M. W. Bassford

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The Coming Judgment

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

When we study the Bible, it’s easy for us to read it through 21st-century eyes and forget that it describes first-century events.  Things that are not particularly important to us today often were very important to them, and we can find ourselves overlooking significant Scriptural themes because they aren’t relevant to us.

Consider, for instance, the ministry of John the Baptist as presented in Luke 3.  It is certainly about preparing the way for Jesus, which we commonly recognize.  However, to an equal extent, it is about warning the people that they need to repent because of the judgment that is coming.  “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” John warns in Luke 3:9.  “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

We might be inclined to read this as a generic warning about the consequences of disobedience, but it is anything but.  The fire here is not the fire of hell—at least, not directly.  Instead, it is the fire of God judging the physical world once again.  We see similar language in Isaiah 29:6, where, like John, Isaiah is warning God’s people to fear the fire of His judgment.

Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in the Assyrian invasion of 701 BC (another event which we do not properly appreciate), and John’s prophecy would be fulfilled when the Romans crushed the Great Revolt of the Jews in 70 AD.  Just as the former was “a day of the Lord”, so too would the latter be.  God would judge His people for their sins, particularly the sin of betraying and murdering the Messiah whom He had sent.

Even though it is always offstage, the fall of Jerusalem to the legions of Titus is one of the central events of the gospels.  We can’t understand the ministry of John without bearing it in mind, and to a large extent, we can’t understand the ministry of Jesus either. 

Paul tells us in Galatians for that the Son came in the fullness of time, but there is also a sense in which He came in the nick of time.  As was so often the case in the Old Testament, the sons of Jacob were on a collision course with disaster, and like the prophets of old, Jesus came to attempt to turn them aside:  from their hypocrisy, from their self-righteousness, and from their conviction that the kingdom of God meant earthly dominance for His people.  Many of the Lord’s calls to repentance that we read generically are, like the warnings of John, specifically about the dangers of opposing Rome.

Fundamentally, the Old Testament is a story of failure.  The Israelites received the Law, broke it, and did not repent even in the face of predictions of doom.  During the ministry of Jesus, the tragedy will be played out one last time.  Despite all of His wisdom and power, the Jews will choose death instead of life.  Their leaders will choose King Caesar over the King of heaven, only to be destroyed by Caesar for their faithlessness 40 years later. 

Out of this disaster, much good would spring, especially for us.  Without the cultivated olive branches being broken off, we could not be grafted in.  However, neither should we forget the violence and the significance of the breaking.

Long Readings in the Assembly

Friday, January 24, 2020

In many churches, it’s been the custom since time out of mind to have one of the young men read a two- or three-verse passage that introduces the sermon topic.  Less commonly, the preacher will get up, read a long context (the Sermon on the Mount) or even a whole book of the Bible (Ephesians), offer an invitation, and sit back down.

Recently, there’s been some discussion online about the practice.  Is a prolonged Scripture reading beneficial to the church when any of us could pull up the same book of the Bible on our phones and listen to it by ourselves?  I think the answer is yes.

Reading long contexts or even books is particularly important because it gets us out of our verse-by-verse mentality.  As I am fond of observing, the Bible was not originally formatted with chapter and verse notation.  The former was added during the medieval era by an archbishop of Canterbury named Stephen Langton; the latter is the contribution of Renaissance printer Robert Estienne.  Certainly, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians did not arrive in Ephesus subdivided into six chapters and 155 verses!

Though an innovation, the formatting of our Bibles has a powerful grip on our understanding.  We read the Bible differently than any other written work.  We don’t go through books or online articles parsing the meaning of each phrase and sentence.  Instead, we figure out the overall point and move on.  The Bible, by contrast, nearly always gets put under the microscope.

This is not to say that verse-by-verse analysis of the Bible is problematic, but it is not the only, or even the most obvious, way to understand the text.  Indeed, it is not the way the text was originally received.  When a church received a letter from Paul, it read the whole letter out loud, beginning to end, in an assembly.  No, the church wasn’t going to get every nuance in the text from that one reading (though there may have been a certain amount of, “Hey, Herodion, go back and read that part again!”), but it was going to get the point that Paul and the Holy Spirit intended it to get.

