Thursday, February 28, 2008

I love my "kids"

Things are slow around the McGowin house today. Even our dogs, Cooper and Oliver, are feeling lethargic and catching some Zzzz's in their doggy-chair. (Believe it or not, when we got new livingroom furniture, we let the pups have their favorite big chair.) I thought I'd share these cute pics with my readers. I wish I could relax as easily and peacefully as they do!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Preparation for ministry to women

I am told that according to blogging etiquette I don't need to give an update as to why I haven't been able to post something in almost a week. But, since I don't want anyone to think I've fallen off the planet (or been stranded in all of our Ohio snow), I want to let you in on what's going on. This weekend, Liberty Heights Church, where Ronnie and I serve, is holding a conference for the women of our church. Amy Garner and I are speaking and I have been immersed in preparation for the past several days. I would cherish your prayers as I prepare my heart and my messages, since this is first of such events I have ever been a part of.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Journeys, by Todd Wright and Marty Duren

Change. It is a dirty word in most established Southern Baptist churches. Indeed, unless a commitment to change is a part of the DNA of a local church, it is often impossible to bring it about. Many pastors have stared the specter of change in the face and walked away, frightened of what it would do to them and their flocks--and, for good reason. Leading congregational change can be excruciatingly difficult and few have found a way to do so without losing their minds or their churches.

It is for this reason that I'm pleased as punch to be able to review and recommend my friend Marty's first book: Journeys: Transitioning Churches to Relevance, co-written with Todd Wright. Both men pastor Southern Baptist churches in Georgia, New Bethany Church in Buford and Midway Church in Villa Rica, and both men have poured blood, sweat, and tears into their God-appointed mission to lead their flocks to be the church in their communities.

Many books about leading churches through change are little more than step-by-step guides, following after the pattern of some other "successful," uber-charismatic pastor who's gone from 50 to 5,000 church members in 5 months. (Well, maybe its not that bad, but it sure feels like it.) Anyone used to books like that will find Journeys to be a breath of fresh air.

The bulk of the book is narrative, as Marty and Todd alternately walk the reader through the many heart-breaking and gritty details of their transformation as pastors, which lead to the transformation of their churches. In both cases, the barriers in the way of change were many, including racism, trust, power plays, personal weakness, and communication. But, in both cases, these things were overcome and the transition from mindless irrelevance to missional relevance was made.

I found the book's narrative quality to be highly engaging. For me, the back-and-forth chapter arrangement was difficult to adjust to at first, but once I settled in to the reading (which didn't take long), I found the style to be quite effective for comparing the two pastor's experiences. Especially valuable is the openness and vulnerability shown by the authors. Their candidness about personal shortcomings, doubts, and fears will be a tremendous encouragement to any pastor, soon-to-be pastor, or pastor's spouse. And, for interested laypersons, their story is an eye-opening look into the life of pastors leading churches through transition.

The book ends with words of reflection and encouragement from Todd and Marty, including wise counsel about weighing your motivation for change, counting the cost of change, and choosing to focus upon faithfulness rather than "nickels and noses." Also, they include a select bibliography and a helpful list of recommended reading.

I highly endorse this volume for you, your pastor, your staff, or your friends in ministry. For the next week or so, you can order Journeys at a pre-publication price of $11.99, down from the regular retail price of $14.99, through the publisher Missional Press. Very soon, it will be available on Amazon and many of your favorite bookstores.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Vegetarianism and the Kingdom

Greg Boyd has posted two more parts to his short series on vegetarianism. Carnivores beware: they might just make you reconsider your decisions about meat consumption. Check out Part 2, The First Fruits of the Coming Non-Violent Creation, and Part 3, Compassionate Dominion and Factory Farms.
Bon appetite!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Gender Identity and the Problem with "Biblical Womanhood"

Officially, the next post in my series on women in the Kingdom of God is supposed to address women in the Old Testament narratives. I have started and stopped that post a number of times. Therefore, as a result of my apparent lack of motivation to complete it, I offer the following post early: a summation of what I perceive to be the problem(s) with the contemporary evangelical concept of "biblical womanhood." (For those just joining this conversation, please see my first, second, and third posts in the series.)

Before considering the matter of so-called "biblical womanhood," it is important that we discuss the nature of gender identity in general. This matter is both deep and wide, with voluminous literature devoted to it. But, the following is a summation of my conclusions about gender, in conversation with the writings of Miroslav Volf and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen.

Although debates continue over the full definition and origin of gender, there is universal agreement that, at the very least, gender is based upon one’s physical body and one’s cultural environment. From a biological standpoint, the human body carries the permanent marks of belonging either to the male or female sex. Genesis testifies that God designed human beings as a distinctly male and female in their physical bodies (Gen 2:21-25). There are rare times when these marks are mixed or obscured, but such exceptions are few and they reinforce the norm. As a result, men and women’s gender identities are grounded in and, to an extent, limited by the permanent details of their sexed bodies.

