Sunday, June 21, 2015

About submission...

The world has changed and is changing in regards to men, women, and their roles in society. Men were designed with natural energies and dispositions that led them to be the hunters, defenders, and leaders of families and communities, and they have fulfilled these roles for thousands of years. In a more modern sense, men have been viewed as the 'breadwinners' (even though women and children obviously worked). This has had some tragic side effects, such as wage inequality, educational restrictions, lack of voting rights, the 'glass ceiling,' and general sexism. These are broad generalizations, but they are backed up by research and history.

The past 100 years has seen tremendous change in these areas. Just over 100 years ago, UGA was 100% male. Now, there are 5,000 more women than men in the student population. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed guaranteeing women the right to vote. Many women entered the workforce during World War II (1939-45) as men went off to fight, and I don't think we can underestimate the effect that the availability of safe and effective birth control had on American society in the '60s and '70s. At the end of WWII, 1/3 of American women were in the workforce; today, the number is around 57%. The Great Recession of 2008 disproportionately hit men, and men have had a harder time finding jobs in the recovery; many of them possess skills that no longer match the American job market.

The changes also affect the family. While some seek to redefine marriage, the larger trend has been a "cultural retreat from marriage" and a "decline of fatherhood." Divorce rates are dropping, but this is largely due to declining marriage rates and people waiting longer to marry. In the '60s, the average age for first marriage was 20 and 22 for women and men respectively; today, the average ages are 27 and 29. The truth is that women don't need a husband for financial stability, and our society's standards for sexual activity, cohabitation, and having children outside of marriage have changed to such a degree that there is far less societal pressure to get married. The reduced drive to marry (or generally grow up) promotes an extended adolescence, and this phenomena is not limited to the stereotypical guy in his parents' basement; there are many middle-aged women who behave as if they are still in college.

The effects extend to the church. There is a lot I could say here, but I'll limit it to this: on average, more women than men are in church, especially in mainline, liberal churches that have embraced the feminine influence, even accepting female priests and pastors. A recent Pew study on Christianity in America shows that these mainline denominations are in decline while evangelical denominations are holding steady or increasing. Adopting the prevailing egalitarian view has not worked out well for mainline churches.

The bottom line for me is that many of the traits and characteristics men possess (competitiveness, risk-taking, seeking challenge, independence, physicality, sexuality) that were formerly required and praised are now dismissed or denigrated. One social theory on this says that when societies are in times of relative peace, it trends towards androgyny or more similarity between men and women. Men were built to function in the proverbial Siberia, but our modern world today is more like Tahiti.

With men and women more alike than ever, how do we interpret passages like 1 Peter 3. First, let's look at the actual passage.

1 Peter 3:1-12

To begin, we must look back at the previous chapter where Peter instructs believers to submit to human authority in government and the workplace, with Christ as our example of submission. Most of us in America don't face the harsh treatment that 1st century believers did as an occupied country or as slaves, so their example (in addition to Christ's) should be more than instructive for us.

Wives
This passage is not the only one to instruct wives to submit to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22; Titus 2:4-5). The roles men and women play in both the home and the church (1 Cor. 11; 1 Tim. 2) are connected and often compared. While these distinctions may be easier to accept when both are believers, Peter's instruction (while certainly not endorsing marrying a non-believer, 2 Cor. 6:14) includes submission to a non-believing husband. The wife's pious behavior can be more powerful in influencing her husband towards Christ than any nagging words. He is also careful to say "your own husband," not any and every man. Paul's instruction to women in 1 Cor. 14 actually serves to protect them from the improper influence of a spiritual leader.

Ephesians 5, a similar passage to 1 Peter 3, concludes with the command for husbands to love their wives and for wives to respect their husbands. Fidelity and respect are of the utmost importance to men in their marriages, and I believe most women would say that their husbands' love for them outweighs all of the other important elements of their relationship. A failure in these areas will undermine the very foundation of a marriage.

Faithfulness, respect, and love are matters of the heart and mind long before they are revealed through actions. Here, Peter (and similarly Paul in 1 Tim. 2) points to the connection between our outward appearance and the attitude of our heart. A woman's adornment, what she uses to make herself more attractive, shouldn't be a fancy hairstyle, jewelry, and clothing (not that these things are inherently sinful). In our minds, this may take on a sexual connotation, but I believe the instruction here is primarily a warning against vanity and materialism. Paul often contrasted the inner and outer person, and Jesus spoke of what was done in public versus in secret. The same applies here: a woman should focus primarily on good works and the adornments of the heart before those of her outward appearance. “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” -Prov. 31:30.

