Category: Bible

An autobiographical reception history of the story of Noah

Nathan-Noah

In the 1980s, Noah was a kids’ story. Here is a photo of me as Noah, age five or so. I loved having a cotton wool beard and my own little ark on a trolley, my brother one of the animals. The story is a Sunday School favourite for its craft possibilities, rather than its theological meaning. I don’t remember feeling any concern for the people who perished in the flood; they were evil – the story explained this.

In the 1990s, Noah became a source of science. The glossy Creation magazine would arrive in the mail, and I would learn about how the global flood explained all sorts of things, from the existence of fossils to the extinction of the dinosaurs (the flood changed the climate, and the dinosaurs couldn’t cope). Significantly, Creation Science Foundation became Answers in Genesis, because it wasn’t just the creation stories which explained science and origins, but the whole of Genesis. (Except that I don’t remember many articles on the significance of the Joseph stories, or other later parts of Genesis. I’m sure this an undertapped part of Genesis when it comes to science.)

In the 2000s, I sat in the Life and Literature of Ancient Israel unit at university, and the Noah story became a touchpoint for source criticism and the claim that the editor of the Pentateuch wove together different traditions in this and other stories. I was confronted with the strange repetitions within the Noah story and the diverging details within it (how many animals? how many days?). I felt stupid for never noticing them before. Quixotically, I fought against source criticism, rallying together every scholarly objection or question mark over the theory. What was I trying to preserve? A particular view of the inspiration of the Bible.

In the 2010s, the Noah story was at the centre of theological problems with the Old Testament. I read Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior and wondered why I’d never been disturbed by the genocide of almost all the human race in the flood. How could it be a kids’ story? How could we not question this depiction of God? Is it consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ?

And now, in 2014, I’ve just watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It is a strange and fascinating film; its landscape and naive quest structure (and rock people) reminded me of The Never Ending Story more than anything, but it has a dark edge, and owes as much to the old-fashioned biblical epics. Here we are forced to question religious certainty, because Noah truly does some despicable things in his pursuit of what he believes to be his mission from the Creator. We see some of the realities of a global flood which kills thousands; the screams of the dying heard by Noah and his family within the ark are truly harrowing. (The scene felt to me something like what most evangelicals imagine the judgement of non-Christians at the return of Christ, while they are safe in their ‘ark’.) The story takes themes from elsewhere in the Bible – child sacrifice, barrenness, father and son arguments – and thickens the Noah story with them. It gives the Noah story the mythic sense which Genesis demands; this is something like our world, but it is certainly not our world as we know it. The Noah story is strange, and this new film captures some of that strangeness, closer to the origins of the Earth and of us.

Matthew 10: Did the Twelve ever leave on their mission? And when did they come back?

I was reading Matthew 10 last night. Jesus sends out the newly appointed twelve apostles to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ to announce that the kingdom of heaven is near. Some instructions follow, which are more familiar to me in their form of Luke 11 in the sending out of the 70/72 (find a person of peace…).  Matthew’s account includes this interesting verse:

23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

We might be conditioned to hear it eschatologically, but then it makes no sense. What if it just means they won’t finish going to all the towns before Jesus catches up to them? In that case, it is a strange way to say something so simple.

But what was most strange to me is that there is no record of the Twelve leaving or coming back. Chapter 11 has Jesus teaching and preaching in the towns of Galilee; the disciples reappear in chapter 12, with no mention of their big mission. How long did they go for? What happened? Matthew must have had something in mind, and the record of some tradition, but he gives us no account. Luke at least records, rather barely:

17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

I looked at three major commentaries at lunchtime; none even mentioned the (problem?). F.W. Beare gave a paper on it in 1969 to SBL; I’m going to read it properly, but his gist was that the lack of an account was evidence for it not happening. That doesn’t really answer my question, of course, and I’m not so sceptical. Just a passing question as I read.

 

Quotes from Disturbing Divine Behavio(u)r

Eric Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior, Fortress Press 2009.

Is God really in the business of summarily executing those who are “wicked” and “displeasing” in God’s sight? If so, how does this fit with the ugly realities of the modern world? If God instantly executed individuals like these, then why were people like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic allowed to live so long and do so much evil?

– p. 19

Regardless of how one tries to resolve the tension, it is hard to deny that the Old Testament presents God in ways that appear ethically questionable, if not downright immoral. God is portrayed as one who sanctions violence, particpates in war, executes individuals for seemingly minor offences, and annihilates large groups of people in dramatic acts of divine destruction. If we are honest, many of us will admit that these images of God do not match up very well with some of our beliefs about God. Understandably, this creates a dilemma for those of us who affirm Scripture’s authority yet remain at a loss for what to do with these problematic portrayals.

– p. 34

“If reading the Bible does not raise profound problems for you as a modern reader, then check with your doctor and enquire about the symptoms of brain-death.”

