Saturday, December 29, 2007

I found church within "the Church"

The many changes I have gone through over the last few weeks have left me in a melancholy state. Although I'm not necessarily crying all the time or anything like that, I feel a sort of hollow, gnawing sense of loss within me, like someone having missed several meals. There are a number of reasons for my sadness--too many to detail at this time--but one of them occurred to me last night as I discussed my heartache with Ronnie: I miss my church.

This may not seem like an odd reality for some, but for me, it is a new state of affairs. I have been a member of a few Southern Baptist churches since I became a Christian as a teenager, but none of them was I particularly sad to leave. They had their share of major problems, including, in no particular order, unsanctified leadership, financial mismanagement, seeker-sensitive obsession, and hardened traditionalism. In all these churches, I served as best as I could, seeking in my own sin-soaked way to contribute to the body of Christ.

I made friends in every one of these churches, but still, I didn't shed a single tear over leaving any of them. When it was time to leave, I left. And, I have made little contact with any of the members of these churches since then. I don't say this because I'm proud of it. I'm just stating the facts.

My most recent congregation had it's share of problems, too, of course. Many of them. I won't air our dirty laundry here, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of reasons why I should be relieved to have found "greener pastures" in our move to Ohio. And, don't get me wrong, I'm very pleased to have made this move. But, the sadness remains. So, why is this most recent move different from the ones before? Why am I so very grieved this time?

As I've pondered this in my heart today, I've arrived at an answer: I found church within "the Church." What I mean by this is that in FBC Fairfield, I was able to discover a true, little-C, church, a community of the saints, a genuine experience of Jesus people, within the larger, big-C, church.

In my other experiences of "Church," I was constantly grappling with the problems and intricacies of the institution. Politics, power-plays, and all manner of unseemly and un-Christian activities crowded out what the real church was supposed to be. Now, FBC had all these things and more. Yet, somehow, some way, I made contact with the saints of God within the institution and, with them, found the community of Christ. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

When I determined in my heart that I was young in the faith and in experience doing "church work," I sought out a mentor with whom I could learn and grow. A pastor's wife of great faith and godliness befriended me and offered me love and acceptance and challenge.

When I was exploring my teaching gifts and seeking to be obedient to God's call to teach his people, I tried my hand at convening a class--first one and then several--to study aspects of God and God's Word. Those who came taught me as much as I taught them, encouraging me in my gifting and spurring me on in my own studies.

When I walked through a dark and desolate period, I told a dear woman of God that I needed prayer and confession to cleanse my wearied soul. She called on other sisters to meet with me and I--a wife of a staff person!--found the freedom to bare my soul to these women and come clean about the truly dark parts of my heart. From them I found forgiveness, healing, and power to begin again.

When I sought to experience deeper fellowship with other women, especially those on the "outside" of institutional church life, I found unlikely colleagues and dear friends in a hodge-podge of hurting women. They shared their hearts and souls with me, and I with them. More than any other relationships, they gave me proof that the Good News is true and powerful.

And, finally, when I was preparing to leave, key friends and fellow sojourners held a private gathering to congratulate me on my journey and bless me as I departed. Their laying-on of hands and fervent prayers on my behalf did more than any ordination council could. They confirmed my calling, offered me strength as I left, and gave me a "defining moment" in ministry.

God was so merciful to help me to discover the church within "the Church." There are plenty of problems with the institutional churches of America and I do not diminish them with this post. But, that does not change the fact that the Holy Spirit of Acts 2, who is poured out lavishly upon all of God's people, continues to work today, drawing together Christ-followers and fostering among them love, faith, and hope. I am deeply saddened by the loss of my community of faith. But, I am equally grateful to God that was I was able to find the church within "the Church" at FBC Fairfield.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Thank God for "Happy Holidays"


Around this time of year, there's lots of talk among Christians and non-Christians alike about two little words: "Merry Christmas." The controversy, of course, is over who says it, who doesn't say it, and why.

Headlines over the past few years have accused and defended a number of corporations because of their use or disuse of the phrase. Wal-Mart, Macy's, Target, Sear's and many more have suffered the wrath of self-appointed Christmas warriors, determined to put the "Christ" back in Christmas through boycotts, news coverage, angry phone calls, and innumerable petitions.

