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Kaitlin Hardy Shetler and the Basis of Authority

Friday, April 03, 2020

I think this was the only time in my life that I ever willingly clicked on a Facebook ad.  It was from an organization called Authentic Theology, and the title was, “"Interview--Female Church of Christ Preacher, Poet Who Reached Millions, Kaitlin Hardy Shetler".  Well done, adware!  That’s the sort of link I’m going to click on!

Anyway, for those disinclined to read the article, the deal is that last December, Shetler posted a poem or short sermon about Mary breastfeeding Jesus that ended up critiquing churches that exclude women from the pulpit.  Churches of Christ, that means you! 

The poem/sermon attracted many thousands of shares.  In another article, the writer for Authentic Theology notes that it attracted more attention on Facebook for 2019 than all (other?) writers from the churches of Christ put together.  Apparently, even atheists found its message inspiring, which might be a tell of some sort.

The poem/sermon ain’t half bad, and though I did not find its message inspiring, I did find it fascinating.  Abstracted out, the point of the poem/sermon is this:  Mary’s unique experience should entitle her to preach, and men who have not had similar experiences should not silence the voices of those who have.  In other words, personal experience is the source of authority and truth, and no one has the right to keep the one who has had the experience from preaching their truth.

No wonder the poem aroused such widespread enthusiasm (though not among members of churches of Christ)!  That’s the postmodern credo in a nutshell.  To the postmodernist, truth is not external and objective.  It is internal and subjective.  It doesn’t matter what my DNA says.  If I feel like a man, that’s what I am (note that at the end of the interview, Shetler puts in her plea for acceptance of trans people too).

If we’re going to accept experience as the foundation of moral reasoning and the basis of moral conduct, then yes, Shetler is exactly right.  There is no reason why my experience should be privileged above my sister’s experience, my wife’s experience, or anyone else’s experience.  It’s an injustice to keep women out of the pulpit.

If.  And therein lies the rub.  I, along with everybody else who belongs to a church of Christ and has considered the matter at all, do not believe that truth is internal and subjective.  Instead, I believe that it is external, objective, and epitomized in the word of God, which is inspired, infallible, and authoritative until the end of time.

Part of that truth is 1 Timothy 2:12.  Despite the valiant efforts of folks like Craig Keener to prove otherwise, the text means what it says, and it says that women don’t get to exercise authority over men in a religious setting.  Doesn’t much matter how I feel about it.  If I want to please God, I need to do what He tells me to do.

It is interesting and telling that in her sermon/poem, Shetler doesn’t engage with this argument.  Reasoning from a standard doesn’t resonate with her, any more than determining religious practice by studying the livers of sacrificial animals resonates with me.  Instead, she describes the opposition as “ministers who say women are too delicate to lead.” 

That makes for a nice rhetorical contrast (women face the burdens and indignities of childbirth and breastfeeding, but they are “too delicate” for the pulpit), but it doesn’t reflect the actual arguments made by me, anyone I know, or, I suspect, anyone Shetler knows.  I don’t think she’s intentionally building a strawman, though.  I think it’s the best experience-based argument against women in the pulpit that she can come up with.  If we’re playing rhetorical ball on her ball field, that’s the scrub that comes trotting out for the away team.

Of course, the decision to emphasize experience over revelation is fraught with consequences.  Toward the end of the interview, Shetler expresses the hope that in the churches of Christ of the future, women will be church leaders as fully as men, preaching, teaching, and everything else.

What she does not see is that such a decision would kill the churches of Christ, and indeed the entire Restoration Movement.  We’re the people who do Bible.  We’re the people who follow the pattern.  Once we start ignoring one part of the pattern, there’s no point in holding to any of it.  Once our experiences rather than the Bible become our guide, those experiences, which are common to the world, will make us indistinguishable from it. 

Maybe the churches of Christ in the United States are doomed.  I don’t know the answer to that.  Only God does.  This I do know, though:  If we fail because we held fast to the word until the end, God will be honored by that. 

If we fail because we exchanged the word for the world, He will not be.

Training Our Kids During Isolation

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

In every congregation I’ve ever been a part of, the message has been the same.  Children’s Bible classes, as wonderful as they are, are not supposed to be anything more than a supplement to parents fulfilling their Ephesians 6:4 duty to bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord.  How widely parents in any of those congregations have combined in-building training with at-home training, I have no idea.

Regardless of what Christian parents have been doing beforehand, things just got real in the teach-your-children department.  If you’ve been bringing your kids to Bible class, they’ve been getting 90 minutes of instruction every week.  If those Bible classes have been cancelled because of coronavirus, though, all of a sudden, their weekly Bible instruction has dropped by 90 minutes.  Maybe it’s dropped to zero. 

If, as I suspect will happen, restrictions on social gatherings are kept in place for the next couple of months, that’s a significant problem.  Without in-home replacement, your kid is going to come back to Bible class thinking that Saul of Tarsus hosts a Minecraft channel on YouTube.  Even those of us who have been doing teaching at home will need to step up our game.