-p. 35

Others do not find these passages problematic because of their comfortable familiarity with them. The familiarity effectively anesthetizes some readers of the Bible, preventing them from experiencing any significant discomfort with the unsettling images of God these stories contain. In short, they have grown so accustomed to these narratives that they are no longer troubled by them.

– p. 51

As Noll puts it, “The storyteller requires a capricious deity to make the plot work… The error we moderns often make is to assume that the characterization of Yahweh “mattered” to the ancient author and the original audience – it almost certainly did not. That is to say, this tale was not designed to teach some religious truth about a god called Yahweh.”

– p. 147

Disturbing Divine Behaviour : a review part 2

Seibert’s solution to disturbing divine behaviour is a christocentric hermeneutic. He acknowledges that the New Testament itself has some trouble images of divine behaviour. But he insists that we can trust the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament and use him, as the fullest revelation of God, as a guide to interpreting disturbing divine behaviour. He defines the God revealed by Jesus:

• Jesus reveals a God who is kind to the wicked – such as when he calls on us to love our enemies. This aspect of God’s character is only sometimes revealed in the OT.

• Jesus reveals a God who is nonviolent – again the command to love our enemies; throughout the gospels, Jesus never endorses or promotes the idea of God as a divine warrior. He lived nonviolently himself and rejected violence as a way to achieve justice. Ultimately, Jesus’ nonviolence is revealed in his death on the cross.

• Jesus reveals a God who does not judge people by causing historical (or natural) disasters or serious physical infirmities – recall Luke 13:1-5, where people ask Jesus what sin the Galileans committed that God let them be killed by Pilate

• Jesus reveals a God of love

Seibert goes on to show his dual hermeneutic in practice – critiquing disturbing texts with a christocentric hermeneutic, but also affirming them by seeking to find what ‘salvageable’ from such passages.

His final chapter offers some practical suggestions for ‘talking about troubling texts’:

• Stop trying to justify God’s behaviour in the Old Testament – a suggestion that is immensely liberating for me, if indeed I can follow him to here.

• Acknowledge how these texts have fostered oppression and violence

• Help people use problematic images responsibly and constructively

• Keep disturbing divine behaviour in perspective – that is, remember how much of the Old Testament is not troubling.

Seibert has an appendix dealing with Jesus’ eschatological sayings and whether they can be said to reveal a nonviolent God. Strangely, his treatment of hell doesn’t even consider universalism as an option – that is, the idea that ultimately God will reconcile all people to himself. It is at least as supportable of many of the things

I need some time to discern whether I can follow Seibert to where he goes. But his book gripped me. For once I found myself unable to put down a theology book,when usually they are something of a chore to read.

Disturbing Divine Behaviour : a review, part 1

Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God / Eric Seibert (Fortress Press, 2009)

In this book, Eric Seibert tackles head-on a question which has long been in my mind: what are we to do with the troubling Old Testament images of God? The ones where, for example, he orders the Israelites to commit genocide and kill men, women and children?

Many evangelicals would disown Seibert and his answers, but he comes from an evangelical perspective, with evangelical questions. But instead of the standard evangelical approach of justifying why God did these things in the Old Testament, Seibert claims God did not do them.

Seibert doesn’t actually present anything startlingly new to me. Studying theology at Murdoch University, I was made well aware of mainstream (“liberal”) Old Testament scholarship, with archaeology and textual criticism leading scholars to the conclusion that there was no widespread genocide of the Caananites or a flood which decimated the world. What is so compelling for me reading the book is that Seibert uses this evidence to answer questions I have coming from an evangelical background. Most “liberal” scholars don’t bother to address the concerns of evangelicals.

Seibert starts out by outlining the problematic portrayals of God that he is talking about. He confines his scope to the Old Testament historical books and divides the problematic portrayals into a number of categories – ‘God as deadly lawgiver’ – laws where the penalty for disobedience is death; ‘God as instant executioner’ – passages where God instantly strikes people dead for evil; ‘God as mass murderer’; ‘God as Divine Warrior’; ‘God as genocidal general’; ‘God as dangerous abuser’; ‘God as unfair afflictor’ – such as in the case of Job or Pharaoh’s divinely hardened heart; and ‘God as divine deceiver’ – the example being 1 Kings 22. It’s a disturbing catalogue of divine behaviour.

In an important chapter, he examines ancient approaches to disturbing divine behaviour. It is easy to think that it is only more sensitive modern readers like us who are disturbed by parts of the Old Testament, but the reality is that Jewish readers were disturbed by some parts before the Old Testament was even finished. Thus, Seibert gives us the example of the writer of Chronicles who in 1 Chronicles 21:1 changes 2 Samuel 24:1 to say that Satan was responsible for prompting David to take a sinful census, rather than God. For me, it begs the question that if the writer of Chronicles felt he had permission to question – and “correct” – disturbing divine behaviour like this, perhaps we, with the full revelation of Jesus Christ, have similar permission?

