What 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Means

What 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Means

This passage is not about circumscribing women’s roles in church life. It is a response to a particular situation among certain Christian women in the Ephesian congregation involving false teachers, moral and sexual asceticism, and a tyrannical and domineering attitude towards men—all of which is causing a disturbance in the force.

Christians should not carelessly impute complementarian or egalitarian perspectives on gender roles to interpreters of this passage—it is not a shorthand for alleged “apostasy.” This is my paraphrase:

Woman must learn in a calm and peaceful manner—with complete obedience. I don’t permit woman to be to be lecturing or being a domineering tyrant to man. Instead, she must be calm and peaceful. This is what I mean—men and women are partners and so a domineering attitude towards men is wrong. Also, Eve was deceived while Adam wasn’t—we need one another!

But women will be rescued from all that false teaching about men and sexual abstinence by embracing their role as mothers—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

What follows is my commentary.

A Third Rail of the New Testament

This passage is the flashpoint of the controversy about women’s roles in the church. It has drawn significant attention over the past generation as the “can women preach?” question has become more pressing. People often take one of these two approaches:

Circumscribing women’s roles

Women must remain silent during corporate worship, may never teach men, ought to be subject to their husbands via a gendered hierarchy, are somehow functionally inferior to men as evidenced by Eve’s deception by the serpent, and women’s primary role and conduit to spiritual fulfillment is to be pregnant.

One representative example is William Hendriksen. He wrote that women do not belong teaching in the church, just as fish do not belong on dry land. Spiritual welfare is imperiled if women give in to this “unholy tampering.” She is a woman; thus she cannot teach. She follows, is receptive, is a user of tools the man invents. To teach is contrary to her nature. She is only a blessing to man to the extent she realizes this fact. Sin entered creation when she chose to lead, rather than follow. Adam was not deceived, but she was—thus Hendriksen hints (but does not say) that she is intellectually inferior. Only by way of bearing children are women truly happy—though Betty Friedan would surely beg to differ.[1]

Solving a local problem in Ephesus

These advocates believe we must interpret the passage in the context of a local situation regarding some Christian women in Ephesus. This framework re-colors the whole thing in a very different hue. This means the translation choices in most English translations can be made better, and that the passage is really about Paul telling Timothy to not let certain spiritually immature female troublemakers cause disturbances in the community. 

One representative example is Linda Bellville. She emphasizes the context of the letter as an aid to interpretation, and concludes: “A reasonable reconstruction of 1 Tim. 2:11-15 would be as follows: The women at Ephesus (perhaps encouraged by the false teachers) were trying to gain an advantage over the men in the congregation by teaching in a dictatorial fashion. The men in response became angry and disputed what the women were doing … Paul would then be prohibiting teaching that tries to get the upper hand and not teaching per se.”[2]

The literature on this passage is immense. Scholars continue to issue dueling essays. And so it goes. But, any competent student of koine Greek can ignore most of the literature. Any trained pastor can form reasonable and well-informed conclusions by consulting lexicons, his favorite intermediate grammar, by minding the context which prompted Paul’s letter … and only then dipping a toe (no more than that—you may not make it out alive!) into the tsunami of literature on this passage. We need not be intimidated by the oodles of paper, ink, and megabytes spilt on this passage.

My Presuppositions

These are some conclusions which guide my interpretation of the passage. In other words, I do not come to this passage as a blank slate. This is not the place to defend these presuppositions, but I do wish to disclose that they exist:

  1. Phoebe was a deacon (Rom 16:1), and thus held an office in a local church. This presumably meant she was articulate, spiritually mature, and a good Christian woman.
  2. The “women” in 1 Tim 3:11 are female deacons.
  3. Aquila and Priscilla were a church planting team; there was no gendered hierarchy at work whereby she merely “helped” her husband.
  4. Gen 2:18 does not say a woman is a subordinate “helper” to the man—an assistant’s role. The word actually expresses something like “help without which a task is impossible.” A figurative extension at Gen 2:18 would be “Eve completes Adam” as a man, because neither is complete without a relationship with the other.[3]
  5. Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche his “co-workers” in the Gospel who have “contended” with him (Phil 4:2-4). The strong “we need to get along” vibe throughout the whole letter to the Philippians may have as its object the conflict between these two women. 
  6. The Philippian church apparently met in Lydia’s home (Acts 16:13-15, 40). She may have been a leader in the church, but in any case was likely influential—Euodia and Syntyche attended worship there.
  7. The gender conflict at Genesis 3:16 is a result of the Fall, not a feature of the good creation (contra. the Danvers Statement, Affirmation 3). This suggests the New Covenant ethos would not accept a construct for the Christian marriage relationship which sees women as functional subordinates—it aims at modeling the better tomorrow (i.e. the original intent of creation) today. The Scriptures do not flatly outlaw slavery, but sane interpreters discern a trajectory which abolishes the concept as the new tomorrow draws closer. I see a similar ethos at work with gender hierarchy.[4]

I cannot accept any interpretation of this passage which suggests the following:

  1. Women are, at an innate level, intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise functionally inferior to men. I have worked alongside women for 20 years in the military and in State government. They are not functionally inferior to men in any manner relevant to the passage. Those who suggest otherwise are either sexist[5] or naïve.
  2. Women literally cannot speak during worship services.
  3. Conflict with other advice Paul has given about women’s roles in the congregation—all the advice must be rationally harmonized.
  4. Any advice that suggests women can only be happy and fulfilled if they have children.

1 Timothy Context

False teachers stalk the land in the Ephesian Christian community:

  • They focus on idle weirdness or absurd speculations, desiring to be teachers but understanding little (1 Tim 1:3-5). Some have departed from a faith centered on love and service in favor of this idle foolishness (1 Tim 1:6).
  • The focus on a pastor’s character qualities is perhaps a corrective to the false teaching (1 Tim 3:1-7), as are those of the deacons (1 Tim 3:8-10).
  • The woman deacons are specifically not to be “malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Tim 2:12). This focus on temperance comports quite well with Paul’s twice-repeated emphasis on calmness and peaceableness (ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ; 1 Tim 2:11-12).
  • Paul’s warning about not being hasty to lay hands on anyone is a call to be really sure pastors and deacons are stable people with proven character (1 Tim 5:22) (i.e. not like these false teachers or their women converts).
  • Paul gave instructions to Timothy so can explain how believers ought to conduct themselves in the household of faith (1 Tim 3:14-15)—presumably because false teachers have thrown everything into an uproar.
  • A bizarre sexual and moral ascetism has taken root, causing people to depart from the faith (1 Tim 4:1-5). This may be the same sexual ascetism which was at play in Corinth (1 Cor 7).
  • Younger widows are a problem in this Christian community—gossiping, spreading rumors, teaching weird things they do not understand, and some have even departed the faith (1 Tim 5:13-15; cp. 1 Tim 4:7).
  • False teachers likely bring accusations against elders, so Timothy must be cautious before entertaining these allegations (1 Tim 5:19).
  • Love of money is behind at least some of this madness (1 Tim 6:10).

Some commentators believe Artemis worship is behind the false teaching and the women in Ephesus (see Acts 19). The idea is something like “Artemis worship elevated women, and Christian women were being deceived into believing they could take that ethos into the Christian community, and so that’s why the women were being domineering tyrants and lording it over men.”

The problem is that I have not personally found any evidence to support the idea that Artemis worship taught women to elevate themselves while simultaneously denigrating men. A coterie of scholarly, reliable, general bible reference tools fails to mention this idea, which indicates this point is not as settled as its advocates would have us believe. If one must dig into specialist journals to substantiate this claim, then is it really an argument with traction? This does not mean the idea is wrong, but it should give one pause before pegging the false teaching as being connected to Artemis worship.

We can say at least this for background:

  1. Artemis worship suffused Ephesian culture.
  2. It was a major engine of the local economy.
  3. It focused on a female, virgin goddess likely linked to a fertility cult.
  4. Male eunuchs worked as priests in the Artemis temple (Strabo, Geography, 14.1.23)

One need not posit an “Artemis + female exaltation + male denigration = Ephesian false teaching” nexus in order to understand what is happening, here:

  1. Certain women are being disorderly, ostentatious, domineering.
  2. These traits are fruit of the false teaching in the church, which is characterized by idle speculations, old wives tales, asceticism, and love of money.
  3. Pastors are being accused of error, likely by the false teachers and these tyrannical women who are immature and unstable in their faith.
  4. So, the believing community is generally quite unsettled and messed up by all this.

Craig Keener’s summary is correct: “In 1 Timothy, false teachers advocating asceticism (4:3) based on the law (1:7) are undermining the work of Paul and his companions in Ephesus (1:3).”[6]

The first thing Paul wants Timothy to do is re-center the congregation around prayer, so the community can lead quiet, peaceful lives.

1 Timothy 2:1-10

1-2: I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (NIV)

It’s the duty of the Church to pray on behalf of two groups; (1) all people, and (2) people in “high positions.” The two prepositions (“ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων ὑπὲρ βασιλέων …”) suggest these are two groups.

The purpose of these prayers (“ἵνα … διάγωμεν”) is so that Christians might lead peaceful and quiet lives, for the spread of the Gospel.

3-4: This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (NIV)

Again, this quiet life is an aid to evangelism—a strategy so the church can be the church and get on with its mission.

5-7: For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles (NIV)

This is an aside about Christ, which stems from the discussion of the church’s mission in vv. 1-4.

8: Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing (NIV)

Paul returns to his charge to Timothy that he wage the good warfare” against Satan by “holding faith and a good conscience,” (1 Tim 1:18-19). He begins with advice about the men, and here we have the first evidence about the specific problem in Ephesus which bears on our passage. The men are angry and are quarreling—but why?

There was evidently something in the air which prompted Paul to offer this advice—sane men do not generally go about being angry or disputing about stuff without some perceived justification. There is an unmentioned “something” there that is causing problems. Some disagree and think Paul is just giving instructions about prayer for no pressing reason.[7] This is simplistic—why are the men upset and the women acting the way they are? There is an elephant in this room! There is something wrong.

9-10: I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God (NIV).

Now, to the women. The Ephesian Christian women are being materially ostentatious when they ought to be modest women known for their good deeds—for Christian fruit.

Again, something is happening here that prompts Paul to write what he does. Are these twin issues—male hostility and female outward showiness—related? Because what follows centers on female Christian behavior (the men are not mentioned again),[8] they likely are related, and certain ladies are the culprits.[9] This is a uniquely Ephesian problem, and what follows ought to be interpreted in light of the specific local situation which prompted Paul to write what he did to Timothy.

I once heard an impassioned sermon where the preacher made this verse about how women should dress modestly. It is true this command is in the text, but there is something more going on. 

1 Timothy 2:11

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission (NIV)

γυνὴ ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ μανθανέτω ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ. Woodenly, this is rendered, “The woman must learn quietly, with complete submissiveness.” The ESVs rendering turns the verb into a second-person imperative directed to Timothy (“let the woman …”). This is incorrect—it is a third-person imperative with “woman” as the subject of the verb = “the woman must learn …” The NIV is correct, here.

v.11 is Paul’s summary statement, with vv. 12-14 fleshing out the issue. Women’s actions in Ephesus are a threat to the congregation, in some form or fashion. Paul is talking about women in general, not wives.[10]

Should ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ be rendered as “in quietness”? This word can refer to:[11]

  1. demeanor—an inward calm[12] or a quiet, peaceful manner[13]—in which case it means something like “without causing a disturbance”, or
  2. it literally means the woman must say little or nothing.

Due to 1 Corinthians 11:5 and to practical experience, it likely means the former. The women in Ephesus must not create disturbances, be loud, disruptive, be a loud distraction. “In the present context listening quietly with deference and attentiveness to the one teaching is indicated.”[14]

ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ (“in complete submission”). To whom must the ladies submit? Likely either to their pastors, or to God. Perhaps it is best to leave it open, but my money is on their pastors.  

We are left with a translation that reads something like, “Woman must learn in a calm and peaceful manner—with complete obedience” (ἐν conveys manner in both instances, here).

This command about manner—“in a calm and peaceful manner, in complete obedience”—suggests there is something going on in the Ephesian Christian community which prompted Paul’s remark. He is calling for a peaceful demeanor or attitude among certain ladies—something is wrong. This will be fleshed out in the verses to come.

