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What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity? Part I: Unity

September 1, 2014

Recently I was catching up with a friend and he mentioned that another friend of ours had left the church he was going to over a conflict that had begun as a discussion of Trinitarian theology. While I agreed that the conflict had probably reached the point where stepping away was a good idea the whole incident prompted the question “Why do we care about Trinitarian theology so much?” After all, Trinitarian theology is extremely confusing. It’s easy to get into conflicts about because it’s so confusing and it’s actually pretty easy to make statements about the Trinity that have been deemed heretical in the past. (Get a pastor to give you an analogy for the Trinity – odds are the analogy will suggest something heretical. Normally people give multiple analogies with non-overlapping problems to get around this.) So why don’t we just say that Trinitarianism is confusing and leave it at that except for a few more specialized theologians? Why is Trinitarianism at the center of so many historical Christian disputes? In this article and the next one I intend to tackle the theological implications of breaking with Trinitarianism. (A separate issue, and one I’ve covered somewhat before, is what the Biblical rationale is for believing in the Trinity.)

To deal with this idea we need to briefly discuss the central problem in Trinitarianism and its two non-Trinitarian solutions. The problem is that while almost everyone can figure out a way to make the Spirit and the Father go together (the Spirit is, after all, God’s spirit) making the Father and the Son go together is more difficult. Jesus talks to the Father as if they are separate entities and the Incarnation appears to limit Jesus in ways that separate him distinctly from the Father’s infinite power. One solution to this is to de-divinize Jesus, to make him a powerful angel or some such being. I intend to discuss this solution next week. The non-Trinitarian solution I will discuss this week is to split the Trinity into three separate beings.

This is actually how the Mormons deal with the Trinity – they simply split it into three gods who work together. This seems to be a pretty rational approach to many people, as many people effectively treat the Father and Son as separate anyway, so what exactly is the fallout from this position?

A short side note: three gods is definitely a position that comes after the Trinity. As I pointed out previously, the Spirit is so seriously neglected in so much Trinitarian theology that nobody proposes that there might be three gods until well after the default position is Trinitarianism. The older version of this is to split the Father and Son apart as two separate gods.

Now, the very oldest of these proposals is also strongly anti-Jewish. Various flavors of Marcionite teaching denounced the god of the Old Testament and upheld the god of the New Testament as a better replacement. It’s certainly not necessary to do anything like this if one feels compelled to split the Father and Son from one another but it is impossible to come very close to Jewish Scripture.

The Old Testament spends a lot of its time on the oneness of God. This is one reason not to drop this theme off of the edge of the world. However, the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament also depends on a single actor in both Testaments. The Old Testament makes sense to Christians because it depicts a single deity who makes promises and then follows through on them in the New Testament. If the Old Testament god was separate from the New Testament god then the Old Testament god is, rather inevitably, a screw-up whose mess gets cleaned up by the New Testament god. While one could seek to de-emphasize this by speaking of cooperation between gods it’s hard to avoid this implication entirely. Indeed, once one accepts the premise that there might be different gods in each Testament Marcion’s claim that the Old Testament god isn’t very good seems rather inevitable.

Let’s examine some scenarios here. What if the gods were friends? The Old Testament God (hereafter the OTG) would then be responsible for making the world and getting it to the point of the New Testament. That is, this god would be responsible for creating a world that almost immediately breaks, coming up with a plan, and having that plan not pan out. The New Testament God (hereafter NTG) would then come in and help a friend out and set things right. Several questions would immediately arise: would the OTG be worth worshipping? Could we blame current problems on things the OTG did that were so messed up that even the NTG couldn’t fix them entirely? These aren’t questions that arise in classical Trinitarianism.

What if, instead, the OTG and the NTG collaborated to come up with a plan? In this scenario the division of labor is the same except that both gods would have agreed to the whole plan. In this case we couldn’t claim that the OTG was less competent at planning a world than the NTG (since both of them would be in on the planning) but we could still ask whether the OTG was worth worshipping since it would still be the NTG who saved us. Indeed, the division of labor would strongly suggest that the OTG was incapable of pulling off salvation.