Seibert goes on to discuss an early Christian interpreter of disturbing divine behaviour – Marcion. Marcion was so disturbed by the Old Testament that he rejected its authority altogether and produced an abbreviated New Testament, with Old Testament references cut out. It’s a good idea for Seibert to tackle Marcion directly, as he knows he is going to be accused of being a Marcionite. He insists many times that he’s not a Marcionite, that the Old Testament still holds authority for him, but that we must discern each text. Interestingly, Marcion pursued a very literal reading of the Old Testament, more like we would make today, and this is what made it so disturbing for him. Seibert traces other ancient interpreters who managed to be less disturbed by making allegorical or typological readings. Marcion anticipated our contemporary dilemmas better than these others; branding him as a heretic might have been necessary, but the problems he had with the Old Testament came out of valid questions.

The next chapter is “Defending God’s Behaviour in the Old Testament”, surveying approaches evangelicals take to explain disturbing divine behaviour, all assuming that God did and said exactly as the Old Testament records.

  • ‘Divine immunity’ approaches basically claim that by definition anything God does is good and right and thus morally defensible. It usually appeals to how little as humans we understand of God’s ways. Seibert sees this approach as inadequate because it restricts honest inquiry about the character of God. It actually dishonours God by claiming he acted in ways that are inconsistent with our basic beliefs about what is right – we have to redefine evil behaviour as ‘good’. But ‘is genocide ever good?’ (p.74)
  • Another approach is ‘the just cause approach’, supplying a rationale for God’s behaviour – human sin was so bad they needed to be slaughtered. But what about babies? And surely the responses to some particular offenses are out of proportion – like Uzziah in 2 Samuel 6:1-11 who steadied the ark and was struck dead.
  • ‘The greater good approach’ argues that in these cases God was preventing a greater evil. Of course, what could be more evil than everyone perishing in a flood is difficult to fathom.
  • ‘The “God acted differently in the Old Testament” approach’ argues for a discontinuity between God’s past and present behaviour. But if God instructed the Israelites to commit genocide just because that was all they could understand at their stage in development, our questions about God’s character aren’t answered at all.
  • ‘The permissive will approach’ claims that God’s instructions to violence were a compromise because of Israel’s disobedience. The disturbing divine behaviour is contrary to God’s perfect will, but necessary because of the situation. This approach doesn’t actually rescue the text (it’s still inaccurately reports what God wants) or God’s behaviour (He still does these disturbing things).

Coming as he does from an Anabaptist tradition, it seems strange to me that he doesn’t spend longer addressing the approach of the most important Anabaptist thinker – John Howard Yoder. Yoder offers a way of reading the Bible that is different to any of the approaches Seibert discusses. Yoder approaches biblical texts from the ground up, finding their inspiration or theological truth in the way the writer has taken the prevailing cultural standards and worldview and transformed it. Yoder finds a trajectory in each case. In The Original Revolution, he deals explicitly with one of Seibert’s test cases – that of Yahweh ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Yoder doesn’t even permit us to ask the question of whether Yahweh actually asked Abraham to do this. Instead, he points out that human sacrifice was not a moral issue for the ancient reader. It is not the point of the story at all. Instead, the point is that Yahweh calls Abraham to give up the very means through which Yahweh was going to fulfill his promise to make Abraham the father of many nations – a son. The ethicity of sacrificing Isaac is not a permissible question for the ancient Israelite. Yoder doesn’t expect the text to conform to his own ethical expectations of God. Debating its historicity is a sidetrack for him. His viewpoint has the potential to undo a lot of Seibert’s assumptions, and I would like to see some engagement with it. Of course, Yoder’s point is opaque and he doesn’t flesh it out; people aren’t going to respond to his solution in the same way many will resonate with Seibert’s.

[Part two coming tomorrow]

Beat your plowshares into swords

Yesterday the pastor asked if anyone had heard God speaking in worship, and someone said they had a verse from God. It was Joel 3:10. Read it carefully, it doesn’t say what you think it says at first:

‘Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare for war!
Rouse the warriors!
Let all the fighting men draw near and attack
Beat your plowshares into swords
and your pruning hooks into spears
Let the weakling say, “I am strong!”
Come quickly, all you nations from every side
and assemble there.
Bring down your warriors, O’Lord.’

Yes, it’s the precise opposite of the more familiar verses from Isaiah and Micah which speak of beating swords into plowshares.

So what does it mean for a Christian to invoke these verses and say they apply to us now? What are our plowshares and pruning hooks that we use for making a living which we are going to convert to weapons of war? ‘Turn your computers into bombs, your cars into tanks, we’re going to go kill our enemies’ – is that the intention?

And isn’t the Lord telling the nations that he is going to declare war on them, and they should get ready to fight? He doesn’t seem to be addressing the people of God at all.

