Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Gates of Hades

The “Gates of Hades”

Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Who do men say that the Son of man is?  And they said, Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  He saith unto them, But who say ye that I am?  And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Then charged he the disciples that they should tell no man that he was the Christ.  (Matt. 16:13-20)[1]


Let it be suggested that when He used the expression “gates of Hades” in Matt. 16:18, Jesus was referring metaphorically to Jerusalem.  The passage is often understood more literally to refer to the gated realm of the dead, and to this realm as a power that comes against the church offensively but is ultimately unable to prevail against it. 

The literal sense of this expression, found only here in the Gospels, is found in Job 17:16; 38:17; Ps. 9:13, 107:18; Is. 38:10 and in noncanonical sources, Wis. Sol. 16:13; 3 Macc. 5:51; Pss. Sol. 16:2 and is also found in pagan literature such as Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripedes.[2]  In this sense, as Carson notes, “gates of Hades” seems to connote meanings of death and dying.  Jesus will build His church of mortal people, yet [their] deaths and dying will not prevail against the church so as to destroy it.  Again, “gates of Hades” is often taken as an offensive force that comes against the church bent on destruction.  However, even with the more literal meaning and sense, one could also understand the “gates” as a defensive barricade that “will not prevail” against the militant evangelistic mission of the church.  And it does seem much more natural to see “gates” with a defensive function, rather than with an offensive one.  When have gates ever attacked anyone or anything?

The interpretation adopted here favors a defensive understanding of the “gates” and understands Jesus to mean that He will build His church, and Jerusalem will be unable to prevail against its advance against its fortifications.

Jeremiah in Matthew’s Gospel

The identification by Peter, of Jesus as Messiah, is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Curiously, to answer the question, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” only Matthew mentions Jeremiah.  And, in the NT, the prophet Jeremiah is mentioned only four times, and three of these are by Matthew (the other is in Hebrews).  Matthew places the Jeremiah quotations at the beginning and end of his Gospel, and the one in 16:18 between them.

In 2:17, Matthew refers to Jeremiah’s description of “Rachel, weeping for her children” in the story of the “slaughter of the innocents.”  The reference is drawn from Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation” (chs. 30-31).  In 1 Sam. 10:2f., Ramah is said to be the site of Rachel’s tomb.  John Bright[3] writes, “Jeremiah imagines the spirit of the mother of Joseph’s tribes (Ephraim) haunting her tomb, weeping for her children who had been deported by the Assyrians one hundred years earlier (721).”  Frederick Bruner[4] understands Matthew’s reference from Jeremiah, not so much as predicting Herod’s murder of innocent children in his attempt to kill Jesus, but rather as yet another episode, so sadly oft-repeated in history, that prompts the mourning of the community of God’s people.  These too are Rachel’s children, however distant in the future, precious but fragile human treasure callously destroyed by satanically-driven political forces.  Herod (Jewish only as a political expedient) gets the intelligence data from both pagan and Jewish practitioners to determine which babies to kill to eliminate a rival king, and Rachel weeps.  The encounter occurs in Jerusalem between Herod and both the Magi and the Jewish religious intelligentsia.

In 27:9, Judas pays 30 pieces of silver as the blood-money to condemn Jesus.  Matthew adds, “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was priced, whom certain of the children of Israel did price; and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me.”  The villain in the slaughter of the innocents had been Herod; the villain in the slaughter of the Innocent is now Judas.  Like the babies of Bethlehem, Jesus becomes the helpless victim of ruthless political forces that stand obstinately and formidably against the purposes of God.  As in the earlier Jeremiah reference, political forces co-opt religious forces in an attempt to kill Jesus.  The treachery of Judas succeeds where that of Herod had failed.  This act of treachery also occurs in Jerusalem. 

Let it be suggested that Matthew’s middle mention of Jeremiah (in 16:14) also enters the same conceptual battle between God and anti-God political forces.  In the climactic moment of the disclosure of Jesus’ truest identity, the prophet Jeremiah is set forth as one possible option some have suggested as this identity (again, no other Gospel includes this possibility besides Matthew).  Peter gives the better answer regarding Jesus’ identity as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16) and Jesus validates this as a revelation from Heaven.  After the famous commendation of Peter as “the Rock”, Jesus then discloses the future building of His church and insists that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” 

A political/governmental meaning is subtly suggested not only contextually, by the outer mentions of Jeremiah in the First Gospel, but also suggested intertextually, by meanings lodged within the book of Jeremiah.    

