Duelling Mottoes

Monday, July 4th is, of course, Independence Day—the 240th birthday of our nation.  The Great Seal of the United States, depicted above, is emblazoned with the Latin motto, E Pluribus Unum.  This Latin phrase was adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782 as the motto for the Seal of the United States, and it has been used on our currency since 1795.

Yet this is not our national motto–not officially, anyway.  That would be “In God We Trust”–approved by our Legislature and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 30, 1956 (the year I was born).  That same law also stipulated that this motto, which had already been placed on some coins since 1864, be printed on all currency issued after that date.


E [an abbreviation for ex] pluribus unum” means “out of many, one.” It was suggested as a motto by Pierre Eugene du Simitierre, one of the designers working on the seal. While the Founders didn’t go with his design (which is rather fiddly!), they liked his motto!

Apparently, du Simitierre got the motto from the title page of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular magazine of the day that (rather like Reader’s Digest) took its content from a number of places. But where did the editors of this magazine find it? Some think the Latin phrase came originally from a line in Moretum,” a poem attributed to Virgil, which describes grinding together many ingredients to make a cheese spread:

Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour [color est e pluribus unus]

A more dignified proposal is that the phrase is adapted from Cicero’s De Officiis (“Concerning Duties”) 1.17.56, regarding friendship:

When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many [unus fiat ex pluribus], as Pythagoras wishes things to be in friendship.

But whatever the original source, we can see why du Simitierre proposed this motto, and why the Founders liked it.  It well describes the United States of America, as many states unified as a single nation.

Having two mottoes is only a problem if we see a conflict between them.  Does trusting in God preclude our unity? Or, does diversity threaten our trust in God?  Some may think that it does: that real Americans (or real Christians) must look like me, or at least, think and act like me, and that the borders between those inside and those outside must be clearly marked and defended.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and emerging church leader, preached after the slaughter of 49 LGBTQ people, mostly Latinos and Latinas, in Orlando:

. . . what I really want to do in moments like these is to hide a[nd] divide.  That’s my instinct.

But the poison that created the disease cannot also be the medicine that cures it. And dividing people up is what creates white supremacy and religious extremism and purity systems and homophobia and segregation and bathroom laws and yet what is  my reaction to all of this? Blame the bad people who vote differently.  Blame the bad people who think differently.  Blame the bad people who post on social media differently.  Blame allies who aren’t reacting in the perfect way they should. My instinct is to  immediately divide people up even further until I’m entirely alone.

Which brings us to the healing of Naaman the leper, in 2 Kings 5:1-14.  In this passage, Naaman is the ultimate outsider. Not only is he a Gentile (a non-Israelite), he comes from Aram, or Syria—in those days, Israel’s sworn enemy. Further, not only is he a Syrian, he is a soldier in Syria’s army, and not only a soldier, but a general—one of Israel’s oppressors!

Believe it or not, it gets worse: Naaman finds about about the wonder-working prophet Elisha from a Hebrew slave, a young girl stolen from her home and family in one of Syria’s raids (2 Kgs 5:2-3)!  Adding insult to injury, Naaman then tries to deal his way to a healing, through political pressure (my king writing to your king) and bribery (2 Kgs 5:5-7).

Naaman’s healing comes in a way that makes abundantly clear that it is God, not Elisha, who does the healing.  Elisha never even sees Naaman! Through his servant, he commands the Syrian general to immerse himself in the Jordan seven times.  In his snobbery, Naaman is on the point of refusing to do what the prophet commands:

Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger (2 Kgs 5:12).

Yet, despite all of this, Naaman is healed anyway.  Moreover, even though he misunderstands who God is (Naaman takes “two mule loads” of dirt from Israel so as to worship Israel’s God, as though the LORD were somehow tied to Israel’s soil) and what commitment to God means (the Syrian general continues to go to Rimmon’s temple, for political expediency; see 2 Kgs 5:17-18), God does not take the healing back!  Indeed, if we read closely, God’s presence and involvement with Naaman began long before he ever came to see Elisha: “through him the LORD had given victory to Aram” (2 Kgs 5:1).

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus retells Naaman’s story for exactly this reason—to show that God is at work even among those unlike us, whom we see as outsiders. The response of his hometown crowd in Nazareth shows how popular that sermon was–they try to throw him off a cliff!

In the Gospel reading for Sunday (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), Jesus sends out seventy followers.  Traditionally, this was the number of the foreign nations, based on the the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. The theme, again, is a call to outreach and inclusion for all the world.

This, in the end, is the reason that, for those who believe, “In God We Trust” belongs, inextricably, with E Pluribus Unum.  Those who trust in God know that making one out of many is God’s design and delight:

This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth (Ephesians 1:10).

It is not that we insiders, who have Christ as our possession, take him with us to those outside. It is, rather that we go to find him among the outsiders, where Christ already is: with foreigners and lepers and clueless, unclean folk like Naaman.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, again, has our number–and reminds us why this unseemly grace is such good news:

I mean, I may want a vigilante saviour. But what I need is a saviour who brings a swift, terrible mercy. What I want is a dividing saviour – who will draw the same lines I would draw…but what I need is a saviour who makes us one, a saviour, who lifted up, draws all people to himself. Not just the worthy. Not just the lovely, the likely and the lucky. All people. I need a saviour who commands me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me – pray for those whose hate blinds them to their own goodness and the worth and dignity of others. And I need a saviour this merciful because it is I who needs this much mercy.


Open-Carry Christians?


Early Sunday morning, April 12, 2016, forty-nine LGBTQ people (pictured above) were shot dead, and fifty-three more were wounded.  They were gunned down in the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida by a homophobic, hatred-obsessed, historically violent man.  He tried to legitimate his hate by dedicating this act to ISIS, but there is no evidence that he was actually in contact with this terrorist organization, that it funded him or helped him in planning his attack–or  for that matter, that he was even Muslim in much more than name.

In the days since, some (such as Mr. Trump) have blamed Islam, while others have blamed the victims. Still others have wondered why, despite having been investigated by the FBI for voicing sympathy with terrorist groups, and even being on a terror watch list until 2014, this person was legally able to buy “a SIG Sauer MCX rifle — a spinoff of the military-style AR-15 — as well as a 9-millimeter handgun at a Florida gun shop about a week before the attack.”  After four attempts by the Senate to pass legislation calling for universal background checks and barring persons on the terror watchlist from legally purchasing weapons had failed, New York Times reporter Carl Hulse wrote:

Not one senator in either party believes that someone who presents a serious terrorism risk should be able to waltz into a gun shop and legally buy powerful firearms. Yet partisanship, a reluctance to compromise and the influence of powerful special interests again prevented lawmakers from achieving a consensus, as four plans went down on Monday to entirely predictable defeats.

It was just the latest instance in which lawmakers agreed that something needed to be done on an issue of national importance, but were unable to find a way to do it in Washington’s hyperpolitical atmosphere.

