words for Timothy and the church in regards to widows, having given this group a seemingly inordinate amount of attention, Paul writes “If a believing woman has widows in her family, let her help them.  The church should not be burdened, so that it may help the widows who are truly in need” (5:16).  While Paul’s words clearly operate at a level that allows the church for all time to ascertain direction and ideals, one can’t help but believe that Paul has some specific people in mind here as he writes.  We have little reason to think otherwise, and we have even less reason, considering the fact that Paul is dealing with specific situations that have arisen in the church letters, to imagine that Paul is suggesting guidelines to be applied to the church universally and for all time.  What should get our attention, when considering how to apply these words of Paul, are the counter-cultural elements and the implications for service within the church and the church’s interaction with the world. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Widows (part 2 of 3)

In contrast to the widow that has children or grandchildren, “the widow who is truly in need, and completely on her own, has set her hope on God and continues in her pleas and prayers night and day” (5:5).  As part of the non-romanticizing of widows, on the other hand, “the one who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (5:6).  Here, it is necessary to make a further point about honor and shame, in that shame was equivalent to death.  So an interesting construct has been created.  Paul insists that widows that are truly in need be honored, which will include her receiving the support of the church body and their meeting all of the necessities of her life, which is contrary to cultural norms.  This has been tempered with a call to duty for children and grandchildren of widows to live sacrificially, in accordance with the demands that God has placed upon His covenant people.  Paul then revisits the widow that is truly in need, who should be on the receiving end of the honor that would not normally come to her, pointing out that part of her commendation stems from her continuation in pleas and prayers, contrasting that with the widow concerned only with the pursuit of pleasure (Epicureanism?), who is already dead (shameful).    

To this is added, “Reinforce these commands, so that they will be beyond reproach” (5:7)---reproach being a term of honor versus shame, as conceptions of honor and shame are reworked and appropriately retooled within the church.  Though the church community will not be structured by perceptions and assignments of honor and shame, Paul very much desires the community of the covenant of faith to develop new and revolutionary ideas in regards to that which is truly honorable and deserving of honor, and of that which is shameful and deserving of shame.  To that end, he insists that “if someone does not provide for his own, especially his own family, he has denied the faith,” the mark of the covenant that is calling Jesus Lord, with all that is implied thereby, “and is worse than an unbeliever” (5:8).  For the body of Christ, there could be no greater source of shame.    

Having placed new parameters around honor and shame, especially concerning widows and the response to widows, Paul then goes on to present his thoughts concerning the same in a way that is not entirely dissimilar to what he has done earlier in the letter with overseers and deacons.  In a sense then, it is almost as if Paul is creating “widows” as a position in the church, which he knows will result in the appropriate amount of honor coming their way.  Again, this stands in opposition to the culture, which was generally dismissive of widows, and which left widows to what was going to be a harsh and miserable existence.  So,  just as Paul has offered directives concerning the role and the requirements pertaining to overseers and deacons, he does the same for widows.  To that end, we read “No widow should be put on the list unless she is at least sixty years old” (5:9a), which would be quite old in a day and age in which life expectancy was much, much lower.  This restriction is extended, as Paul adds, “was the wife of one husband, and has a reputation for good works” (5:10a), which is the language of public benefaction, extends beyond service in the church, and does not carry any connotation whatsoever in relation to performance-based righteousness or the attainment of salvation, “as one who has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of saints, helped those in distress---as one who has exhibited all kinds of good works” (5:10b).  This should give each of us pause, causing us to question our own efforts towards that which is here defined as good works (as it matches up well with the words and actions of Jesus), especially as Paul makes the point of using “good works” twice in relation to these things.

In contrast, Paul adds the instruction to “not accept younger widows on the list,” presumably those concerned with pleasures, “because their passions may lead them away from Christ and they will desire to marry, and so incur judgment for breaking their former pledge” (5:11).  Clearly, with these harsh words, Paul has specific individuals in mind, much like was probably the case with the restrictions placed around the qualifications for overseers and deacons.  Talk of the widows that have been the wife of only one husband, combined with this talk of desire to marry and judgment for the breaking of pledges, dovetails with Paul’s insistence that overseers and deacons be the husband of only one wife, and should probably not be read in isolation from each other.  Taken together, all of this lends itself to the idea that there were certain individuals in the church that were attempting to elevate themselves or to create a hierarchy within the church, and Paul would not have this in the church of Christ.  With such things in mind, we can hear Paul continue his condemnatory words, not speaking in generalities in the least, and writing “besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not” (5:13).  Apparently, Paul is attempting to shame somebody, as this is a far cry from “one who has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of saints, helped those in distress---as one who has exhibited all kinds of good works.”     

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Widows (part 1 of 3)

In the fifth chapter of the first letter from Paul to Timothy, we come to an issue that is near to the heart of God, which is that of widows.  The Hebrew Scriptures---the words that reveal the character of God, and which must be viewed through the event of the incarnation and the cross---are filled with words that speak to God’s concern for widows.  Widows, along with orphans, were among the most vulnerable members of society, and the mark of the people of God was their proper care of widows (and orphans, though we’ll ultimately limit ourselves to widows for the sake of the treatment of Timothy).  Indeed, it could be said that a driving force behind the judgments of God that rained down upon His people through the instrumentation of Assyria and Babylon, was Israel’s treatment of the groups of people to whom God had directed them to offer special concern and consideration.  This group included widows.  Therefore, we should not be surprised to find the issue of widows treated in the New Testament, as the church of the Christ sought to find its way in a culture that was quite dismissive of widows as those that had no place in the honor system, who were relegated to the margins of society, and whose existence, by and large, was going to be meager at best. 

God’s passionate concern for widows, as revealed in the narrative tradition that was foundational for the covenant faith of Israel, is best summed up by James, as in the context of the early church’s grappling with the continuation of that narrative tradition and the re-shaping of that covenant faith around Jesus as Lord, he writes “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune” (1:27a).  This has an added benefit of making it possible “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27b).  There is a tendency to see this as a statement with a double directive, with the first directive concerning achieving a pure and undefiled religion being caring for orphans and widows, while the second directive is keeping oneself unstained by the world.  Perhaps this is a false division?  Perhaps it is time that Christians saw this as directive and consequence---action and reaction?  Perhaps this statement by James follows hard on the directives and examples of the Hebrew Scriptures?  Israel failed to care for the orphans and the widows, and therefore they became stained by the world around them.  Had they cared for the orphans and the widows, and kept that at the center of their covenant-keeping, such staining would not have taken place.    