From a sociological standpoint, human beings with sexed bodies develop their gender identities from within a specific culture or cultures. This accounts for the way in which notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” vary in cultures over time and space. In one sense, such notions of are fixed, as cultural expectations for gender become embedded in economic, political, and religious practices. In another sense, though, notions of gender can be fluid, able to be influenced and altered through changes in culture and subcultures. As a result, gender identity has significant flexibility depending upon cultural contexts, but ultimately the distinctions of the male and female bodies provide a foundation of stability.

We should note, however, that the human bodies, marked by sexual distinctions, are not neutral or passive with respect to the way in which gender is constructed. Societies place value upon and interpret the sexed human bodies in ways in that inform our understanding of gender. For example, in years past, it was thought that the "soft hands" of women determine their fate as protective caregivers, while their "breasts" indicate that motherhood is the fulfillment of their being. The truth is, there is no way to objectively "read" the content of gender identity from the human body, because all such "readings" are culturally dependent interpretations.

At the same time, it is a permanent experience of humanity that men and women continue to live as men and women--a duality that persists despite cultural and sociological changes over time. It is because of the permanence of the sexed body over time that we can continue to speak of gender identity at all. Still, while there will always be men and women, differentiated by their sexed bodies, there is no "essence" to their gender identities, no unchangeable form of "masculinity" and "femininity." Instead, in the words of Van Leeuwen, we experience, "constant invention and reinvention of gender roles" and gender identity.

But, as many readers will object, this leaves the content of gender identity unspecified, which implies that "anything goes." Should not Christians seek to determine gender identity by listening to what the Bible says? That is, should we not collate and examine the biblical statements about men and women, seek to reconstruct biblical "manhood" and "womanhood," and then apply these conclusions to our context? My short answer to this question is, No. But, let me explain more fully why I believe this approach is oversimplified and wrong-headed.

First, it must be acknowledged that any such conceptions of biblical "manhood" and "womanhood" is dependent upon a great diversity of male and female characters and roles in the Bible. This diversity simply cannot make for an axiomatic, divinely sanctioned model, but reflects culturally situated examples, accounts of the lifelong "ups and downs" of men and women who sought to live out the will of God for their lives within specific settings. Moreover, even the didactic teaching regarding the behavior of men and women, particularly in the Pauline epistles, is culturally (and missionally) situated and dependent upon a specific historical environment.

In the words of Volf, "This is not to say that the biblical construals of what men and women (of what men and women as men and women) should or should not do and be are wrong, but that they are of limited normative value in a different cultural context, since they are of necessity laden with specific cultural beliefs about gender identity and roles." Make sure you read that sentence again, very carefully. I am not saying that the Bible's diversity of male and female persons and roles is unhelpful and/or wrong. I am saying that the Bible's diversity of examples of men and women interacting with God and his will are of "limited normative value"--that is to say, they are limited in their value as universal examples or ideals of what all men and women everywhere ought to do and be.

For example, the experiences of Hagar and Deborah with God and men are significantly different from each other. Which experience should become normative for Christian women? Which one serves as the ultimate example of what "biblical womanhood" essentially is? For the reasons just described, I would say, Neither. The same is true in the New Testament cases of Junia and Dorcas. The first is called an "apostle" by Paul (Rom 16:7), which indicates a significant amount of leadership and authority, while the second is known for her service to the poor (Acts 9:36). Which embodies the "biblical woman"? Again, the answer is, Neither.

Now, if the project of collating and examining the biblical statements about men and women, in order to reconstruct biblical "manhood" and "womanhood," is wrongheaded, then what is the alternative? Does this mean that even in Christianity, as far as "manhood" and "womanhood" is concerned, anything goes? Again, I would answer, No.

Instead of setting up faulty, culturally conditioned ideals of femininity and masculinity from our readings of scripture, I concur with Volf that followers of Jesus should view gender identity as rooted in the sexed bodies God gave human beings and allow the social construction of gender to work itself out, all the while guided by the vision of the identity of and relations between the members of the Godhead. What this means is that men and women of God should seek to define themselves and negotiate their relationship to one another based upon the example of Jesus Christ and the life of the Triune God.

For example, just as the members of the Godhead--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--are not without the other, so also men and women are not without the other (see 1 Cor 11:11). In the Lord Jesus, the interdependence of men and women is affirmed and upheld. In the words of Volf, "To be a woman means to be a human being of the female sex who is 'not without man;' to be a man means to be a human being of the male sex who is 'not without woman.'" This mindset should produce a mutual love, respect, and humility among all male-female relations in the body of Christ.