I suspect that when Christians are resistant to long readings, it’s because they’re trying to import their individual-tree perspective to a whole-forest exercise.  The first time I ever tried listening to the Bible on CD (I know; I’m old), I felt like I was trying to drink out of a fire hose.  I was trying to place more importance on each detail than the mode of transmission allowed. 

The solution to the problem, though, isn’t always to slow down and take in all the details.  Sometimes, it’s to speed up so that we can’t.  I think a daily Bible reading is a great way to speed things up (my usual plan takes me through 3-4 chapters a day), but so is public, out-loud reading. 

I doubt that more than a tiny percentage of Christians habitually listens to audio recordings of the Bible.  Those that do probably have developed the knack of zooming out, but that’s a knack that the rest of us need to learn.  When we listen to public reading, we’re learning not only the message of the gospel or epistle, but a different way of understanding that message.  We’re coming at truth from a different direction, and that’s an exercise that always will be valuable.

Prophetesses and 1 Corinthians 11

Thursday, January 23, 2020

At the risk of re-igniting the smoldering debate about the role of women in the church, I did see one issue in the comments on the subject that I wanted to address (and no, I am still not interested in a sprawling online argument about the issue generally!  I leave that for local congregations to work out for themselves.).  In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul writes, “. . . every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. . .”  I am not interested in debating the covering either, but it is evident from this text that there were women in the Corinthian church who had the gift of prophecy, and that when they were prophesying, they were supposed to cover their heads.

In this, many see a contradiction with the rule of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says that women were to keep silence in the assembly.  In fact, back in my religious-studies days, I read authors who argued that 11:5 was proof that 14:34-35 is a later, non-Pauline insertion. 

I agree that these texts could contradict each other, but they don’t necessarily do so.  1 Corinthians 14 specifies a setting:  the assembly.  However, the same is not true in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.  In fact, the language “every woman” is quite broad, and it leads naturally to the assumption that Paul is speaking of what is proper for women in any setting.  Whether the whole church was gathered together or not, Corinthian women were supposed to cover their heads when praying or prophesying. 

Thus, it’s reasonable to read these passages as telling women in the assembly to remain silent and women with prophetic gifts to cover their heads when prophesying outside of the assembly.  As always, we shouldn’t read contradictions into the Scripture unless the apparent contradiction cannot be harmonized.

This interpretation might seem strained to some, but it lines up with the Scriptural evidence.  To my knowledge, there are only two places in the entire Bible where we see a prophetess prophesying (I think it’s unclear what Miriam is doing in Exodus 15).  The first is in 2 Chronicles 34:22-28, when Huldah the prophetess predicts disaster for the kingdom of Judah after Josiah dies.  The second appears in Luke 2:36-38, when Anna the prophetess starts telling anyone who will listen that the Messiah has come.

Neither one of these prophecies occurs in the context of an assembly.  In 2 Chronicles 24, Huldah speaks her piece in her own home when Josiah sends some court officials to her.  Luke 2 is a little murkier because it at least occurs on the temple grounds (in the Court of the Women, naturally), but it’s hard to imagine that the chief priests would have allowed a woman (of the tribe of Asher, no less!) to address a temple assembly.  The best reading of the text is that Anna is going from worshiper to worshiper, telling them the good news. 

Clearly, prophesying outside of an assembly was something that God’s prophetesses could do and did.  On the other hand, we have no examples of a woman prophesying in an assembly in either the Old or the New Testament.  Those with a mind to use 1 Corinthians 11 to overturn 1 Corinthians 14 may object, but the best reading of the text is that the Corinthian prophetesses were out-of-the-assembly prophetesses too.  Thus, the passage poses no obstacle to the plain meaning of 14:34-35.

Everybody Thinks There's a Pattern

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Since I started blogging about five years ago now, I’ve been exposed to a wide range of religious commentary on my blog feed and Facebook page.  Some of it has been thoughtful and enlightening; some of it, um, gives me the opportunity to engage with ideas with which I disagree.  In the latter category, I would put the following commentary on my instrumental-music sermon, forwarded by a reader:

While I don’t agree with instruments in worship, this line of thought is legalism.