Others have responded to these same questions with a fervent defense of the Second Amendment, and of their own personal gun ownership.  As Chris Williams notes, many of the most passionate defenders of their personal right to bear arms identify as Evangelical Christians:

[S]ome of the most enthusiastic and passionate gun lovers also are followers of Christ. Whenever this debate rears its head, the most passionate gun supporters in my social media feed are often those who are also outspoken Christians. I once had a youth pastor friend who, when he heard about a shooting, said that it would never happen at our church because he’d be carrying his gun in service   . . . I see Christian friends on social media post about how excited they are to buy a new gun and boast about their stopping power. I know there are likely men and women in our church who carry concealed weapons. And I see Christians boast on Facebook that if they’d been in that nightclub/church/movie theater/school, they’d have had their gun on them — and things would have been different.

So, do the teachings of Jesus legitimate open-carry Christians?  There are a number of passages where Jesus addresses the use of the sword.  Matthew 26:51-54Mark 14:47-49, and Luke 22:49-51  all describe one of the people with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane drawing a sword against those who came to arrest Jesus, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave; John 18:10-11 says that the assailant was Peter, and that the slave’s name was Malchus. In all of these passages, Jesus opposes this violence.  Indeed, in Matthew 26:52, Jesus says, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Yet, in Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”  Does this passage legitimate Christians arming themselves?  Probably not, as Luke’s version of this saying demonstrates. Luke 12:51 reads, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division” (Greek diamerismon). Apparently, Luke’s version of this saying provides an interpretation of what “the sword” means in Matthew’s version.  In both gospels, Jesus goes on to describe how families will be torn apart by his message, as some accept it and others vehemently reject it–as well as their own kin.  Luke’s interpretation seems correct, then: the sword in Matthew is a metaphor for the violence and opposition Jesus’ message will stir up, even within families.  Jesus is not calling for his followers to take up the sword against their opponents.

But then, there is Luke 22:35-37:

Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?” [see Luke 9:3]

They said, “Nothing.”

Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a wallet must take it, and likewise a bag. And those who don’t own a sword must sell their clothes and buy one.  I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in relation to me: And he was counted among criminals [Isaiah 53:12Indeed, what’s written about me is nearing completion.

This saying, found only in Luke, conflicts with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere–as Jesus himself acknowledges.  Still, some Christians base their ownership of weapons, and their advocacy for gun ownership, on this passage.  Indeed, even Chris Williams, in his blog cited above, says (apparently regarding this passage):

Yes, I realize Christ also at one point advised his disciples to buy a sword. I don’t think the Bible can be used as pro or against owning a gun. But I think Jesus’ attitude toward violence and retaliation speak volumes about what our attitude should be about these things. 


Could Luke 22:36 preserve an old memory that Jesus did call for his followers to take up the sword?  Reza Aslan claims that he did just that:

Jesus had warned his disciples that they would come for him.  That is why they are hiding in Gethsemane, shrouded in darkness, and armed with swords–just as Jesus had commanded.  They are ready for a confrontation. . . Resistance is useless, however, and the disciples are forced to abandon their master and flee into the night (Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2014], 146).

On the other hand, Evangelical blogger Preston Sprinkle lists several commentators who argue that in this passage, much as in Matthew 10:34, the sword is intended metaphorically:

The late New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says that the command to buy a sword is “a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice.” Darrell Bock says that the command to buy a sword symbolically “points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge.” Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “The introduction of the ‘sword’ signals” that “the Period of the Church will be marked with persecution,” which of course we see throughout the book of Acts. And the popular Reformed commentator, William Hendrickson, puts it bluntly: “The term sword must be interpreted figuratively.”

Following this statement by Jesus, the disciples run a quick inventory, and tell Jesus that they have two swords.  Jesus replies, Hikanon esti: “It is enough” (Luke 22:38, NRSV)  But what does that mean?  Is Jesus saying that two swords will be sufficient?  Given that there were eleven of them, that seems unlikely–at least, if this passage actually is about Christians arming themselves against their enemies.  Another possibility is that Jesus is calling an end to the discussion–perhaps because the disciples have understood him too literally:  the CEB renders this phrase, “Enough of that!”

The reference to Isaiah 53:12 in this passage, where the Servant of the LORD is “numbered with poshe’im“–that is, “rebels”–could lead us to Luke’s point.  Perhaps Jesus’ followers need to be “armed” because, to fulfill this passage of Scripture, Jesus must be taken from among armed resisters. Their resistance is only a token, however, meant symbolically to fulfill the prophecy.  Later at Gethsemane, the disciples ask, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” (Luke 22:49). But when they do so, Jesus rebukes them (see the discussion above)–in fact, in Luke, Jesus heals the slave’s wounded ear (Luke 22:51).

Whatever Luke 22:35-38 may mean, then, it is clear that Jesus opposes the use of the sword even here.  Therefore, whatever legal or moral arguments we may make regarding the use or possession of weapons, we will have to leave Jesus out of them.  Jesus, after all, seems little concerned about personal rights–his own, or anyone else’s!  He calls for those who follow him to love their enemies, not to arm themselves against them.  Let us hold the victims of this hate crime in Orlando, and their friends and families, in our hearts, as they are held in God’s heart.  Let us pray for peace, and work for justice, confident that God’s love abides, and will triumph.



God Is Playing Jazz

Last night, my wife Wendy and I were privileged to be part of the audience at a performance by my former student Jeremy Fisher and the Jeremy Fisher Quartet–the opening event of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s “Being Church” conference.  Billed as “Jazz and Theology,” this concert/lecture/seminar combined sacred music (Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” and the premier of a jazz setting of “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” by Mr. Fisher) and secular, with the invitation to the audience to think about the theological implications of elements of jazz performance such as communication and improvisation.

As it happens, at the top of my head right now is my current project on creation in Scripture.  What does it mean to confess God as creator?  How is God related to the world that God calls into being?  So as I listened to Jeremy’s comments about jazz–and the performances that illumined those words–I wondered if they had anything to contribute to these questions.  I am persuaded that they do.

Playing jazz involves a continual conversation among the musicians in a group, as they pass musical ideas back and forth.  Just so, theologian Marjorie Suchocki proposes that in Genesis 1, God creates through “call and response:”

This is no “clock maker” deistic God, impassively spinning a world into space.  Instead we have a God who evaluates and responds to the world in each moment, building on just this earthly response with the next divine action.  The text portrays a responsive God interacting with a responsive world (Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism [Nashville: Abingdon, 2003], 28).

This divine responsiveness is evident from the first.  In Genesis 1:3-5, God not only calls light into being, but evaluates and appreciates God’s creation (“God saw how good the light was,” Gen 1:4).  God’s personal involvement with creation is evident when God names the light and the darkness (“day” and “night”).

Just as we give names to our pets, our homes–and sometimes, even our automobiles!–and so personify them, so God names God’s creation, calling the world into relationship with Godself.

This relationship becomes even more evident as God begins to call upon the world to participate in its own coming into being.  After calling forth the dry land from the waters, God empowers the emerging world to take part in God’s creation:

God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:11).

God invites the earth to participate in its own creation, by putting forth (Hebrew tadshe’:  “sprout,” or “green up”) green plants.  Further, the plants themselves, each bearing “fruit with seeds inside it,” hold within them the possibility of continuing God’s creation, carrying life forward into the future.  God creates a world capable of continuous regeneration.

Again, on Day Five, God invites the world to take part in its own coming into being: “God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with living things’” (Gen 1:20).