Churches of reconciliation: the diverse church as good news for the world

Here’s the text version of the paper; the previous post offered a pdf version.

WA TEAR Conference 19 September 2009

As TEAR people, you already know that the good news is more than personal salvation after you die. You know that justice is an essential part of the kingdom of God. But have you ever heard the church itself proclaimed as part of the good news for the world?

This good news is that there is a new humanity – the church – where different races and different classes, people who were once enemies, are now brothers and sisters, are now worshipping together and eating around the same table. The good news involves reconciliation and the place it’s meant to happen is in the church.

Often when we think about justice issues, including reconciliation, we locate them out in the world. We think about how as Christians we can support programs and organisations which are promoting reconciliation. That’s not wrong, but it’s not the whole story. The church itself is meant to be a place where extraordinary reconciliation is taking place all the time. The life of the church is meant to show the world what reconciliation is all about. The life of the church is meant to offer hope to the world that it’s possible to overcome cultural differences and racial tensions. The life of the church is meant to turn on its head the status differences and oppression that occurs between rich and poor and male and female. When the church has truly swallowed the gospel, it becomes good news for the world.

In my talk today, I’m going to be arguing that diverse congregations where different groups are reconciled to each other are an overlooked but important part of the good news of the kingdom. I’m going to start with a look at these reconciliations in the early church of Acts and the letters of Paul. Then I’m going to contrast it with the homogenous impulse in evangelical churches today. From there, I’ll discuss some practical aspects of diversity and reconciliation in churches.

Biblical Basis

We see three important reconciliations happening in the early church – reconciliation between ethnicities or races, reconciliation between social classes and reconciliation between the sexes.

Paul mentions all three of these reconciliations in Galatians 3:26-29 –

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Baptism is the start of reconciliation. On entering the church through baptism, converts are swearing their first loyalty to the new humanity. A convert’s new primary identity is as a member of the new humanity. They remain a Jew or Greek, a slave or free, a male or a female, but these aspects of their identity are no longer primary.

Let’s examine these three reconciliations in turn.

Jews and Gentiles

The best statement we have about the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the new humanity church is in Ephesians 2:14-18:

For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups – Jews and Gentiles – into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

We have to go back two thousand years and get our heads around just how amazing it was that Jews and Gentiles could be reconciled with each by coming together in the same faith community, the church. Paul wasn’t exaggerating when he calls it ‘hostility’. It was often mutual hatred. William Barclay says it like this: ‘The Jews had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he has made.’ (Milne: p.21)

Here in Ephesians, Paul is claiming that on the cross, Christ put to death the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. God’s action in Christ creates a new humanity which anyone can enter by faith, rather than birth.

The reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles was a major missionary and pastoral focus of Acts and Paul’s letters. The reconciliation happened not by leaving each other alone and separating into two different types of churches. It happened by painfully staying together and sorting through issues.

Eating together was so important to the early church that it was the focus of many of the disputes. Table fellowship is critical to the church being a reconciling community. It is one of the activities the first church is listed as doing in the much quoted description of Acts 2:42-47 – ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ They were carrying on what Jesus had instructed them to do at the Last Supper – eating and drinking together in remembrance of him. Eating together in remembrance of him meant sharing food and sharing it with people you wouldn’t normally share it with. The breaking of the bread became known as the agape – the love feast. It was critical to reconciling both race and class.

As the gospel spread beyond the Jews to include the Gentiles as well, the Jewish Christians wrestled with the legacy of strict dietary laws that made it hard for them to eat with the Gentile Christians. In the decades after Jesus, the churches were constantly struggling to work out how these laws still applied and what it meant in the life of the church. There were disputes and fights and splits, and the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, spent a lot of time trying to resolve these. He didn’t advise them to go off and have their own separate agape; he tried to get Gentiles and Jews to give and take in love so that they could eat together (eg 1 Cor 8).

Rich and Poor, Slave and Free

Table fellowship created issues for the reconciling of different classes too. Slaves and masters, rich and poor didn’t normally eat together. In the Roman empire, slaves made up as much as one third of the total population (Finger, 2007: p.31). It was unheard of for slaves to dine with masters. Slaves were seen as property, not as equal human beings worthy of dignity. Yet the revolutionary new humanity church expected that masters would treat slaves as equals.

Slaves, at least, had enough food to eat. Former slaves and the working class were often poor and hungry. The table fellowship had a real economic meaning for them: it was where they got fed. The rich would have brought the food to provide for them. It was a form of justice – the poor could rely on getting at least this meal. The pattern in the first church in Acts is that the disciples started by sharing food and then stepped up a level and started sharing everything, selling off property to provide for everyone. In Acts 4:34 we read ‘There was not a needy person among them’. The common meal was the start of an economic reconciling where the differences between rich and poor were overcome socially and even abolished (Yoder, 1992: p.20-21). Reconciliation between classes involves redistribution.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17-33, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for letting the divisions between poor and rich show themselves in the agape. The poor and the slaves were probably later getting to the gathering because they had more work to do and by the time they got there, the leisured rich had already eaten the good food and got drunk. Instead of being a reconciling, equalising meal, the agape was reinforcing the divisions. Paul tells them it is not the Lord’s Supper they are observing; they are not respecting the body of Christ, that is the believers in all their diversity.