The “gates of Jerusalem” in Jeremiah

Jeremiah prophesies through the waning days of the Davidic dynasty, through the destruction of Jerusalem, and into the Exile—and these calamities eventuate as the wrathful judgment of God falls against and upon His chosen people, who have broken and forsaken the covenant.  He is presented, through his self-effacing lack of self-esteem that prohibits his willing acceptance of God’s commission, to be a prophet like Moses.  In Jeremiah’s inaugural vision in 1:15, Jeremiah sees a boiling cauldron facing from the North.  Evil is to be poured upon Israel from all of the northern enemies, who will set their thrones “at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, and against all the walls thereof round about, and against all the cities of Judah.”  Jeremiah is to stand strong in this message against them, as God brings judgment for the way they have forsaken Him and engaged false worship.  If they honor Yahweh in Sabbath, they will have a Davidic king (22:4).  Jeremiah is assured, “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail (Heb. “yakōl”; LXX “dunwntai”) against thee: for I am with thee, saith Jehovah, to deliver thee”  (1:19).

In 17:19-27, the “gates” are the focal point of Sabbath observance, as people truck their wares for commerce.  God declares, “But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden and enter in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (17:27). 

What is interesting here is that wicked Pagan political foes are sent in the employ of Yahweh against His own people for the purpose of executing His judgment against them.  The pagans set their “thrones” at the gates of Jerusalem (which Jesus referred to as “the city of the great King”, the very footstool for the throne of God in Heaven, Matt. 5:35), but the gates are no safeguard against the wrath of God that will soon be unleashed.  Jeremiah is not to back down as he gives voice to this terrible message, and he will be sorely resisted and opposed.  And God assures him, “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee: for I am with thee, saith Jehovah, to deliver thee” (Jer. 1:19).  The gates are the barrier outside of which Jerusalem’s foes are ensconced upon their thrones, and as Jeremiah dares tell of it, his foes will not prevail against him any more than will their gates prevail against the onslaught by the enemies from the North (Babylon).

Jesus made these pronouncements at Caesarea Philippi, which was a complex of paganism[5].  Interestingly, the topographical features of this location are said to include a cave known as the “gates of Hades” and a mountain called “the Rock.”     

Jerusalem’s vulnerability to Jesus’ approach

As Jesus sets forth plans for His church, the same gates will not “prevail” against it as those that fell before Babylonian destroyers of Jerusalem’s temple.  He ominously or derisively calls the gates of Jerusalem the “gates of Hades.”  As no other Gospel mentions Jeremiah, the same goes for the word “church.”  It falls in Matthew both here and in the discussion of “church discipline/disfellowship” in ch. 18.  With Carson[6], it seems best not to understand “church” in the later sense developed in the NT, which would be rather anachronistic.  Instead, the word translated “church” in the Greek NT is also found in the Greek OT (the Septuagint), and here it translates the Hebrew word “qāhāl”, which means “assembly”.  This came to stand for the people of God as a community.  Thus, Jesus is speaking of the community of people He will establish (“build”) in His role as Messiah.  He and they may be spoken of together, as one.  Thus, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, so (proleptically) do they.  He/they, one community of God’s Messianic people, will in eventual development constitute the “church” through the agency of the apostles and of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost.  When Jesus enters, Jerusalem will not prevail against the church, the people among which He stands now as representative.

Immediately following, Jesus makes the first prediction of His passion (16:21ff.) in these words:  “From that time began Jesus to show unto his disciples, that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up.”  When Peter (so soon after his triumphant answer to the “multiple choice” question of Jesus’ true identity) challenges this as a non-acceptable possibility, the same disciple who had just been praised as having received revelation from the Father, revelation upon which the church would be built, this same disciple is now castigated as “Satan.”  The reason that Jesus one minute calls Peter “the Rock” and the next minute calls him “Satan”?  In Jesus’ perception:  “for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:23).  We might recall the final wilderness temptation, in which Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world and their glory, if only Jesus will worship Him.  Instead, Jesus will go to Jerusalem and offer Himself (through the criminal justice system) to the political powers. 