God invites the water to bring forth living creatures, much as the plants had emerged from the earth.  So too, on Day Six:

God said, “Let the earth produce [Hebrew totse’, that is, “cause to come forth”] every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:24).

There is a consonance between Genesis 1, where God empowers the world to bring forth life, and contemporary evolutionary biology.  Biologists strive to understand the emergence and development of life in naturalistic terms, just as an engineer designing a dam or an astronomer calculating the orbit of a planet strives to make predictions based on observable, natural laws.  Genesis 1 is not biology.  Israel’s ancient priests knew nothing of DNA or mitochondria or the evolution of species.  Their description of creation proceeds from their idea of God, not from investigation into the world’s workings.  However, their insight that God empowers God’s world for self-creation, and invites its participation in its own coming into being, lends support to the biologist’s quest for understanding.

It also speaks to the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the freedom of God’s creation.  As theologian and particle physicist John Polkinghorne observes, in Genesis 1 God endows the universe “with the power of true becoming” (The Faith of a Physicist [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994], 81): that is, God enables the world to participate in its own creation, and grants it the power and freedom to be, independent of Godself!

Calling an autonomous universe into being “involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other” (Polkinghorne, 81).  But the God of Genesis is neither anxious nor controlling.  God loves the world God makes!  Again and again through the first six days, God celebrates the beauty and wholeness of God’s world, calling the creation “good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).

I think that jazz is a perfect analogy for God’s ongoing creative relationship with God’s world. Rather than following a set and immutable musical score, God is genuinely and authentically responsive to the world, calling forth continually from the universe the best, but actively and creatively responding even to our failures.  Paul puts this well: “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).  The point, note, is not that all things are good–clearly, they are not.  Nor is it that all things are willed by God: as though God pushes the cancer button, or pulls the hurricane switch.  Rather, it is that God is at work in and through all things, ultimately willing the good.

To some, this view of God will seem wimpy and indecisive, and this view of reality uncertain and threatening.  Isn’t God in control?  Doesn’t God have a plan, for our lives and for our world?  I would answer that of course God has a plan, but that need not require a view of God as the only real actor in the universe, setting the cosmos at its creation toward its fixed and inevitable future.

God is not only the first and final cause of the universe–its source and its meaning–but God is also continuously active and present.  Such a God would of course do what God did, coming to us as one of us in the person of Jesus–not to compel our obedience, but to love us into relationship.

One final visit to the jazz analogy.  The Jeremy Fisher Quartet played Dave Brubek’s classic “Take Five.”  Instead of Paul Desmond’s alto sax, however, the melody line was carried at first by Jeremy’s guitar.  Nor did the drum line, the bass, or the piano parts echo the above link.  Yet it was plainly “Take Five” that they were playing–and very well.  So too, to say that God is authentically responsive to the world is not to say that God has no plan–as though the only alternative to playing a fixed score was playing random notes.  It is rather to say, as Paul does, that God is at work in all things for good. God is playing jazz.


Emergent church leaders Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans will be at the PTS “Being Church” conference Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11.  Join us for serious thought about what it means and will mean to be the church in this new, still-young century.


Babel Undone

This Sunday is the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the church.  The Old Testament reading for the day, however, is Genesis 11:1-9, the famous story of the tower of Babel, where “the LORD mixed up [Hebrew balal, punning on “Babel”] the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD dispersed them over all the earth” (Gen 11:9).

Doubtless this passage was selected because the Acts account of the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13) alludes to the story of Babel. There, the Spirit conveys the gift of tongues to the followers of Jesus praying in the upper room, prompting Pentecost pilgrims from across the Roman world to declare,

“Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?  How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:7-11).

With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the curse of Babel is undone.

This is not the first time that Scripture recalls the Babel story, however.  Zephaniah 3:9-13 deals with the restoration of Judah after the Babylonian exile. But this promise of restoration begins with the nations, not with Judah!

Then I will change the speech of the peoples into pure speech,
        that all of them will call on the name of the LORD
        and will serve him as one (Zeph 3:9).

The Hebrew is ki-‘az ‘ekhpok ‘el-‘amim saphah berurtah (“then I will change to the peoples a pure speech”[?]), which clearly assumes that something unspecified will be changed; the CEB “I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech” seems to make best sense. Again, the allusion is to the Babel story–indeed, in the three-year cycle of Scripture readings once used in the synagogue, Zephaniah 3:9-17, 20 was read together with Genesis 11:1 (Ehud ben Zvi, A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Zephaniah, BZAW 198 [Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991], 24-25).  While in Zephaniah, the nations are given “a pure speech” (saphah berurtah), in Genesis God confuses their speech (again, saphah; see Gen 11:7), so that humanity, which had been united by “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1), became scattered. Zephaniah envisions the undoing of Babel’s curse, to the end

that all of them will call on the name of the Lord
        and will serve him as one (Zeph 3:9).

This promise, that the scattered and separate nations will one day be reunited in the worship and service of the LORD, calls to mind the Zion song in Isaiah 2:1-4:

In the days to come
    the mountain of the LORD’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to theLORD’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war.

In Zephaniah, reversing the curse of Babel in turn reverses the curse of exile–an idea expressed, appropriately, through word play!  Just as, through the confusion (Hebrew balal; Gen 11:7) of their speech the nations had been scattered (Hebrew puts; Gen 11:8), so through the purification (Hebrew barar; Zeph 3:9) of the nations’ speech God returns the exiles—those God calls “my dispersed ones” (Hebrew bath-putsay; Zeph 3:10).

Just as God has purified the speech of the nations, reuniting them in order to deliver God’s people from exile, so also God purifies the people Israel. The restored nation will no longer be haughty, but “humble and powerless” (Zeph 3:12; Hebrew ‘oni wadal).  This small and humbled remnant of Israel, the prophet says

won’t commit injustice;
        they won’t tell lies;
        a deceitful tongue won’t be found on their lips (Zeph 3:13).

Thus, Israel’s speech will be purified, just like the speech of the nations! As the flock of the LORD,
            They will graze and lie down;
                no one will make them afraid (Zeph 3:13).

This image of the LORD as the good shepherd calls to mind John 10:1-18, as well as Psalm 23.  But the rest conveyed by this peaceful, bucolic image is only possible after the nations have been reunited, by being gifted with “a pure speech.”  Just as at Pentecost, the Spirit sends that first church into the streets to declare God’s praise in the languages of all the nations–undoing Babel–so in Zephaniah Israel’s peace is gained, not through the conquest or destruction of the nations, but through their healing.

This election season, Mr. Trump in particular has appealed to our fear and suspicion of the other.  As Thomas B. Edsall observes,

He claims that as president he will impose harsh tariffs on imports from China, suspend Muslim immigration, deport 11 million immigrants and build an $8 billion wall that Mexico will pay for.

Sadly, ethnocentrism–the belief that people like me are better than other people–is alive and well in modern America.  Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Drew Engelhardt (from Vanderbilt University) asked whites about how favorable to unfavorable they found blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, gays and lesbians, and transgender people, as compared to themselves.  Overall, 23% of all white respondents rated these groups favorably, while 57% rated them unfavorably.  Broken down by political affiliation, 41% of whites identifying as Democrats, 59% of Independents, and 73% of those identifying as Republicans rated people unlike themselves unfavorably.