At the same time, Paul does not romanticize widows, and does not unduly elevate them, as he still stresses the equality of the church and the need for all to be treated equally---this was the counter-cultural corrective to the usual treatment of widows.  It stands written: “Honor widows who are truly in need” (5:3a).  Unsurprisingly, Paul commences with the use of “honor” language.  As we know, this goes far beyond treating them deferentially or simply respecting them, as talk of honoring widows affords them a status (a status that is to be shared by all, as all honor would ultimately be directed to the Lord that has subjected Himself to the greatest shame) which they would be unable to attain outside of the church.  This is balanced with the “in need,” as Paul keeps the unity of the church body in view, always cognizant of the fact that the scale, owing to the social conditioning that is a component of human nature, can often be tipped too far to one side, with widows being afforded honor that is quickly converted to rank, status, and special privilege. 

The “in need” is followed up with “if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty towards their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them” (5:4a).  Here we note the mention of “their own household,” which is a contrast with the church body, which, owing to the fact that the gatherings of the church took place in private homes around a common meal, would be often referred to as a “household.”  Though there would be no honor involved in caring for a widowed mother or grandmother, and especially because there would be sacrifice on the part of the children and the grandchildren, it is insisted upon that “this is what pleases God” (5:4b).  Speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity indeed. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Affirming Creation (part 2 of 2)

On the other end of the philosophical spectrum against which Hebraic thought competed and which also was a dominant force in the world into which Christianity and its Hebrew-rooted, Resurrection-of-Christ-based claims concerning God’s rule and renewal of His once-good creation was introduced, stood the school of Epicureanism.  As part of its ethos of de-confirming the world and the value of the created order, in favor of the spiritual, it ironically suggested an attachment to the world in which one found oneself, making the most of what was, ultimately, an existence of futility.

The essence of its teaching called for a devotion to the pursuit of personal happiness which led to the avoidance of pain.  This was not a call to a complete hedonism, as an absolute hedonism could eventually lead to suffering, which was obviously to be avoided.  Rather, life was to be spent pursuing pleasure primarily through food, drink, and sexual union (let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die), with peace of mind being achieved through this particular model that was labeled as virtuous.  Clearly, this philosophy rejects the idea that there is a grand narrative into which humans have been inserted and in which they play a part, which is a component of the disavowal of the inherent goodness of the created order.  The created order is only good insofar as it is a means to experience pleasure during this exceedingly short sojourn of physical existence.  Upon death, the person, both body and soul, would dissolve and existence would cease.  Again, clearly, this leaves no room for resurrection.  The dissolution of the person, in body and in soul, continues to lend itself to the idea that there is no ultimate value to the physical.  Consequent to this outlook on life and death, a famous epicurean statement is “Death is nothing to us.”

If there was a sustained reflection on the afterlife, and given the remote possibility that the soul lived on (with no concern for the body), it was determined that the gods would pay little attention to deceased humanity, as they lived in a separate sphere of existence that did not touch the sphere of human existence, and were unconcerned with human affairs.  The gods, to the epicurean way of thinking, were completely absorbed with their own pursuit of pleasure, which could be looked upon as an example of fashioning gods in our own likeness.  Conversely, and more positively as it relates to what should be the Christian response to what is believed about the entity to which Christians look as God, this could serve as a sterling inducement to living one’s life in imitation of what one believes to be the case concerning the gods. 

It was routinely believed that the gods would only bring ruination to their blessed condition if they took it upon themselves to interfere, at any level, with human affairs.  So for the most part, the gods stood as examples of how to go about living a happy life.  This way of thinking, with its obvious self-imposed limitations, can be quite useful for the Christian.  Subtracting the lack of interaction with humanity from this point of view, the foundational belief that the Creator God of the universe manifested Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, revealing Himself and His character through His ministry and His cross, and erecting those things as the lens through which He must be subsequently viewed and understood and revealed by His worshipers to the world, is an example that, if followed, most assuredly leads to what will ultimately be defined as a happy and virtuous life.     

Without commanding assent, and certainly eschewing dogmatism at this point, as we attempt to discover the multi-level counter-cultural sensibilities on offer in this first letter to Timothy, this information about both Stoicism and Epicureanism becomes useful background noise as we listen to what comes next in the fourth chapter.  Building on the statement that “every creation of God is good,” which led us to our examination of this component of the religious and philosophical culture of the day, we read “By pointing out such things to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, having nourished yourself on the words of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed” (4:6).  We now tune in to the underlying tension between the physical and the spiritual---between the creation-affirming Christian worldview and its opposites, hearing “But reject those myths fit only for godless and gullible, and train yourself for godliness.  For ‘physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way.  It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.’” (4:7-8)  Notice the talk of value and the dual emphasis on this life and the life to come.  Paul continues: “This saying is trustworthy an deserves full acceptance.  In fact this is why we work hard and struggle” (4:10a).  Why?  Why work hard and struggle?  Many in that time would affirm that such is pointless.  Paul says it is “because we have set our hope on the living God” (4:10b), that being the God that represented the overt over-lapping of heaven and earth, and who was physically resurrected into this world, “who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers” (4:10c). 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Affirming Creation (part 1 of 2)

In the fourth chapter of the first letter to Timothy, we find Paul stating that “every creation of God is good” (4:4a).  With such words, the Apostle reaches back to the opening words of the Scriptural narrative, affirming the words that close out the first chapter of Genesis, which are “God saw all that He had made---and it was very good!” (1:31a)  We may think that such a statement is hardly revolutionary, but in the Greco-Roman world, it was.  Now, before ascertaining the counter-cultural character of this particular statement, which we can hear alongside the declaration of God’s creation being very good, we do recognize that this is not an assertion made in isolation.  Paul has written “Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared.  They will prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.  For it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer” (4:1-5). 

What Paul has in mind as these things are written, and the issues to which he addresses himself by these words, are not relevant to this study.  Even though the statement about every creation of God being good does not stand alone, and asks to be heard in context, it is also possible to hear Paul operating on multiple levels of communication.  Though he may be directly addressing a known issue within the church community, it is not preposterous to suggest that Timothy, along with those that will hear this letter, will pick up on statements that may be directed to wider cultural forces that could have a deleterious effect on the church of Christ. 