From where were stand in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to think that Paul didn’t go far enough in reconciling master and slave. He didn’t insist that Christians free their slaves. Yet the life of the early church was more effective at reconciling Christian slaves and masters than the abolition of slavery in the USA in the nineteenth century. Abolition has been followed by more than a century of racism and inequality in the USA. To this day a gulf exists between blacks and whites. Don’t get me wrong – legal solutions are a necessary part of reconciliation. But the early church had no hope of influencing the empire to abolish slavery. What it could do – and what was good news for the world – was to bring Christian slaves and masters around the table as equals. No such respect and dignity would have been given slaves if they were simply declared free and sent out into a society where they had no status and no money.

Male and Female

The reconciliation of the power imbalance between male and female in the church is something that was started in the New Testament, but not brought to completion. Unfortunately, present day conservative readings of the New Testament read it in the opposite direction to which it is headed and use the New Testament to reinforce the patriarchy rather than critique it.

One commentator writes

It is hard to imagine how badly women were treated in antiquity, even in Judaism, and how difficult it is to find any statement about the equality of the sexes, however weak, in any ancient text except those of Christianity. The Jew prayed, ‘I thank God that thou has not made me a woman’ (common morning prayer). Josephus wrote, ‘Woman is inferior to man in every way’ (Contra Apion, 2.24). The Gentile world had similar expressions. But Paul reverses this. Indeed, in this statement [Galatians 3:28] we have one factor in the gradual elevation and honouring of women that has been known in Christian lands. (Boice : 469)

At a time when women’s participation in society was much more restricted than it is today, we see signs of an early church giving unheard of responsibility and participation to women. We are told in Luke 8 that the community of Jesus’ disciples was funded by a group of rich women. In Romans 16:7, we have a female apostle, Junia.  In Acts 18:26, we have Priscilla, the house church leader who taught the faith to Apollos and with her husband Aquila was a ‘co-worker in Christ Jesus’. We have Phoebe, the wealthy benefactor who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans and read it out, no doubt interpreting it and explaining it on Paul’s behalf (Finger, 2007: 61-62).

The assumption of one of the most sexist passages in the New Testament, the head-covering passage of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, is that women have a role in the church prophesying. Paul’s concern is that they do it in a way that doesn’t make others think they are behaving scandalously, with loose hair like prostitutes. In all the heat generated by his sexist justifications for this, we lose sight of the fact that he doesn’t challenge their right to prophesy.

It is this giftedness of all believers in the body that has an important reconciling effect. The gifts of the spirit for the building up of the body are poured out on every believer, not just the powerful ones. The fact, for example, that slaves and women will be given prophetic words to speak to the rest of the body keeps everyone humble.

Some of the most troubling passages of the New Testament, the household codes which call on wives to submit to their husbands, are actually empowering in their context. They are based on secular household codes which were addressed only to those in power. The New Testament codes first address the people who were not in power – wives, children and slaves. For the first time, subordinates are being addressed as moral agents, called upon to make moral decisions, to choose submission even in the knowledge of their equality in Christ. Slaves and wives are called to win their masters and husbands to faith by their strange voluntary, revolutionary subordination (Yoder, 1994: 162-193).  It was likely the new found freedom in the gospel for wives and slaves was causing scandal and disrepute for the gospel. Paul and Peter’s call for submission is not a timeless decree but a pastoral strategy, an intervention for reconciliation in that context.

The reconciling intent of the household codes is seen in the call for husbands to love their wives at a time when love had little to do with marriage. Masters are called in Colossians to provide their slaves with what is right and fair.

Summing up the Biblical Picture

So what we see in the New Testament is a new humanity church, where believers adopt a new identity, a new primary loyalty to Christ that allows them to be reconciled to each other. Whereas once the divisions of the world were what defined them, now they belong to a new nation that overcomes all these differences. Paul Louis Metzger puts it like this:

The church is a power instituted by God. It was designed with the particular mission of bearing witness to God’s advancing kingdom of beloved community through participation in the crucified and risen Christ, and of being consumed by him on behalf of the world for which Christ died. As such, that beloved community should be breaking down divisions between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and it should be confronting the demonic forces that distort and reduce people to races and classes, to rugged individuals in isolation, people whose value lies in how much they produce and consume. (2007: p.36)

Evangelicalism Today: What Mega-churches and the Emerging Church Have in Common

Unfortunately, in the name of evangelism, we have lost this good news. Evangelicals have misunderstood salvation and distorted the Great Commission to come up with too many homogenous churches which simply don’t the show enough of the good news of reconciliation.