May Pentecost be a time for our confession of and repentance from the sin of ethnocentrism.  After all, if the prophet is right, our own healing can only come with the healing of the nations.  It is only when Babel is undone that we find the Spirit’s presence in our midst, and can join those first Christians in “declaring the mighty works of God”!



Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has a Pentecost resource kit for pastors and others planning worship or teaching classes in this season of the church year. It includes a Bible Guy blog on Pentecost from 2013, as well as two faculty sermons, a video, and lesson plan.  You can access this resource at www.pts.edu/Pentecost16.


How To Read the Bible, Part Eight: Show Invisibles

When I first started using word processing software (on a computer just like this one!), what you saw onscreen was not what you saw when the document printed.  Commands for underlining, indenting, and a host of other functions were part of the onscreen text.  Once the software improved enough to show on the screen something more like the appearance of the printed document, it was still possible to input a command to reveal those hidden indicators which determined the format of the final text.  The command was called, “Show invisibles.”

The Bible, I find, does this all the time!  Scripture often shows us things we cannot see, or do not want to see. Two powerful and poignant recent chapel services at my seminary reminded me of this–and that, sometimes, what we don’t see, can’t see, or refuse to see can indeed harm us, and others.

This past Monday, as part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute (MUI), Dr. Stephanie Boddie, a Senior Consultant with MUI and the Carnegie Mellon University CAUSE Post-Doctoral Fellow, led an extraordinary service of worship in music.  The service was built around African-American spirituals, including Dr. Boddie’s own chilling rendering of My Lord, What A Morning.  Throughout the service, images from America’s slave-owning past showed on a screen.

African slavery was justified then on biblical grounds.  After all, both testaments assume the existence of slavery, and the New Testament repeatedly urges slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).  What those white antebellum Bible scholars could not see, but that African American Christians could, were texts such as Paul’s statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).  The church somehow could not see that the heart of the Hebrew Bible–called by philosopher Emil Fackenheim the “root experience” of the Jewish people–was the exodus out of Egypt: God’s action to set slaves free.  Sadly, over 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, racism in America remains invisible to those who, thanks to white privilege, do not–or even cannot–see it.

The other service that revealed those too often invisible was a chapel earlier this term planned and presented by Rebecca “Dixie” Dix and Jason “J” Freyer: a service of music and drama about the silencing of Tamar (see 2 Samuel 13).

In this tragic biblical narrative, Tamar, the daughter of King David, is raped by her half-brother Amnon.  Tamar is invisible to the men in this story: abused by her half-brother, ignored by her father.  Even her brother Absalom’s revenge killing of Amnon is less an act of vengeance for Tamar than a self-serving assassination: with Amnon removed, Absalom is next in line for his father’s throne.

In fact, an even more disturbing interpretation of this story is possible.  The person who advises Amnon on how to trick Tamar into his bedroom is Jonadab, called “a very clever man” (2 Sam 13:3).  Yet later in this narrative, when David learns of Amnon’s death and fears that Absalom has killed all his remaining sons, it is Jonadab who reports:

My master shouldn’t think that all the young princes have been killed—only Amnon is dead. This has been Absalom’s plan ever since the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar. So don’t let this bother you, my master; don’t think that all the princes are dead, because only Amnon is dead, and Absalom has fled (2 Sam 13:32-34).

This raises a deeply disturbing question: how did Jonadab know this–unless he was privy to Absalom’s plans?  Might this whole scenario, including Tamar’s rape, have been set up by Jonadab to provide an excuse for Absalom’s assassination of his rival?  If so, then Tamar is even more invisible, more silenced, more marginalized than ever in this narrative.

Tamar’s story calls to mind the millions of women who have experienced abuse at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, or friends.  The results of the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), a public health study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–cited in a public service announcement by President Obama–are particularly disturbing:

It estimated that 1.9 million American women were raped in the preceding 12-month period. In fact, the survey said that more than 23 million women (19.3 percent) were raped during their lifetime.

Nearly one in five women in America, this survey concludes, have suffered sexual violence–yet, we do not see it.  Like Tamar, they remain invisible.

Tamar’s story also raises other questions.  To our (modern) astonishment, Tamar begs her rapist to marry her!

No, my brother! Don’t rape me. Such a thing shouldn’t be done in Israel. Don’t do this horrible thing.  Think about me—where could I hide my shame? And you—you would become like some fool in Israel! Please, just talk to the king! He won’t keep me from marrying you (2 Sam 13:12-13)

Once his lust is spent, Amnon’s obsession with his half-sister turns to loathing, and he drives her out. But Tamar again pleads with him,

No, my brother! Sending me away would be worse than the wrong you’ve already done (2 Sam 13:16).

Apparently, Tamar is thinking of the law set forth in Deuteronomy 22:28-29:

If a man meets up with a young woman who is a virgin and not engaged, grabs her and has sex with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who had sex with her must give fifty silver shekels to the young woman’s father. She will also become his wife because he has humiliated her. He is never allowed to divorce her.

What is going on here? Why would the law require a woman to marry her rapist–and why would Tamar want this?  Perhaps, in the ancient world, marriage meant something different than it does to us.


Our idea of marriage is likely built on the ideal of romantic love: two people fall in love with one another, and commit themselves to one another because of that love.  But this is a relatively modern, and Western, conception.  In the ancient world, marriage was primarily about property, and about honor.  In part, this was because women could themselves be regarded as property. One version of the Ten Commandments states,


Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17).

Here, the wife, like the household servants, domestic animals, and everything else included in a man’s “house,” is regarded as his property.  This is why the rapist pays a fine to the father of his victim, who is now out the customary bride price and shamed as a result.

But the victim has also been robbed, as well as shamed, by this assault.  Now that her virginity has been taken, she will be unable to make a good marriage.  To preserve her honor, and to ensure for her future livelihood in perpetuity, Deuteronomy requires her rapist to assume the responsibilities of housing and care that would have been performed by her rightful husband.  Further, this becomes a lifelong obligation–one that he may not under any circumstances avoid by divorce.  In terms of the understanding of marriage in ancient Israel, then, this law makes perfect sense. Both the woman’s and her family’s honor and property rights are upheld.

The harrowing story of the rape of Tamar illustrates this law through its violation. Tamar’s rapist Amnon, being David’s son, eludes his responsibility toward his victim.  Indeed, he is not held accountable at all–until his murder by Tamar’s brother Absalom.  What by our definition of marriage is an affront, then, is by this ancient definition of marriage a just arrangement.


Opponents of same-sex marriage commonly declare that they affirm the biblical definition of marriage.  For example, the Primates (that is, the assembled bishops from around the world) of the Anglican Communion, following a  recent gathering, justified their rebuke of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (which recognizes same-sex marriage and ordains LGBTQ persons) by stating:

The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.

Next month, United Methodists from around the world will gather in Portland, Oregon for General Conference, to consider revisions and expansions to the church’s manual of polity and practice, the United Methodist Discipline–and on everyone’s mind are numerous proposals that the UMC stance on LGBTQ matters be changed. While the current Discipline does support “Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation” (¶ 162 J, p. 126), it also states that, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶ 161F, p. 111).  UMC pastors are forbidden to officiate at same-sex marriages (though some disobey), and church property cannot be used for same-sex weddings.  These provisions, too, are often justified on biblical grounds.

