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Spiritual Sarcasm

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

In recent days, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions with other Christians about whether sarcasm, especially in a tense confrontation with enemies of the church, is ever appropriate for God’s people.  A host of familiar passages would suggest that it is not.  In Luke 6:28, Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us.  In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul insists that the Lord’s bondservant must be kind and gentle.  In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter counsels us to make our defense with gentleness.

And yet, all three of these men used sarcasm in confrontations with enemies of the gospel.  In John 10:32, Jesus sarcastically asks the Jews which of His good works has caused them to stone Him.  Similarly, in Acts 4:9, Peter asks the Sanhedrin (“Really, guys?”) if he is on trial for a benefit done to a sick man. 

In Acts 8:3-5, Paul calls Ananias the high priest a whitewashed wall (a hypocrite, as in Matthew 23:27) for claiming to try him according to the Law yet ordering him to be struck unlawfully.  I also believe that Paul’s “apology” in v.5 is not truly an apology but rather a sarcastic allusion to the fact that Ananias was not appointed high priest according to the Law either (#notmyhighpriest).  In doing so, he would have been playing to the Pharisees, who also did not believe that Ananias was rightfully appointed, and to whom he would appeal directly in a few moments.

There are plenty of other examples throughout the New Testament and still more in the Old Testament, many of which come from the lips of God.  However, these three suffice to show that the godly employed sarcasm in defense of the gospel.  Indeed, sarcasm is a much better attested practice than (for instance) partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week!

However, there must be some way for us to distinguish between the general rule of gentleness and these exceptions in practice.  Otherwise, the exceptions will swallow the rule!  In fact, the use of godly sarcasm appears to be limited to a narrow set of circumstances:  first, it is in defense of truth; second, it is used in response to bad faith by adversaries; and third, it highlights the bad faith.

For example, the Jews in John 10 are clearly not acting in good faith.  The many miracles that Jesus has worked have provided abundant evidence that He is from God.  However, rather than considering Jesus’ challenging statement about Himself in the light of this evidence, the Jews react with closed-minded fury.  Jesus’ sarcasm in v. 32 emphasizes the chasm between their self-righteous rage and the unrighteousness of their conduct.

The truth will always have its opponents.  Those who disagree with us in good faith, even when they disagree strongly, are entitled to a courteous and kind reception from us.  Such good treatment, in conjunction with a vigorous defense of truth, will win the honest adversary over to the cause of Christ.

However, others are committed to opposing the truth no matter what.  They will not scruple at the use of any low, underhanded, hypocritical tactic if they believe it will bring God and his people into disrepute.  In such cases, we are justified in using sarcasm to shine a light on their bad faith.  The hypocrite will not enjoy the experience, but neither does anyone else whose evil deeds are exposed to light.

Women Participating in Bible Classes

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Recently, I’ve been engaged in an email discussion with a brother on the subject of women participating in our Bible classes.  He sees inconsistency in many congregations between Bible classes, in which women may read Scriptures, make comments, etc., and worship services, in which they are required to remain silent.  He believes that the appropriate way to resolve this inconsistency is to bar women from participating in Bible classes as well.

In a time in which all too many churches have chosen to ignore 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 altogether, I appreciate this brother’s zeal for God.  However, I believe his analysis overlooks some key aspects of our worship services and misunderstands the contextual meaning of silence in 1 Corinthians 14.

First, although many find it convenient to overlook the fact, I doubt there is a single church of Christ in existence in which women are literally silent during worship services.  They sing.  Indeed, according the language of Ephesians 5:19, they speak to the rest of the congregation in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  Women speak in our assemblies!

This practice is uncontroversial.   I’ve never heard anyone argue seriously that women should not participate in our song worship.  Indeed, I’ve never heard anyone argue against alto-lead choruses, during which women often are the only ones singing.  It’s impossible to argue that women literally are being silent in the churches during “Paradise Valley”!