‘Make disciples of all nations as you go, baptizing them, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Matthew 28:19-20. Many evangelicals understand the Great Commission as the most important part of their Bible, the central command with which to interpret the rest and with which to decide what our purpose as church is.

Evangelicals have tended to privatise discipleship and make it simply a case of ‘asking Jesus into your heart’. So when some evangelicals are interpreting the Great Commission, they assume that ‘making disciples’ means getting people across the line and into heaven. The more people we can convert, the better we are fulfilling the Great Commission – what could be more important than that?

This sort of thinking is behind the church growth movement. Even if you don’t hear about the church growth movement in sermons, it has strongly influenced the shape of evangelical churches over the last thirty years.

Church growth uses research to attract members, by working out sociological and marketing strategies to attract unchurched people to church. The father of the church growth movement, Donald McGavran, used the term ‘homogenous unit principle’ to describe the idea that people like to worship in churches that are monocultural. The gospel is best received when it doesn’t involve crossing cultural boundaries. To be effective, we shouldn’t try to bring together black and white people or rich and poor people into the same church – it will put people off. George Yancey put it like this:

Church growth experts argue that to spend energy putting together a church of many different racial groups detracts from the church’s main duty – to win as many souls as possible. (2003: p.30)

You can see this approach used in ‘seeker sensitive’ services and many mega-churches, where the good news is a self-help message, a way to personal fulfilment. Bill Hybels is the pastor of one of America’s biggest churches, Willow Creek, a pioneer of seeker-sensitive services. It’s interesting to see his shift in attitude. He said in a 2005 interview:

Willow Creek started in the era when, as the book noted, the church growth people were saying,  “Don’t dissipate any of your energies fighting race issues. Focus everything on evangelism.” It was the homogeneous unit principle of church growth. And I remember as a young pastor thinking. That’s true. I didn’t know whether I wanted to chance alienating people who were seekers, whose eternity was on the line, and who might only come to church one time. I wanted to take away as many obstacles as possible, other than the Cross, to help people focus on the gospel.  So now, 30 years later… I recognize that a true biblically functioning community must include being multiethnic. My heart beats so fast for that vision today. I marvel at how naive and pragmatic I was 30 years ago. (Gilbreath: p.38)

It makes it hard to know what to say when the target of your criticism has so publicly repented of his old attitude, and writers on this subject like Paul Louis Metzger don’t know quite what to do with Hybels’ turn around (Metzger, 2007: p. 57). It’s certainly good news and we can only hope that it translates into diverse mega-churches. However, I’d also say that the mega-church itself doesn’t easily fit with the diverse new humanity church I’m talking about. Even if there is a mix of classes and races, it is much harder to gather around the table and have the level of fellowship which allows the church to embody the good news.

You see an interesting echo of church growth in the emerging missional church (EMC) in Australia. I like a lot of what the EMC does in questioning the received ways of doing church and responding creatively rather than defensively to postmodernism. It also has a welcome emphasis on justice. However, despite reacting against the megachurch phenomenon, the emerging missional church seems to be built on church growth theory as well.

Some of you will be familiar with the key EMC text in Australia– Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost’s Shaping of Things To Come. Their model for mission is for what they call ‘incarnational’ living amongst particular subcultures of society. Perhaps you find a club with an enthusiasm for model aeroplanes or motorbikes and you join it, befriending the people and walking alongside them. The hope is that the whole community finds itself moving toward God together. The idea is that these communities already exist, and instead of expecting seekers to be extracted from their natural cultural setting to an attractional church and thus asking them to accommodate to church culture, we should turn their community into a church.

When I asked one emerging church leader about the homogeneity of the EMC approach, he said that the homogenous unit principle was a missional strategy, while diversity was a goal of worship and discipleship. I’m unconvinced by this – I think that if we create churches out of special interest groups, they will probably stay homogeneous.

British theologian John Milbank wrote a harsh polemic against the emerging church in an article called ‘Stale Expressions: The Management-Shaped Church’:

In all this there lies no new expression of church, but rather its blasphemous denial. The church cannot be found amongst the merely like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine–human community in one specific location. St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widows. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se. One can’t set up a church in a café amongst a gang of youths who like skateboarding because all this does is promote skateboarding and dysfunctional escapist maleness, along with that type of private but extra-ecclesial security that is offered by the notion of ‘being saved’. (2008: p.124)

Milbank’s tone is combative and I don’t think his criticism is true of everything done in the name of the emerging church movement. But I do think that his challenge is one that needs to be heard and grappled with.

Practicalities

What, then, does the new humanity church of reconciled peoples look like today?

It might be tempting to think that there is little scope for a local church to be diverse, that suburbs are homogeneous. But the reality is that every suburb is diverse in some ways; if your church is homogenous, it probably doesn’t reflect your suburb.