Jesus again predicts His passion in 17:22f. and 20:17ff. (the theme also appears in 17:12; 26:2, and 26:12).  The middle prediction is the least specific regarding who will inflict suffering and death, indicating only “human hands”.  More to the point are the first and last predictions, which implicate Jewish religious leadership (elders, chief priests, scribes).  But the final prediction also includes a handing-over to the Gentiles.  This foreshadows the complicity of Jewish religious authority with Roman political authority that fulfills Psalm 2:

“Why do the nations rage,

And the peoples meditate a vain thing?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

And the rulers take counsel together,

Against Jehovah, and against his anointed…”

A lexical glitch

As Jeremiah stood strong before the gates of Jerusalem, so will the church against the “gates of Hades”.  This interpretation would be a lock if Matthew had used the same Greek word for “prevail” as is found in the Greek translation of Jeremiah 1:19.  However, Jeremiah in the Septuagint has “dunwntai” (PresActSubj 3Sng) and Matthew has “katisxusousin” (FutActInd 3Plur).  Since Matthew usually worked from the LXX, it is hard to account for the difference.  Perhaps Matthew is working from either Hebrew or Aramaic.  The Hebrew for Jer. 1:19 is “yakōl”, (BDB 3201; cognate to Aram. 3202) meaning, “be able, have power, prevail, endure”, thus “to be able to do a thing, whether the ability be physical, moral, constitutional, or dependent on external authority.”[7]  Although the LXX employs the word “katisxuw” about 80 times, the Septuagint does not appear to ever use this word to translate the Hebrew word “yakōl” that Jeremiah uses in 1:19.  It may be worth noting that the Hebrew translation of the Greek NT[8] for Matt. 16:18 instead uses “gābar” (BDB 1396), meaning “be strong, mighty; compel, force; prevail over.”[9]

Although different lemmas are used between Matthew and the LXX version of Jeremiah, both forms are translated as “prevail” or “overcome” in most English translations.  There appears to be enough semantic overlap in the meanings of all of the Hebrew and Greek words involved in the various texts to see them synonymously.  It certainly would have been nice to find complete lexical correspondence, but the difference is not sufficient to counter the force of the contextual and intertextual evidence for the interpretation offered here.

The coming judgment upon Jerusalem

After the disclosure of His status as Messianic Son of God, Jesus not only grows more intense with predictions of His coming passion.  Once Jesus arrives in the Holy City, beginning with the temple cleansing (21:12ff.), He also sharpens rhetoric of scathing judgment against Jerusalem.  Many of the parables could be read through rather thin veils as targets of the same barbs.

The judgment theme in Matthew began at the genealogy[10], and by implication targets Jerusalem.  The second line of “14” features Davidic kings of Judah that ruled from the capital of Jerusalem (the time-frame covered here would include Jeremiah’s prophetic career).  The line leads to the final kings of the 400-year-old Davidic dynasty (the sons of Josiah) and ends with a crash in the “deportation to Babylon.”  The major catastrophe against Jerusalem (and Temple) was so devastating that it does not have to be mentioned.  It is apparent, by these and with other clear indications planted by Matthew within the genealogy, that the theme of this “second line” is the descent into judgment. 

History is about to repeat itself.  The condemning of Jerusalem by Jesus crescendos in chs. 23 and 24.  Jesus lashes out in the twin emotions of sadness and anger (both suggest a reaction to fear that Jesus feels deeply) that are enunciated simply as, “Woe!” or “Alas!”  The strongest denunciation of the city is against its historical maltreatment of the prophets sent by God, a practice that continues unabated: 

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her!  how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.  For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.  (23:37-39)

The Temple will be left dismantled totally.  Chapter 24, though its pronouncements are cryptic and require the greatest effort in interpretation, speaks largely of the Roman destruction that will wait only a few decades.  This will be God’s doing, no less than the Babylonian devastation had been.

Who finally “prevails”?

Jesus enters Jerusalem and His predictions are fulfilled.  The King of Israel is mocked, and tortured, and nailed to the Cross to death.  Have the Hosanna-cheering crowds whose adoration approached worship been switched to bloodthirsty cries of “Crucify!”?  And what of that smallest circle of disciples who were so slow to “get it” during the few years that Jesus taught, and chided, and role-modeled, and demonstrated among them an other-realm Presence?  One had already turned on Him for 30 silvers; would Jesus’ work and mission end with their disillusionment and His death?  Had the combined authorities of religion and politics overpowered Jesus?