This leaves us with two choices.  We can read 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as a flat contradiction of Ephesians 5:19, so that Paul is divided against Paul (and the Holy Spirit against the Holy Spirit).  Alternatively, we can quit using 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as a proof text isolated from its context and consider if there is anything in that context that ought to inform our understanding of silence.

Indeed, though this commonly is overlooked, women are not the only group told to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14.  In 14:28, those with the gift of speaking in tongues are told to keep silent unless an interpreter is present.  In 14:30, if, while a prophet is speaking, a second prophet receives a revelation, the first prophet is to be silent and allow the second to speak. 

It makes little sense to take “silent” here literally, especially in the case of the tongue-speakers.  Tongue-speakers were allowed to participate in song worship.  If men, they were allowed to lead public prayers, as per 1 Timothy 2:8.  Paul means only that they were not allowed to be the sole speaker, to hold the floor in a situation in which they could not edify the church.  Similarly, Prophet #1 was not allowed to be the speaker, to attempt to maintain the floor in the face of Prophet #2’s revelation.

Contextually, then, the injunction of 1 Corinthians 34-35 to women to keep silent does not mean that women cannot speak.  It means that women cannot be the speaker.  They are not permitted to exercise authority in the assembly as a man may.

We glimpse the nature of the problem that Paul is addressing in the instruction of 14:35 for women to ask their husbands at home if they have questions.  Questions seem innocuous, but if I learned anything in law school, it is that the one asking the questions has the power!  The questioner is the one in authority, the one controlling the conversation. 

We see this displayed throughout the gospels.  Jesus uses questions to great effect to humiliate His enemies, and He commonly replies to trap questions by asking another question.  It stands to reason that women in the Corinthian church were using questions to similarly dominate assemblies, and it is indeed disgraceful for a woman to speak thus!

This reading of 14:34-35 resolves the apparent contradiction with Ephesians 5:19, and it also harmonizes more closely with 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  There, Paul instructs women not to teach or exercise authority over a man, but rather to learn quietly and submissively.  In times past, I made much of the difference between “quiet” in this passage and “silent” in 1 Corinthians 14:34, but a contextual reading of the latter minimizes the distinction.  Instead, both texts become about issues of authority and submission rather than 14:34 being about whether women are making noise or not.

Together, these two texts provide a useful framework for understanding the role of women in our assemblies.  First, it is firmly complementarian.  Men are men, and they are to behave like men, but women are women, and they are to behave like women.  As Paul’s analysis of Genesis 1-3 in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 makes clear, from the beginning it has been true that men, not women, are responsible for exercising spiritual leadership.  Though scholars may construct fanciful arguments about how these rules don’t apply to us anymore, we must seek the ancient paths and walk in them.

Second, it supplants an inconsistent bright-line rule (“Women can speak in Bible classes but not in worship services.”) with an opportunity to exercise spiritual discernment.  The woman singing an alto lead is behaving in a quiet, submissive fashion under the authority of the song leader.  By contrast, the termagant who is attempting to control the Bible class from the same pew where she’s been sitting every Sunday morning for the past 45 years is neither quiet nor submissive, even though she is talking during the women-speaking-allowed hour.

As with most of the law of Christ, this framework can be abused by those who want to act in bad faith.  I am reminded here of the Jehovah’s-Witness practice of essentially allowing women to preach sermons in response to open-ended questions from men.  Though formally complying with the letter of God’s word, such behavior is a Pharisaical perversion of its spirit, and we can expect it to be judged accordingly.  However, for men and women who sincerely seek the will of God, this reading will give them all they need to suitably honor Him.

This article originally appeared in the January issue of Pressing On.

Are Conspiracy Theories Your Religion?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The other day, I read a fascinating article (https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5) posted by my brother and friend Tim Thompson.  In it, the author argues that QAnon functions much like the live-action games he designs for a living.  In particular, he points to a quirk of human psychology that is significant to both.  It’s called apophenia, and it’s the tendency to see a pattern and form connections where none exist.