The solution to the problem is not, I think, to invent a whole Bible-class curriculum for our children from scratch (though if you want to do that, it’s certainly fine).  Instead, there are a number of alternatives that will help us bridge the gap without quite so much effort.

The first is to use daily Bible readings as a springboard for daily spiritual discussion.  At Jackson Heights, Clay designed the Bible-reading program we’re using this year specifically with children in mind.  The readings are all from the gospels, which means that many of them are story-based, and they’re generally short enough that even an early-stage reader can navigate them with help (particularly in a kid-friendly translation like the New International Reader’s Version). 

Work through the day’s reading with your kids, and then spend 10-15 minutes talking about you’ve read.  You don’t have to offer deep, compelling exegesis.  Just make sure they have gotten the point and understand some applications.

There are, of course, plenty of other great reading resources for children out there.  I know that in his Bible-reading posts, Edwin Crozier always includes a note for children.  Those would be a great starting place too.  I’m sure there are many other places to turn that I simply don’t know about.

Similarly, parents should take advantage of all the livestreamed-and-recorded sermons on YouTube and church websites.  Jackson Heights has years’ worth of worship services on its YouTube channel, and the same is true for many other congregations.  Just pick a sermon and listen to it with your children.  If you can tell that they’re struggling to understand something, stop the video and talk through it with them. 

Basically, whatever you might imagine would be useful for teaching your children during this time, there’s probably somebody online who has provided it.  You can find curricula; you can find worksheets; you can find all sorts of things.  The key is to look and be diligent, and to remember that God has entrusted your children not to the church, but to you.  If you live up to your responsibility, your children will be benefited, and He will be pleased.

The Parable of the Rich Hoarder

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

One of the marks of the coronavirus crisis so far has been the sudden scarcity of a number of strange items.  The empty toilet-paper shelves at grocery stores will, I think, become one of the enduring images of 2020.  For myself, I decided a week or two ago that I needed some 00 buckshot in my life, but I discovered that there were no boxes of 00 buckshot to be had anywhere, either in town or online.

We’re in the middle of a coronavirus epidemic, not a dysentery epidemic, so there is no particular reason why people’s toilet-paper needs should have spiked.  Instead, the only thing that has spiked is anxiety.  Somebody, somewhere, decided that they needed to buy a year’s worth of toilet paper to prepare for the coronavirus, somebody else saw them doing it, got scared, and decided to do the same thing, and now just about anybody who goes to the grocery store will at least feel the temptation to buy an extra pack “just in case”.  As a result, some have houses full of toilet paper while others are reduced to plaintive appeals on Facebook.

As I considered this bizarre phenomenon, I could not help but be reminded of the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21.  Jesus relates this parable as a warning against every kind of greed, but the particular kind of greed we see on display is hoarding.  The rich fool has been blessed by God, but he is utterly uninterested in sharing his blessings with others.  In today’s parlance, he decides to tear down his toilet-paper barns and build bigger ones.  However, his death reveals the poverty of his selfishness.

Today, we can reveal our own selfishness not only in the way we heap up wealth and possessions but also in the way we accumulate further possessions at others’ expense.  In a time of abundance, there’s nothing wrong with putting aside something extra to prepare for an uncertain future.  The prepper who buys an extra bag of rice or beans every time he goes to the store has harmed no one, so long as the shelves still are filled with rice and beans.  He’s motivated not by selfishness and fear, but by wisdom.

 However, hoarding in a time of scarcity is another matter.  One of the sisters at church has a co-worker who recently was desperately searching for potatoes.  This co-worker’s means are modest, and she relies on potatoes and other inexpensive foodstuffs to feed her family. 

However, when she got to the grocery store, there wasn’t a potato in sight.  Panicked people had bought up all the rice, beans, and potatoes, leaving her with options she couldn’t afford.  Thankfully, generous people quickly stepped up to help her, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which sacks of potatoes rot on a hoarder’s pantry floor while others go hungry.

The spiritual problems with this behavior are serious.  To begin with, it’s a clear violation of the second commandment.  You don’t love your neighbor if you’re hoarding the food they need to survive. 

Additionally, it shows a lack of faith.  Though the Bible encourages us to be prudent and wise, we are not to rely on our own prudence and wisdom.  We are to rely on God.  When we are so concerned about protecting ourselves that we harm others in the process, our behavior proclaims our lack of trust in Him.

This is a dark time.  As Christians, we are called to be lights in it.  We should strive to be known for our concern and generosity toward others.  By contrast, when our fear drives us to hoarding, our light becomes hidden beneath the heaps of goods we have amassed.  If this is where God finds us when He calls our souls to Him, the truth of our poverty will be eternally exposed.