Resurrection.  Resurrection appearances.  A reception of outpoured Spirit.  Messages preached.  Scriptures written.  Converts baptized.  In so short a time, like flame on dry tinder, the Jesus movement transformed itself from a band of Jewish disciple-followers into church.  The fellowship of Jesus crossed barriers of religion and ethnicity, growing continually.  It had entered the Gates of Hades and the gates were unable to prevail against it.  The terrible powers arrayed against Jesus threw their worst against Him, but it was not enough.  The baby that Herod the Great tried to kill survived and advanced a mission that proved unstoppable, even after Herod’s descendant, Herod Antipas, colluded with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to drain Jesus’ life on the Cross.  The church that resulted had been built upon Rock.

And what of Jerusalem, with the whole political complex from Temple officials to Roman governor?  For those confidently hopeful that the judgment-threats issued by Jesus were empty, hope was dashed when Jesus gained resurrection-life after three days in the tomb.  The resulting brushfires of enthusiastic belief among His disciples and their converts could not be quenched or eliminated.  A few decades would pass, and tension grew between the Roman overlords and Jewish agitators who refused to turn the other cheek.  The resulting Jewish War (from 66 to 73 AD) brought the crushing Roman military power against the Jewish people, who suffered terribly, and against the Jerusalem Temple, which was destroyed in 70 AD.  The Judgment predicted by Jesus had fallen, and for those with eyes to see, Jesus had returned in fulfillment of Matt. 24:29-35.[11]

The tale carries terrible irony.  Jesus came to Jerusalem without military/political force.  He was a man without army, riding a donkey.  And He submitted himself to the military/political powers seated in the Holy City.  And they did to Him what such powers tend to do.  Such brutal encounters almost always make the powers the survivors, and make give their enemies a criminal status that brings to a forgotten end anything they had started.  Jesus entered the realm of the dead, but it was Jerusalem that became the true Hades.  Her glorious Temple of stone toppled with the “power” it represented.  It could not prevail against the Rock church.

[1] All Scripture citations are from the ASV of 1901.
[2] References found in D. A. Carson, Matthew, Chapters 12 through 28, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 1995), p. 370. 
[3] John Bright, Jeremiah in The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1965), p. 282.
[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary, Volume 1:  The Christbook, rev. and exp. (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2004), p. 70.  Bruner suggests that as there were three “exiles” (Egyptian, Babylonian, and Roman) in the Bible, so there are three “slaughters” in Matthew (the innocents, John the Baptist, and Jesus).
[5] Matthew’s interest in pagans in the unfolding Messianic working of God begins with the mention of four Gentile women in his genealogy which is soon followed by the visit to the baby Jesus by Gentile Magi.
[6] D. A. Carson, Matthew, p. 369. 
[7] The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Genesius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1979), pp. 407-08.
[8] hXdx t yrb, United Bible Societies (1976), p. 46.
[9] The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Genesius Hebrew and English Lexicon, p.149.
[10] For an excellent exposition, see Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary, Volume 1:  The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, rev. and exp. ed., (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 7-22.
[11] This “coming” refers to Jesus’ return in power in judgment in AD 70.  This judgment marks the end of a covenant relationship between Israel and Yahweh.  This “coming” is not a reference to the “Second Coming”, the apocalyptic return of Jesus at the end of history when the final Judgment convenes (Jesus spoke to that event in chapter 24 beginning in v. 36).

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Gender in Christian Perspective

We noted in an earlier posting that the genders have been at war.  Relations have not always been mutually beneficial or friendly.  Gender is often addressed within various religious perspectives, and religion becomes one of the major cultural forces that imprint notions of gender upon emerging generations. 

Within Christendom, gender is sometimes forced into the constrictions of the larger society, so that “gender feminism” rules the church.  Women are then appointed as preachers and elders.  The preaching that is allowed within this perspective may challenge the Bible as outdated, or even as corrupted by males who disadvantage females.  The same battle that rages in the larger culture sometimes rages also in the fellowship of male and female Christians.

By and large, the Bible is the essential source of authority for Christianity.  In all areas of doctrine, faith, and practice, including gender relations, the Bible is upheld as the authentic, quintessential measure of what it means to be Christian.  The Bible generates a perspective that sometimes clashes against the perspective of the larger culture.  This Biblical authority will be honored by some; disdained and repudiated by others.  For many of us, the Bible is regarded as the Word of God.  We submit ourselves to the judgment of Biblical teaching, rather than deem ourselves to be its judges.  What sort of gender perspective results when the Bible is honored?  What relations are placed between the masculine and the feminine in the home (marriage and parenting), in the church, and in the larger culture?

Creation:  an unequal ordering of equals.