The other issue here is that (like many flavors of popular Protestantism) all of this pretty much writes off the Old Testament. Marcion himself simply tossed out the Old Testament. Almost no Christians today suggest this but if this suggestion isn’t on the table then the Old Testament must have value for us now. Now I suppose you could think of some way in which the OTG and the NTG cooperated so closely that every action of the OTG must be scrutinized so that its significance in the New Testament could be determined. However, at this point we’ve also removed most of the reason to split the Trinity. If we split the Trinity we don’t have to deal with the oddness of the Old Testament – and in doing so we write off the Scriptures that Jesus and the disciples used. If we force ourselves to deal with the Old Testament we remove a powerful reason to split the Trinity.

But what if you agree that it works best to insist that one deity planned everything and that the whole plan is a single indivisible unit but you find it difficult to believe that Jesus is the same being as the one he calls “Father”? There’s an option to deal with this that doesn’t involve splitting the Trinity into separate gods: Arianism, the denial that Jesus is God or a god and making him God’s second-in-command. This, however, circles back to the issues with denying that Jesus is divine. I will discuss these issues in next week’s article.

Internal Criticism

August 25, 2014

I recently read an interesting article about the problems that Christian movies face. I don’t know all that many people who think that Christian art of any flavor is leading the field and so while I’m not familiar with most modern Christian movies I thought the article was interesting[1]. I also read a response to that article which caused me to bleed IQ points.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with the response article[2] but I’m not really interested in dissecting the article point by point[3]. Instead I want to focus on one particular objection that is relevant for this blog: the objection that people who criticize Christian movies don’t criticize “lefty” message-driven movies with the same rigor. (Specifically, the author of the response says he “highly doubts” that these critics are as even-handed as he wants.) I’m going to ignore the assumption that “lefty” and “Christian” are opposite (as long-time readers of this blog will be aware that I think that some “lefty” issues are very Christian and that others are very much the opposite). However, the whole idea that in-house criticism should be balanced by criticism of external opponents is an interesting one. It’s also not a principle I follow here on this blog.

Now, I have certainly written articles criticizing parts of the philosophy opposite to my own (namely new atheism) but I haven’t written all that many. I write much more criticism of the way Christians do things. I intend to continue in this vein. The reason why is simple: I’m interested in seeing Christians do better. I’m not interested in seeing the new atheists do better. I think they have a terrible philosophy (made much worse by the failure to recognize its own philosophical elements) and I hope it sinks like a brick. I don’t stop and think about how I should offer constructive criticism for a philosophy I hate.

The difference between constructive criticism and criticism aimed at undermining an idea seems pretty straightforward to me. When I write an article like the short series I did on inerrancy I write it with the aim that Christians will find and correct odd inconsistencies in their thinking. I point out problems so that they can be fixed and generally propose solutions. When I write an article like “Magical Contradictions” (also an article about inerrancy – specifically the odd way in which many atheists embrace inerrantist reading styles) I write it with the intention that people will read it, see the holes in new atheism, and reject it. In other cases, like “The Problem is You”, I begin with a short critique of a position opposed to mine and then move on to in-house criticism and discussion. In these cases part of the point is that I think the value of finding mistakes in others is learning from them.

Despite this, I understand why some people want to see balance in criticism. In fact, I suspect that there are two reasons for this view. The first is simple: it feels fair. We often insist on even amounts of criticism or other treatment in political discourse (which is a way of privileging the political groups who get to be in on even treatment) and we generally think that even is fair. Now, whether it really is fair is a complex issue (fairness is a somewhat slippery concept when one gets into details) but in reality there will almost never be an equal number of things to criticize on both sides of an issue. One side will make more sense or one side will offend more egregiously. Imagine for a second that we insisted that federal prosecutors prosecute Democratic and Republican politicians in equal numbers. In any given year one side will lead the field in offenses and so prosecutors would be forced to let some unpleasant characters off the hook or trump up charges against innocent people to meet this demand. Insisting on even criticism can actually be a very strange thing to do.

This leads directly to the second reason: if year after year you found that your favored side was in for more legitimate criticism that would probably mean that you need to rethink your favorites. However, this is only true when criticism is summed across all categories. In Christianity we call externally aimed criticism “apologetics” and have no common term for internal criticism. However, most people also favor one or the other mode. The real question is not “Does this author favor apologetics or self-reflective criticism?” but “When we take all authors together have they discovered more serious issues in us or in our opponents?”