Tamar’s story–and her plea that her rapist Amnon marry her, in obedience to Torah–surely ought to show us the flaw in the “biblical marriage” argument.  We can understand Deuteronomy 22:28-29 in terms of ancient Israel’s ideas about women, property, and honor, but we do not share those ideas–nor should we.  “Marriage” does not mean the same thing to us that it meant for ancient people. Indeed, “marriage” does not mean the same thing everywhere in Scripture (for example, compare the assumption of polygamy in the Genesis stories of the patriarchs with the emphasis on monogamy in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:6). A reading of the Bible that, rather than “showing invisibles,” forces marginalized folk even further into the margins, must be called into question.


Stories From Palestine


I have used this image before—in advertising for a FOSNA conference at the seminary, and in a previous blog—but this is my photo, taken earlier this month, from my first visit to Tent of Nations and the Nassar farm. I was there with twenty-four other pilgrims, from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Westminster Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, and a few Pittsburgh area clergy, on a trip under the auspices of the World Mission Initiative.  This trip was purposively planned to provide support for and engagement with the church in the land of its birth: not only to see the dead stones of ancient holy sites, but to encounter our sisters and brothers in Christ–the living stones (1 Peter 2:5)!

The stones pictured above were placed at the entrance to his family farm by Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian Christian living in the West Bank, southwest of Bethlehem. Although the land has been in his family since 1916, and has been cultivated by them throughout that time, the Nassar family has been in Israeli state courts since 1991, resisting attempts to seize their land for a Jewish settlement.   Daoud and his family host Tent of Nations, a work camp dedicated to fostering peace and understanding among the world’s communities.   The stones declare the purpose of Tent of Nations, and the commitment of the Nassar family to nonviolent resistance, in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and German: “We refuse to be enemies.”

Judean hills

We could not drive to the farm: settlers have blocked the road with heaps of boulders. So after our bus had taken us as close as John, our exceptionally skilled driver, could manage (driving backwards a good bit of the way, as there was no place to turn around!), we hiked the rest of the way. The view across the Judean hills was spectacular!

Daoud explains

Later, Daoud explained to us the meaning of those stones to him and his family. In response to attempts to take their land from them by force or to seize it through government action, how could they respond as Christians? First, they decided that they could not give in, nor could they remain silent: “We refuse to be victims.” Nor, however, could they respond with force, or violence: “We refuse to be enemies.” I thought of Jesus’ own life and teaching—how he freely healed and taught and fed the hungry, refusing to the very end to return evil for evil, violence for violence.

lunch at Tent of Nations

We saw this faith in action. The family had prepared a delicious lunch for us. As we were sitting down to eat, four Israeli soldiers, with weapons at ready, walked up to the farm. We watched and prayed as Daoud walked down to meet them. They talked briefly, and then the soldiers, clearly puzzled, walked away. When Daoud returned, we asked him what had been said. They were curious, he told us, about who we were—specifically, they wondered if we were Israelis, and if so, what we were doing there. He explained to them that we were Christian pilgrims paying fellow Christians a visit. “And then,” he said, “I invited them to lunch.”

That, to me, was the heart of the gospel—expressed simply and profoundly. “We refuse to be enemies” is not a passive stance, but an active one—we will not respond to violence, we will not be intimidated, we will show hospitality and try to be friends. We will, in short, love others as God has loved us.

planting treesWhole orchards of fruit trees belonging to the Nassars have been bulldozed by settlers claiming that the trees were on their land. So before we left, we planted a few apricot trees. The soil was rocky, the air was cold—I am not sure if the trees will make it. Nor am I sure that Daoud will prevail in this struggle. But I do know that I have met a saint of God—a Christian committed to living his faith, despite circumstances.


On our trip to Israel and Palestine, we spent two nights in the homes of Palestinian Christians in Beit Sahour—the Shepherds’ Field, where, according to tradition, the angels told the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. Today, with Bethlehem and Beit Jalla, Beit Sahour is part of the Christian Triangle, where most of the Christians in the West Bank live and work. Four of us stayed with Abdullah and Nuha Awwad.

Abdullah and Nuha

Abdullah’s degree was in English literature, which remains his passion—he will, at the drop of a hat, quote from the Romantic poets, in big hunks! However, he worked for a time as a press secretary to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, back when many Arabs hoped that Gaddafi might become a unifying leader for Arab peoples. Instead, of course, Gaddafi turned out to be a vicious megalomaniac, as Abdullah learned first-hand when he was imprisoned. Upon his release, he managed to smuggle his family out of Libya, and back home to Palestine.

Abdullah became the headmaster of the Lutheran school in Bethlehem. Nearly everyone we met in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour knew him, we discovered—indeed, many had learned their English from him! While working as an educator, Abdullah became concerned about developmentally disabled persons in Bethlehem, who were sometimes kept in isolation by their own families. He told us of one man whose family, deeply ashamed of him, kept him in a cave with the goats. In 1987, Abdullah founded the Al Basma Special Rehabilitation Centre, “a place where young adults with learning disabilities can go during the day for training in valuable life and work skills.” Today the Centre serves 37 people. “Al Basma,” by the way, means “Smile.”

AbdullahToday, Abdullah is retired for health reasons (he is a survivor of esophageal cancer, and still calls his early diagnosis and treatment a miracle), but still goes every day to the Centre that he founded and loves. His life and work are an illustration and application of Jesus’ teaching: “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matt 25:40, CEB).

Although they are committed Lutheran Christians living a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, Abdullah and Nuha cannot go to the sacred sites there without a special permit—and those are very difficult to come by. Indeed, to travel abroad to see their sons and grandchildren, they need first to go to Jordan. Nuha is from Gaza—her family still lives there. Although, thanks to the internet, they are able to speak regularly, she has not seen them in years—they cannot get out, and she is not permitted to go in. Repeatedly, Abdullah and Nuha asked us to share their story with American friends, and to assure them that they are NOT terrorists!


Several times, Abdullah shared with us his motto—he and Nuha have it printed, in many formats, all around their house: “Friends are like stars—you don’t always see them, but you always know they’re there.” I am honored to count a Christian leader like Abdullah as my friend. Being a good friend to him in turn means, at the very least, telling his story.


Our Own Personal Easter

MomLet me tell you about my Mom, Mary Louise Tuell, who joined the church triumphant on March 16.  Mom was, quite simply, the best person I have known.  She was endlessly kind, loving, and affirming.  She was also very funny–sometimes unintentionally so, as she tended to scramble her sentences delightfully.  My sons still gleefully recall her mock-stern words when someone was besting her in a game: “Cheater, cheater, pants on fire!”  One of my own favorite Mom stories is as much about my Dad, and the marvelous rapport the two of them had (they were married for 61 years, and before that were high school sweethearts).  We were driving down our country road, and passed a huge “slip”–a place where a large chunk of the hillside had broken free and slid down, nearly covering the road.  Mom pointed at the slip and said,”Dig, dig, dig.”  Dad, without skipping a beat, said, “Yes, Mary, that is a big hole.”