1 Timothy 2:12

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (NIV)

διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλʼ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ. “In fact (conjunction of emphasis),[15] I do not permit (verb) woman (direct object) to be teaching (infinitive direct object #1, complementing the verb) or exercising authority over (infinitive direct object #2, complementing the verb) a man.

Paul does not permit the disruptive women in the Ephesian congregation to do two things:

  1. “teach,” and
  2. αὐθεντεῖν

The word αὐθεντεῖν (in any form) occurs only here in the NT, and nowhere in the LXX or the apostolic fathers. This word’s meaning is a point of great contention in the church gender debates, but it isn’t nearly as difficult as some would have it be. One scholar suggests that standard lexicons expunge any meaning which suggests a negative sense (“domineer,” etc.).[16] This cannot be taken seriously. Still, we ought to be cautious about what this word means:

  • BDAG: “to assume a stance of independent authority.”[17]
  • Louw-Nida 37.21: “to control in a domineering manner.”
  • Liddell-Scott: “to have full power or authority over.”[18]
  • Friberg suggests, “strictly, of one who acts on his own authority; hence have control over, domineer, lord it over.”[19]
  • Mounce: “to have authority over; to domineer.”[20]
  • Moulton and Milligan suggest “master, autocrat.”[21] This analysis is likely better because it goes beyond the single NT usage.

I take Moulton and Milligan as definitive; the word does not mean “exercise authority,” here. The NIV is incorrect. It means something like “to domineer.” Context is determinative for me. Because I think certain women in Ephesus are being disruptive, disobeying their pastors, I believe a negative connotation of “domineering tyrant” is best.

διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός. This is an objective genitive, with “men” acting as the implied object of the infinitives. So, we ought to render it something like “I do not permit woman to be teaching or being a domineering tyrant to man.”

What does “teach” mean? διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός.

Paul does not permit the disruptive women to be teaching or being domineering tyrants. Because I interpret “domineering tyrant” as a negative connotation, the “teaching” must also be rendered in a negative fashion.[22] The prohibitions are either positive or both negative. The negative conjunction οὐδὲ joins negative clauses of like kind together—examples abound in the New Testament where it essentially functions as an “or” to connect two negative things (Mt 6:20, 28; 1 Pet 2:22, etc.) In these circumstances, the conjunction follows on the heels of a preceding negation, and that is what we have here (οὐκ … οὐδὲ).

So, I think we are on safe ground to render the generic “to be teaching” as something more negative, like “to be giving lectures” or “to be giving diatribes.” Linda Bellville suggests the “neither … nor” construction in this case further defines a shared purpose—women should not teach with the aim of domineering over a man.[23] I am skeptical.[24] Regardless, I do not think I even need to go there if I render “teach” in the negative manner which the construction suggests.

Instead, Paul says, ἀλλʼ εἶναι ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ—which NIV translates “she must be quiet.” We now meet our friend ἡσυχίᾳ once more, and again it can carry one of two meanings; (1) complete silence, which is impossible to harmonize with Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 11, 14, or (2) a demeanor marked by calm peace. Because this v.12 continues on from v.11, I take the word to have the same meaning of demeanor as it did previously—it is not about “silence.” So, we are left with a phrase that means something like “Instead (a strong adversative conjunction), she must be calm and peaceful!”

So, in full, v. 12 reads: “In fact, I don’t permit woman to be to be lecturing or being a domineering tyrant to man. Instead, she must be calm and peaceful.”

Who is this representative “man” to whom the generic woman must not modify her behavior? Because the discussion of pastoral leadership follows right on the heels of this discussion, I presume the Christian women in the Ephesian congregation are being unruly, disrespectful, and abusive towards their pastor—Timothy.

What is it that they cannot teach? Likely the Gospel and its implications, because these confused women do not understand it—they are immature. The issue is that of immature Christians (who, in this specific context, happen to be women—likely younger widows) who think they know something when they in fact do not. They want to lecture, harangue, or push their diatribes onto the pastor, and they must stop. Paul will not permit it to continue, which means Timothy must end it. The issue is not “women can’t teach.” The issue is “Christians (who, in this case, happen to be women) can’t act like this!”

Where is this haranguing not to occur? I think it is best to see this as a general prohibition that it must not happen in the gathered life of the congregation. This means Sunday morning, at the Lord’s Supper, at bible study, at any event where the congregation is present or otherwise invited. To make it just about “Sunday morning” is restrictive in an artificial and cardboard manner.

1 Timothy 2:13-14

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (NIV).

Paul provides two reasons for his instructions about demeanor (the conjunction is explanatory for what came before)[25]—reasons why women must be calm and peaceful, must show full obedience, mustn’t lecture/harangue, or be domineering tyrants towards men:

  1. because Adam was made first
  2. and because Eve was deceived, and Adam was not

The difficulty is understanding what on earth Paul means to say. Are women intellectually inferior? Is Adam somehow better than Eve, because she was created after him? We must dive into the text a bit more:

πρῶτος. “Because Adam was made first, then Eve.”

This can mean either[26] (1) “first in a sequence,” which means Adam was created before Eve, or (2) “most prominent/important,” in which case Paul would mean something like “Adam was made foremost.”

The first sense is correct. This does not mean Eve is ontologically inferior. It either suggests (1) some kind of hierarchical ordering between men and women,[27] or (2) a simple sequence of events to advance a simple explanation for Paul’s prohibition on domineering conduct—Eve completed Adam as his partner, not as his domineering boss.[28]

I do not believe a hierarchical ordering is in the cards because it has a poor connection to what Paul is saying. Women must not be domineering tyrants towards pastors, must be calm and peaceful in church, must not lecture and rail at their pastors … because of male headship in the marriage relationship and the church? Would it not be better to simply say “don’t do it because it’s wrong”? That is essentially what Paul is saying in the second option, explaining the statement in v.11. He is saying, “You can’t act that way. I won’t permit it. Men and women are partners—a team!” The false teaching is producing an attitude among certain women that must be stopped!

Admittedly, this position depends on the reader importing theological freight from Genesis 2:18 and 1 Corinthians 11:11. This doesn’t mean it is wrong, but it does require one to discount the “plain meaning” in favor of a “deeper” analysis.[29]

Both perspectives believe the women are acting wrongly. Some believe the wrongness is their rebellion against male headship. I say the wrongness is their spiritual attitude of haughtiness that (for whatever reason) denigrates men, making them angry and argumentative. This is the fruit of a toxic atmosphere of false teaching + sexual and moral asceticism—something foul is in the air in Ephesus!  

ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἐξαπατηθεῖσα. What is Paul’s point when he says Adam was not deceived, but the woman was? There are at least five options available:

  • Women are spiritually or morally weaker. Allegedly, if the woman had listened to Adam, her functional superior, all would have been well. Harvey writes, “Eve, the first woman, is here regarded as representative of her sex, showing in her weakness the relative inferiority of woman in that form of intellectual and moral strength required for leadership and the exercise of authority …”[30] Women make up most of our churches. They also likely pray more. This option is incorrect. I admit I refuse to accept this option on principle.
  • Women are emotionally fragile. You can try and make that work for 1 Peter 3:7, but it will not work here. The implication is that women are intellectually stunted, no matter how hard you nuance it. Eve was too emotional to sort the thing through; she got confused. Paul never says anything about that here. He simply says she was deceived, and Adam wasn’t. There was no emotion clouding Eve’s judgment.
  • Women are intellectually inferior. No nuance, Eve just was not as smart as Adam. I work with female investigators and attorneys every day in my other life. To believe women are intellectually inferior is sinful, absurd, and insulting.  It is ridiculous. It is wrong and I refuse to accept it.
  • This is what happens when women ignore male headship. Schreiner takes this position, disclaiming any implications of functional inferiority. “In approaching Eve, then, the Serpent subverted the pattern of male leadership and interacted only with the woman. Adam was present throughout and did not intervene. The Genesis temptation, therefore, stands as the prototype of what happens when male leadership is abrogated.”[31] I simply do not see this as reality in the world, and therefore cannot take it seriously. With no malice intended, it makes as much logical sense as arguing that burgers must always be served on pretzel buns. My response to the pretzel bun and to Schreiner is to ask, “says who?” In my professional life in civil service in federal and State government, I have seen no ill-effects from a lack of “male headship,” and my own marriage has never adhered to the Danvers framework.[32] I simply see no warrant for Schreiner’s position, or for pretzel buns. And, to be blunt, the text says nothing about Eve sinning because she failed to let Adam lead her—nothing at all. To adopt that interpretation is to predicate it on something that does not exist (see Linda Belleville, “Women in Ministry: An Egalitarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, rev. ed., James R. Beck (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 91).
  • Paul is basically saying “women aren’t always right—remember Genesis!?” In the context of criticizing certain domineering tyrant women in the Ephesian church who are influenced by false teaching, Paul points to the penultimate example of woman making an error. This need not be a sexist remark. Paul may simply be saying, in essence, “Hey, anyone can be wrong! When we go it alone we can make bad decisions—just look at what Eve did. You guys are making the same mistake!”[33]

There are no good options. I cannot accept any position which emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually denigrates women. This leaves me with no choice but to accept the last option, even though I admit it is not perfect. I think this is the best option. The others simply make less sense experientially and logically.

The true meaning in vv. 13-14 (as I understand it) cannot be brought out in translation unless you opt for a paraphrase. Here is mine: “This is what I mean—men and women are partners and so a domineering attitude towards men is wrong. Also, Eve was deceived while Adam wasn’t—we need one another!

1 Timothy 2:15

But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (NIV)

This is a very difficult verse. The conjunction marks a contrast; instead of being a domineering tyrant who harangues her pastor, women will be saved through childbearing, etc., etc.

What does “saved through childbearing” mean?

  • The act of giving birth accomplishes salvation. The preposition expresses means. This is absurd and cannot mean that.
  • A veiled reference to Jesus. She will be saved by the childbearing; that is, the birth of Jesus.[34] The preposition expresses means. In this case, Eve morphs into Mary (Eve’s offspring; cp. Gen 3:15), who brings the Messiah into the world and is thus spiritually saved. This is such a veiled reference that I find it improbable. Also, Paul is writing after the cross, so this future assurance (the verb “will be saved” is indeed future) would be functionally meaningless to Christian women in Ephesus—Jesus has already come and gone! Some try to drive a wedge into the middle of the verse, whereby the “will be saved” refers to Eve (cp. Gen 3:15), and the present “if they continue” teleports us to Eve’s collective offspring in the here and now. This seems forced, but the closest antecedent to the verb “will be saved” is indeed Eve, from v.14.
  • A reference to proper roles. The women will be rescued from this aggressive and domineering ethic in connection with bearing children. The preposition is attendant circumstance, and the “saving” is not spiritual but temporal—there is no way on earth the “saving” could be spiritual and still fit the rest of Scripture. So, this would be a summary swipe against the entire worldview of these immature Christian women, who are evidently embracing the sexual asceticism Paul will soon mention (“they forbid people to marry,” 1 Tim 4:3). It is tempting to see a proto-feminism at work here, but I think that is too fraught with anachronisms and the potential for misunderstanding and knee-jerk rejection to use profitably, even if it does communicate well when properly understood. The fact is that these women are being domineering, arrogant, overbearing, contemptuous of men, and do not respect authority—they do not know what they do not know. They can be saved from this road that leads to misery by embracing their role as prospective mothers rather than shunning it.[35] This does not mean a woman is only complete if she is pregnant; it just means it is wrong to deliberately hate the gender God gave you, and the defining characteristic of female gender is the ability to conceive life.
  • Childbearing as a temporal trial to be overcome. Henry Alford suggests this one. This childbearing is a woman’s particular cross to bear (Gen 3:16), if she passes through this test and yet perseveres in faith, love, etc. The childbearing is the woman’s hinderance in the way of salvation, but if she pushes through (no pun intended) she shall be saved. 

The third option is the best, because it fits contextually, but it relies on a bit of work from the reader. However—and this is critical—it would not have been a chore for Timothy to get what Paul meant! After all, it was a letter to him, about his problems, in his church. He knew exactly what Paul meant. We must put ourselves into Timothy’s position, in light of the context we can glean from the letter, to discern what Paul must have meant. Of these three options, the third is frankly the only one which makes sense.