I live in Nedlands, one of the wealthiest suburbs in Perth, yet amongst the Mercedes Benz and BMWs there are also students renting houses and blocks of flats housing low income earners. There is a high population of people born in Asia. There is a wide range of ages, an aspect of identity I didn’t discuss from the Bible, but which we could apply similar thinking to. And of course, there is an even spread of men and women.

Bruce Milne pictures the new humanity church like this:

‘What should churches look like as they gather for worship?… Even if the congregation is situated in a mainly homogeneous neighbourhood in respect of ethnic origins, we would hope to see good numbers of both men and women, clearly comfortable together, with all the age groups and generations represented, plus signs of different kinds of family structure, different wealth levels, and probably indications of diversity in regard to how long the individuals or family units have been part of the congregation. Hopefully there might be also be signs of a spread of work setting between blue-collar and professional, and evidence of people who are still seeking for a personal Christian faith, as well as the mature, seasoned believers. Here and there the presence of people with physical or mental challenges would indicate a further expression of the congregation’s diversity.’ (2006: p.74)

This idea of the new humanity church which sees reconciliation between different groups as a part of the good news is no good if there’s nothing you can do about it when you return to your normal life at the end of this conference. It’s rare to be starting a church from scratch, so the practical consequence can’t be a prescription of how we might go about establishing the perfect new humanity church. Instead, you’re going to need some steps that you can start with where you are. Some of these steps are at the level everyone can do, others are at a higher level that only church leaders can do. But perhaps church leaders will listen to suggestions you have.

Worship

‘Worship wars’ are a familiar problem facing evangelical churches. The dividing line tends to be along generational lines. The stereotype is that old people want traditional, perhaps formal worship. The baby boomers want relaxed worship. And now Generation X and Y want either rock concerts or postmodern emerging worship. And so, in response, we tend to get age segregated services, with a different worship style for each.  I suspect that in today’s church the tension between generations is of as much significance as the tensions between races and classes in the early church.

Worship which disenfranchises parts of the church dishonours God. It needs to be ‘consciously shaped so that all members of the congregation can experience it as a generally meaningful vehicle for their response to God.’ (Milne, 2007: p.107) There should be a lot of give and take between generations or groups in the church, so that worship pleases our neighbours as well as ourselves.

Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas is a truly multi-ethnic church with blacks, whites and Hispanics worshipping together. They have seven different worship teams, all with different styles, who rotate leading the worship. Words to the songs are projected in both English and Spanish. To accommodate those Latinos who don’t speak English, once every two months a whole service is conducted in Spanish, with English people having to waiting for a translation, instead of the other way around (Kennedy, 2005: p.43).

For me, small, participatory churches are the best way to ensure there is reconciliation in worship. Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek makes sure there’s black and white people up on the stage, and that’s their version of diversity. But for me, giving everyone a chance to contribute to worship is closer to what Paul was talking about, perhaps best shown by 1 Corinthians 14:26:

What then shall we say brothers and sisters? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

Leadership

Seeking diversity in the leadership of your church is an important step. Are there men and women in leadership positions? Are there young and old? Are there working class people as well as the university educated? Is there anyone who’s not from the dominant ethnicity?

Eating together

Eating together was crucial to reconciliation and diversity in the early church. I think it is crucial today too. Recovering the shared agape meal of the early church as a regular part of worship would visibly bring all the different people of your church around the same table.

It is also something that you can also practice as a household, inviting people from within the church and your local community to eat with you. Eating together is surely a good way to defuse tensions within a church. If there is someone whose faith and beliefs is most at odds with yours, then perhaps that’s the person to invite back for Sunday lunch.

Reconciliation and Redistribution

In his book Consuming Jesus, Paul Louis Metzger insists that ‘reconciliation involves redistribution’. He calls for a redistribution of need, so that the affluent start realising they need to learn from the poor about surviving oppression and being poor in spirit. We achieve this redistribution by listening to the poor and spending time with them. The redistribution of resources means that churches with resources should give time and money to those without.  He also calls for the redistribution of blame, by which he means taking responsibility for the sins and injustices of the past committed by our ancestors and embedded in structures today. (Metzger, 2007: p. 143f.)

Conclusion

I want to finish my talk today by mentioning some of the unanswered questions and weak points in my argument.

Firstly, there’s the danger of hypocrisy. I like the idea of diversity across race and class. But what about across theological lines? That’s more uncomfortable. I find it difficult to worship and fellowship with many types of Christians; I get frustrated, annoyed or bored. I gravitate toward people whose version of Christianity matches mine most closely. What about reconciliation with these other people? If I can’t show them Christ’s love, if Christ’s reconciling power is not evident there, then surely the good news is not being worked out? This is one reason why I need to think of myself as blessed for being a part of a theologically diverse church where I have to at least stay in touch with other types of Christians.