There is one exception to this: when an ideology is in a time of desperate warfare it makes sense to ask every able-minded thinker to rush to apologetics, to man the defenses. Yes, some self-criticism may be needed to make the ideology stronger internally but most resources will be aimed outward. And that’s actually the problem. In some way most people realize this. When you start saying, “No, we need you to defend us,” we are actually saying, “No, you don’t realize what a threat we’re under.”

Is Christianity under threat? Sure – while religiosity is hard to measure it appears that less people are going to church, that they are going less often, and that they take central Christian doctrines less seriously. Meanwhile the number of people identifying as non-religious has gone up and the number of aggressive atheists appears to have gone up as well. At the very least, aggressively anti-religious viewpoints are now part of the public discourse. However, I believe that this threat should not compel us to man the battlements of apologetics as if there was nothing to be done in-house. Good apologetics cannot and will not come if we expect apologists to defend things that have not been carefully tested and improved inside our communities.

In some ways this is an appeal like the ones heard about consumer confidence in economics. If consumers hear that consumer confidence is up it will boost their morale and consumer confidence will actually go up. If they hear that consumer confidence is down they will become unsure and consumer confidence will go down. In the same way if we tell people, explicitly or implicitly, that Christianity might be on its last legs we will create a problem for ourselves. Let’s not do that. Instead, let us focus on being the best Christians we can be, something that will require careful, constructive internal criticism.

Read more…

Syncretism and the Peacock Angel

August 18, 2014

For some time now the onslaught of the Islamic State against anyone they deem as non-Muslim (including quite a lot of people whom everyone else thinks of as Muslims) has dominated the news. One of the hardest-hit groups is the obscure Yazidi sect which has been singled out by the Islamic State as not merely non-Muslim but as devil-worshipping. While there are a number of things that could be said about this matter the one that is on-topic for this blog is the mechanism by which the Islamic State decided that the Yazidis worship the devil and the mechanism by which most Western news sources have decided otherwise.

The mechanism by which the Islamic State (and, unfortunately, many other Muslims throughout history) has decided that the Yazidis worship the devil is fairly straightforward. The Islamic State has taken both Islam and the Yazidi religion seriously: it has accepted as a base premise that both religions describe real beings. It has also taken a rather obvious move for a state that describes itself first and foremost as “Islamic” and has decided that where Islam and the Yazidi religion differ Islam is correct. One of the central Yazidi figures is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, and the similarities between large parts of the story of Melek Taus and the story of the Islam devil, Shaitan, are strong enough that many non-Muslim non-Yazidi scholars believe that Melek Taus’ story borrows heavily from the Muslim story of Shaitan. If both Islam and the Yazidis worship real beings and Islam describes these beings more correctly then it would be fairly hard to avoid the conclusion that the Yazidis worship Shaitan.

However, most Westerner reporters deny this. This is probably an attempt at a neutral stance but it actually isn’t neutral. A perfectly neutral stance would be to say, “Yazidis worship a figure who the hardline Salafis of the Islamic State believe is the devil.” This tells us what both parties believe without stating whether either party is right or wrong. Instead, the reports I have read have all taken pains to tell us that the Islamic State is wrong. There are three possibilities if the Islamic State is wrong:

  • There is no devil and therefore Melek Taus is definitely not the devil.
  • There is no Melek Taus (only a figment of the Yazidi imagination) and so Melek Taus cannot be anything except his own imaginary self. Any attempt to identify him in another frame of reference is pointless.
  • There is both a Melek Taus and a devil but the differences between the two are substantial enough that they must be identified as separate figures[1].

Only the last statement avoids stating that one of these religions is just plain wrong. However, it introduces a whole host of other issues since Melek Taus inhabits a universe of a very different structure than that of Shaitan – one would really need to make up a new religion to accommodate both figures without completely altering them[2].

If this were all, this article would be an extremely pedantic slam on Western media sources (which are not generally known for great reporting on religion anyway). However, what is more interesting is that the principle that causes the Islamic State to identify Melek Taus as the devil is frequently celebrated when it leads towards religious reconciliation. After all, what is happening is syncretism.