I know that it matters little what I think amidst the nationwide media frenzy, but I would like to state and explain my position for the record: I don't want them to say, "Merry Christmas."

I am aware that we live in a culture that is not only increasingly non-Christian, but also anti-Christian. Although many of our founding mothers and fathers ascribed to some form of Christian faith, America is no longer a Christian nation. The US is a pluralist society, a reality that is exceedingly uncomfortable for Christians who are used to being in the majority and in positions of civic authority and power.

The rising pluralism has led to a rising push to accomodate the various faiths represented among us. There are both good and bad points in this accommodation, too many to spell out here. But, the important fact is that most Christians don't like it. We don't like it at all.

And so, among other things, we have the "battle for Christmas." It seems that the many proponents of the "war" to bring back Christmas view themselves as grass-roots saviors of the season. With enough phone calls and boycotts, they can pressure American corporations into not accommodating the pluralism of our society, supposedly symbolized by instructing their employees to say, "Merry Christmas," rather than the undeniably mundane, "Happy Holidays," or, even worse, "Season's Greetings."

I won't deny that I prefer to wish my fellow Americans, "Merry Christmas." And, I prefer to hear the same from others. The phrases "Happy Holidays," and "Season's Greetings," are silly and meaningless--poor replacements for a greeting that reminds our neighbors of the reason for our happy merry-making. Even so, I find the whole controversy both tremendously ironic and sadly pitiful. Allow me to explain.

The Christmas celebration is a commemoration and thanksgiving to God for the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. According to the accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born to an unwed, teenage girl in the backwoods of Palestine. He was birthed in a dirty hovel, with a feeding trough for a bassinet and strips of rags for a delivery blanket. His first visitors were shepherds, some of the filthiest workers of the ancient world, who carried along the stench of sheep feces, dampness, and dirt everywhere they went.

Our king, the Lord of lords, was brought into the world in the humblest of ways, to the commonest of people, for the sake of the lowly. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears are led by powerful men and women who profit from the greed and materialism of the masses. They pay millions, maybe even billions, in order to put commercials on TV, radio, and billboards seeking to convince you that your life is meaningless without their product. They associate happiness and fulfillment with buying, having, and hoarding. Moreover, these corporations work very hard to be sure they offer the least amount of insurance and protection to the least amount of their employees. When their stock dips too low, they fire hardworking Americans and ship jobs overseas where they can get cheaper labor.

These people are not necessarily malicious themselves, but they are a part of a system working great evil among us, a conspiracy of materialism deceiving millions and leading them away from the kingdom of God that belongs to the poor. And yet, in an irony of ironies, Christians of America are demanding that these same major corporations parrot the announcement of Jesus' birth.

To me, this is both ironic and pitiful. Are we really so desperate for the American culture to acknowledge us and make us comfortable that we want corporate America heralding the arrival of the Savior? Are we really so void of fervor for true Gospel living and authentic Gospel preaching that we need Target and Wal-Mart to pick up the slack? Are we really so ignorant of the revolutionary nature of the Good News that we want to employ Caesar and his minions to prop-up the Kingdom of God in America? I hope not.

So, in the "battle for Christmas," please count me out. I would be happy to celebrate Jesus' birth with the person himself or herself after their shift. But, I don't need or want a representative of powerful corporations wishing me a "Merry Christmas." I am seeking to figure out exactly what my Savior's birth has to say to me as his follower, but I definitely don't need the aid of Macy's in discerning such truths.

I am a Christian increasingly uncomfortable in our non-Christian/anti-Christian society and that's just fine with me. I should be uncomfortable. I should feel at odds with my culture. That's the way its supposed to be. So, the next time someone wishes me, "Happy Holidays," I'm not going to scowl. I'm going to thank God that the Kingdom is coming to turn everything upside down, and that it all started in a filthy stable in the backwoods of Bethlehem, and that God doesn't need corporate America to bring it all to pass.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Update: Saudi king pardons rape victim

My husband was perusing the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday and came across an article on page 13A announcing an important update regarding a story I mentioned in a previous post.

A few weeks ago, a Saudi woman known only as "the Girl of Qatif" was convicted of violating Islamic law because she was in a car with a man she wasn't related to when seven men attacked and raped them both in 2006. Despite being a victim of gang rape, the 19 year-old was sentenced to prison time and a public lashing for being alone with a man not her husband.