A rendering would look like this: “But women will be rescued from all that false teaching about men and sexual abstinence by embracing their role as mothers—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

My Rendering of the Passage

Here is my full rendering of 1 Tim 2:11-15, in light of everything I have discussed:

“Woman must learn in a calm and peaceful manner—with complete obedience. I don’t permit woman to be to be lecturing or being a domineering tyrant to man. Instead, she must be calm and peaceful. This is what I mean—men and women are partners and so a domineering attitude towards men is wrong. Also, Eve was deceived while Adam wasn’t—we need one another!

But women will be rescued from all that false teaching about men and sexual abstinence by embracing their role as mothers—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

Dangerous Waters?

It is difficult to analyze this passage and set aside the freight which comes along with it. One the one hand, Wayne Grudem declares “evangelical feminism” is the slippery road to ruin. “[T]he egalitarian position ultimately bears various kinds of destructive fruit in people’s lives.”[36] On one recent podcast featuring two speakers from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and a seminary president, one man remarked that egalitarianism had its “toes pointed” in the direction of another religion.[37]

On the other hand, the editors of Discovering Biblical Equality protest that males do not have unilateral leadership authority simply because they are males—“[t]hat is the main argument of this volume.”[38]

Grudem (et al) suggests liberalism and sexual and gender confusion await us all if we fail to hold the line.[39] This is perhaps why like-minded scholars have banded together to produce three editions of a book devoted to 1 Timothy 2:9-15. The barbarians are at the gates, and so the complementarian fort must be held. Au contraire, I’m not convinced that one’s interpretation of this passage is a short-hand for liberalism, a slippery slope to drag queen story hour, or imputes the full freight of complementarian or egalitarian perspectives.

[1] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles, in NTC (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), pp. 108-112.

[2] Linda Bellville, “Exegetical Fallacies In Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” Priscilla Papers 17:3 (Summer 2003), p. 9.

[3] “The naming of the animals, a scene which portrays man as monarch of all he surveys, poignantly reveals him as a social being, made for fellowship, not power: he will not live until he loves, giving himself away (24) to another on his own level. So the woman is presented wholly as his partner and counterpart; nothing is yet said of her as childbearer. She is valued for herself alone,” (Derek Kidner, Genesis, in TOTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 70).

For examples of where this word certainly doesn’t connote a subordinate assistant kind of role, see (1) Ex 18:4: God is Moses’ “helper,” which surely doesn’t indicate a subordination; (2) Deut 33:7 (cf. 33:29): Moses blesses tribe of Judah, and prays for God to be its “helper”―again, not a subordinate concept; (3) Isa 30:5: Isaiah taunts Israelites for seeking “help” from Egypt―not a subordinate relationship!; (4) Ezek 12:14: God taunts the King of Judah and promises to thwart all his “helpers” who plan to help him escape the coming captivity―not a subordinate relationship = he is lost without them; (5) Hos 13:9: God is Israel’s “helper” = not a subordinate relationship; (6) Ps 20:2: God sends “help” from his sanctuary when God’s people pray = not a subordinate relationship; (7) Ps 70:5: God is the psalmist’s “help;” (8) Ps 89:19: God gives “help” to David when He chooses Him to be king; (9) Ps 121:1-2 (cf. Ps 124:8; 146:5): The psalmist lifts his eyes up to the hills and wonders from where his “help” comes = it is from God!; (10) Dan 11:34: God will give the wise ones “help” during the time of tribulation.

I could go on, but this sampling makes the point. The woman is not a “helper,” but a partner without whom the other is incomplete—and vice versa.

[4] This is a redemptive-movement approach. “Relative to when and where the words of Scripture were first read, they spoke redemptively to their given communities. Yet, to stay with the isolated words of the text instead of their spirit leads to an equally tragic misreading. To neglect reapplying the redemptive spirit of the text adds a debilitating impotence to a life-transforming gospel that should be unleashed within our modern world. Such an approach truncates the application process; it severely dwarfs the positive potential of Scripture,” (William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), p. 50).

[5] By this, I mean prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against women on the basis of sex. See “sexism, n.2”. OED Online. September 2022. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/177027 (accessed December 02, 2022). 

[6] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), p. 600.

[7] Walter Lock, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastor Epistles, in ICC (reprint; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1959), p. 29. 

[8] “The passage addresses women (2:9-15) in considerably more detail than men (2:8) here, perhaps because women are erring more severely in this congregation,” (Keener, Bible Background, p. 605).

[9] Thomas Schreiner says we lack enough information to make this conclusion (“An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” in Women in the Church, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Andreas Kostenberger (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), p. 125). I think Schreiner is being rather too careful, here. 

[10] Schreiner’s analysis is correct (“An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” pp. 126-127). Lock disagrees (Pastoral Epistles, p. 32).

[11] BDAG, s.v. “ἡσυχίᾳ,” p. 440.

[12] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), s.v. “ἡσυχίᾳ,” p. 193.

[13] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), s.v. 88.103, p. 753.

[14] I. Howard Marshall and Philip H. Towner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, in ICC (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), p. 453.

[15] I’m tempted to see the conjunction as explanatory, but Richard Young cautions that this is a very rare usage (Intermediate Greek, p. 183). BDAG doesn’t even list the category (p. 213).

[16] Al Wolters, “The Meaning of αὐθεντεῖν,” in Women in the Church, p. 80.

[17] BDAG, s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 150.

[18] Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised by Henry Jones and Robert McKenzie (Oxford: OUP, 1968), s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 275.

[19] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 81.

[20] William Mounce (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), s.v. “αὐθεντέω,” p. 1101.

[21] James H. Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 91. See also (1) G. Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), p. 68; (2) A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), 1 Tim 2:12; (3) Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition., vol. 2 (London; Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 521; (4) Marshall and Towner, First Letter to Timothy, p. 457; (5) also the discussion by Bellville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, pp. 210-221; (6) Lock, Pastoral Epistles, p. 32.

[22] “In the context the fact that Eve was deceived is cited as a parallel, and this strongly suggests the conclusion that behind the present prohibition lies some particular false teaching by some women. Otherwise, the reference to Eve’s being deceived and sinning is pointless,” (Marshall and Towner, First Letter to Timothy, p. 458).

[23] Linda Bellville, “Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, 3rd edition, ed. Ronald Pierce, Cynthia Westfall, and Christa McKirkland (Downers Grove: IVP, 2021), pp. 222-223. 

[24] Some scholars also claim the two infinitives (“be lecturing … being a domineering tyrant”) convey a single idea. This is desperate reasoning. The concepts Paul communicates are separate, though related. They are certainly not the same. 

[25] Efforts to make the conjunction not be explanatory are very weak and cannot be taken seriously. 

[26] BDAG, s.v. “πρῶτος,” 1, 2; pp. 892-894.  

[27] William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 46 (Nashville: Nelson, 2000), p. 130.

[28]  “If the sense of verse 12 is that women are not permitted to teach men in a domineering fashion, then verse 13 would provide the explanation, namely, that Eve was created as Adam’s ‘partner’ (NRSV Gen 2:24) and not his boss,” (Linda Bellville, “Exegetical Fallacies In Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” Priscilla Papers 17:3 (Summer 2003), p. 8).

[29]  Schreiner remarks, “The complementarian view has the virtue of adopting the simplest reading of the text,” (“An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” p. 138).

Some interpreters think Paul is correcting a proto-gnostic heresy that perverts the real creation story and may be the root of the false teaching. This may be possible, but I’m not convinced. See Marg Mowczko, “Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature and 1 Timothy 2:13-14,” 09 March 2015. https://margmowczko.com/adam-and-eve-in-gnostic-literature/.

[30] H. Harvey, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, First and Second Timothy and Titus, and the Epistle to Philemon, in American Commentary, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1980), pp. 34-35. 

[31] Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” p. 145.

[32] I disagree with the concept of male headship as described in Danvers, Affirmation 5. Rather, I agree with Application 3 from the “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality” Statement from CBE International (https://bit.ly/3isOyyZ).  

“In the Christian home, husband and wife are to defer to each other in seeking the fulfill each other’s preferences, desires, and aspirations. Neither spouse is to seek to dominate the other, but each is to act as servant of the other, in humility considering the other as better than oneself. In case of decisional deadlock they should seek resolution through biblical means of conflict resolution rather than by one spouse imposing a decision upon the other.”

This is not the forum to litigate this understanding of mutual submission, but it informs my rejection of Schreiner’s “this is what happens when women ignore headship” proposal.

[33] Marshall and Towner propose much the same thing. “Later Gnosticism is not necessary as a basis for this in view of the foundation that a realised resurrection doctrine might provide (see Schlarb 1990). If it is teaching in a way that misuses authority and domineers and if women were forcing their way into the teaching rota on the basis of an enthusiastic understanding of the reversal of fortunes connected with the Eschaton, then v. 13 merely calls for balance and a respect for their first-created male counterparts (cf. Witherington 1986:123). If a claim to the women’s right to teach was being defended by appeal to the Adam—sinner representative model (Rom 5), then v. 14 counters with an effective illustration of longstanding precedent that parallels the Ephesian women with their present state of deception at the hands of false teachers.

The conclusion to be drawn is that two closely related things were happening. The women were associated with the heretical teaching of the opponents and they were exercising their role as teachers in a way that was not acceptable and that appears to have been based on the heretical teaching with a bizarre interpretation of Gen 1–3. The author responds to them by insisting that Gen 1–3 does not support their claim to have authority over men,” (First Timothy, pp. 466-467).

[34] Lock, Pastoral Epistles, p. 33. 

[35] Marshall and Towner write, “The point is probably directed against a belief that women should abstain from childbirth, just as they should abstain from marriage (cf. Kimberley*, who reads the text against a later Gnostic background). Though they may not teach, women will still be saved by fulfilling their Christian duty in motherhood,” (First Timothy, p. 470).

[36] Wayne Grudem, Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), p. 301. 

[37] Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, “Complementarianism in the Church,” timestamp 14:30 – 16:00, 27 October 2022. https://spoti.fi/3ufe2Cl.  

[38] Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Westfall, and Christa McKirland (eds.), Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2021), p. 6. 

[39] Grudem, Countering the Claims, pp. 282-284. 

The Right Way to Think About the Law (Galatians 3:7-14)

The Right Way to Think About the Law (Galatians 3:7-14)

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2.

Here, we begin the most difficult portion of Paul’s letter–the relationship of the Mosaic Law to saving faith. Before we begin, I’ll restate some principles from the first article that will help you understand the position this commentary takes. Here they are:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the Scriptures!

Children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7-9)

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

Galatians 3:7-8

Who is a child of Abraham? Well, it certainly isn’t about biology. About genetics. About who your parents are. John the Baptist understood that (Mt 3:7-10). No, it isn’t about race or ethnicity—it’s about common faith in Jesus. If you have Abraham’s faith, then you’re one of his children. Easy. Simple.

In fact, Scripture foresaw that the “child of God” concept wasn’t really an ethnic thing at all. God announced the Gospel to Abraham in advance when He announced that “all nations will be blessed through you,” (cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).

This is extraordinary. The false teachers skulking around the area are Judaizers—folks who push the rules-based legalism we noted, before. The apogee of their “faith” is to be as Jewish as possible which, in their warped understanding, means to follow the rules and traditions of the elders very strictly (cf. Phil 3:4-6). Thus, you violate the Sabbath if you put spices into a pot, but all is well if you add spices to food served on a dish![1] 

Not so, says Paul. Your pedigree before God has nothing to do with this. It only has to do with whether your relationship with God is based on faith and trust in God’s promise, and love—just like Abraham’s.

So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians 3:9

Paul is making a conclusion based on what he’s just said. It could be translated as something like, “this means, then, that those who rely on faith are blessed with Abraham.” If you want to be one of Abraham’s children, then follow his lead and rely on faith!

Choose Your Path! Galatians 3:10-14

Now, we get down to the hard part. Remember that question about which I said you must have an opinion? Let’s ask ourselves again:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

The answer is no. Never.

This means that, however difficult Paul may be to follow from here on out, he cannot be agreeing with the false teachers that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. Never. It isn’t an option. God doesn’t change the terms of salvation. It’s always been by faith.

So, remember this question and the right answer, because here we go …

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26

If the Mosaic Law was never about salvation, then Paul is not seriously suggesting the Mosaic Law means this. He can’t be. Rather, his point relies on you understanding everything he just wrote, in vv. 7-9.