This is why, for instance, most people will look at the overflow faceplate in the picture and see a face.  It is not a face.  It is not even designed to look like a face.  Nonetheless, we glance at the plumbing fixture and see eyes, nose, and face. 

We also enjoy figuring things out for ourselves.  We get a dopamine hit out of putting a puzzle together, and our memory does a better job of retaining the answers we arrive at than the ones that are handed to us.  We tend to be more emotionally invested in those answers too.

 Other human blind spots play into this as well.  We are communal creatures and are prone to accepting what our community accepts, whether in person or online.  Conversely, we mistrust those we consider to be “other” and regard what they say with skepticism.

QAnon, and other online conspiracy theories much in vogue, exploit all of these things.  They feed their audiences “breadcrumbs”—isolated, random facts—and encourage them to assemble the breadcrumbs into a pattern.  They suggest that most media outlets are fundamentally deceptive, but that the discerning mind (note the appeal of “I figured this out!  I’m smarter than everyone else!”) can ferret out the truth.  They provide a community of true believers to help enlighten new initiates.  Once someone has bought in, they are nearly immune to counterclaims.

The author argues, and I agree, that this infatuation with conspiracy has religious overtones.  Faith, after all, is the evidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  I don’t think that a bunch of random celebrities flashing hand signs is the evidentiary equal of eyewitnesses who died for their faith.  Nonetheless, in both cases, once we put it all together, our new conviction transforms our worldview.

This is a problem because the Christian worldview and the conspiracy-theorist worldview are incompatible.  The Christian believes that God controls everything.  Nations rise and fall according to His will.  However, the QAnon initiate believes that a vast, shadowy conspiracy controls everything, and They are the ones who shape reality according to Their desires (world power, sex trafficking, etc.).

This is blasphemy.  It is attributing one of the attributes of God to human beings.  In my life, I have read a whole, whole lot of history.  From beginning to end, the annals of humankind are filled with blundering, incompetence, false starts, and foolishness.  The greatest and most powerful people ever to live (with the sole exception of Jesus) made wagonloads of clumsy mistakes. 

By contrast, QAnon posits a cabal that has enrolled hundreds of thousands of people, operated for decades if not centuries, succeeded in its objects, and avoided exposure (“until now!!!”).  That doesn’t sound like the human race.  It sounds like Ephesians 3:8-11.  It sounds like God.

To brethren who are worried about these things, then, I say, “Relax.”  Even if there are people out there who want to control or harm you, they aren’t that capable.  If they do come to power, it will be clumsy, bloody, and obvious, like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc.  Even the Chinese, as competent as they are, can’t take away democracy in little ole Hong Kong without a lot of noise and stink.  Subtle schemes to steal away our freedom are beyond our enemies, as they are beyond all of us.

Instead, worry about God.  Trust in Him, and trust that He will keep His promises to you.  Here, I can do no better than repeat the words of Isaiah 8:12-13.  “Do not call everything a conspiracy these people say is a conspiracy. Do not fear what they fear; do not be terrified.  You are to regard only the LORD of Armies as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be held in awe.”

All of Us Are Mostly Peaceful

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

For much of the past year, many Christians (myself included) have sneered at the Orwellian reporting on the racial unrest following the death of George Floyd.  Journalists have repeatedly described the demonstrations as “mostly peaceful”, despite the devastation of entire city blocks.  With contemptuous precision, we pointed to the rubble and described the proceedings as “riots”.  We declared ourselves unsatisfied with progressive leaders’ apparently lukewarm condemnations of lawlessness.

These days, it seems the shoe is on the other foot.  The same journalists who described the protests last summer as “mostly peaceful” do not hesitate to declare the disturbance last Wednesday an insurrection.  Now, it is conservative politicians whose condemnations are insufficiently vituperative.