Although my Mom was painfully shy, and afraid of many things–heights, water, tight places–she never let her fears control her.  One of her favorite passages of Scripture was 1 John 4:18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.


Trusting in Christ to overcome her fears, Mom travelled with us to the Blue Ridge, to Nags Head, even to Niagara Falls!


Despite her shyness, Mom came to concerts, performances, talent shows, and graduations: including my installation as James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament here at PTS.

Another favorite Scripture of Mom’s–and the passage read at her funeral–was John 14:1-14, the famous declaration by Jesus that he was going to “prepare a place” for us.  That passage, too, begins with a refutation of fear: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).  But it goes on to affirm a confidence in the risen Christ to bring us through our own death into everlasting life.  The first line of Mom’s obituary, written by my sister Tracey, embraces that promise:

Surrounded by her loving family, Mary Louise Holland Tuell, 80, of Mineral Wells, defeated Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as she went home to be with the Lord.

Mom did not succumb to her illnesses–she triumphed over them through the power of Christ’s invincible life!

Mom and Dad were my first and best Bible teachers. But they did not so much teach us about Jesus, and faith, and loving kindness–rather, they showed us by example what a life of faith looks like.  They started every day with Scripture and prayer, took us to church, and modeled Christian love by their giving, and their support of others.  Daddy is teaching me still: showing me how a Christian grieves, modeling for me how to find a bedrock faith in the midst of sorrow and pain.  Pray for him, please, and for all of us–but also, celebrate with us Mom’s life well lived.

Mom’s funeral was on Palm Sunday.  Her and Dad’s pastor, Rod Blanchard, observed, “Mary is having her own triumphal entry!”  And so she was–her own personal victory march into the New Jerusalem.  This past Sunday, back at our own church here in Pittsburgh, I sat in the choir with Wendy and Sean, and saw Anthony in the congregation.  As the music rolled over me, as the ancient words of Scripture were read and proclaimed, as the congregation together pronounced, “Christ is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!”, I realized that this Easter too is personal, in a new way, for me.

In the Orthodox icons of the resurrection, Jesus does not rise alone–he lifts others into the light, sharing his new life.  In Scripture as well, Jesus’ resurrection was never just about Jesus.  As John 14 reminds us, Jesus’ resurrection becomes our resurrection, my resurrection–Mom’s resurrection. I have always known this, of course.  But now, I KNOW it, at the center of my being.

May light perpetual shine on you, Mommy!  Thank you for all the love and kindness you lavished on us, showing us how to live together in God’s world.  We will meet you in glory.


To all who have offered words of comfort, prayers, cards, flowers, and other memorials–thank you so much.  May God richly bless you for being instruments to us of Christ’s peace.


How To the Read the Bible, Part Seven: Mind the Gap!

A major shortcoming of today’s rich online and media environment, with thousands of sources to choose from for our education, information, and entertainment, is that we can heed those we like, and ignore those we don’t.  As a result, we can surround ourselves with voices telling us what we already believe to be the case, and persuade ourselves that every reasonable person on earth thinks–or indeed, has always thought–just as we do.

This creates a major problem when we turn to the ancient and venerated text of the Bible.  We may think that our questions are no different than those posed by the original audience of the text.  We may even persuade ourselves that our cherished assumptions were also held by the writers of Scripture.  We may, in short, naively assume that our reading is the right reading: the plain meaning of the text for everyone and anyone–to the end that, sadly, the Bible winds up confirming our own prejudices, and telling us, in the end, nothing that we did not already know.

A moment’s thought dispels these deceptions.  For the Bible is old: speaking to us from as far as three thousand years in the past (the likely date of the ancient Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1-18, probably the oldest passage in Scripture), and expressing traditions and memories even older than its oldest written texts.  The Bible was written in languages foreign to us: classical Hebrew, Aramaic, ancient Greek.  Its traditions were formed and preserved in cultures very different from ours–and in many cases, different even from one another.  This means that those of us reading the Bible in English must remind ourselves continually as we read that any particular word or concept, translated from its original language and context into ours, may have meant something very different to them than that same word means to us.

Ubiquitous cautions in London’s subway system, the Tube, warn about the space between the platform and the train: “Mind the Gap.” In our Bible reading, we too must carefully and prayerfully mind the gap between ourselves and the text.

To take a fairly innocuous, noncontroversial example, consider the word “bishop.”  This year, the United Methodist Church will hold its Jurisdictional and Central Conferences, at which new Bishops will be elected.  Delegates to those conferences will prepare for this serious task by doing Bible study–as well they should.  But simply looking up the word “bishop” in Bible concordances and considering “what the Bible says about bishops” is not likely to be helpful.

Two passages are often held to relate the “biblical teaching” concerning the office of bishop.  In the King James Version, 1 Timothy 3:2 reads,

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach (so too the NRSV).

Likewise, Titus 1:7-9  says:

If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.  For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers (KJV; again, compare NRSV).

Our first problem is that the proper translation of the Greek word episkopos (rendered “bishop” in the passages above) is uncertain.  The NIV reads “overseer” instead of bishop, and the CEB has “supervisor” in these same passages.  Both are consistent with the use of this term in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, where episkopos translates various words related to the Hebrew paqad, referring to duty, responsibility, or some official position of authority (for example, Numbers 4:16 or Nehemiah 11:9).  Elsewhere in the New Testament, episkopos refers to a church office in Philippians 1:1 (compare the NRSV), but is also used in 1 Peter 2:25 for Jesus, “the shepherd and guardian [Greek episkopon] of your lives” (compare the KJV!).  In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the elders of the church in Ephesus,

Watch yourselves and the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as supervisors [Greek episkopoi], to shepherd God’s church, which he obtained with the death of his own Son.

So, whom did New Testament episkopoi oversee or supervise: A single congregation (as Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders implies, and as is often the case in modern African American churches)? Many congregations in an area (as bishops do in my own tradition)? Christians generally? We do not know–making the application of these passages to our context difficult.

Indeed, we need to ask whether the word episkopos meant at all for the first readers of Timothy and Titus what “bishop” means for United Methodist Christians.  Even in the contemporary church, “bishop” means something very different in, say, Roman Catholicism, or in African American Baptist traditions, than it means for United Methodists. The officials of the early church who are called “bishops” in the KJV and NRSV (among other translations) clearly differ from United Methodist bishops in multiple ways.

For example, it is evident from these biblical passages that episkopoi were to be men–not surprising, since  1 Timothy 2:8-15 denies women the right to preach or lead:

Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived (1 Tim 2:14).

We don’t need to take the author of 1 Timothy’s word for what the text says, of course–we can look up Genesis 3:12-13 for ourselves!  There, sure enough, the man declares, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12)–blaming not only Eve, but God, who had brought her to him.  The woman in turn blames the snake: “The snake tricked me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13).  God, however, buys none of this.  As the narrative unfolds in Genesis 3:14-19, the man, the woman, and the snake are all held accountable, and each suffers the consequences of the choice made.