It is important to note what submission is not. Some stretch these instructions, particularly verse 6, as requiring a woman to stay in an abusive or adulterous relationship. A wife's submission to her husband, and likewise any believer's submission to any other human authority, goes only up to the point that it contradicts God's law. While there is no command for a believer to leave an adulterous spouse, there is also no command to stay.

Husbands
Now to the men...the Bible's instruction to husbands in this passage is not as detailed as that to wives or what is provided elsewhere in Scripture, but it carries great weight. Verse 7 can sound pretty condescending to our ears, but that it not how it was written or intended. The "understanding" that Peter refers to is the knowledge of how God has designed us; husbands should relate to their wives with knowledge, not according to their lusts and passions. Women's physical weakness in comparison to men should not be misunderstood as intellectual or moral weakness; we are all vessels to be used by God. God shows all believers, both men and women, honor as heirs, and we must do likely to other believers, especially our spouses. To do otherwise is an offense to God and will hinder our communion with Him.

Husbands and fathers have a larger impact on their families than our modern culture would suggest. If a father is the first in a family to become a believer, there is a 93% chance that the rest of the family will believe. The comparative rates for mothers and children are no where close to this. Few things are worse than having responsibility for something that you have no authority over. God has given the husband the responsibility to lead his family, which requires that he have authority over his family. Ephesians 5:25 instructs husbands to love their wives "just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her." Our marriages preach a Gospel message to world.

So back to my question: How do we interpret this passage in light of society's evolving views on gender, sexuality, and marriage?

Equality is absolutely a biblical principle, and believers have rightly sought to correct the injustices of sexism, discrimination, and other forms of injustice. In our zeal to correct the wrongs of history and the present, we can't forget that God made male-female distinctions in order for us to complement each other and to exercise different functions in society. These distinctions come with certain responsibilities that are most apparent (and difficult) in the home and in the church. Equality and complementarianism are both biblical teachings (as opposed to hierarchical or egalitarian views, further described in Foundations).

Our example of submission is Jesus. He submitted Himself to the will of His Father (Matt. 26:39; John 6:38; 1 Cor. 11:3; 15:28) while maintaining equality with the Father. Jesus also submitted Himself to human authority out of obedience to the Father. Equality and submission are both key to our understanding of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus.

Ladies, while we're in this arena of thought, let me caution you about "dating Jesus" or saying "Jesus is my husband" or even the general language of "falling in love with Jesus." There are multiple words in the Bible that are translated as "love," and we can miss the importance of the variations. No where in Scripture is the romantic version of the word attributed to a believer's relationship with Jesus, and taking such a view can hurt your relationship with your husband; it's hard to compete with Jesus. Yes, the Bible describes Jesus as the bridegroom, but of the church, not you individually.

All of us
Finally, this passage wraps up Peter's teaching on submission and authority by reminding all of us to be "harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble" and to bless those who insult us, echoing the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:38-39) and Paul (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thess. 5:15). He quotes Psalm 34, encouraging us to guard our tongues and seek peace, which is vitally important in our marriages and churches. As James 3 says, "See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire." Countless relationships have been harmed or destroyed by reckless words; may this never be said of our marriages or our church.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Great Generosity

2 Corinthians 8 & 9

As Paul writes what we refer to as 2 Corinthians, many of the believers in Jerusalem were facing severe poverty. It is easy to imagine that many of them were put out of their synagogues and faced persecution for following Jesus, which would have without doubt affected their ability to earn money, but many Jews were likely poor under Roman occupation, regardless of their faith. As recorded in Romans 15, believers in Macedonia and Achaia were ready to help, and now the believers in Corinth were also ready to come to their aid. The Jews had shared Jesus with them - Gentiles - so supporting the Jewish believers materially was a matter of duty.

But as 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 show us, the Corinthians were not operating out of mere duty but out of a deep desire to support their brothers and sisters in Christ. Titus had apparently initiated this gift (v6), but they didn't require convincing; God's work in them led to their great generosity. God had given them joy in their affliction...generosity in their poverty (as of a beggar).