Syncretism is simple: one person takes two religions and identifies figures in each religion with figures in the other religion. Syncretism is actually incredibly old (there is some evidence to suggest that ancient Egypt dealt with neighbors who assumed that the Egyptian pantheon was the same as their own just under different names[3]) although for some reason many of its modern proponents believe they are breaking new ground. In many cases modern Western syncretists deal only with gods – they find a few monotheisms and identify all of the gods as the same god and ask why everyone has to disagree. The minor figures (angels, demons, the devil, etc.) get kicked to the wayside because attempting to syncretize them is too difficult.

However, as the Melek Taus example suggests, real syncretism can be quite hard. (Real syncretism indicates syncretism that starts from the premise that both syncretized religions are describing real beings and that the task is to match these beings up.) Syncretists inevitably run across serious disagreements between religions. The response of the syncretist to these disagreements places them in one of two camps: the “we’re basically right” camp and the new religion camp.

The first camp is where most ancient syncretists and the Islamic State belong (along with certain modern Christians who identify the gods of other religions as demonic figures in Christianity). In this camp when two religions differ in their accounts of a religious figure, one religion always wins. So, for instance, when ancient Greeks described the Persian gods they did so from the perspective that they understood the gods better than the Persians and so while the Persians might have additional stories about particular gods (and perhaps even extra unrecognized gods[4]) if the Greeks and Persians said irreconcilable things about a deity (for instance, if they claimed different things about the marital status of the goddess of wisdom) the Greek version won.

The second camp is the province of most modern Western syncretists although at least one religion (Baha’i) has sprung up via this route. In this case if two religions disagree neither is assumed to be right. Instead the syncretist either invents an entirely new answer or picks whichever of the existing answers they prefer (to be fair this preference may be a very rational one). The primary issue with this is that it doesn’t bring two religions together but creates a third.

Many syncretists hope for a third camp wherein all disagreements between two religions can be harmonized without picking and choosing. Unfortunately, this requires a world in which there are no substantial disagreements between religions. While some syncretists attempt to make disagreements between religions insubstantial by declaring one or another part of a religion to be primary and letting all other parts fade into the background this is actually a more aggressive form of new-religion syncretism: instead of creating a single new, syncretistic religion, three new religions are created – a new version of each of the old religions and a syncretized new one.

The short version of what I have said here is that syncretism doesn’t lead to real reconciliation. Indeed, syncretism is much like something practiced by orthodox Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, and Mormons: the incorporation of prior established religious ideas into a new faith. If this actually worked as advertised then all Jews would have become Christians and then all Christians would have become Muslims (since each of these religions offers explanations for the previous ones). (In point of fact, syncretism exists along a continuous scale and drawing a line here and saying that incorporating prior religious traditions into a new faith is not syncretism is somewhat arbitrary.)

Not only does syncretism not work as advertised but it can actually be quite dangerous. If I believe that all your religious figures are real and attempt to fit them within my framework there is no guarantee that I’ll decide they are all good or bad in the same way that you did. While it sounds nice to say that everyone should take everyone else’s religious beliefs seriously our society actually functions along a model in which we treat belief (the act of believing something) seriously but the actual beliefs someone has as completely unrelated to the real world.

Read more…


July 23, 2014

I’m sorry to do this but I’m announcing a one-month hiatus. Posts will resume August 18th.

There are several reasons for this.

1) I’m behind. I’m posting a notice about no Monday post on Wednesday evening.

2) Really, really behind. In theory this blog operates as follows: each week I write an article. Each week I also post an article I wrote several weeks before, then looked at and re-wrote several days after I wrote it. This draft-and-revise cycle is what makes this all work. My rough drafts are choppy and poorly-organized. But guess what? We haven’t had a decent article buffer in two years (oddly the same time as I started a job as a full-time biology professor). This summer I hoped to catch up and get an article buffer that wasn’t merely enough to give me space to breathe and write some good articles but enough to let me hit mid-terms this fall and not have to write any articles for a week or two without panicking. Instead we’ve been working on a -1 week buffer: instead of each article getting drafted, then revised, then posted I post articles the minute I write them, sometimes at midnight because I’ve stayed up late to write them. I’ve actually eaten through the tiny buffer I had as I’ve taken weekends away or entertained summer visitors.