Despite the status of Saudi Arabia as a US ally, President Bush responded to the ruling with unusually strong criticism, saying if the same thing happened to one of his daughters he would be "angry at those who committed the crime. And I'd be angry at a state that didn't support the victim." Although Saudi officials bristled at the worldwide criticism, the pressure appeared too much and King Abdullah pardoned the young woman on Monday.

Interestingly, the announcement of the king's action was published on the front page of Al-Jazirah but it did not appear in any other local media or the state-run news agency. It seems that while the king of Saudi Arabia has some sense of what is right and just (even if he was shamed into it), he is not confident that the Wahhabi influenced Saudi legal system or its populist leaders are capable of the same. Perhaps rightly so.

I am grateful for this "righting of wrongs" in the case of "the Girl of Qatif." But, clearly much, much more remains to be done. Kings and princes cannot step in every time a misogynistic and unjust legal system goes awry. The government must change. The laws must change. And, for now, all I (we) can do is pray and speak the truth.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places...

If you had any trees uprooted or windows blown out of your home this weekend, I am sincerely sorry. It was only me as I exhaled a great sigh of relief after finishing up my Master's of Divinity program at Truett Theological Seminary. Graduation was yesterday evening and I now have possession of the piece of paper that says I have a Master's degree. It is a little scary.

I wish I had something profound and deep to say about the end of this phase of my education, but I'm at a loss for words. I am grateful to God and to Truett Seminary for funding my education. Ronnie and I would never have been able to put me through graduate school on our own. And, thanks to all of you who have been a source of great encouragement throughout this four year process.

Many have asked what I will do next. The honest answer is that I'm not really sure. There are only three certainties:

(1) I will move to Hamilton, OH with Ronnie next week and enjoy being simply "Ron's wife" for the next few months. Ronnie and I have never been married without me as a full-time student and I think he deserves some time without the competition of professors, papers, and books.

(2) I will serve the Lord at Liberty Heights Church in Liberty Township, OH, in whatever capacity God desires. At first, I know I will spend much of my time with Ronnie in the youth department, but I look forward to whatever else God (or Pastor Rick) may have in store for me. Also, I will be speaking at their upcoming women's conference, February 28-29.

(3) I will seek and pray for what God would have me do about further education. I believe I should pursue a Ph.D. somewhere in some aspect of theology or biblical studies, but I need wisdom as to what, where, and when. I know that as I seek wisdom, God will provide it.

Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken...
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
- Psalm 16:5-8, 11

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Letter to Southern Baptist Preachers

To my beloved Southern Baptist preachers:

Although it has become somewhat en vogue among contemporary thinkers to champion the demise of preaching in future manifestations of church life, I am not among those who do so. The proclaimed message has been an important tool of God in the Kingdom of God for some 2,000 years of church history and I doubt very much that a short period of philosophical and cultural upheaval in the Western world is going to change that. For those of you set apart to devote your vocational life to the proclamation of the Word of God, even in times when it is undervalued and often denigrated, I salute you and thank you.

As a product of Southern Baptist schools, a member of several Southern Baptist churches, and a spouse of a Southern Baptist pastor, I have heard a lot of Southern Baptist preaching. I have been in attendance at many preachers’ conferences, state and national conventions, as well as innumerable Bible conferences and chapel services. I have always been edified by the preaching of the Word, but I confess that I never thought very deeply about the craft of preaching until my time in seminary. And, even more than that, I had never thought about the way in which preaching is heard by many different kinds of people until I began serving among and with marginalized women in a Southern Baptist church.

Out of my recent awakenings to such matters and my reflection upon the preaching I have been privy to in the past few years, I humbly offer the following exhortations to any Southern Baptist preacher who will listen. I share these things with the utmost respect and love for those who serve our churches week in and week out with the proclamation of the Word of God.

Please, stop pandering to the establishment. While I understand that references to abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, and evolution garner you some hearty “Amen’s” from the congregation, you know as well as I do that they do little to spur on the members of your congregation to genuine growth in Christian living. I agree with the person who has said that preaching the Gospel is about "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."