1. Take a concept (follow the pattern)
2. Seek to find the guidelines (command, example, necessary inference) within the NT that backup the concept
3. Make it law
4. Impose that law on everyone else
5. Ridicule others that don’t follow your concept

Pharisees did it ALL the time.

There are certainly some questions that come to mind when I read this (“Other than the conviction that it’s unlawful, why on earth would one disagree with instruments in worship?”).  However, rather than chasing those bunny trails, I want to address the main critique:  that interpreting the Bible in order to discover a pattern of right conduct is legalism. 

The thing is, though, that literally everybody who is a Christian will, at least to some degree, interpret the Bible in order to discover a pattern of right conduct.  There are certainly those who pick and choose the parts of the Bible they like with all the fussiness of a three-year-old at a vegetable buffet, but even those people will point to some things in the Bible and say, “You have to do that.”

For instance, let’s say that I wanted to found the First Aryan Church of Christ (note to readers:  I do not actually want to do this; it’s an illustration.).  I know that Jesus was white like me (I’ve seen the pictures!), I don’t like Jews and black people much, so I’m going to start me up a church where folks like that aren’t welcome.

I’m pretty sure that if I advanced my scheme to self-professed Christians all across the religious spectrum, I wouldn’t get, “Hey, bro; you do you.”  I’d get an indignant, “You can’t do that!”  I’d hear about how we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, I’d hear about how there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ, and so on.

All of those arguments, though, would take the form described above.  They would presume the existence of a Scriptural pattern for people to follow, use command, example, and inference to interpret Scripture (we have to infer that Galatians 3:28 is about black people too), and define that interpretation as binding on others.

Everybody (nearly everybody, anyway) agrees that we need to follow the teachings of Jesus and His apostles when it comes to racism.  Why, then, are the teachings of Jesus and His apostles not relevant, indeed central, when it comes to worshiping Him?  How do you distinguish between reasoning from the Scripture in Galatians 3:28 and reasoning from the Scripture in Colossians 3:16?

“Legalism” is an epithet to conjure with these days, but it doesn’t boil down to anything more than, “You’re doing what I do with some passages to other passages where I don’t think you should.”  Here, I think, is where we find the genuine Pharisee:  not in the one who zealously seeks to follow the whole law of God, but in the one who honors some parts while neglecting others. 

Unless, of course, Matthew 23:23 isn’t one of those Scriptures we’re supposed to reason from.

During Withdrawal

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Sometimes, I get the same sermon request from multiple sources.  Such is the case with this evening’s sermon, on withdrawal.  Not only has one of the members here asked that I address the subject from the pulpit, but the elders want me to do so as part of the congregation’s practice of teaching on it regularly.

This is, of course, not anybody’s favorite topic in the Bible.  None of us like to think about any of the members here being so intent on sinning that they force us to formally separate ourselves from them.  However, none of us are devil-proof, and bitter experience has shown all of us that time and again, he entices Christians to leave Christ behind.  Not because we want to, but because we have to, let’s spend some time this evening considering how we should behave during withdrawal.

First, we must REMEMBER THE STAKES.  Here, consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:4-7.  This is part of his discussion of how the Corinthian church should handle the man who has taken his father’s wife.  Obviously, this situation is a little different than ours.  Paul is an apostle, and he is wielding his apostolic authority to tell the Corinthians, “You must withdraw from this sinful man.”  Nobody can do that today.

However, the reasons why Paul has taken this action remain valid.  First, he shows us that withdrawal is important for the sake of the soul of the sinner.  These people by their practice of sin already have severed their relationship with God.  When the congregation withdraws from them, that severing of relationship is a visible sign of the invisible disaster that has occurred.  It’s one last desperate effort to get them to realize the seriousness of their plight.  If we withdraw from someone as a matter of bureaucratic correctness rather than as a way to get them to repent, we’re doing it wrong.