Conversely, I saw on Facebook the other day a report on the events by a brother and friend who was in attendance.  He saw tens of thousands of people assembling without violence, and even though he participated in the march to the Capitol, he was not aware that anyone had forced their way inside until he saw it on the news.  Though he condemned the violence, he deeply resented the depiction of himself and other innocent attendees as participants in a coup.

All of us, it seems, are mostly peaceful.

This is a difficult truth to acknowledge.  In addition to all the other symmetries described above, both sides have attributed the worst behavior of their allies to false-flag enemies.  The news last summer was rife with rumors that those who instigated the looting were right-wing extremists.  This time around, brethren have continually claimed that the people who broke into the Capitol were antifa pretending to be Trump supporters.  Unsurprisingly, the identity of any of these shadowy provocateurs has proven elusive.

The moral of the story is, apparently, that any group of people has bad people in it, and none of us like to admit that about our people.  This is true with respect to Democrats and Republicans, and it’s true with respect to the Lord’s church too.

Most of us have had conversations with church-haters (either former members or members on their way out the door) who depict a very different church than the one we know and love.  To them, people in churches of Christ are hardhearted, unloving, gossipy, mean-spirited, hypocritical, legalistic, more concerned with politics than Christ, and uninterested in grace.  In response, we tend to either a) deny that we see such things, or b) claim that the people who act like that aren’t really Christians.

Sound familiar?

It is a hard thing to listen humbly to one’s enemies.  It’s an even harder thing to separate the fiction that they wish were truth from the truth that we wish were fiction.  However, if we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, we need a mirror like that.

I believe that most Christians are godly most of the time.  However, I also believe that there is evil among us and evil within us, and the words of even the most hateful church critic contain an echo of something that is both ugly and true.  Despite our salvation, we remain all too human.  Only if we are willing to confront our imperfections honestly can we rise above ourselves.

All Things Working Together for Good

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Even in the often-difficult epistle to the Romans, Romans 8:28 stands out as a difficult passage to understand.  It appears to assert a Panglossian worldview—everything is working out for good!—even though we live in a world in which many things appear not to be good.  TV preachers seize on this text to promise future prosperity to the folks who send them money, skeptics mock (as Voltaire did), and many Christians are confused by the disconnect between what the passage appears to say and their own lived experience.

As is often the case in Romans, the best way to resolve this textual difficulty is to ignore the verse numbers and read the text in context.  When Paul says “all things”, he doesn’t mean literally everything that happens.  Instead, he refers to the previous 10 verses, in which he explains how three different things are working together for good.

The first of these things is the physical creation, which he discusses in Romans 8:18-22.  Paul is quite clear that the current state of the creation is not good.  It is futile, enslaved, and corrupt, and it groans with the pangs of childbirth.  Paul was no Pollyanna.  He knew, probably better than we do, that this is a fallen world.

However, he also points out that the state of creation is not hopeless but hopeful.  It groans because it anticipates the revelation of the sons of God.  Additionally, in that day, creation itself will be released from corrupt slavery to glorious freedom, as per the promise of the new heavens and new earth in 2 Peter 3:13.

Second, Paul acknowledges in Romans 8:23-25 that we ourselves groan.  We experience the first fruits of the Spirit now, but we anticipate the redemption of our body.  Because of our hope, we persevere through suffering.

Finally, Paul explores the groaning of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26-27.  Once again, we see a problem with fallenness and failure.  We don’t know how to pray as we should.  However, the Spirit intercedes for us so that the prayers we cannot express are presented before the throne of God anyway.

Thus, Romans 8:18-27 presents us with three groaners:  the creation, we ourselves, and the Spirit.  However, Paul wants us to understand that these groans are hopeful.  Why?  Because God is working in all of these things for good.  The creation will reveal the sons of God and be freed.  Our bodies will be redeemed.  The Spirit will render our prayers intelligible.

Does that mean that everything in our lives is going to go the way we want it?  Of course not!  However, the things that matter are in place, and through them, God will accomplish our salvation.

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