The Bible opens with narratives describing God’s Creation of the cosmos.  Human beings are uniquely honored in this Creation with the privilege of wearing God’s own image.  While all of the creation and ordering that spans the universe, to one degree or another, bears the stamp of God’s imprint and so offers a reflection of His glory and essential character, such quality finds unique expression in the human element of God’s creation:  “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.  And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:26-27). 

Because man is uniquely given this privilege, he is given dominion over the rest of creation, including other species of plants and animals as well as the material substance of the created order.  Mankind sits at the top, as a sort of “God in miniature” since he exhibits the image of God.  Curiously, this invites another clash with modern society.  Just as the recognition of gender roles (especially those that grant priority of one gender over the other) was deemed to be “sexist”, some deny the superiority of any single species over the others.  They call such claims to superiority, “species-ism.”  This differentiating of perspectives demonstrates the unique path of thought and philosophy of life that results when the Bible is embraced as authoritative.

Genesis shows man to be fundamentally a “misfit” in the created order.  Although like God and the bearer of the Divine “image”, man is not located where God is.  He is placed here below, with his feet on earth/Earth.  And man also shares a biological commonality with other animal species, and he takes his place among them.  As God creates the wonder of bio-diversity, one species after another, He parades them before His smaller image-bearer and allows man/Adam to name them.  God creates; Adam merely names.  He is like God, but different in a lessened potential. 

And when God sees that Adam needs to connect socially, that man will be lonely unless companionship is provided.  There is a separation between Adam and God—between Big God and little god—that leaves unfulfillment in spite of wearing God’s image.  So God parades the various animal species before Adam as an offer of companionship.  But none of these will suffice.

So God puts Adam under anesthesia, severs off part of his body, and from this He creates another human, this one female.  She has a commonality with Adam beyond any animal species, for she was formed out of his essence.  He recognizes this, declaring:  “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23).  This pairing is apparently unique.  While God apparently created the lions, penguins, and lizards in ordered pairs of each gender, mankind starts with the male, from which the female is provided after a severance and reconstruction.  This gives the male a certain priority. 

We see this also in the search for a helper suitable to Adam, a search which was unsuccessful among the animals.  So, God works through surgery and reconstruction.  And this new work of God yields a being who, like Adam, is also in the image of God:  “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27).  Here, “man” in the Hebrew is “Adam” which, like the word “seed”, can be either singular or collective.  The collective here would be translated, “mankind.”  God created mankind in His own image, and this creation includes male and female.  In context, the primary meaning of mankind’s bearing the image of God is a matter of authority.  God creates everything and is thus supreme over it; yet He delegates authority over Creation to His male-and-female image-bearers.  Man and woman jointly sit on the throne over God’s created order, and this suggests a fundamental equality between them that is entered by no other creature.  We see this equality surfacing in Bible passages like 1 Cor. 7:4, "The wife hath not power over her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power over his own body, but the wife."  This "power" would surely reside only with the husband if God had intended less than equality with the wife.

What is curious, however, is that this “equality” is ordered not in parity, but in hierarchy:

·        Adam is created first, then Eve.

·        Eve is made for Adam’s benefit.

The same “inequality within equality” plays out when the serpent tricks mankind into surrendering their throne.  The serpent first deceives Eve, who takes in Adam.  When God judges the three of them, He faults the man for listening to his wife instead of taking authority:  “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree…”  (Gen. 3:17).  Whereas mankind had dominion over creation (including the serpent), they allowed the serpent to dominate them.  They gave away their priority that God had placed in their hands.  And, according to the same theme, Adam gave away his authority over Eve.


Theological Reflections


It might be a good idea to refrain from rebelling against the apparent unfairness of the “inequality within equality” that God has ordered between him and her.  At least we should watch how this plays out and see if we are viewing a Divine mistake, or if this curiosity bears out some of the marks of the amazing wisdom that we normally expect from our Creator.

First, if you are a woman, imagine the position in which God has placed the man.  He has authority, yes, but it is authority over a being, a fellow human, a fellow image-bearer, who is every bit his equal.  An American President who is respectful toward Constitutional authority recognizes that he stands under this authority no less than those over which he “presides”.  This recognition properly inspires humility such as one does not find in a tyrannical dictator.  The President is in authority over his equals, after all. 