The Hebrew mindset, which affirmed God’s good creation, and, by and large, looked forward to God’s redemption of His people and His creation---expecting that which defaced His good creation (death) to be defeated and removed and anticipating a resurrection of the righteous dead into a restored world that will once again be pronounced as very good (a hope that was rightly carried over into Christianity)---stood in opposition to two major, highly influential, and, when it comes to the Greco-Roman world, nearly universally adhered to religious/philosophical “schools” of the day, which were that of “Stoicism” and Epicureanism.”  Regardless of which god(s) one worshiped in that day, be it the Caesar or any other deity, one’s religious tendencies could be colored by one of the two philosophical bents.  Naturally, those who worshiped Jesus as Lord and God, could fall into the same patterns.  Undoubtedly, as we shall see, this is something against which Paul wanted to be on guard.    

Plato, with his teaching about “forms,” in which (though this is much simplified) all earthly things were merely imperfect forms of that which existed in the heavenly realms, greatly influenced both the stoic and the epicurean approaches to life.  Essentially, the influential Platonic philosophy reduced all of life to the physical, which was bad, and to the spiritual, which was good.  Regardless of one’s particular philosophy, this would largely be the basis for one’s religious approach to life.  With this as a very shallow foundation, we can proceed to learn about these ideologies. 

According to stoicism, one’s life was to be spent gaining mastery over one’s passions and responses, cultivating the attitude of indifference, and aligning oneself with the cosmic force that was ultimately determinative of the events of one’s life, which could be observed in the harmonious operations of nature.  In conflict with the Hebrew position that humans were created in God’s image, and a celebration of the God-like attributions of humanity, stoicism sought to suppress human emotions.  This would lead to the attainment of virtue, which was observed as a detachment from all worldly concerns.  At death then, in accordance with the negative view of the physical world and its concerns, it was believed that the body would separate from the soul, existing momentarily in independence before being absorbed into the universal divine force that was known as “logos.”  Accordingly, the supreme god was not personal in any sense at all, and was to be identified in the orderliness of creation, much like a painter is identified by his paintings.  Stoic belief, though based upon the presupposition that the natural world is inferior, can be identified as a monotheistic pantheism, which looks at everything within the natural order as being part of the one god.  Though this deification of nature appears to contradict the idea that the physical world is inferior, once we understand that the natural world is overlaid with the spiritual, therefore superseding the natural/physical component, it serves to demonstrate the consistency of the belief structure.  This, of course, stands in opposition to the Hebrew and subsequently Jesus-as-Messiah-based Hebrew (Christian) view of God and the world.          

Honor In The Church

In Acts, Luke tells the story of the ordination of a group that came to be referred to as deacons, and moves from that to the particular story of one of those men---a man by the name of Stephen.  Stephen, who is said to be “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5b), which was one of the requirements as suggested by the disciples, served admirably.  We go on to read that “Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (6:8).  As this performance of wonders and signs was undoubtedly linked to the fact of his service at the church’s meal table, and as it was owing to God’s special attention to widows as revealed by the Hebrew Scriptures, his service to widows must figure prominently in the Spirit’s growing presence in his ministry.  Might it also be presumed that the people wondered at what they were seeing from Stephen, which was his willful service to the least, eschewing both honor and shame?  While we are always transfixed on signs and wonders, looking to such things as the evidence of the Spirit’s working, the working of the Spirit is just as present and just as powerful when a widow is served.  When that widow is served in a way that stands in sharp distinction from the way that she would normally be treated by her culture, with somebody sacrificing their own honor and prestige, then that is just as great a wonder and sign of the in-breaking kingdom of God as would be someone being raised from the dead. 

However, rather than receiving honor and praise, Stephen was accused of blasphemy, of speaking against the Temple and Moses, and was ultimately sentenced to death, experiencing the pain and shame of stoning.  This was the honor that one could come to expect from being a deacon---a servant of the church’s table.  This is the example that Paul, if indeed he is the author of this letter, would have in mind when writing to Timothy concerning deacons.  As Paul would give his instructions concerning deacons, he would be unable to escape the weighty and terrible fact that he had been involved in the death that had come to Stephen.  How ironic that we are introduced to Paul at the death of the first person to be mentioned as a deacon of the church, and then here he is, years later, instructing Timothy in regards to the qualifications and conduct of deacons. 

As we read the words concerning deacons that are on offer in the first letter to Timothy, along with an underlying contemplation of the culture into which this position was introduced and against which it gravitated and stood as a counter-cultural witness in its revelation of the functioning of the kingdom of God, we should do so with Stephen in mind.  To that end, we hear that “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not two-faced, not given to excessive drinking, not greedy for gain, holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (3:8-9).  Truly, Stephen went to his death with great dignity, expressing a desire, like Jesus, that those taking his life be forgiven.  Not being given to excessive drinking would serve him well in his service of others.  Not being greedy for gain, which is fundamentally an honor proposition, would enable him to conscientiously take the lowest place.  His holding to the mystery of the faith, part of which was a reversal of the social order, in which the last become first and the first become last as a significant component of Jesus’ kingdom teaching, is demonstrated by willful service to those considered last, treating both first and last as equal in the eyes of God as they participate in God’s kingdom come to earth.  In a world defined by honor competition, these can be difficult propositions, which is why, with Timothy and the first set of deacons in mind, we can go on to read “And these also must be tested first and then let them serve as deacons if they are found blameless” (3:10). 

Why must they be tested?  In the kingdom, it is servants that were to be honored, rather than those being served.  Therefore, if this is rightly grasped by a congregation, there would be a significant temptation to give undue honor to those that serve, elevating the individual that serves rather than elevating the position of servant and ideal of service.  Accordingly then, a deacon would have to be willing to relegate the position if it became vested with honor, distancing himself from the undue honor that might be heading his way, and allowing another to take up the role.  In a way then, divesting oneself of the position of servant is a way of embracing shame.  This elevation of service as conducive to honor, as opposed to public speech acts such as speaking in tongues or words of wisdom and knowledge, could only take place in a community transformed by the re-shaping message of the Gospel. 

Going further, it is said “Likewise also their wives must be dignified, not slanderous, temperate, faithful in every respect.  Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households” (3:11-12).  As we saw with similar words said concerning overseers, this may very well be a way to specifically identify certain men that should not be considered for this position.  Why provide such limitation?  Would not the service serve to bring about what may be much-needed humility and change to such a person and to their family?  Though this may be a position held by an on-looker from outside the congregation, who sees the role of servant in opposition to the accrual of honor, this would not be so inside the church, as the taking of the role of servant at the table becomes that by which honor can be accrued.  A person that is not “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” may take advantage of this reversed situation, using it for their own advantage.  So in rounding out the treatment concerning deacons, with all of these thoughts in mind, we read “For those who have served well as deacons,” with service being the crux of the matter, “gain a good standing for themselves and a great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (3:13).  Truly then, honor and standing in the church come from service, though it is not an honor or a standing that should cause one believer to be set over another believer.  The boldness comes from taking the role of servant, living out the kingdom, and even experiencing, to an extent, as the surrounding community viewed a person of honor taking the role of a lowly servant, a portion of the shame that came the way of their Lord.    