The Other Fiery-Furnace Story

Friday, March 20, 2020

Many of us can remember studying, even in childhood, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace in Daniel 3.  Indeed, in the Joliet church building, there was a semi-permanent fiery furnace constructed out of moving boxes and brightly hued construction paper.  It was sized so that preschoolers could walk into the furnace (through the crepe-paper flames) and admire the angel at the back.

However, most of us are not as familiar with the other fiery-furnace story in the Bible.  Indeed, preacher that I am, I only noticed it myself a year or two ago.  It appears in Jeremiah 29. 

Contextually, the Jews who have already been carried off to Babylon have a problem with false prophets (surprise!).  Two of them in particular, Ahab the son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, have been leading the people astray with lying “words of the Lord” while practicing adultery on the side.  God is not best pleased with them and pronounces judgment upon them.

However, Jeremiah 29:22 contains some interesting information about the form their doom will take.  It reads, “Because of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon, ‘The Lord make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire.’”

This is worth considering for a couple of reasons.  First, it corroborates the historicity of the book of Daniel, despite the scoffing of the liberal-theologian crowd.  Even the most rabid form critic thinks that part of Jeremiah 29 dates from the time of the exile, and it confirms that, yes, Nebuchadnezzar was in the habit of incinerating people he disapproved of.

Second, though the text doesn’t explicitly say so, one imagines that to a point, the experience of Zedekiah and Ahab was similar to the experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Zedekiah and Ahab might not have mouthed off and made the furnace extra-hot, but down the hole they went regardless.  At the bottom, they found not salvation, but no angel, no protection, and no hope.

All of us have fiery furnaces in our future someplace.  Maybe it won’t be because we refuse to bow to an image set up by a Babylonian monarch, but there is some trial waiting for us that will try us to the depths of our being.  In the heat of that trial, one of two things will be true.  Either we will go through it as faithful servants of God, or we won’t, and that distinction will make all the difference.

Sometimes, the difference won’t be obvious to worldly eyes.  In 2 Timothy 4, Paul anticipates being executed for the cause of Christ, and he was almost certainly right.  However, 2 Timothy 4:18 points out that Paul, though dead, would be rescued.

Zedekiah and Ahab were just dead.

The furnace will reveal the truth about who we are and what we have done.  If we have been righteous like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the furnace will expose that.  If we haven’t been, well, the furnace will reveal that too.

Does Inconsistency Justify Disobedience?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Those who are opposed to the project of restoring New-Testament Christianity often love to point out times when the churches of Christ (or other conservative groups) are inconsistent in the use of Scripture (they think).   The argument goes that if believers are ignoring the authority of the Bible when it comes to Practice X, they don’t have the right to object to Practice Y on the basis of Bible authority either.  Thus, they conclude, we should feel free to engage in Practice X and Practice Y alike.

There are many different areas of study in which this argument appears.  For instance, Craig Keener famously uses it in his discussion of women in ministry (which those who are so inclined can read here.  He contends, among other things, that people who hand-wave away the covering as a cultural practice 2000 years ago also must accept the argument that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a cultural practice that does not apply to us today.  Others similarly argue that people who eat shellfish should not condemn the practice of homosexuality (Law of Moses for the win!), and that churches that don’t practice foot-washing and the holy kiss shouldn’t insist on a-cappella worship either.

I think there are significant flaws with all of those analogies (comparing apples to elephants does not permit the conclusion that apples have floppy gray ears!), but there is an even more severe problem with the form of argument than that.  If indeed it is true that Christians are being inconsistent by ignoring Commandment X and insisting on Commandment Y, the cure for the disease is not to begin ignoring Y too.  It is to begin practicing both X and Y.

If indeed the Scriptures require women to wear the covering, they should wear the covering.  If indeed Christians are instructed not to eat shellfish, we should not eat shellfish.  If indeed God expects His people to wash feet and exchange holy kisses, we should wash feet and exchange holy kisses.  Period.  End of discussion. 

By contrast, if we are wrong about coverings and shellfish and kisses, we should not compound our error by allowing female ministers and the practice of homosexuality and instrumental music!  Unrighteousness is not an excuse for more unrighteousness, not ever.

I don’t think that every commandment in the Bible is binding on Christians today, nor do I even know anyone who argues that they are and lives accordingly.  There are reasons to ignore the ordinances about shellfish, along with the rest of the Law of Moses.  There are reasons to regard commandments concerning the covering as specific to a particular place and time.    If we’re going to say yes to shellfish and no to the covering, we need to know, understand, and accept those arguments.

What we must not do is dismiss the parts of the Bible that we don’t feel like following as “cultural” while insisting on the rest as the inspired word of God.  There is a deadly problem with so doing, and it is not that we have opened the door to lady preachers and gay marriage.  It is that we have done what is right in our own eyes while rejecting His ordinance.  We have dethroned Him as King and set ourselves up in His place.

No one with a spirit like that can inherit eternal life, and that’s true no matter what our culture (or any other) says.

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