In 1789, a British sea captain named William Bligh commanded the ship HMS Bounty.  Bligh mistreated his crew with harsh punishments and public humiliations.  Finally, repelled by his cruelty and attracted by the charms of the women of a tropical island paradise, they mutinied against his authority.  His treatment of them was not that of one who respected them as his equals.  This historical event demonstrates what we understand as commonplace in all human society:  although all humans share a fundamental equality, some of these “equals” are placed over other “equals” in positions of authority.  And this arrangement need not degenerate into tyrannical abuses of that authority.  There is a difference between being "authoritative" and being "authoritarian."

A “leader-equal” should be moved by recognition of that equality to fair, reciprocal, and respectful treatment of those under his authority.  This moral imperative is not restricted to gender ordering, but applies to leadership and followership in many areas, such as government and business and other organizational structures.

Second, if you are a man, imagine the position in which God has place the woman.  Although every bit your equal, she submits to your authority.  She willingly accepts this position with all of the vulnerability it brings upon her.  Her decision may place her under a brutal, selfish dictatorial tyrant or may place her safely under a benevolent, respectful, fair-minded leader.  I would suggest that the acceptance of this social/organizational vulnerability is precisely what Peter means when he refers to woman as the “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7).  It is not a reference to physical weakness, much less to intellectual weakness.  It is a positional weakness.  It is a weakness voluntarily accepted in reverence to God and, hopefully also, in respect for the man.  She accepts his authority though she knows he is no better than her; they are equals who alike wear the very image of Creator-God.

Now, certain dynamics like these we have just discussed are turned loose when God orders man and woman in what seems to be a most unnatural ordering of equals.  Instances of unfairness jump out energetically into view.  Authority will be readily challenged.  Opportunities and temptations for mutiny abound.  Inherent tension can erupt in battles of conflict.  When two equal marbles are stacked vertically, they have the tendency to fall to the same position.  They can remain stacked only if great care is taken and interference is prevented.  The same happens when equal man and woman are placed in hierarchy rather than in parity, which is obviously the natural ordering.

So, given this unnatural and inherently unstable ordering, why would God set such an ordering in place within gender relations, a factor of primary significance in what it means to be human?  To answer the riddle, we will have to look more deeply at what the Bible says about gender relations, especially in marriage, but also in the church.

But we might speculate a little.  It has been suggested that God has placed man and woman in roles quite opposite their native proclivities.  In other words, woman tends to want dominion, but God has placed her in subjection.  And man tends to shirk the responsibilities that belong to a leader, but God has placed him in an authoritative position.  This has the effect of causing each gender to fortify their native weaknesses and shortcoming.  Perhaps.  But I’m not sure these characterizations apply commonly to men and women.

Another speculation, that seems to be on firmer ground, is that God has made this arrangement because it teaches humanity lessons in “leadership” and “followership” that are essential for success in our relationship as humans to God.  Some of the same inherent tensions and abuses that pertain to gender relations also crop up when little gods try to relate to the Big God.  Perhaps God threw the "riddle of gender" into His Creation to be an exercise that would prepare us for something bigger. 

Gender Relations

Gender speaks to the existence of people as males and females, masculine and feminine.  It is one of the most important factors in human relationships.  Unfortunately, our culture has long been confused over gender.  One news magazine in recent years even declared on its cover:  “Men and Women Really Are Different.”  That would seem obvious.  The reason why they felt the need to say it is a matter of history.


The Battle of the Sexes


It is an unfortunate truth that in many cultures throughout human history women have been devalued and even mistreated.  Our own country has a long tradition of addressing this undeniably legitimate complaint by women.  Among other advances, it won them the right to vote.  “Feminism” is the movement based on this complaint.


While few would deny that the basic cause or complaint of feminism is just, some solutions to the basic problem have been failures.  Especially, what has been called “gender feminism.”  Gender feminists demand that gender should have nothing to do with human relationships.  Especially they demand that all gender specific roles, like that of a husband being different from a wife, or of a father being different from a mother, should be thrown out.  The idea that men or women are better suited to certain roles, in this perspective, is called “sexism.” 


Archetypes and Stereotypes

How do people become what they are?  Where does personality come from?  In part, we are born with certain fixed characteristics—archetypes.  We all contain an element of ego, of concern for self, that owes itself to nothing more than meeting the challenges of survival.  Other characteristics are learned, passed on to emerging people from significant others or from the parent culture.  Gender feminism assumes that all gender traits are stereotypes, that gender starts with learning.  Moreover, it holds that what our culture traditionally has taught about gender has been developed by men as a way to disadvantage and abuse women.  Reflexively, any and every gender stereotype is challenged, resisted and overthrown everywhere possible.