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Deacons & Church Culture

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the meal for the church, as it is a vital component of the Jesus tradition, a defining aspect of culture, and combined with talk of food in the letters of the New Testament, a repetitive element in the conversation related to the life of the body of Christ.

Looking then to Acts, there is a complaint registered about the distribution of food.  What is the response to the complaint about the way that food is being distributed at the church’s gathering?  “The twelve called the whole group of disciples together and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables” (6:2).  Now, this could be a point of contention.  With the centrality of the meal assembly for the church, and the value placed on service by Jesus Himself, can the disciples rightly insist that this is the case?  Would it not be most appropriate, in following the example of their Lord, who came not to be served but to serve, for these disciples to do this very thing?  Could having a hand in the distribution of the food, which would mean their being the ones that served the food to the assembled church, possibly be conceived of as neglecting the word of God?  One might very well lament this response of the twelve, as its enshrinement in Scripture handily created what very well may have been a dichotomy between preaching and service that Jesus never intended, and furthering the construction of hierarchies within the church. 

Luke opens his account in Acts by stating that “I wrote the former account,” referring to the Gospel of Luke, “Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1).  Here, Jesus’ own disciples have opened up a disconnect between doing and teaching.  That divide becomes evident in our standard, contemporary reading of the letter to Timothy.  It is not evident because overseers and deacons, and the qualifications for such are discussed.  Rather, it is evident because we read “overseer” and think of an authority figure, doing the same with “deacon,” though obviously to a lesser extent.  Regardless, it is obvious that, owing to the proclamation and example of the disciples of Jesus, that the church quickly fell into these practical and hierarchical divisions, and these divisions immediately began to have honor assigned to them.  This is more than comprehensible, as humanity is prone to such things.

Since, unfortunately, they were not going to be waiting on tables, as they would later make clear that “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4), the disciples went on to say “But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task” (6:3).  One could say that here things went from bad to worse, as the disciples, prone to affectation by a culture that was almost completely dismissive of women (even though women had been charged with the initial proclamations concerning the Resurrection of Jesus), limited that which would become a hierarchical position in the church to men only.  One could say that, or one could look at it another way, realizing that they were not intent upon creating a spiritual hierarchy, as this was an unintended by-product brought about by a lack of faithfulness to the mission and vision of Jesus, and chose men specifically to serve at the church’s tables, giving them the responsibility of being sure that all shared equally in the food and drink on offer, because this is a job that would normally have fallen to women and to slaves.  Perhaps this is the genius of the disciples, but with so many of us set at such a distance from the culture of the day, we miss what is going on here.

Despite what could be viewed as the short-sightedness of the disciples with their statements about the ministry of the word of God and praying, and their setting that against their own taking up of the role of slaves at the church’s meal tables, the church prospered.  We read that “The proposal pleased the entire group” (6:5a).  Seven men were chosen as deacons (diakonous in the Greek, which means “servants”).  “They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands upon them” (6:6).  Not surprisingly then, with service at the root of the church’s witness, and men chosen specifically to serve food to widows (and all who came to the table, with no distinctions or divisions), “The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7).  With this success in mind, and this success much owing to the counter-cultural witness of servanthood by the ambassadors of the kingdom of God, we step back and ask if we could possibly imagine Jesus creating this division of labor.  While we stand in the stream of that Spirit-led success, can we dream about the church that may have developed had the very men that were looked to as the pillars and foundation of the church, been the ones that had served all, in full equality, at the church’s meal table?  What divisions may have been avoided had the church of Christ had this example from which to draw? 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Overseers (part 2 of 2)

Lest it be presumed that we are taking an unwarranted step by linking “overseer” with the meal assembly that was the regular setting of the gathering of the church in its earliest days, and lest it be deemed that we are putting too much weight on actions centered upon the meal as an effective counter-cultural witness, we are able to bolster our position by acknowledging the letter’s movement directly from “overseer” to “deacon.”  In verse eight of the third chapter we read “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not two-faced, not given to excessive drinking, not greedy for gain” (3:8).  This allusion to drinking cannot be looked upon as a general principle, plucked out of mid-air as an ideal.  Rather, it must be understood to be concretely connected to the eating and drinking of the church at its meal table.  That meal table, to be sure, in its arrangement and in the way it was conducted, as it was rooted in the meal culture that was foundational for society in general, and as it held to the witness of the meal tables of Jesus and the way in which He conducted Himself and spoke at those tables, was a powerful image of the kingdom that the Christians proclaimed, and of the God that was being honored and worshiped at the gatherings of their association.

Along with this, it is incumbent upon us to add to our investigation of the letter a perusal of the introduction of the “deacon” to the church.  To do so we have to look to the book of Acts.  Now, it is highly unlikely that Timothy had access to the book of Acts as we have it, but it is certainly plausible that Timothy would have been familiar with the story that described the advent of the position.  Since deacons are referenced, it is a given that the recipient of the letter did not need to have the position explained to him, being well aware of the “how” and the “why” of their function within the church.  So what was that function?  Why was the position in existence?  In the sixth chapter of Acts we find that “in those days,” which were some of the very earliest days of the church, “when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews” (6:1a).  Here, we have the all-too-familiar divide between Jew and Gentile within in the church, though it is somewhat masked by the fact that both sides of this divide were said to be Jews. 

What was the source of this particular division?  Division between the Gentiles that were Jews by conversion and those that were ethnic and national Jews came about “because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (6:1b).  This food-related divide is probably best illustrated by the experience that Paul recounts from his time in Antioch.  We find this record in Galatians, where Paul writes “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he has clearly done wrong.  Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (2:11-12).  What Paul describes in Antioch, which is from a time period after the events recorded here in chapter six of Acts, first played itself out within the church at an intra-Jew level before playing itself out at an intra-church (between Jew and Gentile, and between Gentile and Gentile) level.