  • Salvation is by faith—always has been.
  • Abraham had faith and was counted righteous.
  • That’s how you become one of Abraham’s children—faith in the promise.

The “for” at the beginning of the sentence is explanatory. It’s translated a bit stiffly, as if Paul is a Victorian gentleman—and he ain’t one. It could be rendered as something like, “so, this is what I’m saying—everyone who relies on the works of the law …”

He means, “look, if you wanna go that route and try to earn your salvation, then have at it—here’s a quote from Moses that you can chew on!” He accurately quotes the text of Deuteronomy 27:26, but must be deliberately subverting the meaning. Moses didn’t preach salvation by works. When he asked the people to swear that promise in Deuteronomy 27:26 (along with a bunch of others), he presupposed that everyone understood that love was the driving force behind relationship with God (Deut 6:4-5; 10:12-16). I’m saying Paul misapplied Deuteronomy 27:26 the same way the Judaizers were doing. Paul is saying, “if you want to go that way, have fun trying to accomplish this …”

So, the “curse” Paul mentions isn’t the Mosaic Law as it really was. Instead, the “curse” is the impossible burden of trying to adopt the Judaizer’s perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law. Some Christians imagine Old Covenant life as an oppressive burden, a millstone dragging the believers to a watery grave … until Christ came! How absurd. They believe this because they take Paul literally in vv. 10-12—they believe he’s describing the Mosaic Law as it really was. They’re wrong.

As I mentioned, Paul adopts the Judaizer’s arguments to show how bankrupt they are. Read Psalm 119 and see if the writer is being crushed by the law! “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” (Ps 119:18). He isn’t! He loves God and loves His word (including the Mosaic Law). The Law is only a millstone if you think it’s a vehicle for salvation. But, it ain’t one, so it ain’t a millstone.

I’m comfortable suggesting this, because Paul then sweeps this silly idea of “earning my salvation by merit” aside.

Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4

The law can’t make you righteous. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, which indeed says that “the righteous will live by faith.” So, when he quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 27:26, he can’t really be saying Moses meant it that way. Paul just adopts the arguments from the Judaizers, or from similar sources floating about in the 1st century interwebs, and suggests they have fun trying to do the impossible. He now continues in that vein:

The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”

Galatians 3:12, quoting Leviticus 18:5

This accurate quote from Leviticus is ripe for misunderstanding. Again, he rightly quotes the text but suggests the wrong meaning. When Paul says “the law is not based on faith,” he assumes the perverted form of their argument. The “law” he mentions here is the wrong understanding of the Mosaic law, not that law as it really is. “You wanna have eternal life?” he asks. “Then, make sure you do everything in the law—just like it says. Have at it, boys and girls!”

Remember our magic question—did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation? He did not. So, whatever Paul is saying, he cannot be suggesting the Mosaic Law has anything to do with salvation. This magic question is the key to understanding Paul’s argument. Some Christians fail to ask it, and so their explanations of this passage make little sense.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”

Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

I think we’re making a mistake if we think “curse of the law” is the Mosaic Law. The Law isn’t a curse. It isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a burden, because it has nothing to do with salvation. The Mosaic Law is simply a vehicle for holy living, while God’s people remained in a holding pattern waiting for Christ. We’ve always obeyed from the heart because He’s already rescued us—not the other way around. “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your laws and obey it with all my heart … I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees,” (Ps 119:34, 48). The man who wrote this didn’t think he was “under a curse.”

So, to return to our verse (Gal 3:13), from what “curse” did Christ redeem us, then?

I think it’s the curse of the capital punishment waiting for every one of us, because (in our natural state) we’ve rejected God. That’s what Deuteronomy 21:23 is about—a person guilty of a capital offense is to be hanged on a pole. We’ve each committed the “capital offense” of rejecting God, so we’re under that death sentence, but Christ has come to free us from that. After all, we can’t free ourselves—we can’t be good enough (cf. Gal 2:21).

So, rather than try and dig our way (i.e. “earning” salvation by merit) out of a situation from which there is no escape, we should rely on Jesus. He became a curse for us. He suffered for our capital crimes by being hanged on a pole. The word “redeem” has lost its original force, in English. It means something like “buying back from slavery.” We can’t bribe our way out of our mess, so Jesus gave Himself to buy us out of Satan’s clutches.   

So, Paul isn’t making a negative assessment of the Mosaic Law at all. The “curse” here isn’t even about the Mosaic Law. But, if we think Paul is talking about that, then I ask this—are we really to suppose that God “cursed” His people from Sinai to Pentecost with a system whose design was to crush their souls? Is that the “average Christian life” vibe you get from Psalm 119? Is that what a circumcision of the heart is all about (cf. Deut 10:16)? Was the average Israelite like poor Pilgrim, struggling with that loathsome burden on his back?  

No! Paul’s not even talking about the Mosaic Law. He’s just suggesting another way, a better way, the true way—“because if we become righteous through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose,” (Gal 2:21, CEB). You can (1) go the Judaizer’s route and try to earn your way into the kingdom, or (2) you can rejoice and trust that Christ has already redeemed us from our death sentence for rebellion (“the curse of the law”).

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:14

Why did Christ buy us back from slavery? So that Christ could be the channel for the blessings to Abraham to flow to the rest of the world. We receive the promise of the Holy Spirit by faith. Always have. Always will.

[1] Shabbat 3:5, in Mishnah.  

Bewitched? Galatians 3:1-6

Bewitched? Galatians 3:1-6

About once per month, I’m going to slowly write my way through a short commentary on the Letter to the Galatians. I’ll deliberately skip the usual analysis typical of this genre–no “scholarly” questions, text-critical issues, and minimal formal interaction with opposing viewpoints. I’ve taught through the book four times now, and feel I’m in a position to have something competent to say on the matter. My aim is to write for normal Christians who just want to know what the text means. So, here I stand.

For reasons that aren’t important, I’m publishing this series beginning with Galatians 3:1-6. That is this article. The real fun stuff, of course, comes in Galatians 3:7ff. You’ll have to wait for next time for that!

First things first …

Here are some conclusions of mine, up front, so the reader can know the lay of the land:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the text!

There is one issue on which every reader of the Letter to the Galatians must have an opinion. How you answer this question will determine whether you rightly or wrongly understand this letter. Here is the question:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

That’s it. That’s the question. If you can answer it, then you’ve unlocked the key to this letter. No matter what happens, if you continually ask yourself this question and remind yourself of the answer, then you can understand this book. If you don’t ask the question, then you’ll likely go wrong. If you answer it wrongly, then you’ll take a bad turn pretty quick. I’ll explain by and by—let’s dive into the heart of this letter.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:1-2

They’ve been tricked. Fooled. Hoodwinked. They know the truth, but they’ve been convinced otherwise. Paul preached the truth to them—they saw him explain with their own eyes, heard with their own ears. They know better than this. As Paul asks his question in v.2, we should picture him holding up his hand to forestall any heated objection from his audience.

“No!” he says. “You listen! Lemme ask you one thing—did you receive the Spirit by doing things to gain God’s favor, or by just believing what you heard? Which one!?”

The question is rhetorical. They know the answer. They know what Paul taught them. There’s nothing to say. The Spirit is tied to salvation, and that has never been by works—by doing things from the Mosaic Law.

Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

Galatians 3:4

Paul is deliberately provocative, here. To miss the Gospel and wander off into Jewish legalism is a terrible mistake. He’ll explain just how big a mistake it is, later (Gal 4:8-10). But, for now, he presses the point home with another rhetorical question. If they admit they did receive the Holy Spirit by simply believing the truth about Jesus (not by working to curry favor), then do they really suppose they have to add “things” to Jesus, to seal the deal? Add works? Add rules?

Rules are fine. Rules are good. God has standards of conduct. But, these flow from a true love for God—not the other way around. This is the great tragedy of Judaism in Jesus’ day, and in Paul’s. It’s why Jesus was so unhappy with the religious establishment. It’s why they were so angry at Him. They spoke different languages, as it were—they had different faiths. They had a different God.

The Jewish establishment had a God of legalism, where relationship was predicated on right conduct (orthopraxy). To have a relationship with God, you gotta follow the rules. So, for example:[1]

  • A beggar who reaches inside a home on the Sabbath to receive a food gift has committed sin. The act of reaching inside the window makes it so.[2]
  • If you search your clothes for fleas on the Sabbath, you have sinned.[3]
  • On the Sabbath, you must only roast meat if there is time for a crust to form on the surface, during the daytime. If you fail in this, you have sinned.[4]
  • If you rise to extinguish a lamp because you’re afraid of Gentiles or thugs, don’t worry—it isn’t a sin![5]
  • God kills women in childbirth because they are insufficiently reverent when preparing the dough offering.[6]

I could go on. But, it’s clear there is little love in this kind of relationship. Where is the love? There can’t be loving obedience under this kind of system. This is why Jesus said, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders …” (Mt 23:4). One writer summed up this “other Gospel” pretty well:

Nothing was left to free personality. Everything was placed under the bondage of the letter. The Israelite, zealous for the law, was obliged at every impulse and movement to ask himself, what is commanded. At every step, at the work of his calling, and prayer, at meals, at home and abroad, from early morning till late in the evening, from youth to old age, the dead, the deadening formula followed him. A healthy moral life could not flourish under such a burden, action was nowhere the result of inward motive, all was, on the contrary, weighed and measured. Life was a continual tournament to the earnest man, who felt at every moment that he was in danger of transgressing the law; and where so much depended on the external form, he was often left in uncertainty whether he had really fulfilled its requirements.[7]

So, yes—it’s foolish to fall for this. To believe this is a real relationship with God. To believe the false teachers who are peddling this nonsense. That’s why Paul is upset.

Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:4-5

Is everything they’ve accepted about Christ pointless? Was it all worthless? For nothing? Paul repeats his question under a different cover with the same point—do we work to be rewarded with salvation’s blessings, or do we simply believe what we hear about Christ?

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Galatians 3:6

This question is also rhetorical. The answer is “we believed what we heard about Christ.” Good! They’re in great company, then—because Abraham also simply believed God, and was counted righteous. We should all follow Abraham’s example! He had the right idea before the Mosaic Law became twisted up in knots and perverted by the Jewish establishment. So, Paul suggests, let’s go back to Abraham and see what he can teach us about real faith.

We’ll turn to this, next time.

[1] The Mishnah dates from approximately A.D. 200. But, it is a generally accurate compendium of tradition and rules that were around in Jesus’ day. We see a strong resemblance of its Sabbath regulations in Mark 7. Even if one wishes to quibble about the precise applicability of a compiled book ca. 170 years after Jesus’ death, it still captures the flavor and ethos of the relationship this system imagines God has with His people.   

[2] Shabbat 1:1, in Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 178–179.  

[3] Shabbat 1:3, in Mishnah.  

[4] Shabbat 1:10, in Mishnah.  

[5] Shabbat 2:5, in Mishnah.  

[6] Shabbat 2:6, in Mishnah.  

[7] Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, second division, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890; reprint; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), p. 125. See all of §28.  

How to Interpret Prophecy: A Guide for the Perplexed

How to Interpret Prophecy: A Guide for the Perplexed

I recently completed a massive project which I want to share with you all. I’ve produced a series of nine short videos explaining how to interpret biblical prophecy in a responsible way. Interpreting prophecy is hard! There’s often too much drama, too much speculation, and too much passion invested based on poor methods. This nine-part video series aims to address this problem. I’ve also written a 39-page booklet to accompany this video series, which goes into more detail.

I hope this project is of some use to Christians who are looking for a sane approach to prophecy that avoids the date-setting, “ripped from the headlines” approach which has characterized too much of the genre.

If you’re an “ordinary” Christian looking for a solid book to understand prophecy, perhaps the best I can recommend is an older work by R.B. Girdlestone, The Grammar of Prophecy: An Attempt to Discover the Method Underlying the Prophetic Scriptures. It’s a short book, and Girdlestone was an Anglican minister from an earlier era, but this is an excellent work on the subject. For my money, it’s the best thing a Christian can buy.

The videos are below, and here is the accompanying booklet. If you want more information about a subject I mention, please refer to the booklet.