3) Given #2 most of this summer’s articles have been rough drafts. They’ve been terrible. They’ve been rushed, they’ve been improperly written, and I haven’t had time to think through the sort of ideas I like to write about. Instead I’ve rushed off articles on something and I haven’t liked them.

I would like to write good articles. I’d like to write articles that don’t feel like chores. So I need a month to write some buffer. I may even need to change the update schedule permanently but I don’t want to do anything too drastic yet. So I’ll see you in August, hopefully with articles that I feel are a much better quality.

I Am Anxious that the Machine Hates Me

July 14, 2014

Last week I talked about anxiety and whether Christians can be anxious or must be insufferably cheerful at all times. (Hint: I decided against option two.) However, anxiety is incredibly important to Protestantism. If everyone were laid back there would never have been a Reformation. This is true for a number of reasons[1] but the one that has left permanent impressions on all of subsequent Protestantism is Martin Luther’s great anxiety about salvation. If Luther had been a bit more relaxed and a bit less worried that he might fail to work hard enough for God he probably wouldn’t have poured through the Scriptures to find answers and when he found that he didn’t need to earn his way into heaven he wouldn’t have been nearly so excited about it. This goes even further: one of the standard evangelical models of conversion is to pull a mini-Luther[2] and become desperately anxious about how sinful one is, fear that God hates one, and then find out that actually Jesus can take care of that and it’s not necessary to be so stressed. This model definitely works for some people but the anxiety has always struck me as a bit odd.

Sure, maybe people outside the church could have weird phobias about God smiting them but the odd bit is how many people inside the church seem to think that the natural state of humanity should be to huddle in a corner with one’s arms covering one’s head in a hopeless attempt to ward off divine wrath. Some time ago I was involved in a long, meandering argument with a man who considered himself a Calvinist (although Calvin would probably have thrown up if asked to claim him as a disciple) and at one point this man became aware that I did not hold to his rather rigid and simplistic understanding of perseverance of the saints. Specifically, he became aware that I did not believe that God was obligated to save me from the fires of Hell on the basis of a confession I had made when I was a child but that I thought that some more current data might be relevant as well[3]. He asked me a question: how did I prevent myself from gibbering in terror constantly since I did not know with 100% certainty that I was saved? (The snarky but correct answer is that I do not believe in epistemologies that promise certainty about much of anything.) This question seemed frankly unbalanced to me. Perhaps if I had just finished slicing open my forty-second infant while chanting prayers to the evil one I might be overcome by such dread but I found the idea that a Christian attempting to live a faithful life might suddenly be overcome by terror that God would damn them to be simply strange. The actual answer I gave him was something rather simple along the lines of, “I believe that the Lord Who brought me out of darkness intends to finish the job.”

There are many odd things about this conversation but one of them is that the person who asked me this question was chock full of Christian clichés. If anyone was ever likely to ask about your personal relationship with Jesus it was this man. And yet the God presented in this question isn’t really a person.

Take a friendship. You have a personal relationship with your friends. You know who your friends are. Sometimes your friends are not as nice to you as they should be. Sometimes they have a bad day and snap at you or tell some of your personal business to someone you want kept out of it or whatever. They’re still your friend. You can actually tell the difference between a friend on a bad day and an enemy pretty easily. However, in the constant-fear-of-accidental-damnation model God is apparently incapable of doing this. It’s as if God is a simple machine which flips states between “save” and “damn” based on instantaneous changes in your behavior.

Ok, so maybe this model is broken but what about works-righteousness in general? There’s an impression in many evangelical circles that works-righteousness should be an endless stress-fest but most of the works-righteous seem not to think so. In fact this article began life in a conversation with a friend of mine about how he had visited a mosque to prepare for a class on Islam and noticed that while the imam preached entirely in a works-righteousness theme his congregation seemed quite unworried that they were going to miss the cut.