Now, when we think about a daily distribution of food to widows, we probably have the idea of people going house to house, delivering meals to those that are shut-in, and who are too old and frail to serve themselves.  Though this may have been part of what was occurring, we must do our best to keep ourselves culturally and historically grounded, while also keeping the regular assembly around the meal table front and center.  We must also bear in mind that, due to much shorter life expectancies, these widows could have been relatively young.  Though we will later be dealing with this in greater detail, we get a glimpse of the treatment of widows in the letter to Timothy (thus causing the reference to widows in Acts have an even greater bearing on our study of Timothy), when Timothy is instructed that “no widow is to be put on the list unless she is at least sixty years old” (5:9a). 

As it relates to the physical capabilities of widows and to being sure that we are viewing them through an appropriate lens, Paul writes that there is a bit of a problem in widows “going around from house to house” (5:13a).  In response then, Paul’s directive is “I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us” (5:14).  More on this anon, but in that statement, widows are the “young women” and therefore the subject.  So again, we can put the idea of the frail, sickly, shut-in widow, who can barely lift her head or feed herself (though there were certainly some of these attached to the church), out of our minds, and see these widows referenced here in Acts as capable, perhaps vibrant members of the community, who are able to participate in the regular table gatherings of the church. 

That said, it is probable that it was at the coming together of the church, around a common meal, that these widows were being neglected in the distribution of food.  This sounds terribly like the situation that Paul addresses in Corinth, where he writes “when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it…  Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper.  For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper.  One is hungry and another becomes drunk.  Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink?  Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (11:18,20-22a)  The honor-based arrangements around the meal tables to which Jesus was regularly invited, and which He regularly criticized, were alive and well and being used at the meal tables of the church in Jerusalem.  Widows, as would have been quite common, were being neglected, relegated to the positions in which they were served last.   

Overseers (part 1 of 2)

Chapter three of the first letter to Timothy opens with “This saying is trustworthy: ‘If someone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work.’” (3:1)  What is this “office of overseer”?  The Greek word that is translated as “overseer” is “episcopes,” which is transliterated into “episcopate” and therefore “Episcopal,” which drives our thinking to the hierarchical church structures and the hierarchically structured church with which we are all quite familiar in our own day.  Though many of us may not be a part of a traditional, denominational church, it must be said that even non-traditional and non-denominational churches have authoritarian structures, whether implicit or explicit.  We must be careful to avoid the importation of anachronistic thinking, in which the position of “overseer” in question here in the letter to Timothy becomes equated with the person that oversees a church in the modern sense, whether that be a pastor, a bishop, an area supervisor, or any such similar idea.  This type of relatively rigid church structuring would not be a settled feature or widespread component of the first century church that gathered in private homes as a meal association that saw themselves as the ambassadors and harbingers of the kingdom of God, as a renewed humanity defined by their hope of resurrection, with worship of Jesus as God the focus of their meal-based assembly. 

A ready awareness that the church assembled around a common meal forces us to understand that this “overseer” was, more than likely, the person that presided over the meal.  This meal presidency, which was a familiar feature of Hellenistic meal practices, would rotate among a number of people.  Ideally, it would rotate amongst the entirety of the assembly, with each member of the body taking their turn to perform the role, but naturally, not everybody would feel comfortable in such a role.  Understandably then, those that undertook to serve in this capacity would be those that were comfortable presiding over meals, which would generally be those of higher social status, and who would be viewed as having more honor.  Understanding this, the last thing that Paul would want is for the socially accepted systems of honor to determine the functioning of the body of Christ, so certain expectations are set for those that will enter into this role. 

Paul writes that “The overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money.  He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity” (3:2-4).  If we put flesh and blood on these words, remembering that this is a letter to a real person, in a real church, full of real people, in a real community that functions according to the ideals of honor and shame, then this list of “requirements” appear to be a way to screen out those that would, according to accepted customs and practices of the wider community, normally be expected to preside over the meal assemblies of the church.  Indeed, there may be specific people in mind that are subtly addressed and ruled out as overseers by what is here insisted upon.  We may think this harsh, but the primary concern is the strengthening of the church body, and those who are possessive of honor outside the church are those that most need to understand the humility and the embracing of shame demanded by the kingdom of God.  One way to for such people to experience shame is for their honor to mean nothing inside the church. 

Conversely, it might very well be the case that Paul is less concerned with making sure that the most holy or least sinful person (by our popular and not overly helpful way of thinking) is overseeing the church’s gathering (again, this is not about an overseer in the way we are programmed to think), and more concerned that those that would normally be considered less honorable are the ones that take up this function, thus making the point that those that society considers to be more honorable are to be subject, at least inside the assembly that is supposed to represent the kingdom of God to those that are considered less honorable by that same society.  This subjection is not one of a heavy hand, but it is a subjection rooted in the counter-cultural egalitarianism of the church.  It is by these instructions then, the culture is countered, and Timothy and the church are forced to broaden their scope and manner of thinking. 

The directive is expounded upon, and we can be further convinced that there are, in fact, specific individuals in mind as we go on to read “But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God?  He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact.  And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap” (3:5-7).  It is helpful to look at these as being person-specific, directed towards an individuals or small group of individuals, rather than as ideals left up to subjective analysis.  Since we are not talking about pastors or church leaders in the traditional sense of the term or those that meet specific qualifications as determined by a council of elders, but rather, those that are overseeing the meal-based gathering of the church in the home of one of the believers, functioning as the host of the meal (with this rotating regularly so that one person does not accrue undue honor or prestige), we can glean the principle and make the application that is so very prevalent in the Pauline corpus, which is that of equality amongst believers and the need for the church to be strengthened, with self-sacrificial love and the preferring of one another (eschewing honor and embracing shame, as demanded by the cross) the transcendent ideal to be embodied in the assembly.  We can be assured that hierarchical structures, which, in that day, were thoroughly wrapped up in the very competition for honor that is rejected by the church of the crucified Messiah, is nowhere in sight in this treatment of the qualifications for those that aspire to the position of overseer. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Responsibilities To Kingdoms

When we think about the Christian’s responsibility to be an agent of change in countering the culture, it is almost inevitable that our first thoughts run to laws and to government.  In many ways, we are brought up to think in such ways, believing governments to be either the source of problems or of solutions to problems, and having an almost unshakeable desire to effect changes that we would like to see through the coercive power of laws and regulations.  We see governments as the locus of power for the enforcement of laws, and by extension, an entity that has the power to regulate behavioral changes.  This was probably just as true in the days of Paul and Timothy as it is now. 

