Category: theology

If you have been left behind

In my journey out of fundamentalism over the last ten years, I started off being angry at it. I wanted to argue with every fundamentalist, to show them why they were wrong. Then I went through a period of morbid fascination and I started scrapbooks of outlandish examples of fundamentalist literature (pamphlets, tracts, posters) that I called ‘Volume 1: Live footage from hell’ and ‘Volume 2: Tribulation squad’.

In recent years, I’ve just left fundamentalism alone. Most fundamentalists are nice people, and I’m unlikely to help them much by telling them they’re wrong. (And so many mix some fundamentalist beliefs with lots of non-fundamentalist ones.) But still, sometimes something comes along that recaptures my old fascination – like this tract I found called ‘If you have been left behind’.

Long before the insipid novels, this was the real deal. It’s scarier than the novels, because it is published in all seriousness as a guide to the unbelievers who are left behind when the rapture happens.

It may be that this message will sit on many a book-shelf, until perplexed and grief-stricken people come across it. Some may remember the title, and search it out.

It’s a spooky thought, this tract published to be read when the world is in turmoil. Later on, we read:

My reader, if you have been left behind, and realize the Great Tribulation has begun, DON’T TAKE YOUR OWN LIFE, whatever you do!

The tract carries on with helpful advice about the sort of things the reader will discover as they face the seven years of tribulation. It’s written sincerely, with the best of intentions.

Fundamentalism makes me feel bad about being a Christian sometimes, and I think it will continue to fascinate me and repel me at the same time.


Mutual love and submission in marriage

I.H. Marshall’s article ‘Mutual love and submission in marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-23’ appears in the excellent collection Discovering biblical equality : complementarity without hierarchy (Apollos: 2004). His article is a good argument for why these passages do not call for male headship today.

Col. 3:18-19: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.’

Eph. 5:21-23: ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.’

Marshall’s argument is that Paul speaks to a world where patriarchy is the norm and urges Christians to transform this by practicising a ‘love-patriarchy’. But this isn’t the final step of the way in the Christian trajectory. The story of new creation that the Bible tells us is moving toward Galatians 3:28 where there is ‘no longer male or female’. Paul was transforming the norms of his day. If he was speaking to us today, he would not be calling us backward from marriages of equality to love-patriarchy. Instead, he would be extending submission and sacrificial love to both partners.

Does Paul’s teaching not only require that people fulfill the requirements of the social structures they find themselves but also mandate the structures themselves? Or does Scripture itself lead us to adapt different structures from those prevalent in the first century – just as we have seen to be the case with children, slavery and government? (195)

Some of Marshall’s important arguments are:

  • It’s a mistake to think we can simply transfer any of the instructions to social groups from the Bible to our own day. In the same passage, children + parents and slaves + masters are addressed in ways that aren’t appropriate to today’s society. ‘Obey your masters’ is not an answer to today’s employment relationships. There was a significant shift in the status of workers not spelled out in the New Testament, as much as the seeds are in it by giving dignity to everyone in the body of Christ.
  • The average age gap between husband and wives would have been twelve to fifteen years, which changes the picture.
  • Marshall only mentions this in passing, but it is likely that a constant pastoral problem was women enjoying their new freedom and status in Christ by asserting themselves in a way offensive to outsiders. Paul’s instruction for them to submit is likely to be a pastoral strategy to prevent the gospel being brought into disrepute. If we make an analogy to today’s world, it brings the gospel into disrepute to call for women to submit and not men. Paul might use the same principle to give the opposite instruction.

Death: the face of God’s enemy

Also in the latest issue of On the Road, Chris Marshall reviews David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea : where was God in the tsunami? I want to read this book because his account of evil and God’s sovereignty resonates me. Marshall finishes the review with this, a paragraph of comfort to me:

The book… is an impassioned protest against fellow believers who, out of acute anxiety to protect God’s sovereignty, are all-too ready to see the hand of God behind the horrors of human history and the disasters of the natural world. For Hart, the greatest, and indeed the only, comfort a Christian can find in the death of a child is the knowledge that in the tragedy one sees, not the face of God, but the face of God’s enemy, whose ultimate defeat is assured.

A radical church or a mixed one? (Am I being inconsistent?)

Thinking further about the need for radical Christianity to offer a church to believers, I’m struck by an inconsistency in my thinking.  I have been calling for diversity to be a key commitment of the church; surely that diversity should include radicals and conservatives and liberals too?  