The average American donates 3-5% of their income to charity. The percentage is higher for those that give to religious organizations. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the percentage decreases as a person's income increases (up to about $250,000 a year). It is also interesting to note that those with the lowest incomes, below $20,000 a year, donate 4.6% to charity.

The Corinthians saw giving as a privilege and gave up to and even beyond their ability to give. We also see that they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then to the godly leadership of Paul and his co-laborers, who pointed out that this gift was voluntary but provided an opportunity for them to show their sincerity.

Paul then points to the truth of the incarnation of Christ, that Jesus left heaven and accepted the limitations of humanity so that they could gain heaven and become children of God. He became poor so that we could become rich. Christ becoming poor meant effectively giving up His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence as He took humanity (Philippians 2:5-11). The riches He provides for us are not earthly wealth and fame (Matthew 6:19-21), but the treasures of heaven, indescribable grace, and the fruit of the Spirit.

The Corinthians had already committed themselves to giving; the time was coming to fulfill that commitment. As Coach Richt says, it was time to "finish the drill." We are great at coming up with ideas and making plans, but we often fail at the completion and execution of those plans. It is a lot easier to say you are going to give than to actually give.

It is also easy to think that since you are not 'rich' (by whatever standard you choose to use) and cannot give a large gift then your gift is not that important, but Paul says that we should give according to what we have, not by what we don't have. The goal was to bring about a level of equality among the believers, that the Corinthians' abundance would meet the needs of those in Jerusalem. Yet another example of the New Testament church being too liberal for modern conservatives while at the same time being too conservative for modern liberals, but I digress...

Paul and those with him also recognized the new for accountable in administering these funds. There is no shortage of financial scandals among churches, ministries, and other charitable organizations today, and those with the responsible of administration should take heed of Paul's example in this. He sent some of his best people to do this: Titus and likely Luke and/or Apollos.

Paul had been bragging on the Corinthians, and he was writing not to motivate them to give (they were already 'ready') but to make sure that they were ready to give. As mentioned before, a desire to do something and actually doing it are two different things.

When I worked for The Atlanta Opera, one of my jobs was to track pledges that had been made. A pledge is when a person commits to making a donation at a later date. These pledges are often in writing (to keep the accountants happy) and are often paid in installments over time. Donors may do this for a variety of reasons, but it is often done in part to receive some type of formal recognition from the organization. Whenever it is determined that a donor is not going to fulfill their pledge, the accountants have to write off the pledge as a loss, something no one wants to do.

Paul feared that this might happen with the Corinthians. Of course, his concern was less for the accountants and more to prevent the embarrassment of his ministry, the Corinthians, and ultimately God. He also warned against covetousness. It is easy to see how a person's 'readiness' could have faded. 'That was last year, God. Things have changed.'

Then we get to the verses we hear whenever a preacher is brave enough to preach about giving, about sowing and reaping and being a cheerful giver...'here it comes,' we mutter. Paul says that generosity is an evidence of grace in the life of a believer. It's not so much that you must be generosity to be a follower of Jesus, but rather that generosity is a sign that a person is following Jesus. It shows who we really are.

In Luke 16, Jesus says, "Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?" If we are not faithful in the resources we have been entrusted with now, why do we think God will give us more to be responsible for later? Just ask the countless number of people whose lives were ruined by winning the lottery. Having 'more' usually isn't the answer. It's different in God's economy. Just look at Luke 21. The poor widow gave 'more' in her two copper coins that the rich who were giving out of their excess.

R. G. LeTourneau, a businessman whose company built the facility now known as the Georgia Baptist Conference Center, said, "The question is not how much of my money I give to God, but rather how much of God’s money I keep for myself." He lived this out in part by eventually living off of only 10% of his income, giving the rest away.

John Wesley earned the equivalent of $10 million in books sales alone but died broke having given it all away to various ministries and causes. "[When I die] if I leave behind me ten pounds...you and all mankind [may] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber."

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
-C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Paul concludes this section with an incredibly profound statement: "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" This gift, the grace he had just discussed that (among many other things) compels believers to give, is truly indescribable. One of the best known hymns in the world is "Amazing Grace." This hymn, even with all of the emotion that it can evoke, falls short in describing the grace that is available to us through Jesus. We don't deserve it; we can't earned. All we can do is accept it and be thankful for it.