As the church presented a counter-imperial and counter-cultural ethic, it would be quite easy for the members of the body of Christ, who saw themselves (and should still see themselves) as representative of a kingdom to which all other kingdoms are subservient, to slip into a mindset that being counter-imperial or counter-cultural also meant that they were to be anti-government, especially if that government was actively oppressive towards Christians.  It is quite understandable why their Roman rulers were suspicious of so many Christians, considering the fact that Christians claimed to serve a Lord that was far superior to the emperor, while at the same time affirming their loyalty to a kingdom that was not Rome.  It was one thing to maintain loyalty to tribal deities and to long-standing territorial power structures that could be taken advantage of by Rome as a means of preserving order and extending its reach, and which could stand side-by-side with Roman imperial ideology and worship, but it was quite another to take a position that ran contrary to that ideology that also served to discount the worship of Caesar, and even going so far as to place a criminal that was executed by Rome at the center of its worship and allegiance.  This was a direct affront to the power of Rome and to all community and civic sensibilities. 

Not only would the Roman governors look upon Christians with suspicious eyes, it would be difficult to doubt that Christians would happily return the favor.  While there is certainly an element of Christianity that rightly and responsibly challenges the power of governments, calls the world’s rulers to account, challenges arrogant actions and arrogations of power, and regularly holds up restraining hands that tell governments that “you go here and no further,” there is, of course, a legitimate role for governments.  For balance and a response, those same hands that are held up in attempts to restrain governments, insisting that it not go beyond its rightful place as the church says “we’ll take it from here,” are then to be turned outwards, arms extended wide to embrace and deal with the issues to which the church of Christ must address itself.   

Naturally, Paul recognizes the potential for unhelpful and unhealthy conflict between the members of the church and temporal powers.  Concordantly, he urges that ‘requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.  Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, since He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2:1a-4).  Though at one level this may appear to be an acquiescence, is it not an effective counter-cultural witness?  Christians, of course, are to be the greatest of earthly citizens because they are also citizens of the kingdom of heaven. 

Now, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Christians, who, owing to their “atheism” (because they did not worship the Roman gods or Caesar), their “cannibalism” (for the words that accompanied their communal meals), and their lack of participation at the temples (which were also the markets and the center of public activity) that was taken to portend a destruction of social cohesiveness, experienced persecution at the hands of governing authorities, would look upon those persecutors as their enemies.  Therefore, this prayer for all people, including kings and governing authorities, was a strict following of the teachings of Jesus, who demanded His disciples to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45a – realizing that Matthew was probably not in circulation and may not yet have taken the shape in which we have it at the time of the composition of the letter, and therefore, the passing along of the words of Jesus would have been based upon Paul’s knowledge of the Jesus tradition). 

These words reach a second level in the face of the Jew and Gentile divisions in Ephesus (and other cities whose churches may have been recipients of the letter now called Ephesians), with these divisions addressed in the second chapter of Ephesians.  The insistence that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” speaks to the lingering hesitation on the part of ethnic Israel to grant Gentiles status as full and legitimate members of the covenant people of God.  So while praying for those that may potentially be perceived or actually be enemies is counter-cultural, so too is Paul’s insistence that God wants all people groups to be saved (come under the provisions of His covenant), with this running counter to the Jewish culture that wanted to continue to reserve God’s blessings to Israel, and who attempted to enforce this restriction by insisting that Gentiles needed to adopt the covenant markers of Judaism (primarily circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath-keeping) to indicate their participation under God’s covenant. 

To this way of thinking, Paul insists that “there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at His appointed time” (2:5-6).  Therefore, it is faith in Jesus (fides/pistis/loyalty) that makes He and He alone the intermediary between God and man, rather than the works of the law (those previously mentioned covenant markers that then served to set God’s covenant people apart from all other peoples).  Just in case there may be a thought that this ongoing disputation between Jew and Gentile is a component of Paul’s address here when he makes mention of “all people,” we can look to what follows the sixth verse, which is “For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle---I am telling the truth; I am not lying---and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  So I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute” (2:7-8).     

Monday, May 21, 2012

Against The Grain (part 2 of 2)

These heralding words from the letter to the Ephesians, and the heralding words that are employed in the first letter to Timothy, are so much more than words that a client would use in honor of his patron.  They are words that, in that day, would be reserved for the honoring of the world’s patron (the patron of patrons), who was Caesar.  It serves as an indication to an alert listener or reader, that Paul, and those communities being formed around the claims of the Gospel, stand in opposition to much of the prevailing culture of the day, and are intended to be a transformative element within that culture.  This transformation will not occur through denouncing the surrounding culture as hell-bound, perverse, or any number of adjectives that do much to polarize and little to effect change.  While there is certainly a mystical power in the pronouncement that Jesus is Lord, we can certainly agree that the power is magnified if the life of the speaker accords with the claim.  This goes well beyond the avoidance of things that are determined to be “sins” or that which is to be avoided by Christians, having much more to do with an active engagement with the culture that demonstrates the Lordship of Jesus over every area of life. 

The pronouncement of condemnation on anything and everything that does not align with our personal viewpoints is hardly effective, and the condoning of such activities would have to be read into the Scriptures in a way that lacks context or coherence.  This approach would probably fail to take into account the historical movement of Scripture, the over-arching meta-narrative of exile and exodus by which the Scriptures ask to be read, and the covenant and covenant-people framework on offer throughout the whole of the Bible that defines the people of God and God’s mission in and for His world.  Attempts to use Jesus’ harsh words against the leaders of the people, His actions in the Temple, or the sharp words of the prophets and the apostles as justification for harshness or ugliness that is merely cloaked in the veil of a pseudo-love, would be to abuse and misuse those words and actions, especially considering the fact that the harshness is so often directed to God’s covenant people.  Though we can look through the prophets and certainly find words of God’s condemnation directed towards the nations that surrounded and often mistreated Israel, not only do we have to remember that such words were subsequent to God’s judgment of His people, but we also have to remember that God’s taking up of human flesh and going to a cross in order to die for His enemies (after telling His people to pray for and love their enemies) pretty much changes everything.   

Our distance from the text, both historically and culturally, especially for those of us in the western world, should lead us away from dogmatism in our engagement with our cultures, and towards a compassionate, inquisitive, and mercy-tinged engagement that recognizes our own shortcomings and lack of complete knowledge.  When we look at the New Testament, what we must see behind the text are communities that are struggling to come to terms with what is implied by the life of Jesus and the kingdom of God that has been inaugurated by His Resurrection, especially considering that said kingdom has been inaugurated in a way that was completely unexpected.  This struggle, which can be seen in the New Testament and in the records and writings of the early church, encouragingly informs us that there has never been a monolithic “orthodoxy” at any point in time in the history of Christianity.  Therefore, our own struggles, as we seek to come to terms with the message of Jesus and His kingdom so that we might effectively, correctly, and faithfully engage the cultures in which we find ourselves immersed, should inspire humility and a compassion for others, as we depend upon and attempt to reflect the compassion of our God.     