Instead of focusing on those things that allow your people a “pass” on conviction of sin, how about addressing some very real and very prevalent problems in American Christianity? Really, you could take your pick, but I'll name just a few: self-righteousness, anti-Christian loveless-ness, stagnant spirituality, and idolatrous materialism. Remember that harping on how very dark the darkness is does nothing to make the light any lighter.

Please, remember the afflicted. I encourage you to give attention to the way in which your sermon will communicate to those who are seriously downtrodden and desperate. I’m not talking about the businessman who’s stock market woes are forcing him to take a one-week skiing trip instead of a two-week cruise to Italy. Whether you know it or not, in your pews sit many who are truly downtrodden: battered women, survivors of childhood sexual abuse, men addicted to painkillers and pornography, and those struggling with physical and mental disabilities.

For people in these types of difficult situations, the truth is, some of the things you say are oversimplified, insensitive, and just plain misleading. Rather than drawing them closer to Jesus, some of your harsh, unmeasured words can drive them away. For example: “If you are depressed, it is because you are being disobedient to rise above your feelings and believe the Truth, no matter what,” or, “I don’t care how bad your husband is, submit to him as unto the Lord and leave the rest up to God.” Do I really have to explain how damaging these unqualified, insensitive statements can be to people in harsh and troubling circumstances?

As you prepare your sermon and thoughtfully consider what you will say, please imagine people like these I’ve described hearing your words. What will they hear? What can you do to include them? How can you address their despair in a meaningful way? No, not every sermon must be focused upon the marginalized. But, giving a thought to their plight is the least one can do as we serve in a Kingdom that proclaims the poor, blessed, the captive, liberated, and the oppressed, free.

Please, preach to and for women. This may seem like a needless plea, but I assure you it is not. I can count on one hand the number of preachers I have heard in the past few years who made a point to speak to women in their sermons. I remember them precisely because they are so rare. If your church is like most Southern Baptist churches, roughly 55-65% of your church is made up of women. Yet, if you think about it, most of your illustrations, applications, and even basic choices in language, are geared toward men and the male experience. If women are more than half the church and certainly an equal part of the humanity God is saving, then surely women deserve to be addressed and considered in our preachers’ sermons.

This can be done a number of ways. Make use of reasonable, gender inclusive language when it is possible. Is it really going to kill you to say “humanity” instead of “mankind,” or “people” instead of “man”? Really? If Paul said that he became “all things to all people” so that by "all means" he might “save some,” surely you can make an effort to be sensitive to changing views about the English language for the sake of reaching some women with the Gospel and including believing women in your church.

Also, choose to address issues that are unique or particularly important to women’s experience, like wife battering, childbirth, and aging. And, finally, make an effort to integrate illustrations and applications into your sermons that draw upon the experiences of women. When you choose not to do so, you are unwittingly communicating that the female experience is unimportant and does not adequately illustrate the things of God. I know that this is not your intention. Besides, cars, sports, and military illustrations can only carry your sermons so far.

Please, believe in your calling. Despite the griping you regularly receive from unhappy church folks, preaching is very important to the Kingdom of God. While I do not believe that the sermon will be replaced in American Christianity any time soon, it is at least possible that some changes await us. Therefore, as long as preaching is being heard in our culture and being used by God in our churches, I urge you with every cell in my body to preach well. Please, preach well.

The people of God need a word from God and they are looking to you to give it. You have a heavy responsibility, one worthy of all that your mental and emotional capacity can provide. With God to aid you, you cannot fail. So, don’t pander, don’t hem and haw, and don’t back off. Preach the Word. And, do so with thoughtfulness, conviction, intentionality, and, most of all, grace.

Thank you again for your service.

Grace and peace,

Emily

P.S. To my non-Southern Baptist sisters and brothers, please forgive my exclusiveness in this post. But, since God has situated me in a Southern Baptist context for now, I feel compelled to speak into the situation with which I am familiar instead of one I am not.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Recent reports from Australia

Australia: old friend of the "war on terror," but new foe of the war on terrorism of women. Read more about the chronic problem of child sex abuse among the historically maligned and abused Aboriginal peoples here.

Jesus - Still Too Radical?