Gender feminism has greatly influenced modern culture.  It has confused marital roles (husbands and wives), parental roles (fathers and mothers), and especially gender as it relates to roles of authority in society and in the church.  Mothers were encouraged to enter the traditionally male work place, perhaps even when it meant abandoning the womanly nurture of children (motherhood).  The husbands who left the workplace to attempt this mothering were called “Mr. Mom.”  All such roles involved stereotypes that, it was thought, should be thrown off and gender relations should be relearned.  Notice that the idea that gender can be learned or unlearned has made homosexuality the step-child of gender feminism.  Formerly, it was understood that males were to select females as mates.  But once gender was seen as an arbitrary stereotype, the choice of a mate also became arbitrary.  Some even try to change their physical gender through surgery.  Great effort was placed in reproductive medicine (birth control, abortion, etc.) to reduce or eliminate the role of gender in relationships.


It is not to be denied that some gender stereotypes are unnecessary, downright silly, and perhaps even served to disadvantage one gender before another.  Yet it must be admitted that even some of these were willing disadvantages, in which one gender willingly disadvantaged itself before the other as a gracious gesture.  For example, a woman would honor her husband by taking his name in marriage.  Or a husband would open doors, or show other courtesies for his wife.  Making such concessions promoted the greater good of neither the male nor the female; this was for the good of their union as a couple.


However, it cannot be denied that gender feminism has confused archetypes with stereotypes.  There are certain aspects of maleness and femaleness that are built-in—they cannot be denied without damage to self, relationships and society.  Gender feminism denies the undeniable, leading again to the breaking news story:  “Men and Women Really Are Different.”  Studies in human infants, before they can be tainted in any way by cultural imprinting of gender traits, show gender distinctiveness between baby girls and baby boys.  Attempts to imprint maleness on girls or to imprint femininity on boys diminishes rather than exalts essential personhood, and shows itself as a cruel enterprise.    


Gender traits that are archetypes involve much more than the genital and reproductive organs.  Science has identified many aspects of biology and physiology that show differences between men and women—brain structure, hormones, etc.  There are ways of socializing that are uniquely male or female.  Many books have been written in recent years that draw conclusions which modern feminism would eagerly reject even when the evidence goes against its dogmatic contentions.  Each gender is thus better suited to certain roles or functions.  The general truth of these distinctions is not to be denied, even if we admit a great deal of commonality in a shared humanity between men and women.  These are one species; not two (the differences are so stark as to allow John Gray to title his bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus).  And, the general truth is valid also even if we acknowledge that some men are more “manly” than others and that some women are more “womanly” than others.  While the magnitude of gender uniqueness varies between individual men and individual women, the fundamental distinction between male gender and female gender will still be there at the end of the day, a factor that stubbornly resists denial. 


While it might be wise, in some instances, to challenge gender stereotypes, it is foolish to defy aspects of gender that are built-in and are fundamental to our humanity.  We may even find them a cause for celebration.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Eden lost: Restoring what had been better....

Restoration begins with the sweet memory of a better state of affairs, of a time when things were better, or were as they should be.  Restoration finds its home in a world in which decay, corruption, rust, and depreciation are facts of life.  This is the natural tendency of things.  Restoration undertakes very “unnatural” processes like repair, renewal, reclamation, and revitalization.  Progress is not a default direction; it happens only through deliberation.  In fact, in the sense we mean it, Restoration transcends from an “unnatural” to a “Supernatural” process.

Restoration encompasses everything from the micro to the macro.  On the largest scale, the entire created order has fallen from the pristine, honorable, pure state given by the Creator.  Jesus will remain in Heaven until “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).  The creation will be again put right.  We would notice the damage if someone placed a moustache on the Mona Lisa, but not everyone has the vision to behold the satanic marring of God’s good creation.  Things are in disrepair, and terribly so.  Jesus would not have taken the Cross if a little patch or cosmetics would suffice.  The damage could be fixed by nothing less than Jesus’ sin-bearing death on the Cross.

Restoration takes in every smaller part of Creation that has suffered damage.  The Great Commission that undertakes the evangelism of the non-Christian world aims to restore humanity to honor, glory, and nobility that the stained image-bearers of God traded to the Devil in the greatest swindle of all times.  Every person who has fallen from perfection should hunger desperately to have themselves restored.  This restoration of the individual is the most micro level of the work of God.