Condemnation, attempts at heavy-handed transformation, or a mission-denying withdrawal and separation are not the means by which either Paul or Jesus asked for or expected the culture to be countered.  Remember, Jesus saved his denouncements for the leaders of the people.  Rather, the culture is countered, and the  transformation into a culture that comes closer to living as the true humanity originally intended by the Creator, through the kingdom-modeling, sacrificial, love-motivated and service-oriented activities of the members of the body of Christ, as they demonstrably and tangibly live out, in imitation of Jesus, their claim that Jesus is Lord, and that He is Lord even over the Caesar that bears the title of “son of god.” 

What appearance will be taken by these activities?  Naturally, we can find the answer on nearly every page of Scripture.  We can look to the Jesus tradition as embodied by the Gospel accounts.  We can look at Acts.  When it comes to Paul, we can look at the entire body of work that is attributed to him in order to formulate an answer to this question.  We can look to a letter to Timothy, to whom Paul refers as his genuine child in the faith, seeing there what can be understood to be, regardless of Timothy’s “position” in the church, as a personally directed letter that demands a personal response of a single member of the body of Christ who is, presumably, attempting to live and to serve as part of a community that is yet one small component of a global kingdom.  Thus, realizing that there is a helpful counter-cultural message in the text of the letter, we may find the letter more useful than we previously imagined.   

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Against The Grain (part 1 of 2)

Paul did not wish to be viewed, on a human and cultural level, as either patron or client.  On a cosmic level things were different.  He had a patron and he was most certainly a client, and this impacted every area of life, while also going against the cultural grain of the Greco-Roman world.  This even went against the grain of his own culture, as the popular (generalized) opinion within the world of Israel was that when their God took it upon Himself to act as Messiah, that the Gentiles would become the clients of Jews, with the Gentiles relying on Israel and Israel’s special relationship with the Creator God that they might derive the benefits reserved for national Israel.  We can see something like this attitude on display when Paul is dealing with Jew/Gentile issues in the churches (Ephesians, Galatians and Romans particularly, and also in the record of the book of Acts). 

Paul was perfectly content with divesting all presumed honor so that he might be looked upon as a client to the cosmic King and the Creator God.  We see this in the first chapter of the letter to Timothy.  Paul speaks in the voice of a client, heralding his supreme patron, and we hear him say “I am grateful to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man.  But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1:12-13).  Here, it is good to be aware that the celebration of the compassion and mercy (along with the loyalty, patience, and humility) of one’s patron was a standard feature of clientele praise. 

Continuing, Paul grandly celebrates this patronage that he enjoys, writing “our Lord’s grace was abundant, bringing faith and love in Christ Jesus” (1:14).  Creating something of an inscription minus a monument or building (though it has no real bearing on the point that we are making, we can think about Peter’s insistence, as he operates within the same cultural milieu as Paul, that the members of the body of Christ are “living stones… built up as a spiritual house” on which the Gospel is inscribed in both word and deed) , he goes on to write “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’---and I am the worst of them!”  (1:15)  Overflowing with praises, Paul continues with “But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate His utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in Him for eternal life” (1:16).  Concluding the heralding of his patron, utilizing words reserved for Caesar (and thus standing counter to the culture): “Now to the eternal King, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever!  Amen” (1:17).  This is standard patronage language and would be received as such by those who would hear the letter.    

The brief mention of Ephesians above, and the Jew/Gentile issues that were present in that community, reminds us that Timothy was himself in Ephesus.  Therefore, church-related issues with which Paul specifically deals in his personal letter to Timothy are the same types of church-related issues with which Paul will deal in the letter to the Ephesians.  Strangely enough, the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Ephesus share a stark similarity that sets them apart from Paul’s other writings, as these two letters contain obvious and easily recognizable odes from a client to a patron as part of their introductions.  Combined (and whether or not the two letters are Pauline, deuteron-Pauline, or pseudo-Pauline), this certainly says something about the culture of Ephesus, and that culture (the knowledge of which is bolstered by the record of Acts) stands as a backdrop to the way we hear the patron-directed praise. 

Though other church letters contain very short doxologies from Paul in their introductions, Ephesians exceeds them all, and we read Paul’s word with the patron-client relationship and counter-cultural/imperial concerns serving to enlighten our reading in a new and significant way, in the midst of heavy doctrinal, covenant-with-Israel-dependent, and Scripturally-derived thematic elements: “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ.  For He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in His sight in love.  He did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of His will---to the praise of the glory of His grace that He has freely bestowed on us in His dearly loved Son.  In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us in all wisdom and insight.  He did this when He revealed to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure that He set forth in Christ, toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ---the things in heaven and the things on earth.  In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of Him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, would be to the praise of His glory… I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you spiritual wisdom and revelation in your growing knowledge of Him---since the eyes of your heart have been enlightened---so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what is the wealth of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the incomparable greatness of His power toward us who believe, as displayed in the exercise of His immense strength.  This power He exercised in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.  And God put all things under Christ’s feet and He gave Him to the church as head over all things.  Now the church is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (1:3-12,17-23). 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Heralding & The Gospel Announcement

Paul, much like Jesus, does not wish to be viewed as a patron.  At the same time, Paul took steps during the course of his ministry to make sure that he is not looked upon as being a client either, as this, according to his way of thinking, would diminish his effectiveness and run contrary to what needs to happen in the communities envisioned by the messianic mission and the kingdom of God.  We see an emphasis on this aversion in what we look to as Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth.  In the eleventh chapter we hear Paul asking “did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you could be exalted, because I proclaimed the Gospel to you free of charge?  I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so that I could serve you!  When I was with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone…  I kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so…  And what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may eliminate any opportunity for those who want a chance to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about” (11:7-9a,9c,12). 

Not only is Paul expressing his independence from this church, while also diminishing the patron-client relationship into which others might naturally enter in their service of the church, we’ll notice that Paul also debases himself by referring to himself as a robber.  Such words, along with the other rhetorically oriented words of debasement, demonstrate that Paul is not attempting to elevate himself in any way, but truly desires to serve the churches for their edification. 