This picture was posted by Greg Boyd on his blog. It is the work of an artist names Lars Justinen from the Justinen Creative Group. He created the image for use in advertising for a Christian ministry called Heavenly Sanctuary. Under the picture were captions such as "Follow the Leader," "God IS Great," and "Jesus - Still Too Radical?" As you can imagine, the posters created quite a stir, especially among Christians. (You can read more about it at Boyd's blog.) But, I post the picture here because I am curious about the reactions of my readers. What are your thoughts? Is Jesus still too radical?

P.S. In case some of you are wondering, the political leaders are, from left to right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel; former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair; former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan; Osama bin Laden; US President, George W. Bush; Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; and former President of China, Jiang Zemin.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A blog worth reading

I don't do a lot of "plugging" for bloggers, but I think this one by Greg Boyd is definitely worth your time. My friend, Joel, turned me on to it in a comment about my recent posts on marriage. After navigating to the site and reading his post on marriage, I found myself drawn to read the others on sex. Boyd has some very interesting, thoughtful, and relevant things to say about marriage, sex, and American licentiousness. I would highly recommend you have a look.

P.S. Boyd is very eloquent and thoughtful with his language, but he is very frank about some things. Delicate sensibilities need not apply.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Part 2: Why Marriage in the Kingdom of God?

At the end of Part 1, I said, "I have come to the conclusion that, in light of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God, there is a higher purpose for marriage that both Paul and Jesus understood and advocated."

To elaborate on this further, I should explain that my understanding of the Gospel is as follows: The Gospel of the reign of God is the power of God through which the exalted Christ, on the basis of his death and resurrection, restores all of life by his Spirit to be subject to his authority and word. I believe this was the content of Jesus’ preaching, Paul’s preaching, and the preaching of all the Apostles and the early church. Moreover, it was the lens through which they viewed and understood all matters of life: social structures, politics, economic concerns, ethics, etc. Everything, EVERYTHING, was about the proclamation and expansion of the Kingdom of God.

In the matter of marriage, I think this is best illustrated by Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7. Far from a mystical or creative discussion of the merits of marriage, Paul presents what is really a very pragmatic approach to marriage, all based upon two major suppositions: (1) the End is near and (2) the Gospel of the Kingdom must not be hindered. It is with these two concerns that Paul dispenses Spirit-inspired instructions on marriage.

Paul’s basic conclusions are these: because of the threat of fornication, married persons should have sexual relations (1 Cor 7:2-5); persons married to unbelievers should remain married unless the union is broken by the unbelieving spouse (7:10-16); each person should remain in the situation they were in when called of God (7:17-24); virgins and unmarried men are better off remaining unmarried if their passions allow it, because the End is near (7:25-31); because unmarried people are able to focus solely on the things of God, they are better off remaining unmarried (7:32-35); in case of impropriety, people can be married if they must, though they are better off unmarried (7:36-38).

(I feel constrained to offer one parenthetical observation. How many sermons or lessons have you heard lately on the virtue of singleness for the cause of the Kingdom of God? I venture to guess, not many. This is curious indeed since Paul was so adamant that it is “better” for people to remain unmarried. The perspective of Paul is crystal clear: “each person should remain with God in whatever situation he was called” [7:24] and only be married in situations where fornication is a threat.

(How curious that we have made marriage and family the focus of most church efforts [Focus on the Family?], whereas Paul viewed even the institution of marriage in light of the End Times and the coming Kingdom of God. It is interesting to me that Paul’s preference that women not instruct men in Timothy’s congregation has been elevated to the level of dogma [1 Tim 2:12], but Paul’s preference for singleness among the people of God has not been given the same honor.)

Jesus viewed marriage through the lens of the Kingdom of God as well. He remained unmarried throughout his life. Also, he affirmed the calling of those who remain unmarried, even recommending the state of the “eunuch” as something to be “accepted” by anyone who can (Matt 19:11-12). Perhaps most alarming to many Christians today, Jesus affirmed a reward for those who “left houses, brothers or sisters, father or mother, children, or fields” because of the Gospel, especially having in mind the sacrifices of his twelve closest disciples (Matt 19:29; Luke 18:29-30). Moreover, he taught that in the fullness of the Kingdom of God, there will be no marriage (Matt 22:30).