Again, personhood comes to the rescue. If you believe that God demands perfection then works-righteousness is a pretty hopeless task. (For the record I agree with both of those statements.) If you attempted works-righteousness and only works-righteousness then you should spend your life in fear. And yet, again, this assumes that there is no personal element. If a friend of mine were running a charity and I volunteered there I would assume that they wanted me to succeed. I would assume that when I messed up my effort in general would be counted and that the fact that I volunteered at all would be seen as evidence that I was on their side.

The view I get when people describe this God Who should make you anxious is of a God Who basically hates you. He doesn’t hate your sin, He hates you. He’s the boss who wants to fire you but needs an excuse and so you live in terror that you might slip up and provide that excuse. He is, oddly, not a personal God Who loves you and went to great effort to bring you salvation.

The problem with this is that it feels like yanking the supports out from under some good evangelism (and perhaps lending aid to works-righteousness). However the simple fact is that very few people in the modern West live in constant fear of God’s wrath (and many of those who do are Christians, oddly enough). If we insist that people should be in constant fear and yet they aren’t it’s worth asking why. It’s also worth asking whether we should try to sell them on being afraid (sometimes people are blasé about things they really should be terrified of) or whether we should examine our own ideas to see if we are saying something strange. In this case I’m afraid that we are in some ways saying something strange and that many people will hear a Christian who insists that they should be afraid of God saying that God is not a very nice sort of being at all. And, of course, many Christians have internalized a not very nice sort of God to their own detriment.

So, let’s take a Christian cliché seriously. Let’s relate to Jesus like a person. Let’s assume that God is capable of drawing the distinctions that we can draw and work from there. God may indeed be much scarier than many of us wish but let’s not get to that conclusion by assuming that God acts like someone Who actually hates us.

  Read more…

Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

July 6, 2014

Many of my friends are worried about the future. Some are getting out of grad school and finding it hard to get a permanent job (or any job at all). Some have children on the way and job instability. Mostly, in fact, my friends are worried about their jobs in the future: whether they will have a job in the future, whether they will get a pay cut in the future, or whether the job they are taking and moving for will pan out. Since many of these friends are also Christians they also face another threat: the friend who comes along and says, “Don’t worry about all that, God has it under control.” One of my friends recently had a job-hunting disappointment only to be told by her roommate, “Oh, I just listened to a great sermon that will really cheer you up.” My friend seemed to think this wasn’t very helpful.

This is a rather interesting phenomenon. On one hand I completely agree with my friends. When you are worried and anxious about major life decisions, or have hit a dead end and see no clear way through and someone tells you to be happy because that’s what God wants from you I totally understand why you might want to punch that person in the teeth. They are being incredibly annoying and while I’m sure someone out there disagrees I find a general consensus on this issue. On the other hand aren’t my friends (and myself at more anxious times in my life) wrong? The title of this article looks suspiciously like the sorts of phrases I have labeled as irritating and yet it is a quote from Matthew 6:34 where Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” So who is wrong? Are those who offer “spiritual” responses to allay worry being bad friends or are those who brush them off being bad Christians? (Or, of course, is it that everyone is wrong?)

I’ll start on fairly safe ground: offering “help” that you know is annoying is a bad thing. If you know that your friend will not be comforted by your words but irritated then your words should not be uttered unless the goal is to be irritating. Sometimes it is acceptable to be irritating – sometimes people need to face things they don’t want to – but it’s probably not necessary to confront someone with what you suspect is a lack of faith immediately after they suffer disappointment. In fact, that looks suspiciously like kicking someone when they are down. “So, didn’t get that job, eh? Worried that you aren’t worth all that much? Well, consider this: you’re also a bad Christian!” I don’t really see this as the way of Jesus.

This is a small comment on the larger theme though. If timing and tone are the only issues those can be fixed: address someone after they’ve had some time, speak with them about how they might be happier if they weren’t so anxious, and point out that this isn’t God’s intent for one’s life. But should that even be done? Are those who are anxious wrong to be anxious?