Our Anabaptists Anonymous group did a simulation of a Roman house church last Thursday, as per Reta Finger’s book, and it struck me how she has some of us play Gentile radicals who think the law shouldn’t apply and others Jewish conservatives who think the law still applies. We are forced to hold these opposite views while fellowshipping in the same church. This is a much bigger and wider reaching tension than many of the theological issues that divide us today. It would have caused constant conflict, and yet Paul would not have heard of them dividing over it.

I think it would take a certain kind of radical and a certain kind of conservative to co-exist peacefully in the same church. You would need to have a strong commitment to the kingdom, to Jesus above all else, and a desire to listen and love the others. A friend of mine tells me of a Uniting church he goes to where this happened effectively – an evangelical minister and a liberal elder co-operating beautifully.

I need to think some more.

“Equal but different”: applying male headship thinking to race

No-one denies that blacks and whites are equal. God created both blacks and whites in his image. They are both equally capable of leading.

But not everyone can be a leader and the Bible teaches us He created black and whites for different roles, to complement each other.

White people were created to be leaders. There is something about whiteness that makes whites need to be in charge. Whites have a need to be respected by being in charge. Their authority needs to be respected or they won’t feel like real whites.

Black people, on the other hand, were created to submit to white leadership. They don’t have the same need to lead, and when they respect the order of creation by submitting, they will feel much more fulfilled.


It sounds so racist and so evil! Yet a lot of evangelical Christians believe that woman, although created equal, are not permitted leadership roles and should submit to their husbands in the home. Conservatives have some strong biblical reasons for thinking like this, stronger than any attempt to make a similar argument about race. But our reaction of horror to this type of thinking in race should sound alarm bells at the blindspots that patriarchy has created in us when we think about the sexes.

My wife and I are currently doing some reading and thinking toward a theology of male and female.  I’ll just offer some preliminary responses to those who think the Bible’s teaching on male and female is absolutely clear.

1. The household codes which call on wives to submit to their husbands in the letters of Paul and Peter are revolutionary! Such was the impact of the gospel that for the first time women were viewed as moral agents with choices about how they lived. (The secular household codes which Peter and Paul have adapted do not address women but only men.) The good news had caused women to enjoy new found liberation, which some of them were using in ways which upset the spread of the gospel and scandalised conservatives. Paul and Peter are urging them in their particular situation, for the sake of the gospel, to adopt ‘revolutionary subordination’. It is not a timeless command but a response to their particular situation.

In our situation, it is scandalous to the secular world for wives to submit to their husbands. Paul and Peter may be making opposite demands on the church if they were writing to us today.

2. The trajectory of the gospel, the thrust of the Christian story is toward Galatians 3:28 where the divisions of male and female, slave and free are overcome in the body of Christ. It is this ideal toward which the church must aspire.

3. I’m well aware that this leaves some key texts which still cause problems for the egalitarian Christian. There is diversity in the Bible and it is something we may never completely resolve. But it is worthwhile wrestling with all the texts, not just the ones which support our position.

Anabaptism for Baptists: a historical legacy and a theological challenge

This is a talk I gave to a Baptist denominational distinctives class yesterday.


We could look at Anabaptism in two ways.

Firstly, as a historical movement in the sixteenth century – the radical reformers. That history is a helpful counterpoint for Baptists as Anabaptists are as important to the Baptist heritage as Luther or Calvin, and yet you could grow up in a Baptist church like I did without ever hearing them mentioned.

But I didn’t become an Anabaptist for historical reasons. I became an Anabaptist when I encountered a theological framework which made me excited about following Jesus and excited about what the church is meant to be. That’s the second option for looking at Anabaptism – as a theological framework drawing on the key insights of the sixteenth century radical reformers but not captive to their particular historical and cultural concerns.

In this talk, I will give you an historical sketch of Anabaptism to orientate you. I will then discuss two key aspects of an Anabaptist framework – the Constantinian shift and the view of the church.

Anabaptist history

The Anabaptists originate as the third group in the Reformation. The Protestant Reformers broke with the Catholic Church over the place of the Bible, the doctrine of grace and the abuse of the priestly office. The Reformers sought to make their reforms through the magistrates and councils which ruled the city-states. The Anabaptists went further than the Reformers. They understood the church in a fundamentally different way, rejecting the alliance between church and state. For Anabaptists, being a Christian meant following in the footsteps of Christ. They refused to compromise, and like Jesus this brought them into confrontation with the authorities and led many of them to the cross – martyrdom.