The Tale of the Two Builders

The Tale of the Two Builders

Recently, our family drove from Washington State to Tennessee, to drop our oldest son off at college. One day, in the wilderness of western Colorado, I spied a shiny new Corvette ahead of me. It was plodding along at about 65 mph on a stretch of interstate where the speed limit was 80 mph. Yet, there he stayed—at 65 mph.

I was driving a rented Toyota Prius, set to “eco” mode. In the fast lane travelling at 85 mph, I rapidly ate up the distance between us. I felt certain the Corvette driver wouldn’t let this happen. Yet, I passed him like he was standing still. The driver was oblivious. The wind was in his silver hair, and he had a big smile on his face. He didn’t care about me or my Prius. We left him behind, the Prius whirred onward in “eco” mode, and the shiny Corvette was soon lost to sight.

That man obviously didn’t buy the Corvette to use it. The car was eye candy, a toy to show off, not a “real” car.

Jesus says our faith isn’t eye candy, something to be pretty but not really touched—it’s a serious thing, not a hobby. The problem for too many of us is that it is external, it is eye candy, it never touches our hearts, it never renovates our lives—or it renovates only the most convenient parts of it. We build our lives on other things, while putting Jesus on our dashboard like a divine bobblehead—“I spend time with Him everyday!”

The parable

This isn’t a new thing—it’s an old, old thing. Our parable, the Tale of the Two Builders, is about this problem.

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.

Matthew 7:24-25

This is a simple, two-point parable that basically explains itself. There is a man, a house, and its foundation. The threat is a flashflood. Will the house stand? Only if its foundation is situated on the rock. The one who does this is the one who hears Jesus’ words and does them. Jesus is the rock.

But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Matthew 7:26-27

The same flood sweeps through, but this house is different—its foundation is built upon sand. The ground will wash away from under. Disaster looms. You either build your house on Jesus or on sand—which is anything but Him. Again, hearing Jesus’ words and doing them determines the foundation.

Well … What Did Jesus Say?

The parable is tied to the words Jesus just finished saying—the Sermon on the Mount (“SoM”). The SoM doesn’t outline “conditions of entry” for us into God’s family. Instead, it describes the inevitable fruit of salvation[1]—renovated hearts + minds = renovated lives.

This isn’t the place to discuss the SoM in any detail. It’s enough to state that it forms the context for the Tale of the Two Builders, and to fashion a sketch outline of Jesus words. There are three categories in the SoM:

MoralAdultery + lust (Mt 5:27-30)
Cheap divorce (Mt 5:31-32)[2]
Rash oaths (Mt 5:33-37)
AllegianceBe salt and light (Mt 5:13-16)
Follow commands—honest fruit (Mt 5:17-20)
Honest, quiet prayer with God (Mt 6:1-13)
Honest, quiet fasting (Mt 6:16-18)
Treasures below v. above (Mt 6:19-24)
Seek His kingdom and righteousness above treasures below (Mt 6:25-34)
Asking God for help (Mt 7:7-12)
Brotherly loveMurder + grudges (Mt 5:21-26)
Love v. retaliation (Mt 5:38-42)
Love for enemies (Mt 5:43-48)
Giving to needy quietly (Mt 6:1-4)
Forgiveness (Mt 6:14-15)
Don’t be hypocritically judgmental (Mt 7:1-5)

I’ll highlight two representative teachings:

  • Adultery + lust. Jesus went beyond externalism and emphasized that the “adultery” prohibition isn’t simply about the act, but about the heart condition which produces the action. Noting that someone is physically attractive is not the issue—lusting is![3] Sin isn’t about the letter of the law, but the spirit. Sin begins with internal premeditation—in the heart, not with overt physical action.   
  • Following commands—fruit. Jesus famously said that “anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” (Mt 5:1). This isn’t a statement emphasizing the impossibility of following the law. Rather, it’s noting the inevitable fruit of real salvation—loving obedience.[4] If you love God, you won’t pick and choose when to follow Him. You’ll just want to do it. This means the enigmatic statement which follows (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” Mt 5:20) isn’t irony—it’s a real statement of fact. You’ll never see the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness exceeds the pseudo-righteousness of these “esteemed teachers.”

If you claim to be a Christian, there will be fruit. It might not be the best fruit. It might not even be edible fruit—every tree has a bad year! But, it will be recognizable fruit. This is the SoM. Hence, our parable.  

More Than a Coffee Table Faith

The SoM not just individualistic, but communal—the commands throughout are plural! The Jesus community has a mission, and we’re failing if we lose that focus. If we lose our saltiness, we’re off mission.

The challenge is that we can only perform our mission when we’re in contact with the world around us. “The church is properly understood only when it is seen as the sign of God’s universal kingdom, the firstfruits of redeemed humanity.”[5] We must be seen for what we are. We gotta be salty, which means we gotta hear and do Jesus’ words from the SoM.

There are at least three ways to view “church v. culture:”

  1. withdrawal—run for the hills, disengage, fight defensively.
  2. rule—push for a Christian Americana (e.g. Moral Majority)
  3. be a prophetic minority—“in the world but not of it” (Jn 17:14-16)

The latter is the biblical option. Prophets nettle precisely because they go against the grain. If we’re not following Jesus’ words, who are we following? What are we doing? How then can we fulfill our mission?  

The problem is that there are, right now, two kingdoms + two masters + two cultures.[6] God and Satan are building rival kingdoms in parallel and in conflict over the same space and over the same people. Satan doesn’t simply act by persecution—he acts via seduction, too.[7]

The result of his seduction may well be a “culture Christianity” that’s hermetically sealed from every aspect of your life where it could make a difference. In “culture Christianity,”[8] abstract Christian values are always more important than the Christian Gospel.[9] It often isn’t “real” Christianity, at all. Like that Corvette I passed in a Prius in western Colorado, it’s meant to be put on a shelf, to be seen and admired, never actually embraced.

In the same way, Jesus can become a figurehead to be seen, spoken about, “worshipped,” but never loved—something else has prime of place. Jesus and the Gospel are a coffee table book.

And that means a coffee table “Christianity” will get run over by a semi-truck—because it isn’t real! It’s not an accident the SoM ends with three warnings, right before our parable (Mt 7:13-23): (1) the narrow gate, (2) false teachers and fruit, and (3) true and false disciples? Why do you think our parable begins with “therefore/οὖν” (Mt 7:24)?

Jesus gives us a clue when He opens the SoM by listing those who are particularly blessed by the Good News; (1) the poor in spirit, (2) those who mourn, (3) the meek, and (4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Why these folks?

Because these are the people for whom Jesus’ counter-cultural call are most attractive, because they’re the ones who feel the injustice of this world most keenly—who are the most uncomfortable. Satan’s seduction has less to work with. So, they’re the ones who are likely the most devoted followers—the folks with their houses on a firm foundation.

Jesus spoke against materialism—the idea that life consists in the abundance of your possessions (Lk 12:14)—and said “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” (Mt 6:33). What does that mean?[10]

It means that we take everything else in this world, all our own values, ideals, efforts, and dreams and throw them into the shade for the sake of Jesus and His kingdom more and more as we grow more like Christ, and less like our old selves.

In this parable, Jesus takes a sledgehammer to coffee table Christianity, to the bobblehead Savior, to casual, cultural “faith” that’s designed to look pretty on a shelf, but not actually touch anything in our lives.

In this parable Jesus, in a way infinitely more powerful than if He’d just spoken plainly, says this to each of us:

You can say whatever you like, but everyone builds their life on something. And not everyone who says they love me actually knows me. So—what will happen to your house when the rains come?

[1] See especially Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste(Phillipsburg: P&R, 1962), §29, pp. 241-255.

[2] Divorce is allowed in a number of circumstances. See Tyler Robbins, “When May Christians Divorce?” https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2021/03/23/when-may-christians-divorce/.  

[3] See Sheila Gregoire, Rebecca Lindenbach, The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021), ch. 5.

[4] Along this line, see Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 246-249.  

[5] Rene Padilla, “The Mission of the Church in Light of the Kingdom of God,” in Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom, rev. ed. (reprint; Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2010), p. 208.  

[6] Rene Padilla writes, “The purpose of the Antichrist is to destroy the church either by means of persecution from outside on the part of an anti-Christian government, or by means of enticement into error from within on the part of an anti-Christian religion. The reality of his present activity does not allow us to hold that there exists a road by which humanity can travel from history into the Kingdom of God. The pilgrimage toward the Kingdom takes place in the midst of a conflict in which the powers of darkness are constantly opposed to the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Thus there cannot be mission without suffering,” (“Christ and Antichrist in the Proclamation of the Gospel,” in Mission Between the Times, p. 138). 

[7] Padilla, “Christ and Antichrist,” in Mission Between the Times, p. 141. 

[8] On this, see especially the discussion in Padilla, “Evangelism and the World,” in Mission Between the Times, pp. 36-42. This paper was Padilla’s talk at the 1974 Lausanne Conference. 

[9] “… from the very beginning, Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of ‘God and country’ with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club,” (Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), p. 6).

[10] See especially Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, §32, pp. 285-292.

“It is not these values that determine the content of Jesus commandments, but quite the opposite, the Kingdom is again and again represented as the highest good, which dominates and puts into the shade all human values, interests, and ideals. The ‘righteousness’ required from his disciples by Jesus is not the ‘righteousness of the Kingdom’ because it asserts these ‘values,’ but much rather, because it demands the absolute sacrifice of all these things for the sake of the Kingdom. It is the absolutely theocentric character of the Kingdom which determines the content of Jesus commandments. Especially in their radical demands they are intended to govern the whole of life from this theocratic standpoint and to put everything in the balance for this single goal,” (p. 287; emphasis in original).

It isn’t an accident

It isn’t an accident

Many people yearn to make sense of their lives and this world. Why do things happen the way they do? Is it part of a plan? Is there no plan? Using the analogy of a train plodding its way along, there are at least ways people often think of this world and their place:

  1. The runaway train. It hurtles down a track without a controller at the wheel—whatever happens happens. This is the way of scientism and secular humanism. There is no plan, no purpose, no guiding hand—malevolent or otherwise. There is just random meaninglessness.
  2. Fate. The train that is this world is controlled by an impersonal, uncaring, disinterested, and faceless controller we don’t know, can’t see, can’t fathom. This is “blind luck,” Fate, Destiny.
  3. The Good Controller. This is the Christian answer. This is the true God. He controls the train. Under His control, you can see Him, know Him, love Him, trust Him—and He makes Himself available to anyone who wants Him.

Christians need to know—to really know—that you, your life, your circumstances, aren’t an accident. Your life isn’t the result of an impersonal, uncaring Destiny. God knows, sees, cares, drives the train that is your life, my life, all of our lives. One life touches so many others,[1] and the confluence of all the events, circumstances, actions (good or bad) in this world work together to bring His story closer to home—His train closer to its station.

The account of Paul’s voyage across the Mediterranean and shipwreck on Malta confronts us with this truth. I didn’t know how to preach the passage. It’s a tough narrative. What are Christians supposed to do with it? If they’re ever imprisoned on a ship headed from Caesarea to Italy, are they to make sure to stay the Winter in Crete? Is that God’s message in that passage (Acts 27:1 – 28:10)?

Then I thought about God’s assurance to Paul that he would indeed testify about Christ in Rome (Acts 23:11). I thought about providence, about God’s rule over this world, and then I thought of the bizarre confluence of events that had to happen to put Paul on that ship from Caesarea that day (Acts 27:1):

  1. Paul could have not gone to Jerusalem. Folks begged him to not go. I likely wouldn’t have gone, I’m not ashamed to say.
  2. Paul could have not gone to the temple that day. He only went to placate James—to please a Judaizing faction within the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:20-26). What if he’d gone the next day, instead?
  3. What if the Jewish zealots hadn’t made an oath to kill Paul (Acts 23:12-15)? They might have then sorted the matter out in Jerusalem.
  4. What if Paul’s nephew hadn’t caught wind of the death plot (Acts 23:16)?
  5. What if Lysias, the Antonia garrison commander who received word of the plot, had been a fool and ignored the threat?
  6. What if Paul had offered Felix a bribe (Acts 24:26)? I might have done!
  7. What if Paul hadn’t appealed to Rome two years later (Acts 25:10-11)?
  8. What if Festus, newly arrived in Judea, had persuaded Paul to be tried at Jerusalem? 