The claims in 1 Timothy notwithstanding, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of women in leadership in the earliest church.  John’s gospel tells the remarkable story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, talked with him, and became the first missionary.  The work of Jesus and his followers was enabled by women of independent means “who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:2-3).  At the end, when his male disciples had forsaken him, the women remained, at the cross and at the tomb, so that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

In his letters, Paul mentions women leaders by name every time he offers personal greetings.  Romans 16 provides several fascinating examples. First, there is Phoebe, whom Paul calls a diakonon (Rom 16:1)–the CEB reads “servant,” but diakonos, the Greek word found here in a feminine form, is the same title the tradition assigns to male servant leaders such as Philip and Stephen (see Acts 6:1-6): like them, Phoebe was a deacon.  Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3-4) were a husband and wife ministry team; here as elsewhere, Paul breaks convention by mentioning the wife, Prisca (also called Priscilla), first. Paul also greets Mary (Rom 16:6), and most remarkably, Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7): another husband and wife team mentioned only here, but who Paul says are “prominent among the apostles.” Paul refers to Junia, a woman, as an apostle!

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul insists that Corinthian women follow custom by wearing a head covering while prophesying: emphasizing a distinction in dignity between women and men.  Still, this passage assumes that women were speaking in the churches–Paul just wants them to do so more respectfully.  Most remarkable of all is Paul’s bold proclamation in Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  

The attitudes expressed in Timothy and Titus must be read, not in isolation, but in the context of the whole of Scripture.  A solid biblical argument can be made for female pastoral leadership, at every level of church life.  In the United Methodist Church, women have been serving as bishops since 1980, when Rev. Marjorie Matthews was elected to that office.  Currently, 15 women serve as United Methodist bishops worldwide.

The passages from Timothy and Titus assume that bishops are not only men, but married men–clearly not the case in the Roman Catholic context!  Indeed, bishops must have had only one wife.  Again, the United Methodist Church (with the exception of the church in Liberia) does not follow this practice, permitting divorce and remarriage for laity and clergy alike, including bishops–indeed, my own Bishop fits into this category.  In short: it is by no means clear that the New Testament term sometimes rendered “bishop” has any simple relationship with the word “bishop” as my own Christian tradition–or for that matter, any contemporary church–uses it.

More controversial examples could be cited, of course.  Christian Zionists such as Rev. John Hagee argue that in these last days, the state of Israel must be re-established out to its ancient borders–rejecting the claims of Palestinian Arabs (including Christians) who also live in the land.  But shouldn’t the Bible’s clear call for the just treatment of all in the land (Exod 22:21-24Lev 19:33-34Deut 10:18-19) have a say in this matter as well? The relationship between biblical “Israel” and the modern political state called “Israel” may be less evident than is sometimes claimed.
Many folk opposing same-sex marriage (for example, the Primates of the Anglican Church, who in their recent meeting disciplined the Episcopal Church in the U.S. in part for celebrating same-sex marriages) base their opposition on their support for “biblical marriage.”  But can we assume that “marriage” meant for the ancient communities who gave us the Bible what it means for us? Indeed, is there any unified biblical view of marriage at all?
We will certainly revisit these questions in future blogs.  But, for now, all of us need to be wary of reading our own perspectives into the Bible.  We need to give the Bible its own independent and authentic voice–to listen humbly, to read carefully, and always, to mind the gap.

Aint Peter’s Church

aint peters church

When friend and colleague in United Methodist ministry Tom Barnicott shared this picture from Analytical Grammar on Facebook, I first laughed uproariously (what can I say–I love a good pun!), then shared it myself (with the added caption, “‘Tain’t Paul’s, neither”), and then thought, “Huh! Whose church is this?”–that is a profoundly important question.

The Christian season of Lent, during which we are called to repent of our sins and to seek God’s will for our lives, begins with Ash Wednesday, February 10.  I can think of no better way to enter into this Lenten discipline than to reflect on whose church it is, after all, and what that means for our lives and outreach.

Likely, many readers will think immediately of Jesus’ words to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, following Peter’s acclamation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter.  And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.  I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven” (Matt 16:16-19).

Traditional Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage finds here the establishment of Peter, the first Pope and vicar of Christ, as the foundation–the Rock–upon whom the church is established.  This passage, by the way, puns on the name “Peter” (Greek Petros), a nickname given to Simon bar Jonah by Jesus (see Mark 3:16; John 1:42).  Petros means “rock;” as does the Aramaic name Cephas (used for Peter in John 1:42 and consistently by Paul; see 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14).  It is as though Jesus called his friend “Rocky”!

This passage is also the source of the association of Peter with the keys to the kingdom, seen in the El Greco painting above, and in the crossed keys of the papal seal (here, the official seal of Pope Francis):

In the Greek of Matthew 16:19, the second-person pronouns (“you”) are singular, which could support the understanding that the keys were given to Peter. But other aspects of this passage call that into question.  First of all, while Petros is, of course, masculine, the noun translated “rock” in that very same verse is feminine: not petros, a rock or stone, but petra, a crag or outcropping (in the parable of the sower in Luke 8:6, 13, this is the word used for bedrock with only a very thin covering of soil).  In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) of Isaiah 8:14petra is used for Mount Zion–a passage quoted in Romans 9:33 and in 1 Peter 2:8 with reference to Jesus as the Messiah:

God will become a sanctuary—
    but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel;
    a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem.

In short, it appears that the Rock on which the church is founded may not be Peter after all, but rather Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Certainly, the text is very clear on whose church this is: Jesus declares, “I’ll build my church on this rock.”  The church belongs to Christ.

In Matthew’s gospel, the “kingdom of heaven” is not a reference to the afterlife (as in the myriad jokes about Saint Peter standing at the pearly gates).  Instead, the very Jewish Matthew, reluctant to refer to the Divine too directly, consistently uses this expression where Mark and Luke have “the kingdom of God“–the inbreaking of God’s reign into our world which Jesus both announced and inaugurated (compare Matt 4:17 with Mark 1:15). The kingdom is God’s–but we who claim to know and love the Lord can either give people access to what God is doing, or stand in their way.  The keys are ours–but that is less a promise or an honor than a caution.

Sadly, when we think that the church is ours, we may also think that having the keys gives us the authority to admit or exclude whomever we like.  On James Dobson’s radio program “Family Talk,” evangelist Franklin Graham said,

We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children. 

What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches. You have immoral people who get into the churches and it begins to effect the others in the church and it is dangerous.

Rev. Graham’s pronouns are significant: “our churches,” “our homes”–as though the church of Jesus Christ were our personal preserve, our private club, into which we need admit only those who think like us, and from which we can exclude anyone who makes us uncomfortable. This view of the church is not only mistaken, it is idolatrous: the church is Christ’s, not ours.  Indeed, as Christian blogger Benjamin Corey writes, the call for the exclusion of gay children, from Rev. Graham and others,

is precisely why 40% of homeless children in the United States are LGBTQ. It’s also why 68% of them report their homelessness is due to family rejection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, often by religious parents.

Mr. Corey is right: “these are dangerous, dangerous ideas– ideas the people of Jesus must resist and rebuke.”



My dear friend and colleague Andrew Purves, the Jean and Nancy Davis Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts this better than anyone I know:

Seeing ministry as “our” ministry or “my” ministry is the root problem that ails us. Ministry, rightly understood is our sharing in the continuing and ongoing ministry of Jesus in the world. . . . The heart of the matter is this: To participate in Jesus’ ministry requires our being willing to crucify any understanding of ministry as ours so that we may more fully experience the resurrection hope and power of Jesus’ ministry in and through our lives.