Second, withdrawal is important for the sake of the church.  This is what Paul is getting at in vs. 6-7.  Sometimes in Scripture, leaven is used metaphorically of something that’s good.  That’s not true here.  Instead, when Paul is talking about leaven, he is talking about the corrupting influence of a sinner who is allowed to remain as part of the congregation.  It is sad but true that once a congregation accepts one sin, it soon will accept every sin and become no different from the world.  Ultimately, then, we practice withdrawal not only for the sake of the sinner, but for our own sakes as well.

Next, we must FOLLOW THE PROCESS.  Jesus sets it out for us in Matthew 18:15-17.  Sometimes, I think we read this process as having three steps.  Really, there are four.  Step One is confronting the erring brother with his sin.  Step Two is involving others, typically the elders, in the process.  Step Three is bringing the brother’s sin before the church.  Step Four is regarding this brother as no longer part of our fellowship.  Of course, if the brother in sin repents at any point of this process, we rejoice and don’t follow it to its conclusion.

The first thing that I want to observe about this is that all the steps of this process must be followed in order.  Too much of the time, Christians want to skip Step One and go straight to Step Two.  They know their brother is in sin, but they don’t want to talk with him about it because those conversations are unpleasant.  Instead, they want to take the problem to the elders and dump it in their laps. 

Brethren, that’s wrong.  We have a God-given responsibility to go to our brother ourselves.  Only when we have that conversation and they don’t listen to us should we go to the elders.

Second, we must honor its results.  Once a Christian has been withdrawn from, things can’t be the same between us.  They can’t continue to have a role in our assemblies.  They can’t even be people we socialize with and have a good time with.  Obviously, there are exceptions here due to family relationships, and I’ve discussed those things before, but that does not overshadow the general rule.  Withdrawal has to mean a significant change in relationship.

During the withdrawal process, though, we must TRUST THE ELDERS.  Consider, for instance, the admonition of Hebrews 13:17.  I’m well aware that second-guessing the elders is one of the favorite hobbies of many Christians.  Indeed, I have noticed that the difficult decisions that face elders often seem simple and straightforward to those who are not actually called on to make them.  I think that’s generally problematic, but it’s especially problematic when it comes to erring Christians.

This is true for two reasons.  First, we owe the elders deference because of their position.  There is no such thing as a perfect elder, and ours are no exception.  However, they are the ones who have been selected by God to lead our congregation, which means that it’s God’s judgment that they are better suited to make those hard decisions than any of the rest of us are. 

This means that we should consider our own judgment with skepticism.  If we think the elders should be doing something different with a Christian who is in sin, we might be right about that, but probably, we aren’t.  If brethren were as quick to question their own wisdom as they are to question the wisdom of the elders, the elders’ job would be a whole lot easier!

Second, it’s often the case that the elders know more about the situation than we do.  Brethren will often get upset about the perceived unfairness of the elders withdrawing from one in six weeks while continuing to work with another for a year.  In my experience, that’s not because the elders are being whimsical.  It’s because they are addressing different situations differently, often on the basis of information that the congregation does not and should not know.  If the puzzle doesn’t make sense to us, that’s probably because we don’t have all the pieces!

Finally, we must SPEAK TRUTH IN LOVE.  Look at Ephesians 4:15.  There are three elements to this idea, and all three must be present for us to please God.  First, we have to speak.  Second, our words have to be the truth.  Third, they must be loving.  If we leave any of those things out, if we leave out speaking, truth, or love, we aren’t doing Ephesians 4:15 right.

This is challenging.  It’s easy to say nothing to a brother who is sinning or even has been withdrawn from.  It’s easy to make polite small talk that ignores the elephant in the room.  For that matter, it’s easy to self-righteously blast the sinner without recognizing that we are directing our scorn at a real human being who fears and hurts and suffers like we do.

However, disciples of Christ aren’t called to do easy.  We’re called to do hard.  Jesus spent His whole ministry speaking truth in love with justice and compassion.  He expects us to learn how to do so from Him.  We shouldn’t expect to be good at this the first time we try it.  Like so many other spiritual disciplines, this is a skill we develop with practice.  However, the more we grow in our experience and especially our love, the better at it we will become.

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