What circumstances, actions, and willful decisions had to coalesce together to produce Paul boarding that ship from Caesarea, that day? What similar gelling of decisions, actions, and circumstances have produced your life? Your situation? Is there a Good Controller driving this train, or is it just plunging on blindly—a runaway train bound for heaven knows where?   

As I mentioned, I believe you have three choices:

The Christian story says God is the Good Engineer—the Good Controller. He sees. He knows. He cares. He shepherds this world along towards His goal—a kingdom community with restored relationships all round.

Consider what you know about the Scriptures in light of two questions:

First—does Scripture give us the impression that we’re supposed to laze around, eating ice cream, because “God’s in charge”?

No—it takes disciplined effort to obey God! Jesus is genuinely frustrated by our decisions to oppose His Gospel offer (Lk 10:8-16). Paul says we’ll only see the kingdom after much persecution (Acts 14:22). Peter urges us to be a light among the pagans (1 Pet 2:11ff), which suggests we can decide to do otherwise! And then again we have the unique confluence of people, circumstances, and willful decisions that brought Paul to that beach in Malta.

This means your life is a result of choices you’ve made and choices other people make that impact you—our choices do matter!

Second, does this then mean that God is a spectator who simply watches the world from the outside—like a visitor at a zoo?[2]

No—all this happened because God wanted Paul to go to Rome (Acts 23:11, 27:24). Jesus had to be rejected and crucified. The Assyrians had to crush the Northern Kingdom. The Babylonians had to destroy Judah. The Medo-Persians had to destroy Babylon.

So, your life is also a result of choices God has made that shape and impact the choices you and other people make.[3]

  1. Paul went to the temple that day because he was accommodating James, who was accommodating a noisy faction within his congregation.
  2. Jews from Asia “happened” to be there that day (Acts 21:27).
  3. Paul decided not to bribe Felix, so he stayed in custody for over two years.
  4. The knowledge about the assassination plots in Jerusalem no doubt factored into Paul appealing to Caesar—he didn’t feel he would get a fair shake in Judea!
  5. It was Paul’s extensive travel experience, including being shipwrecked thrice and adrift in the open sea for over 24 hours, that gave him credibility with Julius, the detachment commander who escorted him to Rome (Acts 27:42-44; cf. 27:9-10, 21-26, 31-32, 33-38).
  6. It was Julius’ entire upbringing that shaped him to respect Paul’s integrity and keep him alive as the ship foundered on the shoals in St. Paul’s Bay (Acts 27:42-44).
  7. It was Paul’s innate kindness to help gather firewood after the shipwreck that resulted in the viper bite, which resulted in him healing many Maltese islanders.

Is this all an accident? A coincidence? Does this train have a controller at the wheel, or doesn’t it? If you’re a Christian, you must believe it does.

I want to leave you with something much more personal than philosophical axioms, so here it is—providence is about election, not metaphysics.[4] Here’s what I mean:

If you’re a Christian, then God is your heavenly Father—think on that!—and you’re His adopted son or daughter, and Jesus is your brother (Heb 2:11). This means it’s the Father’s job, His aim, and His burden to take care of you. Away with cold abstractions about aseity, being “without passions,” or about immutability, or chilly syllogisms. Save these for the lecture hall—I’m talking about real life, for real people, in the real world.  

  1. If you’re a Christian,
  2. then God is steering your life, shepherding it along as part of His story
  3. you’re part of that new kingdom community He’s making, so you and all His children can have a perfect relationship with Him in the better world to come

This means you aren’t a pawn, a chess piece, or a cipher on a divine spreadsheet—He chose you, rescued you, and sent His Son to die for you to make you a sibling. That means you’re not a dog tied to a cart, being dragged unwillingly along the path of a cold Fate or faceless Destiny.[5] Good Fathers never do that to their children, and God is the best Father. Why do you think He revealed Himself with this title?

You might ask, why isn’t my life better, then?

Little children don’t understand why parents do what they do—no candy, go to bed early, stay away from “that friend.” The kids don’t understand because they view “fairness” from their little perspective—we know the “right view” is from the parent’s perspective! We can’t see the bigger picture, but if God is the best Father, then He knows what He’s doing. Psalm 23 doesn’t say, “I’ll never have troubles again!” It says, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me!”[6]

God never promises a care-free life. He does promise that He’s the Good Controller, steering the train towards the right station, in the right way, for the right reasons. Trust and rely on your Heavenly Father.

Your life isn’t an accident. Your circumstances aren’t an accident. You aren’t an accident. You did things (good and bad). People did things to you (good and bad). And God has a plan in and through it all.

Your life isn’t an accident. Trust the Good Controller to bring the train home.  

[1] Yes, I’m paraphrasing Clarence, the angel (second class) from It’s a Wonderful Life.  

[2] Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:150.  

[3] French Confession of Faith (1559), Article 8, from Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, p. 364. “… he hath wonderful means of so making use of devils and sinners that he can turn to good the evil which they do, and of which they are guilty.”

[4] Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:149ff.  

[5] Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:157.  

[6] Brunner, Dogmatics, 2:155.  

Carl Henry and being baptist

Carl Henry and being baptist

I’m reading through a little book Carl Henry wrote during the Reagan years, titled The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society. He writes something here that I felt I must share. It’s about the relationship between the Church and the State. Henry suggests that the church’s job is about more than personal evangelism. Like an occupying army, he suggests the church is to be “light and salt in a darkening and decaying society,” (p. 39). He then writes this (p. 40):

Speaking as a Baptist, should we do as Henry suggests? Should we “insist” on applying Christian ethical absolutes to national life? What is disturbing is that Henry suggests pluralism is a sham. It’s true that somebody’s values will be advanced in any piece of legislation, policy, or administrative rule. It’s also true that a key mark of the Baptist ethos is that we wish government to leave everyone alone so we can all worship as we see fit, without interference or sanction. Baptists believe this because any coercion, any outward pressure, any legal compulsion to “make” someone a Christian is both (1) a waste of time, because it won’t work, and (2) spiritual abuse. So, Baptists have not historically sought or wanted State sanction for religious activities.

Henry was a Baptist. That makes his negative remarks about pluralism (and more recent culture war moves by more modern Baptists) so puzzling. Baptists should not desire State sanction or approval for any religious speech or act, because this would implicitly or explicitly force other faith groups to accept Christian moral values. Baptists recognize that the precedent of State sanction might smile on Christians today, but what about tomorrow? We’re all for State-sponsored approval as long as it favors us. But, what if it doesn’t?

Henry continues:

Henry has doubled down. While I admit I’m not sure how to square (1) my Baptist convictions against State sanction for religion in any form, with (2) my desire to see Christ’s values advocated for in the public square, I insist that Henry’s comments here are not Baptistic in the slightest. His reasoning appears to go like this:

  1. This country was founded on Christian principles
  2. and it ain’t very Christian anymore
  3. so we gotta advocate for Christianity in our national life as part of our Gospel mission

This is incorrect. However, it’s complicated. Behold the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

See https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/

You can’t establish a religion, can’t prohibit exercise of religion, and you can’t stop public religious speech. So much is clear. But, it’s also true that the Constitution (and its Amendments) came about in a Christian-ish milieu. The Constitution Annotated, the official “living” government publication providing context for the origin and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, notes this:

Probably at the time of the adoption of the constitution and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.8 The object, then, of the religion clauses in this view was not to prevent general governmental encouragement of religion, of Christianity, but to prevent religious persecution and to prevent a national establishment

The Constitution Annotated, Amendment 1.1.1, Historical Background on Religion Clauses

So, it’s apparent that while America did not have an official State church, its implicit atmosphere was broadly Christian. We can see, then, why Carl Henry and others frame the Church/State relationship the way they do. Are they wrong to do so?

I fear they are indeed wrong. This does not mean I believe Christians should withdraw from society and ignore the moral problems of the day. It also does not mean Christians ought to wed themselves to a particular party, like so many barnacles to a ship. But, these are topics for another time.

I can say, however, that I don’t believe Henry’s approach here can be called Baptist.

Telling the Better Story: Christians and “Pride Month”

Telling the Better Story: Christians and “Pride Month”


Fade in on the little town of Bomont, presumably in rural Illinois. At a pulpit in a small local church is the Reverend Shaw Moore. He’s fond of crazed pastoral rants against dancing. You may recognize him—he’s the angry pastor-dad from Footloose.

There are still some Reverend Shaw’s around—less than there used to be, but still plenty everywhere. He epitomizes the wrong way to think about the sexual and gender confusion in our society.

What should Christians think about Pride Month?

This article is not about “why it’s wrong.” It’s not a list of “unstoppable” answers to “destroy” the opposition. Instead, it’s a proposal for a better way to think about these issues. It proceeds in five stages:

  1. A snapshot of reality in 2022—a quick assessment for the church
  2. Stories or scripts … and you
  3. The LGBTQ script
  4. The Christian script
  5. What should Christians think about Pride Month?

Where We Are—A Frank Assessment of Reality in 2022

I’ll share three snapshots of the reality of life in the West, in 2022. These are not crazed stories from dark corners on the web. They’re from mainstream news outlets:

Trans people are … cathedrals?

The first anecdote is a short video from Middle Church, in New York City. This church has a pastor on staff who boasts in his bio that he won the seminary drag contest. The video’s thesis is that “trans people are cathedrals.”[2] Like cathedrals, trans people are always in flux, always being remodeled, expanded, contracted—being restored. And like cathedrals, the narrator intones, trans bodies are sacred, holy spaces.  

Sarah and Dickie

In Dusseldorf, there lives a 23-year-old woman named Sarah Rodo, who wishes to marry her toy Boeing 737, which she’s named “Dicki” (for reasons about which I dare not speculate).[3] One news article features Sarah clad in lingerie, bathed in a deep red light, cradling Dickie in her arms. The caption notes, “Sarah says she is particularly attracted to Dicki’s face, wings and engine.”[4]

Sweet Miku

Thirdly, I present a Japanese man who has married a plush doll depicting a fictional anime character:[5]

… life with Miku, he argues, has advantages over being with a human partner: She’s always there for him, she’ll never betray him, and he’ll never have to see her get ill or die. Mr. Kondo sees himself as part of a growing movement of people who identify as ‘fictosexuals.’

What does this reality mean?

It means people increasingly have no idea what Christianity is or what it means—it’s parallel to us recoiling at Sarah and poor Dickie! And, because nothing is more personal than sex or felt identity, this means there will only be increasing confusion and anger at Christians as we oppose the sexual redefinitions entrenched in our society. So, we need to explain the Christian story to them like they know and understand nothing—because they probably don’t. We need more than, “Jesus loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That means nothing to many people, today.

If that is the case, then I suggest three wrong approaches that will likely have to die, especially regarding sexual ethics, because of this reality:

First: a retail (“come to me”) evangelism model is weak, and it always has been.

The “if we have the event at the church building, they will come!” mindset needs to die. If you are in the rural or semi-urban Midwest or South, this may not apply.

Second, the death of the confrontational model.

Because of the cultural disconnect between Christ and culture, “one off” evangelistic encounters are likely not enough by themselves to be successful[6]—the “gap” is too much! Could one conversation with Sarah (the plane girl) convince you to initiate a sexual relationship with a toy plane? That’s the “gap” you’re dealing with, in some cases. This gap will only grow!

Salvation is a cultivating process[7] (e.g. parable of the sower, Mt 13:3-8—see also the Rainer model[8]), so relationships and roles are important. When you have a relationship with people, you earn the right to speak truth. In this cultivation cycle, you don’t always know your role—you’re likely a waystation on the person’s spiritual trajectory.   

Third, lots of law, but little or no grace.

This is Rev Shaw’s way. The vibe is not evangelism, but disgust and distance. You change your statement of faith to “keep the gays away.” You amend your by-laws so “they” can’t “force you” to use your church building in a way you disapprove. The goal is isolation from “those people.” This is the default model in many traditional churches—usually led by older pastors from a different era

So, we need something more—we need to “tell the better story.”  Accordingly, there are at least two wrong attitudes that achieve nothing that we ought to throw overboard:

First, don’t be full of anger and outrage.  

This common attitude is directly opposite to what the parable of the weeds and the wheat tell us (Mt 13:24ff).[9] In that parable, the field is the world. Jesus likens the kingdom situation to this world. What’s the situation? The world is a mess—a mixed bag. Good wheat is intermingled with the weeds. The kingdom’s servants ask whether they ought to go pull the weeds up. Jesus says no—wait until the end, and the angels will harvest the field appropriately. Until then, this world will remain a mess.

