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Dressing for the Assembly

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sometimes, it seems that certain spiritual topics keep coming up in conversation.  For me recently, that topic has been the necessity of dressing up in church.  Both in person and online, I’ve participated in a number of earnest discussions on the subject.  I thought it would be worthwhile, then, to share my thoughts on the matter.

First, I want to address the idea that our clothing choices in the assembly are about God.  Proponents of this view will ask whether we would dress up to see an important human being (the President, for instance) and conclude that we ought to dress up even more to come into the presence of the King of heaven.

The problem with the argument, though, is that it assumes that God is like us, and that we communicate respect to Him in the same way that we do to other humans.  According to Scripture, that’s not true.  1 Samuel 16:7 reports that God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. 

He doesn’t have to judge our reverence for Him based on how we dress.  He knows the truth.  The reverent heart is acceptable to him, regardless of outward appearance, and the irreverent heart isn’t, again regardless of outward appearance.

Instead, we dress for one another.  That’s fine.  God is mindful of our frame, and He knows that we are silly creatures who use colored bits of cloth wrapped around our bodies to communicate an astounding variety of messages about ourselves. 

Indeed, even the commandments that God issues about clothing make it evident that He is concerned with its impact on other humans.  He is not affected by our nakedness.  He sees it anyway.  He is not intimidated by our ostentatious displays of wealth.  The earth is His, and all it contains.  However, He knows that we care about those things, so He instructs us to dress in a way that will not hinder others.

 Here, I think, is the principle that should guide us as we decide how we should dress for the assembly (and everywhere else, for that matter).  How can we dress in a way that will serve others and help them on to heaven?

This is a simple question with a complex answer.  For instance, there is a sister who worships with my congregation sometimes who struggles with crippling anxiety.  She doesn’t have much money, and she feels like she doesn’t belong.  I am certain that the only time in her life when she encounters men in suits is when she comes to church.  Every time I see her, I try to reassure her that she has a place with us.  Is it possible, though, that my suit is sending a different message than my mouth is?

On the other end of the scale, I know there are brethren at Jackson Heights who aren’t comfortable when I preach a sermon without a coat on.  They are very gracious about it and never would confront me, but they are quick to tell me how nice I look when I do wear a coat!  These are good people who are entitled to respect from me, and I need to take them into account in the way that I dress too. 

Typically, I end up wearing a coat sometimes and resorting to shirt and tie the rest of the time, and I hope that the combination makes my preaching as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.  In other places, the correct answer may be “coat all the time”, “coat never”, or even “tie never”.  By contrast, a one-size-fits-all answer arrived at without regard for the people involved is frequently going to be wrong.

In short, love others.  Dress accordingly.  Your judgment won’t be right in every instance, but in every instance, your spirit will be pleasing to God.

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.

Grace and the Self-Defense Debate

Friday, January 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the West Freeway shooting, I put up a blog post that argued that Christians have the right to defend themselves from murderous criminals.  To my complete lack of surprise, this proved controversial.  Everybody kept their comments civil, so I wasn’t bothered by that (though I did, as per my usual practice, refuse invitations to engage in prolonged exchanges). 

I was more concerned, though, by the brethren who expressed their viewpoint so strongly that they revealed incomprehension of why anybody else might believe differently.  I think this is a problematic way to handle a difficult subject.

There certainly are things in Scripture that are easy to understand.  I can start with a dozen different passages and end up proving the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins, and anybody who disagrees inevitably finds themselves in the position of explaining away the Bible rather than explaining the Bible. 

However, the legitimacy of self-defense isn’t like that.  At first, the application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:39 appears straightforward, but I found that the more I studied, the less straightforward the issue became.  The very thrust of Jesus’ ministry appeared to limit the scope of His words.

Certainly, historical views of the interaction between Christianity and violence are all over the map.  Some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers argued that it was wrong even for Christians to hold government office or serve in the military, while Augustine formulated a politico-religious doctrine for justifying war. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, when brethren today find themselves disagreeing.  Often, this disagreement is based as much on moral intuition as on Scriptural reasoning.  Some brethren find the thought of a Christian preparing to kill someone else (even to defend the lives of others) repugnant, while others find the thought of passively watching the slaughter of innocents to be equally repugnant.

Frankly, both perspectives make a great deal of sense to me.  My own convictions (which are still evolving) have ranged from my current position to out-and-out pacifism.  Additionally, I think the whole debate reveals the power of sin in others to rob us of good choices.  In a world that contains church shooters, we are compelled to take one troubling position or the other, but it would be much better to live in a world without church shooters.

These are complicated matters, and for as long as the world continues, I don’t expect God’s people to be able to come to a consensus.  There are many other issues like this.  Therefore, we must learn to judge for ourselves while respecting the legitimacy of the views of those who judge differently.  It is not unthinkable for a Christian to be opposed to all violence, nor is it unthinkable for a Christian to resolve to defend innocents from mortal danger.  The better we learn to understand and honor the views of our brethren, the more useful and peaceful our lives will be.

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