I would say no (in part). In a lot of evangelical circles people are thought to be wrong when they are anxious but this is paired with a passivity about God’s work in our lives. If God wants us to be active participants in His work in our lives then the picture is somewhat different. It may be helpful to imagine this difference using the analogy of a child and parent in a canoe. If the parent is steering the child doesn’t really have anything to worry about. However, if the parent has decided to let the child learn to steer and the child is steering the child does have reason for concern. While the parent will presumably not allow the child to get into serious trouble the child can steer wrong and perhaps learn a lesson that involves wading around in the water getting the canoe unstuck. If we are active participants in God’s work in our lives, if God is letting us steer to learn how to do it, then we have a reason to worry that we might get it wrong. This is especially true when we think about the world that we live in – it is very easy for Christians to make mistakes that will really mess up their lives. If you don’t believe me try shooting up heroin and see if you get a free pass on addiction because you only made that mistake once. (Or just go antagonize some unfriendly biker gang and see if they give free passes on that behavior.)

In fact, when we frame decisions about the future in terms of responsibility most Christians suddenly become much less sure that God will make everything alright if the human beings don’t live up to their end of the deal. Not many people would say that if someone refuses to discharge their responsibilities that God will be obliged to cover for them. But don’t my friends with children (or children on the way) have a responsibility to find jobs that will support these children? Don’t my single friends have a responsibility to support themselves and even give back to those less fortunate? (And where did those less fortunate come from anyway?)

Ultimately, there is room to be anxious and concerned in the Christian life without automatically failing some test of faith. Are we doing the right thing? Are we listening to God’s guidance? Are we being stubborn or lazy or proud or otherwise sinful and getting in the way of God’s plan? (There’s also no guarantee that God’s plan for us is always exactly what we’d choose without a clear idea of the endgame. Try talking someone into going into surgery without explaining how getting cut open will ultimately make them healthier.) However, contrary to that there’s this issue that Jesus himself delivers a long discourse on not worrying.

There are two comments to make about this. The first is simple: Jesus also delivers long, worried monologues. When praying in Gethsemane and famously asking God to “take this cup from me” Jesus was clearly not calm, cool, and collected. He knew what needed to be done, he knew that it would be terribly hard, and his knowledge that what was coming was necessary did not make the hardship “all right” emotionally. That’s why we have this prayer – because even Jesus found life stressful. (Of course perspective is also needed: I don’t know anyone who is walking into certain death. This is why I say that it is OK to be anxious only in part.)

The second comment is that Jesus’ own “do not worry” discourse is a rather different beast than the standard evangelical response. Or perhaps it is what the evangelical response wishes it were: a message of hope. Jesus doesn’t merely say, “Don’t worry and trust in God,” but “God loves you and cares for you.” The discourse acknowledges that people do need the things they worry about but also that God knows this. Instead of brushing aside worry Jesus confronts it and says that God is taking care of it. This is perhaps a far better model of how we should handle the worry of others: to lift the worrier up and promise love and support rather than denigrating the worries and accusing the worrier.

Women in Paul: Friends, Family, and Perhaps Co-Workers

July 1, 2014

Paul greets a lot of people in his epistles. Some of them he greets at the beginning of letters but most of them are greeted in an end section devoted to final words and personal notes. To be more specific Paul greets five people at the beginning of his letters: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (in their eponymous Epistles) and Apphia and Archippus along with Philemon. He greets another thirty-two people at the end of his letters[1]. Paul’s letters also hold greetings from people who are with him. Sosthenes, Timothy, and Silas are all included in introductory material in one or more letters. Another twenty-one individuals send personal greetings at the end of letters. (Priscilla and Aquila manage to be on both the giving and receiving end of greetings in different letters.) Finally, Paul mentions people who are of interest to the church he writes to – people who they may know, people who may be coming to see them, or people otherwise involved in the life of the global church in a way that impinges upon the particular community Paul is writing to. Twenty-one people are mentioned this way in the final greetings section of various letters and another three (Chloe, Crispus, and Gaius) are mentioned in the beginning of 1 Corinthians (along with Stephanas who is already counted in this list for other mentions).