This false model assumes:

  • The world should be a pure world—a Christian world,
  • But, it ain’t like that,
  • So, that makes us mad,
  • So, we wage a crusade to “take America back” for God.

This is a lie. The true model, from the parable, is that this world is and will remain very messy. So, sexual and gender confusion reign. Big surprise! The second wrong attitude is just as deadly:

Second, don’t be warm Jello.

In our quest to “listen,” we forget God really does have something to say about sexual ethics—and has a message of liberation from wrong ideas and desires.

What’s Your Story?

Everyone has a “story” or a “script” that shapes their view of the world. The filter thru which they interpret things, understand themselves, and their place and role in the world. It answers the “big questions” of life. This “script” also answers more immediate, practical questions:

  • Who do I love?
  • Who can I love?
  • What is a man?
  • What is a woman?
  • How do I know who am I?
  • What’s expected of me and how do I live up to it?

So, the Japanese guy who married a doll has a story.

Sarah Rodo, the plane girl, has a story.

People confused by their gender have a story.

People confused about their sexual feelings have a story.

You may not like it or understand it, but they each have a script that they’ve made up or adopted that makes their choices “make sense” to them and gives them an identity.

Mark Yarhouse, a Christian psychologist out of Wheaton College who specializes in sexual and gender issues, identifies three stages for identity:[10]

  1. Dilemma. My experiences and feelings are not what’s “normal” or “expected.”
  2. Development. The business of finding, sorting, and weighing answers to these dilemmas.
  3. Synthesis. Your solution to the problem—you figure out “who you are” and come to some conclusions.

How you sort all this out depends on what “script” or “story” you find most persuasive about life. Like actors with their scripts for their roles, our “script” gives us our cues, tells us our lines, and lets us know what’s expected of us—“this is your part, this is your role, and this is how we expect you to play it.”

For example, in some generic flavors of American culture today:

  • A 19-year-old boy can’t come back to live at home, because that would make him a loser. But, a girl of the same age can come home without stigma.
  • A man who sleeps around is a hero, but a woman who does the same is morally bankrupt.
  • A man “should” like hunting, fishing, shooting guns, and grilling. A woman “should” like Hobby Lobby, journaling, and Lifetime movies.

None of these are biblically mandated, but they’re real, they’re out there, and they’re “the script” many of us accept as “the way things are.” We learned the script at home, at school, from friends, from family, from experience. They’re baked into everything. The key tell is that these scripts are more felt or implied, than explained.

We have “lines” for sexual feelings + gender, too—but what if these roles don’t fit you very well? Someone’s gonna hand them a new script, a different script—one that claims to “explain” their feelings. It’ll either be the world’s script—the LGBTQ script—or it’ll be Christ’s script. Or it’ll be both. But someone’s gonna hand them a script.

The LGBTQ Script[11]

The LGBTQ community has a script to hand to confused people.[12] I present to you the Gingerbread Person:

Here’s a precis of the LGTBQ script:

  1. Your feelings are natural, good, and healthy.
  2. You need to discover “who you are,” and working out your true “gender identity”[13] is the key to your self-discovery.
  3. Your sexual attractions and/or inner feelings about your gender are the core of who you are as a person—it’s your identity!
  4. So, your sexual behavior and/or gender expression is the fruit of your identity.
  5. The only way you can be “true to yourself” is to live out that identity before the world

This is a very powerful script. If you’re a confused 15-year-old girl, what do you think she’ll find more compelling?

  1. Embrace sexual attractions or inner feelings to “discover who you really are?”
  2. Or, a guy with a “Footloose preacher” vibe: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”

The Better Story

Taking a strictly defensive “Alamo approach”[14] is the wrong way to respond. This includes (but is not limited to) sermons from Leviticus, amendments to the doctrinal statement to “protect” the church, and anger and rage a la Rev. Shaw.

The right way is to tell a different story; a better story! Identity is not about  feelings as the pathway to self-discovery, but a choice about love and loyalty—will you follow your feelings or will you follow God?

What does God’s story say about identity? The best synopsis is from 1 Peter 2:9-11:

  1. You can be a part of something infinitely larger than yourself.
  2. Part of a chosen people.
  3. Part a royal priesthood to show and tell God’s story of love to the world.
  4. A citizen of a holy nation—one that transcends any nationalist loyalties from the here and now.
  5. Part of God’s special possession to tell about His mercy and love.

God came to rescue us from ourselves, give us a new name, a new family, a new heart, a new mind, and a better tomorrow. This identity is part of a story:

  1. God is making a community,
  2. thru Jesus the King,
  3. for His coming kingdom

You think the bible’s story is about salvation? Covenant? Kingdom? Promise? No—all these are waypoints in aid of something fundamentally simpler—a community, a restoration of the fellowship we were made to have with God and with each other.

This story has at least three plot moves:

  1. Creation. God made everything, and He made it good.
  2. Fall. Our first parents ruined it all, when Satan deceived them.  
  3. Rescue. God’s plan to fix the mess, thru Jesus the King.

What place does Jesus offer us in this story?

  1. Identity—join me!
  2. Peace—reconciliation!
  3. Purpose—to be royal priests!
  4. Renovation—to remodel our hearts and minds to mirror His!

Tell the Better Story

Think with me, now—isn’t this such a different story than the LGBTQ script? Isn’t it such a better response than to only circle the wagons and preach angry sermons from Leviticus 18?

There is a concept in military strategy called “peer competitor,” which refers to an evenly matched geo-political foe. For example, China is a near peer competitor with the USA and some believe they will likely outmatch us within one or two generations.  

The Footloose preacher is not a peer competitor to the LGBTQ script. He’s a babe in the woods, ranting at the sky—an artifact from very different era. He isn’t interested in telling the better story—only in the “purity” of his tribe.

But, the Christian story is more than a “peer competitor” to the LGBTQ script. It’s an alternative story—a better story. So, churches and their people must tell that story, persuade, make people think, beg them to see Jesus and His love.

We must give people real answers to real questions about a sexual or gender script that don’t feel they fit into very well. Basically, we need to tell the better story—the Gospel story.

For the sermon from this material, you can find the audio version here:

You can watch the sermon here:

[1] See also my sermon of the same title from 26 June 2022 at https://youtu.be/rSkL0WWhbDs.

[2] See “Trans Cathedrals: Beauty in Becoming,” (23 June 2022) on Middle Church’s (https://www.middlechurch.org/) YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/_jy1YnrGK54.

“Cathedrals are trans bodies—beautiful and holy in every inch and in every moment of existence. They are beautiful and holy when they are first built, and beautiful when they are altered and edited, and they are beautiful and holy in the midst of that change. Even engulfed in scaffolding, even in the midst of a collapse. And their holiness and beauty is reflected in the lives of trans people—who do not only mimic the form of Christ on the cross but contain in their bodies the holiness of creation”

[3] Liam Coleman, “ AIR YOU JOKING? I’m turned on by planes and one day want to marry my toy Boeing,” The U.S. Sun. 30 May 2022. https://www.the-sun.com/news/5455665/turned-on-planes-marry/.

[4] See https://nypost.com/2022/05/31/woman-sexually-attracted-to-planes-wants-to-marry-toy-boeing/. This is a re-print of The U.S. Sun’s article, but it contains an additional photograph with the caption which I quoted. 

[5] Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno, “This Man Married a Fictional Character. He’d Like You to Hear Him Out,” New York Times. 24 April 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/24/business/akihiko-kondo-fictional-character-relationships.html.  

[6] “Many Christians learned a mechanical, aggressive approach to evangelism. We attended workshops and read books based on techniques developed by people who have the gift of evangelism. That is the problem. When those of us who are not gifted evangelists muster up the courage to try these techniques, the results are usually disappointing—which makes us feel guilty and often offends others. We begin to think of ourselves as substandard disciples who are simply not able to share our faith. Although we want to see friends and colleagues come to Christ, we stop trying out of fear and frustration.

The problem is one of perspective, not inability. We tend to think of evangelism as an event, a point in time when we explain the gospel message and individuals put their faith in Jesus on the spot. Done!” (Bill Peel and Walt Larrimore, Workplace Grace: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work (Longview: LeTourneau Press, 2014; Kindle ed.), KL 196).

[7] Peel and Larrimore, Workplace Grace, KL 258.  

[8] Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 863. 

[9] See my sermon, “Cosmic Risk—The Parable of the Weeds.” 03 April 2022. https://youtu.be/RcBJnM9da1I?t=3251

[10] Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), p. 46.

[11] The approach here is inspired most directly by Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian, ch. 2. A good deal of what follows is from his work.   

[12] See, for example, the latest discussion of the Gingerbread Person at https://www.genderbread.org/. See also the Gender Unicorn for a similar discussion, at https://transstudent.org/gender/.

[13] See “What is Gender Dysphoria?” at https://psychiatry.org/Patients-Families/Gender-Dysphoria/What-Is-Gender-Dysphoria

[14] See my article “Christ, Culture, and the Church,” EccentricFundamentalist.com. 06 June 2022.  https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2022/06/06/christ-culture-and-the-church/.

No surprises here

No surprises here

Menachem Kalisher’s dissertation, Preaching Messianic Prophesies (soon to be published in book form), is underwhelming as a doctoral project. His hermeneutics are idiosyncratic, his defense of expository preaching lacks intellectual rigor, his measurements of project impact are ineffective, and his project goals (while surely valuable) are ill-suited to the expository preaching format.

Idiosyncratic Hermeneutics

Kalisher relies heavily on word similarity between passages to draw connections in a way that is not obvious to the reader. This procedure unwittingly creates a false perception of an intrinsic competence disconnect between the pastor and the congregation—the pastor is necessary, because only he can “see” these alleged links.

For example:

  • Kalisher claims Isaiah 52:8-9 alludes to Deut 32:43—but his only evidence is a similarity of a song for joy in the last days (p. 72). He offers no proof, no contextual indicators other than a similarity about eschatological joy.
  • He states Isaiah 52:10-12 echoes the Exodus motif (Ex 13:21, 14:20), and again cites nothing but word similarity in support (pp. 74-75). He says this describes salvation from Satan, but context suggests merely an eschatological ingathering.

In short, Kalisher does not appear to preach the text—he freights it with alleged context from outside the passage. This is not an effective way to model bible interpretation to a congregation.

Expository Discussion Lacks Intellectual Vigor

Kalisher’s definition of expository preaching (“EP”) lacks any reference to the Spirit (p. 31), which is a common oversight. Walter Liefeld’s discussion is more helpful.[1] Kalisher lists three alleged dangers of not conducting EP, for which he provides no support save some M.L. Jones quotations and unrelated charts (pp. 38-43). Correlation does not equal causation. Kalisher seems to rely on a sympathetic audience’s assumptions to carry his argument, rather than research. His depth of discussion here would be unpersuasive even for a blog post.  

Ineffective Metrics for Project Assessment

Kalisher’s pre- and post-project questions are unimpressive. His goals for the project are to enable his congregation to:

  1. understand and appreciate expository preaching
  2. appreciate roles in the economic Trinity
  3. learn to study God’s word, God’s way
  4. grow in Messianic self-identity

Here are his questions to measure two of these goals (pp. 38, 39):

Kalisher fails to define the doctrine of the Trinity in the dissertation, and his survey questions are not robust enough to measure comprehension. He fails to define what “biblical” means related to the term “Trinity”—a misstep, because the term itself does not appear in Scripture. Kalisher does not present other preaching methods, leaving the congregation little choice but to conclude EP is correct because he says it is.

Thesis in Search of a Degree

Kalisher’s project is ill-suited to an EP framework because it consists of him talking at the congregation, rather than with it. An interactive study format would better allow him to achieve and measure his four goals. As it is, Kalisher’s project seems less like objective research and more like a preconceived thesis in search of a doctoral degree.

[1] “… preaching that explains a passage in such a way as to lead the congregation to a true and practical application of that passage,” (Walter L. Liefeld, New Testament Exposition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 6).