In chapter twelve, he reiterates and emphasizes his eschewing of patronage and clientage, writing “I will not be a burden to you, because I do not want your possessions, but you.  For children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.   Now I will most gladly spend and be spent for your lives…  I have not burdened you” (12:14b-15a,16b).  If we hear Paul’s words merely as some type of erection of spiritual laws and the relationship between children and parents, dismissing the patron-client constructs of his world and forgetting the significant amount of time and attention this congregation received from Paul, we’ll miss a great deal of what is being communicated to the Corinthian church.  We do ourselves a tremendous service by gaining familiarity with the cultural dynamics of Paul’s world, which, of course, were the same cultural dynamics at work in the world of Jesus.  This opens up the world of the Gospel, making the mental application in vastly different worlds that much easier, while at the same time making the application of the message of the Gospel even more challenging. 

In the same letter, however, we see Paul engaging in what appears to be a client-like heralding of the “churches of Macedonia” (8:1b), stressing “that during a severe ordeal of suffering, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in the wealth of their generosity” (8:2).  On the surface, this appears to be Paul subordinating himself to this particular church, speaking of them as a client would a patron.  Of significance though, is that “they gave according to their means and beyond their means” (8:3a).  This is not the act of a patron.  In that day, a patron did not diminish his own comfort and standing to serve a client.  With that world’s ultimate patron, that being Caesar, always looming in the background as Paul continually operates in a counter-imperial mindset (as does Jesus as well-demonstrated by the Gospel-authors presentation of Him), a distinction between the patronage of Caesar and Jesus is drawn, as Paul writes “For you the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although He was rich, He became poor for your sakes, so that you by His poverty could become rich” (8:9). 

This is precisely what Paul has described as the actions of the churches of Macedonia.  Indeed, this is the act of a community vested by the Spirit of God.  Beyond that, “They did so voluntarily, begging us with great earnestness for the blessing and fellowship of helping the saints” (8:3b-4).  Patron’s did not act voluntarily, but rather, they acted upon request, calculating how fulfilling the request and meeting a need would impact their honor standing.  Not only is this not what has occurred with the Macedonian churches, but they went to the other end, to the end of shame, begging Paul to allow them to participate.  It’s almost as if there are no definitions or culturally recognized categories for what Paul is describing.  Conceivably, this can be viewed as something new, and if we take the position that the incarnation, crucifixion, and Resurrection changed everything, then it is difficult to disagree with that assessment. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Heralding & The Gospel Announcement

In exploring the exegetically significant patron-client dynamic of Paul’s day, we can look to Seneca, a Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and humorist that was a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, who wrote: “Let us, therefore, show how acceptable a gift is by loudly expressing our gratitude for it; and let us do so, not only in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere.  He who receives a benefit with gratitude, repays the first installment of it.”  This would reflect the general attitude of a client towards his patron, who would be looked upon as the source of gifts.  For what it’s worth, Seneca himself was a tutor of the Emperor Nero, later becoming an advisor.  Most assuredly, he would have considered Nero to be his patron, so though these words would be generally reflective of the patron-client relationship, they would most likely be penned with the Caesar in mind.    

A client would also be expected to publicly attest to the honor of his patron.  If and when possible, a client would expend the effort to make a lasting, public pronouncement of said honor by having an inscription placed on a public monument of a public building, that all may see and realize the honor and generosity of their patron.  On a monument in Corinth that dates from the middle of the first century, we can read an inscription in honor of a man named Julius Spartiaticus, who was looked upon and acknowledge as an important patron to the tribe of Calpurnia.  He too would have been a contemporary of Paul.  The inscription, offered by his clients, reads: “Gaius Julius, Son of Laco, Grandson of Eurycles, [of the tribe] Fabia, Spartiaticus, Procurator of Caesar and Augusta Agrippina, Tribume of the Soldiers, Awarded a Public Horse By the Deified Claudius, Flamen Of the Deified Julius, Pontifex, Duovir Quinquennalis twice, Agonthete of the Isthmian and Caesar-Augustan Games, High Priest of the House of Augustus In Perpetuity, First of the Achaeans.  Because of his Virtue and Eager and all-encompassing munificence toward the Divine House And toward our Colony, the tribesmen Of the Tribe Calpurnia [Dedicated this] to their Patron.”

Apart from inscriptions on monuments and building, which, understandably, could be quite expensive and therefore limited only to wealthier clients of even wealthier patrons (remembering that, apart from the Caesar himself, everybody was a client of somebody at some level), the honor of a patron could be expressed through the employment of a herald.  We can find some excellent Scriptural example of somebody being heralded in the book of Esther.  There, Mordecai is heralded by Haman.  “He led him about on the horse throughout the city, calling before him, ‘So shall it be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!’” (6:11b)  Though this is not an instance of a client heralding a patron, it is an example of somebody being honored through the employment of a herald---in this case, an unwilling herald. 

In the Gospel of Luke we can find something that would have been understood as a clear instance of heralding.  Given the early church’s position concerning who Jesus was and how He was worshiped in the years between His Resurrection and the composition of Luke’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord making an appearance to the shepherds in the field, telling them “Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David.  He is Christ the Lord” (2:10b-11), would have been perceived as an instance of a patron (God manifest) being heralded (by one of His angels).  This is not a ground-breaking thought, especially considering the song “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  However, the activity being referenced by the song asks to be comprehended according to a world defined by honor, the role of heralding, and the governing dynamics of the patron-client relationship. 

Speaking to this activity, and doing so from the basis of a clear knowledge of and undoubted participation in the patron-client system, along with a thoroughgoing knowledge of the role of honor in his world, Dio Chrysostom, an orator, writer, philosopher, and historian of the Roman Empire who was also contemporary with the Apostle Paul, wrote: “But when we come to men, they require crowns, images, the right of precedence, and being kept in remembrance; and many in times past have even given up their lives just in order that they might get a statue and have their name announced by the herald or receive some other honor and leave to succeeding generations a fair name and remembrance of themselves.”  We could even take these words and compose an imaginary speech by a client, in honor of a patron, hearing something like “This man deserves crowns upon his head.  He should have images erected in his honor.  He and his family should have precedence of place at all public functions.  His name should be kept in remembrance.  With complete disregard for his own safety, he risked his life, though he expected no statues.  He placed himself at the mercy of the gods, though the idea of a herald announcing his exploits was far from his mind.  Because he had acted in complete altruism, with no regard for honor, he should be honored, as should his progeny, for generations to come.”