In total, seventy-six individuals are mentioned in the opening or closing sections of Paul’s letters. At least fifteen of these individuals are women. In one case the gender of the individual (Junia/Junias) is contested but if we exclude this person from the count one in five of these individuals are women. The breakdown is more interesting than this, though. One-third of all the women Paul greets in his lengthy end greetings are women. Women “lose out” mostly in the “people mentioned in passing” category which includes only one women, Phoebe. However, some of the people mentioned in passing are not mentioned for good reasons. Demas is mentioned a lot but in one case it is because he has deserted Paul. Similarly, Alexander the metalworker is mentioned to warn people about him. Many of the people Paul mentions in this category appear to be his own traveling companions who we might expect to be men for any number of reasons.

Unfortunately, simply breaking down the categories doesn’t get us much further. One might expect that frequent mentions and greetings sent from a person indicate good things about them but Demas fits both of these categories and yet is last mentioned as deserting Paul. Frequent mentions do tell us something: that these people were active in the early church. However, that is sometimes literally what it tells us: they were physically active and traveled a lot, allowing them to send greetings from several locations and be greeted at (or mentioned to) several other locations. Some more data can be mined from the rather more obvious instances: Timothy is clearly a very important person given how frequently he is mentioned in all ways in Pauline Epistles. Priscilla and Aquila are probably important as well as they show up sending and receiving greetings. Most of the other people who get mentioned are already known to be important from other sources (like Luke).

Thankfully, Paul often introduces people with short descriptions. (I will be skipping the contended description of Phoebe here because I will treat it separately later.) Several women do not get useful descriptions: Apphia our sister, Julia, the sister of Nereus (which is her entire description), and Claudia. Others don’t get described usefully deliberately but things that are said about them tell us important details. Apparently some people from Chloe’s household alerted Paul to the trouble in Corinth which tells us that Chloe is either the head of a household (perhaps like Lydia in Acts) or that she is the person with the most pull as far as Paul’s ministry is concerned (e.g., her husband might be the real head of household but a non-believer). Nympha has a church meeting at her house. It’s unclear what her role within this church is but it is important that she supports the church in this way. (The options range from her running a church in her house to simply providing space because she has the largest house.)

Other descriptions are not particularly noteworthy for a first-century woman. Rufus’ mother has been like a mother to Paul. This is very kind (and perhaps risky given the sort of trouble Paul got himself into) but completely inside the norms of both Jewish and Roman culture.

A few descriptions are more noteworthy. (A reminder that I am skipping the two most hotly-debated women of Romans 16 so that I can give them more room in a later article.) These are Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis, all of whom “worked hard”. Whatever they are doing it is rather obviously related to the church and important enough that they are publicly commended for it. Moreover, their commendations are mixed in with those of the men. Perhaps Paul assumed that no one would really think these women were doing the same sort of thing as men for other reasons (much as if I thanked the firefighters and the doctors for their help in a disaster – you would not assume that the firefighters were doing surgery alongside the doctors). Maybe Paul knew that everyone already knew these people and wouldn’t hear him wrong. However, Paul doesn’t seem to be on guard against egalitarian readings of his words in the way that some of his later interpreters are.

Finally, there is the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche.   Paul addresses someone (his “true companion”) and asks them to help resolve this dispute. Given only this we might assume that Euodia and Syntyche were having a dispute about worldly matters that was producing nuclear levels of fallout in the community but Paul goes on to describe these women. They are, he says, people who have contended at his side for the cause of the gospel. He then compares their work to that of Clement and “the rest of my co-workers”. Any sort of plain reading of this text would indicate that Euodia and Syntyche were doing work like that of Silas, Titus, Timothy, and Paul himself (although presumably on a smaller scale since they are only mentioned once).

Indeed, if one were merely to read Paul’s comments to and about specific women in his Epistles one would almost certainly conclude that Paul saw no barriers to women participating in the life of the church in all ways. The impression gathered from this evidence is of a church with a number of important females figures including evangelists, heads of households, and possibly church leaders. Now, of course there are other texts as well and it is important to read them all. But the point of this “backwards reading” is to confront the texts in a different order and see if they line up the same way when we do. In this case it seems that if Paul did not mean for women to hold positions of authority in the church that was either rather low on his priority list (he makes little effort when addressing these women to denote their roles as specifically feminine) or that there was some other iron-clad understanding in the churches sufficient to block any misunderstanding. (This despite the fact that the Pauline corpus attests to misunderstandings in the churches about absolutely everything.)

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