Perhaps the most powerful statements of Jesus related to the institution of marriage are in his so-called “cost of discipleship” exhortations. Here, Jesus makes it very clear that his calling trumps every other position or responsibility of life: “If anyone comes to me as does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26; cf. 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 18:24-30). In other instances, Jesus affirms that the preaching of Kingdom of God will put families at odds with one another (12:49-53; Mark 13:12-13).

Am I suggesting that Jesus was against marriage? No. What I am suggesting, however, is that Jesus understood marriage only in conjunction with his overarching mission to proclaim and embody the Kingdom of God. In light of Paul’s views on marriage, overviewed above, I suggest that Paul had a similar perspective. While neither Jesus nor Paul advocated divorce, or anything that could be seen as a denigration of the marriage institution, neither advocated marriage as such either. Instead, they taught that everything one does should be viewed in light of the Kingdom of God and what will forward God’s reign on the earth.

I propose that we use this line of thinking as the basis for the purpose of marriage in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. Rightly understood, therefore, marriage is a holy institution, inaugurated by God in the beginning of history as a means to populate the earth, but now to be seen primarily as a means for the propagation of the Gospel and the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Where the person in question is able to live without a spouse and fulfill these purposes (in their own personal discipleship and their outward service), the person should do so, for singleness provides ultimate freedom for missional living, particular in places of the world where danger is imminent for preachers of the Gospel.

So, what would I say to a friend regarding the purpose and perceived benefits of marriage? My response would be three-fold: (1) You should get married if you have become convinced that the Kingdom of God is best served by your union. That is to say, the reign of God is advanced more by your doing life together rather than apart. (2) You should get married if you have become convinced that the person you are marrying is the best person to be your partner in discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ and participation in the Kingdom of God. (3) You should get married if you have determined that God desires for you both to live missionally in a context wherein marriage and family is significant for the propagation of the Gospel and the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

Let me acknowledge a few things before I close. First, this initial foray into a “theology of marriage” is a first word on the matter and not a last word. I do not pretend to have researched and studied in enough depth to declare that the issue is closed. I have not even interacted with any other scholars on the matter and what I have written contains the fruit of my personal study only.

Second, if my explanation of the purpose of marriage seems “off the mark” to you (perhaps overly pragmatic), I assure you that it feels strange to me as well. Yet, my study of the Scripture has convinced me that I’m headed in the right direction toward the best understanding of marriage. I remind myself that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is “not of this world” (John 18:36), so I should not be surprised when God’s ways look different from my own.

Finally, as we interact about this issue, please do not insinuate that I am against marriage or seeking to denigrate the institution of marriage. May it never be! From my perspective, viewing marriage in light of the reign of God serves instead to elevate the institution to a high calling, something to be entered into with “fear and trembling” only when convinced that it is the best course of action in order to better fulfill the purposes of God.

Part 1: Why Marriage in the Kingdom of God?

Jesus famously instructed the Sadducees that in the age to come we will be as the angels, who are neither married nor given in marriage (Matt 22:30). Marriage is one of the most difficult undertakings in the life of a human being. If we are now Kingdom citizens, anticipating the age to come with our way of life, why should someone go through the trouble? Why get married at all? The following is Part 1 of a two part study of this issue. I have posted this before under a different title, but with my own marriage on the brain so much recently, I wanted to share it again. Perhaps I will receive some new insights from my readers.

What is the purpose of marriage? What are we, the married persons, going to receive from it that makes the marriage covenant worth adopting and upholding for life? Or, perhaps even more pertinent, what is God, the author of marriage, receiving from the marriage relationship of two persons that makes it worth entering?

There are many ways one could answer this question, for the Bible offers significant wisdom about marriage and our Creator’s intention for it. Yet, I will argue that in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated and established by Jesus Christ, there is really only one primary purpose for marriage. Before getting into that, however, let’s consider the other options available to us.

One might suggest that we should derive the purpose for marriage from Gen 1-2. Certainly, it is wise to start at the beginning of the story. In Genesis 1, the order and rhythm of creation is displayed for the reader and the “crown jewel” of creation is saved for last. God creates human beings in his image, according to his likeness, for the purpose of “ruling” the fish, birds, animals, all the earth, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth (Gen 1:26). After creating human beings “male and female,” God blesses them and commands them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). These commands are similar to those given to the birds and sea creatures in 1:22, where he tells them to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters of the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” The major difference, of course, is that human beings alone are given the command to “subdue” the earth.