Christ, Culture, and the Church

Christ, Culture, and the Church

This world is a mess. A few decades ago, Carl F.H. Henry wrote: “The West has lost its moral and epistemic compass bearings. It has no shared criterion for judging whether human beings are moving up or down, standing still, or merely on the move only God knows where.”[1] In the absence of a Biblical world-explanation, Henry argued, “[t]he search for an alternative model is beset with confusion, and Western society drifts indecisively toward chaos. Secular scholars seem unable to tell us where we are.”[2]

This is surely correct, even if (32 years hence) it prompts an eye roll and a muttered, “yeah, no kidding!” from the reader. My burden is to suggest what local churches ought to think about this situation—what we ought to do about it, what our posture towards this world ought to be.

First, I’ll define “culture” so we begin on the same page. Second, I’ll sketch[3] three helpful paradigms. The first is from the 1950s, the second from 1994, and the third from 2006. Each tries to answer this same question, in its own context. Each is inspired by the first. Finally, I’ll sketch out my own approach and confess with which paradigm my sympathies lie.

What is Culture?

The term “culture” means the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and way of life for a particular nation or people.[4] H. Richard Niebuhr suggests “culture” is a synonym for “civilization” or what biblical writers called “the world.”[5] In turn, the definition of “civilization” brings us back round to where we began: “the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.”[6]

Niebuhr—Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book began life as a series of lectures in which he sought to consider the “double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis …”[7] Niebuhr’s writing sparkles with an academic vibe. He doesn’t write as a churchman confronting urgent problems, but as a scholar reclining in his armchair, puffing on his pipe, staring into an ethereal distance. There’s nothing wrong with academics, of course—I only mean that his discussion is dispassionate and abstract.

He lays out a five-fold taxonomy of how the church ought to relate to culture:

  1. Christ against culture. The church is always in opposition. There is a war footing. Christ is opposed to this world, its culture, and He calls us to come out from the world and be separate.[8]
  2. Christ of culture. He guides civilization to its utopian goal of brotherhood and value. Christ “confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal.”[9] There is no antagonism.
  3. Christ above culture. Only thru salvation will Christ lead us to utopia.[10]
  4. Christ andculture in paradox. We must obey both authorities in this life while we endure and wait for Jesus. There is duality and tension here that is admittedly a bit schizophrenic—many people are likely here.[11]
  5. Christ transforms culture. This is a conversionist position. Jesus is a leaven that works on society from inside out, spearheading the Gospel all about.[12] There is a positive view of culture—”a sort of Jesus will fix it now” feel.[13]  

Bloesch—Responding to Reality

Donald Bloesch was a longtime professor of systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa. In the inaugural tome of his seven-volume systematic, he described four possible responses to modernity.[14] His approach is practical, more “real,” and less theoretical than Niebuhr’s. He is less discussing a theory of Christ v. culture, and more describing how Christians choose to respond to the world as it is.

Here is Boesch’s typology, with some free paraphrasing from me. Not each response will contain all the traits, but the “feel” will be familiar:

  1. Restoration. There is a more insular focus on “rebuilding the walls” of the church. A “clear and hold” the line against the world ethos. A Christian counterculture mindset may produce a ghettoized outlook. There is impatience with dialogue with “the enemy.” Apologetics is largely defensive, to assure insiders they have “the truth.” There may be a scholastic fidelity to creeds, and a sectarian emphasis on the purity of a particular church. Empirical rationalism or fideism may be present.[15]
  2. Accommodation. We must update and revise the faith to reach people. We ought to forge a theology that can gain support from and connect with culture. This is essentially Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture.” Bloesch notes “the Christ it upholds is drawn from and shaped by the cultural ethos more than by the biblical revelation.”[16] This is traditional liberal theology. I would put Schleiermacher here, and perhaps some of Rauschenbusch and radical feminist theology like that of Rosemary Reuther, which locates authority in experience.[17]
  3. Correlation: This is a mediating, “Christ above culture” approach. Apologetics prepares the way for theology, and Christ will eventually reconcile culture with Himself. “[I]nstead of categorically repudiating worldly wisdom, they endeavor to assimilate it in a Christian world view or faith perspective.”[18]
  4. Confrontation. This is Bloesch’s position. It focuses on the antithesis between faith and culture. Its goal is conversion to the kingdom of God. The Gospel confronts and calls us to defect to God. It’s more about proclamation than apologetics—a “Christ transforming culture”-ish approach. The kingdom is leaven in the world, changing it from within. It is “not an apologetic that leaves the fortress of faith to engage in struggle with the world on its own terrain but an apologetic that finds its security precisely in the fortress of faith and calls the world to unconditional surrender by acknowledging the authority of the fortress of faith over its own domain.”[19]


Tim Keller re-shaped Neibuhr’s categories, helpfully critiqued each, and didn’t settle on either model.[20] Each of us, he suggested, is likely attracted to aspects of different models based on our gifts. We ought to treat these models and their attributes like a buffet—picking and choosing strategies based on our cultural moments and context.[21]

Here is Keller’s taxonomy:

  1. Transformationalist. We engage culture through an emphasis on pursuing our own vocations from a Christian worldview.[22]
  2. Relevance. “The animating idea behind the Relevance model is that God’s Spirit is at work in the culture to further his kingdom.”[23] This is Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” and “Christ above culture.”
  3. Countercultural. The church is a, well … countercultural alternative society opposed to the world.
  4. Two kingdoms. “God rules all of creation through the ‘common kingdom’ in which people operate by natural revelation and the ‘redemptive kingdom’ in which Christians are ruled by special revelation.[24]
Keller, Center Church, p. 231.

My approach—Bloesch-ish

There is a reason why I defined “culture” at the outset. I’m skeptical that the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and ways of life for particular nations or peoples in Creation 1.0 will survive the jump to Creation 2.0. So, I don’t believe the church is called to “influence culture,” because this culture is scheduled to go up in flames. This doesn’t mean local churches must be isolationist. I don’t believe congregations exist to “influence culture,” but to push God’s counterculture into the public square as the ordained alternative. Supporting inner-city Gospel missions, crisis pregnancy centers, local schools (etc.) are not ends in and of themselves—they’re vehicles to show and tell God’s values and His Gospel to outsiders.

So, I’m largely unmoved by Keller’s framing (see his horizontal bar across the middle of the graphic), because “influencing culture” is not a goal. Getting people to defect from pagan culture and to God’s community is the goal. Churches must use innovative means to achieve that, motivated by love, compassion, and justice.

So, my framing is less “how do we influence culture” and more “how should we respond to culture.” Thus, I believe Bloesch’s discussion was more helpful. I have freely adapted and condensed his taxonomy and contextualized it for 2022. How should local churches respond to the disaster that is American culture? There are at least three different, contradictory ways Christians choose to answer that question:[25]

  1. The Alamo (defense). Fortify the walls, stock ammo, hunker down, and wait for Jesus. This is a defensive ethos—it’s about protecting the church. Even apologetics is less about engaging the enemy than about protecting Christians from being seduced by the Dark Side—like poor Kylo Ren. The mantra is to keep things pure and strong while we hold off “the enemy.” Despite protestations, it’s often less about evangelism and the Great Commission, and more about protecting church from danger. There is a pervasive “things ain’t like they used to be, and I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” vibe at work.
  • Play-Dough. Accommodation to cultural tastes, with rationalizations. God is not a gendered being, feminine pronouns for Her are fine, Jesus has no sexual ethics, do what makes you feel good, faith is about feeling, not doctrine, “you do you.”  
  • Confrontation (offense). This perspective is less about “protecting the church,” and more about winsomely confronting the world employing various innovative means, and calling people to defect from Satan to Jesus.

It might be helpful to picture these three ways in simple pictures:

  1. The Alamo. Fade in on a castle with its doors barred, its drawbridge raised, its moat filled with hungry crocodiles, snipers on the parapets,[26] people sheltering inside, archers deploying, knights with swords at the ready, anxious to charge if the door is breached. The villages round about are the enemy—and they want to destroy your kids.
  2. Play-Dough. Focus in on the same castle. The folks are burning it down. They sift through the rubble and donate the stones to local nationals to build a shrine to a Veggie Goddess—who is really just Jesus by another name, anyway.   
  3. Confrontation. The castle is the church’s stronghold in an unholy land—an embassy to represent Christ to folks who want to know more, and at the same time a forward operating base to push His message into the world aggressively, forcefully … and engagingly. It wants local nationals to join the castle community.

Your view of “church v. culture” will shape your posture towards the world:

  1. Alamo: Focus on holiness for defensive purposes, so you’re not seduced by the Dark Side (like Vader). Emphasis on bible reading, bible interpretation, defending the faith. A relentless, perhaps even unwitting “insider” focus—resources emphasize being educated about “dangers” facing the church, protecting your children, etc.
  2. Confrontation. Pushing the message and implications of the Gospel outside the church’s walls—spiritual combat with a winning smile.

I fear many of us are tempted to adopt the Alamo ethos. There is a time and place for defense. But, we mustn’t forget offense—and we certainly can’t confuse belligerent defensiveness with that winning offense. For example, June is Pride Month:

  1. Alamo. We preach defensive sermons from Leviticus 18 and tell our congregation that “homosexuality is bad,” and distribute free books to the congregation explaining why transgenderism isn’t Scriptural.
  2. Confrontation. We record several short videos telling a better story than the “sex as identity” message so many people believe, then spend several hundred dollars advertising these videos on social media platforms in our local community, and invite comment and discussion.

I believe churches ought to err on the side of Confrontation, which is really just evangelism. It’s easy to stick with the Alamo ethos. I think we must do more.

[1] Carl F.H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), p. 15.  

[2] Ibid, p. 16.  

[3] I cannot hope to do more than briefly sketch these approaches—consult the referenced works for more detail and do not assume my abbreviated discussion here captures all the nuance of each author’s position!

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “culture,” noun, 7a. March 2022. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/45746?rskey=Ztxhta&result=1&isAdvanced=false  

[5] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), p. 32.  

[6] New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “civilization,” 3, p. 317.  

[7] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. xi.  

[8] Ibid, pp. 40-41. “That world appears as a realm under the power of evil; it is the region of darkness, into which the citizens of the kingdom of light must not enter; it is characterized by the prevalence in it of lies, hatred, and murder; it is the heir of Cain. It is a secular society, dominated by the ‘lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life,’ or, in Prof. Dodd’s translation of these phrases, it is ‘pagan society, with its sensuality, superficiality and pretentiousness, its materialism and its egoism.’ It is a culture that is concerned with temporal and passing values, whereas Christ has words of eternal life; it is a dying as well as a murderous order, for ‘the world passes away and the lust of it.’ It is dying, however, not only because it is concerned with temporal goods And contains the inner contradictions of hatred and lie, but also because Christ has come to destroy the works of the devil and because faith in him is the victory which overcomes the world. Hence the loyalty of the believer is directed entirely toward the new order, the new society and its Lord,” (Ibid, p. 48).

[9] Ibid, p. 41.  

[10] “… true culture is not possible unless beyond all human achievement, all human search for values, all human society, Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Christ is, indeed, a Christ of culture, but he is also a Christ above culture,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 42).

“These men are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community with all other believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress,” (Ibid, p. 83).

[11] “Hence man is seen as subject to two moralities, and as a citizen of two worlds that are not only discontinuous with each other but largely opposed. In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[12] “Christ is seen as the converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men from self and idols to God save in society,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[13] “Hence the conversionist is less concerned with conservation of what has been given in creation, less with preparation for what will be given in a final redemption, than with the divine possibility of a present renewal,” (Ibid, p. 195).

[14] Boesch, Theology of Word & Spirit, pp. 252-272. 

[15] “A sectarian theology will do battle for the sake of the church or the elect, the gathered fellowship of true believers, not for the sake of the world for whom Christ died,” (Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 268). 

[16] Ibid, p. 257.  

[17] “If a symbol does not speak authentically to experience, it becomes dead or must be altered to provide a new meaning,” (Rosemary Reuther, Sexism and God-talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon, 1993), pp. 12-13).

[18] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 262.  

[19] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 271.

[20] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), pp. 194-243.

[21] Ibid, p. 240.

[22] Ibid, p. 197.  

[23] Ibid, p. 202.  

[24] Ibid, p. 209.  

[25] This is adapted from Donald Bloesch’s discussion in A Theology of Word & Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 252-272. 

[26] I’m aware modern snipers didn’t exist in medieval times, but just go with it …