After all, brothers and sisters, it ain’t Peter’s church–or Paul’s, or yours, or mine.  It is the church of Jesus Christ.  God help us to claim and live this truth, in every congregation of Christ’s Church.


Clergy of all traditions are invited to join in a continuing education event sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and led by Dr. Andrew Purves called “The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord,”  Saturday, March 5, 9 AM – 3 PM, at Dutilh UMC, 1270 Dutilh Rd Cranberry Twp, PA 16066 (click on the link to register).  This will be a soul-stirring, life-changing, ministry-transforming experience!



How to Read the Bible, Part Six: What the Bible Isn’t


2016-01-18 15.07.09

Sorting through the boxes of papers left by her mother Gerry, Wendy found a stack of material that Mom had used in her Sunday School classes.  Among those old papers, I found this intriguing piece (clicking on it will reveal a larger image), attributed to Erwin L. Shaver, a pioneer in the Weekday Religious Education program of the ’40s–a program still operative in at least four states (Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, and Virginia).

This text is titled, “TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR THE TEACHER’S USE OF THE GREAT RULE BOOK.”  If there was any doubt as to the Book being referenced, the “first commandment” reads,

Thou shalt use the Bible as the Great Rule Book of the Christian life.

This is not the first time I have seen the Bible described as a rule book or instruction manual, of course.  A popular humorous piece claiming to present “The Entire Bible Explained In One Facebook Post” essentially summarizes God’s message to humanity as “Don’t do the things.”  Not long ago, when I asked a study group to reflect on what the Bible is, one participant responded: “The BIBLE is God’s Book of Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

This perception of the Bible is neither modern, nor American.  Pioneering astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) famously wrote in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615; quoting a private conversation with  Cardinal Cesare Baronius ), “La Bibbia ci insegna la via per andare in cielo, non come il cielo sia fatto“–commonly translated,

The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

For Galileo, science tells us how to understand nature in this world, while the Bible tells us how to prepare for the world to come–once more, the Bible is a rule book.

John Wesley, leader of the Wesleyan revivals in eighteenth century England, spoke similarly of the Bible as a guidebook to the afterlife:

I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing–the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [that is, “a man of one book”]. Preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, 1746.

At least in this essay, Wesley too seems to present the Bible as a rule book for how to go to heaven.

The problem, apparent to anyone who has actually sat down to read the Bible through, is that it is not a rule book–at least, not in any simple, straightforward sense.  While some portions of the Old Testament can be identified as rules or laws (notably, the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy), large sections of Scripture are not laws at all.

For example, the very first book of the Bible presents not rules, but a story: the story of Israel, from the beginnings of creation (Gen 1–3) to the ancestry of Abraham (Gen 11:25-32) to the lives of Abraham’s descendants, culminating in the family taking refuge in Egypt, led by Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph (Gen 46–50).  Along the way, the stories of Abraham’s family certainly do not serve as moral lessons (Jacob, for example, is a scoundrel!).  But they do demonstrate God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

Similarly, while some parts of the New Testament may fit the bill as setting forth rules for life (for example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7, or the book of James), much of it does not.  The Gospels, for example, are primarily narratives of Jesus’ life, and in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches not by setting forth rules for life, but by telling stories called parables (see Mark 4:34; Matt 13:34).  Once more, the Bible does not so much present rules to follow as tell a story about what a life lived in relationship to God is like.

Even those texts which certainly qualify as rules sometimes conflict, or are even abrogated–that is, set aside–by later texts.  For example, Deuteronomy 23:1-8 (23:2-9 in Hebrew) states clearly the makeup of Israel’s qahal: a term used both for a division in battle and for the worshipping congregation.  Specifically barred from participation are eunuchs:

No man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off can belong to the LORD’s assembly (Deut 23:1[2]).

Yet, despite the clear and explicit teaching of the  Torah, Isaiah 56:3b-5 states:

. . . don’t let the eunuch say,
        “I’m just a dry tree.”
The Lord says:
    To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    choose what I desire,
    and remain loyal to my covenant.
    In my temple and courts, I will give them
    a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
    I will give to them an enduring name
    that won’t be removed.

Why would the prophet directly contradict the Torah?  The answer lies in the different context of this oracle.  Likely, Isaiah 56 addresses the community in the days after the return from exile in Babylon, when Israel was rebuilding its culture as well as its towns and temple.  Some of those returnees would have been persons who had attained significant positions in the Babylonian bureaucracy, an honor that could carry with it a significant personal sacrifice: to ensure the king’s bloodline, and to restrict the temptation to rebellion, such persons–particularly those whose duties brought them into contact with the queen–could be castrated (see 2 Kings 20:18//Isaiah 39:7).  As eunuchs, they would have been barred from the congregation as ritually defiled.  But the prophet declares that other things are more important than ritual law: loving what God loves, honoring God’s sabbath, and loyalty to the covenant.  Far from rejecting these persons, the prophet affirms them, and assures that, despite being childless, their names would be remembered in Israel.

This is far from the only time in Scripture that one passage takes issue with another, based on what is deemed most important.  In 2 Chronicles 30:15-22, King Hezekiah of Judah invites all Israel to celebrate the passover in Jerusalem.  When he learned that some “hadn’t purified themselves and so hadn’t eaten the Passover meal in the prescribed way” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, in violation of the rules of Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5)–Hezekiah’s response was not to expel them.  Instead,

Hezekiah prayed for them: “May the good LORD forgive everyone who has decided to seek the true God, the LORD, the God of their ancestors, even though they aren’t ceremonially clean by sanctuary standards” (2 Chr 30:18-19).

The Lord heard the king’s prayer, and the community was healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Often in the Bible, interpreters of Scripture look beneath the rules for the RULE, if you will.  So, the prophet Micah asked, “What does God truly want?

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Jesus too sets aside strict legalism, seeking the heart and spirit of God in Scripture.  Six times in Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “But I say.” Jesus reads specific texts of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals of justice upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire.  Jesus does not take the Bible literally.  He takes the Bible seriously.

In Erwin Shaver’s second commandment for teachers, he urged, “Thou shalt seek to discover in it [that is, in the Bible] the rules of the spirit and not be misled by the ‘the letter which killeth'” (the reference is to 2 Corinthians 3:6 in the KJV).  Indeed, for all Shaver’s disparaging words about exalting “the Word and His principles set forth in this Great Ruler Book above the compromising ethics and customs made by agreement of ‘men-pleasers'” (his tenth commandment; the reference is to Colossians 3:22//Ephesians 6:6 in  the KJV), his sixth commandment reads, “Thou shalt reveal the Bible as an up-to-date rule book by interpreting its everlasting truths in terms of today’s needs.” Mr. Shaver knew that Scripture calls for interpretation, not mechanical, rote application.

So too, in the preface to his Sermons, John Wesley acknowledged that understanding the meaning of Scripture calls for more than rule-following:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

May we turn to the Bible, not as an inflexible book of rules, but as an invitation into relationship with the God of Scripture.  Only then will we understand what the Bible truly is.