Those who use Genesis as the basis for the purpose of marriage usually suggest that 1:28, with the command to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” is the underlying reason for the marriage relationship. In this point of view, bearing children and ruling over the earth is the primary reason for marriage. (One can understand, therefore, why the matter of birth control can be so contentious when the primary purpose of the marriage relationship is seen as bearing and raising children. Yet, this is not the time or the place to get into this tertiary issue.)

Without denying the importance of these commands to the marriage relationship, I would like to point out that a close reading of Gen 1 reveals that the institution of marriage is not mentioned at all. Instead, the focus is upon the order of creation, with human beings coming last. There is continuity between animals and humans as created beings (both are to “be fruitful, multiply,” and “fill the earth”), but also discontinuity between them (humans are to “subdue” the earth). Moreover, God makes a point to instruct human beings in what things are given to them and every animal for food: “every green plant.”

Yet, one must admit, marriage as an institution is not considered in a recognizable way at all. Instead, the focus is upon the human race as a whole and the purpose of the human race upon the earth in God’s good created order. I would like to suggest that Gen 1:28, although not irrelevant or unimportant to the matter, is not an appropriate basis for the purpose of marriage. (And with something like 6.6 billion humans walking around on the planet today, I think we've probably fulfilled God's instruction to "multiply," don't you?)

What about Gen 2? Here we get a little closer to our topic, for the author provides details of God’s interactions with the first man and the woman God formed for him. We are told that God understood that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needed a helper who corresponded to him in the way that all the other animals have corresponding mates. So, God formed a woman from the man’s body and presented her to the man. The poetic exclamation of the man at the sight of the woman is beautiful: “This one, at last, is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called woman, for she was taken from man” (Gen 2:23). This statement is modified by the narrator, who informs the reader, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24).

From this description of woman’s creation for man, what would the purpose of marriage seem to be? Perhaps the intention is that the two would have intimate relationship, not simply in the sexual sense, but in the emotional closeness of two beings in perfect harmony. This coincides with our belief about the Godhead, which exists in perfect Triune relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The emphasis on intimate relationship is supported by the commentary of the narrator that begins, “This is why…” as if to say, “This is why men and women marry, for God created woman to be with man in intimate partnership.”

With this in mind, it is even more tragic that after sin enters God’s good world, the perfect couple is expelled from Eden following the reception of their respective judgments, and from that point forward marriages are a mess in the story of Israel. (Say what you want about the patriarchs, certainly they were not the models of loving relationship, fidelity, and loyalty to their spouses.)

Again, I do not deny the truths of Gen 2:23-24, for there is much here to recommend. I think it is clear that Gen 2 provides more insight for the purpose of marriage as an institution than Gen 1, where the purpose of human beings as a whole is in the spotlight. Even so, I am not satisfied with building our foundation for marriage chiefly on Gen 2:23-24. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important is that as Christians, we should read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Covenant and the teachings of Jesus.

Since we proclaim and live under a New Covenant, I think it is important to ask whether Jesus reaffirmed Gen 2 as the primary purpose of marriage or did he revolutionize this institution as he did so many other aspects of the Old Testament (“You have heard it said…but I tell you…”). As we consider marriage through the lens of the New Covenant and the coming Kingdom of God, what do we find?

A New Testament option for deriving the purpose of marriage is increasingly popular in American Christianity: Ephesians 5. Here, following his instructions on being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18), which concludes with the description of “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:21), Paul provides corollary exhortation to wives and husbands.

In the instructions for husbands, Paul uses the Christ’s love for the Church, as the illustration for the kind of love husbands should exercise for their wives. This kind of love is self-sacrificing, cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying, for that is how Christ loved his Church. Many teachers and preachers adopt this profound imagery as the main purpose of marriage: to model and reflect the love of Christ for the Church to the watching world.

This sounds very good and, indeed, I do not deny the significance of Paul’s illustration in Eph 5. Yet, I am wary of elevating a metaphor—one that Paul himself calls “a profound mystery” (5:32)—to the status of rule. That is to say, while it is legitimate to use Paul’s illustration to describe the marriage relationship, I’m not sure it is appropriate to conclude that it is also the purpose of the marriage relationship.