And the American Restoration Movement remembers a time when the church was in better shape.  There was a time when unity was a non-negotiable quality that Christians would fight for, if ever a sign of unraveling fell into the holy fellowship of God’s people.  That unity was so important to Father and Son that they sent the Holy Spirit to indwell first one Christian and another, and then to be the common indwelling Presence shared by all.  Not everyone can see the ugliness when Christians denominate into separate fellowships and begin to see some as “one of us” and others as “one of them.”  Some think it’s beautiful to have such variety of faiths and celebrate the diversity.  Others of us long to go back….

Restoration has to be a “back-to-the-Bible” process.  Love alone is not enough, though it is indispensable.  Love has to be guided by knowledge, wisdom, and clear direction that can only come from the revelation of God.  When my relationship with God slips, I have to restore it through the correction that comes from Scripture.  When my church slips, crossing some doctrinal line or failing to honor God in theological belief, we have to submit to what is Written.  Whole denominations have to come to fresh terms with the body of tradition that they have inherited, perhaps uncritically in view of the Bible.  All of the “isms” that define one identity group (but not the others) can be legitimately retained only if they are true to what God has revealed and declared, or they must be jettisoned sacrificially not merely to please God, but to enable restoration of fellowship with Christians who are unable to join them in such beliefs because they, in truth, are not supported in the faith once delivered to the saints.

There is a cost to restoration.  To regain what was good, some adopted substitute will be lost.  Some theological trend that has been cherished for centuries, and traces its memory to someone pedestalled as a hero, might have to be wadded up and summarily trashed.  Arguments will arise and relationships will shake and sometimes break.  Church discipline will have to be enforced and meals will no longer be eaten with someone we loved dearly, and love still.  Those who love the truth will sometimes have to walk away alone.  Your hearts will be broken.  Paul wrote, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it.  For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident” (1 Cor. 11:18-19).  The Prince of Peace himself came to bring, not peace, but a sword, creating enmity even between the sharers of a common household (Matt. 10:34ff.).

Fact is, today we have numerous “Christianities” and numerous strategies by which salvation in Jesus might be had.  I hope I’m not the first to see that God did not create them all.  I hope others can see that they all do not have God’s approval (see the Bible).  There are not many paths from which we may choose.  There are but two; one considerably wider (and easier) than the other (Matt. 7:13-14). 

For example, consider baptism, the salvation-bearing rite of Christian initiation.  To accommodate those who cannot accept the plain teaching of Scripture, shunted aside as they are by this theological trend or that, some have instead created “the Sinner’s Prayer”.  Others have changed the meaning of the act, still insisting that new (already-saved, it is supposed) Christians yet obey the command to “get wet all over”, now for some other contrived reason—perhaps an outward public confession of an inward faith.  They, thus, obey God’s command to “be baptized”, right?  Forget for the moment that getting wet all over is quite a strange way to publicly declare faith.  The silly notion has not a single support from Scripture.  Some baptisms are quite private (the eunuch, the Philippian jailer), and at others we never hear the call, “Gather a crowd, they’re about to get wet all over!”  Meanwhile, the plain declarations of union with Christ Jesus, with remission of sin, and with reception of Spirit are ignored suspiciously or explained away torturously.

This is a call to anyone who longs for a better day.  Those of a Restorationist bent have little appreciation for the current state of things.  There were Restorationists around who saw the great Temple of God razed to the ground, and who could not applaud its disappointing replacement:

And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of Jehovah, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise Jehovah, after the order of David king of Israel.  And they sang one to another in praising and giving thanks unto Jehovah, saying, For he is good, for his lovingkindness endureth for ever toward Israel.  And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised Jehovah, because the foundation of the house of Jehovah was laid.  But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, the old men that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy:  so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people; for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off.  (Ezra 3:10-13, ASV)

In our day, there is great rejoicing over the broad diversity of Christendom, but not from those who remember the sweet unity that was once shared in the Spirit in shared beliefs.  Those of us who have seen something better than the current Babel within Christianity will work for Restoration.  We will rebuild, repair, restore.  And while great improvements in doctrine and theology continue to be made outside of churches of Christ, our own fellowship is suffering erosion in the same areas.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if those churches of Christ who strategically seek to be “like the other denominations” now find themselves in need or Restoration, while the denominations themselves have moved onto the ground they had vacated?  In the crucial concerns of Spirit and baptism, this looks to be the situation.