Secondly, I’m not sure what to do with homogenous minority ethnic churches, like Chinese churches and Aboriginal churches in Australia. Is ethnic diversity something they should be striving for too? Rory Shiner made an interesting comment on a blog about the homogenous unit principle:

Like most Christians I suppose, I have an intuitive hostility to the idea of a homogeneous church. However, I do repeatedly come across situations where the argument against a homogeneous church/ministry comes from the people who are loving things just the way they are: e.g., the white power-holders in Australian country churches who oppose the setting up of Aboriginal fellowships because they love the expression of unity from black and white worshipping together. Problem is, of course, the same people would never dream of allowing their church meetings to become the sort of 3 hour affairs that Aboriginal Christians expect, complete with country music, altar-calls and multiple sermons. As long as those well-meaning people insist on the expression of unity (on their terms), the work amongst the Aboriginal Christians suffers. (Chester, 2006)

In terms of immigrant congregations in Australia, there is a strong argument for church services in people’s first language. For the immigrants who don’t understand English well, this is a good thing. But there is still room for involvement of people with different ethnic backgrounds as visitors and maybe even members of these congregations. And what about the next generation, who are comfortable with the English language? Often, a new service is started for them, making it both culturally and age homogenous. I think this is a mistake, and this is when the church needs to strive for greater diversity.

Thirdly and finally, I want to acknowledge how difficult diverse churches of reconciliation are. In 2006, a Harvard political scientist named Robert Putnam reluctantly released his findings that ethnic diversity breeds mistrust in communities. ‘His extensive research found that the more diverse a community, the less likely were its inhabitants to trust anyone, from their next-door neighbour to their local government.’ (Wilson, 2006) It’s findings like these that seem to strengthen the case for homogenous churches. But we can argue it the opposite way. We can see in this finding the urgent need of the good news of a reconciled people who embrace diversity, who choose to love and trust each other.

Of course, the mistake would be to think we can do it on our own. Metzger (2007: p. 91) writes:

Attempts to confront race and class divisions can be intense and overwhelming and will not bear lasting fruit – indeed, could end in anger or apathy – unless we experience the undying love of God that is poured out into our hearts through the Spirit of grace, whom God in Christ freely gives us to transform our hearts and lives. What is required is a great awakening, a turning of the tables of the heart in which the Spirit inspires within us an all-consuming passion to follow the downwardly mobile Christ in the world.

Further reading

All of these books are available from Koorong or Word or at Vose Seminary Library (20 Hayman Rd Bentley).

Milne, Bruce. Dynamic Diversity: The New Humanity Church for Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham: IVP, 2006.

A well-organised book, spending a chapter outlining the New Testament case for the importance of the new humanity church, and then a chapter demonstrating how the concept fits doctrines like the Trinity, creation, atonement and the church as the body of Christ. He outlines what a new humanity church looks like and then argues that the idea is particularly relevant to our culture because of the resemblance between the Roman Empire of the first century and the globalisation of today. A series of practical chapters follow, explaining what worship and leadership, discipleship and mission look like in the new humanity church.

Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in the Consumer Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Metzger’s focus is on the way consumerism divides the contemporary evangelical church and the historical and cultural factors that have led to it. His solutions are more radical and more sacramental than Milne’s. His writing is perhaps more exciting than Milne, but less well organised and less accessible.

Pierce, Ronald W. and Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill, (editors) Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Downers’ Grove, 2005.

This is an excellent collection of essays arguing (biblically) for egalitarianism between men and women in the church and the home. It is thorough, covering almost every aspect of the debate, from biblical, historical, theological and practical angles.

Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992.

This is the book which has influenced my understanding of the church most. It is short but difficult and redefines the practices of the church in terms of their radical social character, from the Lord’s Supper as a shared meal to baptism as entry into a new humanity. I have written a simplification you can download from https://perthanabaptists.wordpress.com.

Bibliography

Boice, James Montgomery, “1 Corinthians” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.

Chester, Tim. “The Homogenous Unit Principle.”  http://timchester.wordpress.com/2006/12/08/the-homogeneous-unit-principle/. 8/12/2006. Accessed 10/9/2009.

Finger, Reta Halteman. Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Frost, Michael and Hirsch, Alan. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003.

Gillbreath, Edward. “Harder Than Anyone Can Imagine.” Christianity Today 49, no. 4 (2005): 36-43.

Kennedy, John W. “Big Dream in Little Rock.” Christianity Today 49, no. 4 (2005): 42-43.

Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Milne, Bruce. Dynamic Diversity: The New Humanity Church for Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham: IVP, 2006.

Wilson, Peter. “Ethnic Diversity ‘Breeds Mistrust’.” The Australian, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20554070-5001561,00.html. 10/10/2006. Accessed 17/9/2009.

Yancey, George. One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.

Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992.

———. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.