I know that I am stepping on toes with this line of reasoning, but please stay with me. Notice what Paul does NOT say in this passage: “You should get married because it is a mysterious picture of the love of Christ for the Church.” He doesn’t say anything like this. Instead, Paul is addressing those already married and instructing them on how they can live within their marriage bonds as ones “filled with the Spirit” and “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” So, while the image of Christ and the Church is to be a source of inspiration and a model for married persons, it is not an appropriate foundation for the overall purpose of marriage.

Before I go any further, let me reiterate that I do not believe the above options to be completely off the mark. It is not my intention to disqualify the viewpoints discussed above, for they contain relevant instruction for Christians on the purpose and outworking of marriage. Instead, I have come to the conclusion that, in light of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God, there is a higher purpose for marriage that both Paul and Jesus understood and advocated. Before you jump out of your seats and holler, “Heretic!” please follow my thinking very closely in Part 2 of this series.

Monday, December 3, 2007

I love my husband

I have a number of new posts in progress, but nothing that is ready for "printing" at this time. So, in lieu of something seriously thought-provoking or mildly irritating, I thought I'd share something very simple, but true: I love my husband.

Ronnie moved to Liberty Township, Ohio the first week of September and we have been living apart since then. Thankfully, our church provided a relocation package that included funds to allow for visits every three weeks. Nonetheless, Ronnie and I have found this semester very trying and, often, very lonely. Still, one of the benefits from this time apart is a reaffirmation of how much we love each other and truly enjoy doing life together.

Ronnie and I have been through a lot in the past four and a half years. Before our wedding, his disabled younger brother, London, died. In our third year of marriage, his 46 year-old mother, Susan, struggled through pancreatic cancer and passed away. Immediately following that loss, we took responsibility for Ronnie's 17 year-old brother, Roger, who had his share of problems, in addition to being a typical teenager. Then, last Christmas, my grandfather, who was a father to me, died. Throughout all this, we've opened our home to a variety of friends and loved ones, who were in various stages of need.

All this is to say that we have multiple reasons not to have a good marriage. But, by the grace of God, and lots of talking and praying, we are stronger than ever. I am so blessed.

How can I describe this one God has given to me as life partner, friend, lover, and co-laborer in the Gospel? I don't have all day to write, so I'll just share a few things.

Ronnie is the most generous person I know. He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, even if it was his favorite, ONE campaign T-shirt. In fact, when our church in Fairfield was helping survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he did give away his favorite belt on the spot to a young man who needed one. Although ministry is not the most financially lucrative career, Ronnie gives to those who need it as though it were.

Ronnie is absolutely commited to loving me sacrificially and he puts aside his own wants on a regular basis. This weekend, during his precious few days off, he put together three bookshelves, so that when I relocate to our new home in two weeks, my office will be ready. Knowing how deeply I detest cleaning the bathroom, Ronnie does it for me, scrubbing the toilet with a smile on his face. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing he wouldn't do for me, big or small. And, I constantly rest in the knowledge that being a Christ-like husband is his top priority on a daily basis.

Ronnie has learned how to listen to me. This doesn't come easily, of course, because communication never does. But, he offers me a compassionate ear on a regular basis, even remembering to ask if I want advice before he provides it. Ronnie listens to (almost) everything with genuine interest, whether I'm ranting about the latest political outrage, weeping for joy in the victories of my Sunday School class, or recounting the latest obscure story I heard on NPR. He may not care about the subject, but he cares about me, and that's enough.

Perhaps most important, though, Ronnie is a faithful and challenging spiritual partner. The growth I have seen in his life over the past four years is a constant encouragement to me. No, he's not perfect. But, he's more like Jesus today than he was last month, and the month before that, and the month before that. He shows grace and mercy to those who struggle and offers spiritual insight to those who need it--including me.

When I went through a very dark period that lasted about six months, he listened to my desperate rants against God and providence with love and grace. He provided me the freedom to be real with him and not have to hide my pain. He was able to walk me through these troubled times because his heart was (and is) consistently surrendered to Holy Spirit's rule. I couldn't ask for a better partner in the kingdom of God and I love being a disciple of Jesus alongside of him.

I could go on and on. And, someday, I may just do that. But, for now, I think I've embarrassed him enough. Ronald Glynn McGowin is a gift from God. I love my husband.