In 1517, Martin Luther set off the reformation. Two years later, a priest named Ulrich Zwingli heads to the Swiss city-state of Zurich. He is convinced that the church needs to return to the Bible. He begins preaching from Matthew 1 and starts working his way through the Bible. He believes the church needs reforming. But he’s also a pragmatic man, and he wants to be effective. He has a disputation with scholars and church people to make recommendations for reform. He then implements the program of reform in consultation with the council.

Zwingli also has a small study group with some enthusiastic young disciples. Among them are Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock. He studies the Greek New Testament with them and they talk about the reform of the church. At first, Zwingli says his final authority will be the Bible. But increasingly, he becomes more pragmatic. Tensions rise with his radical disciples who don’t want him to compromise with the powers.

The radicals break with Zwingli at the end of 1523. A disputation calls for the abolition of the mass. Zwingli brings the idea to the Council, but says he will submit to whatever the Council decides. The radicals are furious that he is compromising on something they feel the Bible is clearly saying. Their disagreement with him over how the reformation of the church should proceed shows the Anabaptist idea of the Constantinian shift, a theme I’ll return to.

The radicals continue meeting without Zwingli. After further study, they come to the conclusion that infants shouldn’t be baptised. They refuse to give their infants up for baptism. The Council issues an order that all infants are to be baptised immediately. On January 21, 1525, the radicals meet to discuss what to do. They decide that if baptism without faith is invalid, none of them have been baptised yet. So George Blaurock asks for Conrad Grebel to baptise him. Next Blaurock baptises Grebel, and then they baptise the rest of the gathering.

The term ‘anabaptists’ soon came to be applied to the group, meaning ‘rebaptisers’. The Anabaptists, of course, did not believe the first baptism was valid, and the term was one of derision, having connotations of treachery and heresy.

The group spread rapidly through Europe and were persecuted wherever they went. Two main streams of Anabaptism survived – the Mennonites and the Hutterites. The Mennonites named themselves after Menno Simons, a second generation Dutch Anabaptist who re-orientated the movement after a disastrous event at Munster, where Anabaptists tried to take over a whole city. In the end, most of them were killed. This uprising gave Anabaptism a bad name and made it an easy target for critics who saw the movement simply as political rebels. Such an interpretation was common until the middle of the twentieth century.

The stream of Anabaptism that contemporary Anabaptists trace themselves back to had three central principles, laid out in Harold Bender’s important idea of the Anabaptist Vision:

1) Christianity as discipleship

2) Church as brotherhood

3) Christian ethic as love and non-resistance.

All of these themes will emerge in the theological framework later.

Many Mennonites fled persecution by migrating east until they ended up in Russia. From there they were persecuted again by Stalin in the twentieth century and many of these rejoined the large Mennonite population in the USA and Canada. Today, a lot of Mennonites resemble evangelicals in most of their beliefs and even practices. However, there is also a strong movement within Mennonites reclaiming their radical roots. Pacifism is something Mennonites have rarely compromised on and Mennonite agencies are involved in peacemaking throughout the world.

The Hutterites have continued their practice of communal living and have communal farms in different parts of the world. (more…)

‘Two lists’ theology

I’ve been re-reading some of Tom Finger’s Contemporary Anabaptist Theology ahead of a talk I’m giving on Anabaptism, and I was struck by his discussion of the ‘two-lists’ approach to Anabaptist theology.

In the two lists approach, Anabaptists share the standard distinctives of evangelicalism you might find for any evangelical organisation (like the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students for example), usually one starting with the infallibility of Scripture and going on to the trinity, the divinity of Christ, substitutionary atonement and ending with the second coming.

We then have a second list of Anabaptist distinctives – usually confined to ‘social ethics’ (peace) and ‘ecclesiology’ (the disciplined church).

I don’t like this approach (and neither does Finger, really). The vision of the church found in Anabaptist thought and the radical understanding of Jesus should infect every part of our theology. I don’t want to be an evangelical with extras.

I see the same issue even in the Vineyard, where we’re careful to establish our evangelical credentials with a ‘first list’, and then offer our distinctives in the ‘second list’, centring on the kingdom and the Spirit. Same again with Baptists in WA.

I think there’s a good impulse behind this – the unity that the evangelical movement hopes to achieve as an umbrella above all these particular expressions of ‘orthodox’ (very small o) Christianity.