OK, so what's the practical point of all this? Now that we've discussed gender identity and the mistaken notion of "biblical manhood and womanhood," what are we to take away and put into practice?

Based on all of the above, it is my conclusion that the universal "standards" of "manhood" and "womanhood"--the character to which men and women of God are to attain--should be derived from the person and work of Christ and his Holy Spirit in us. That is to say, for example, the "biblical" man and woman, through cooperation with and surrender to the Spirit, will produce the fruit of the Spirit. The godly man and woman will be the kinds of people who naturally love their enemies, bless those who curse them, refrain from lust, speak what is true, and refuse to misuse others for their own sake. The man and woman of God will, with discernment, put the needs of others above their own, and seek always to do that which will produce freedom for the Spirit in the body of Christ. Now that's my idea of "biblical manhood and womanhood"!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Becoming a vegetarian

For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love. - Pythagoras

My dear readers, I would like to recommend the following blog series from pastor and theologian Greg Boyd about his pilgrimage to vegetarianism. I have recently made a similar journey, but not for the same reasons that Boyd expounds. Indeed, my life change began as a simple concern for better health, but the conviction behind my decision has morphed into something deeper. Perhaps I will write more about this another time, but for now, enjoy Boyd's reflections on an often unappreciated (and sometimes even scorned) lifestyle choice in evangelical Christianity.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Exclusiveness of Christ and Spiritual Formation

Much is made in evangelical circles about the need for an intelligent and argued defense of the faith against it's "cultural despisers." Apologetics is a hot topic, with parachurch organizations, radio broadcasts, and even seminary degrees devoted to the task of engaging the faiths of the world with the truths of Christ.

I have nothing at all against such ministries. Certainly, the best of Christian scholarship should be devoted to addressing the questions of the world and answering them with biblical clarity and theological coherency. And, in an age where it is often claimed that "all roads lead to the same place," it is necessary to delineate the distinctiveness of Christian faith.

Even while tremendous effort is being expended in an effort to convince both the world and the church that the Way of Christ is the only true Way, very often I hear pastors and evangelical leaders decry the creeping pluralism in the pews. The truth is, many American Christians are increasingly uncomfortable claiming that Christian faith has an exclusive claim on Truth. I would venture to guess that, if they were honest, most American evangelicals, even ones who affirm the existence of a literal burning hell, would confess that they hesitate to draw the lines between them as Christians and the "good" Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew. They don't want to make a guess as to who's "in" and who's "out." It just doesn't feel right.

Why is this the case? Book after book, program after program, course after course, has been written and experienced, educating the Christian masses about the superiority of Christianity over the faiths of the world. And yet, in their heart of hearts, many Christian still wonder: Is Jesus really the only Way? Is the Way of Christ truly eternal life? Are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and many others really missing out on something? Is there any real way to tell the difference between us?

Recently, I have been engrossed in Dallas Willard's latest book, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teaching on Discipleship. In chapter 7, "Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What It Is and How It Might Be Done," Willard offers a brief perspective on the matter of "proper Christian exclusiveness," that I believe is truly insightful. His point is that if Christians were truly focused upon attaining obedience to Christ's teachings through a transformed heart and personality, then the matter of Christian exclusiveness would be largely taken care of. Here's the rest of the quote:

"The real issue relating to exclusiveness is whether the Christian actually has a relationship with God, a presence of God, that non-Christians do not have. Apart from Christian spiritual formation as described here, I believe there is little value in claiming exclusiveness for the Christian way...

"The realization of this may be what is reflected in the current mass abandonment of the exclusiveness of Christianity that is going on among Western Christians now, especially in its academic centers. Why should one insist on the exclusiveness of Christianity if all it is is one more cultural form? But let the reality of Christian spiritual formation come to its fullness, and exclusiveness will take care of itself. If the witch and warlock, the Buddhist and the Muslim, can truly walk in a holiness and power equal to that of Jesus Christ and his devoted followers, there is nothing more to say. But Christ himself, and not Christianity as a form of human culture, is the standard by which 'we' as well as 'they' are to be measured."

To put it another way, Willard is asserting that it is largely due to the lack of Christian spiritual transformation in Western churches that has led many Christians to reconsider the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. Because we have not taught our disciples to "obey everything [Jesus has] commanded," (Matt 28:20a) we have no tangible, existential evidence that the truths of Christ make for transformed, eternal kinds of lives. Because it appears that Jesus Christ and his followers do not walk in holiness and power exceeding that of the witch, warlock, Buddhist, and Muslim, both Christians and non-Christians have justifiable reasons to doubt the exclusiveness of Christian truth.

Of course, our motivation for seeking genuine formation in Christ's likeness should not be the desire to demonstrate superiority over the faiths of the world. If we truly believe that apprenticeship to Jesus leads to an eternal kind of life now, an engagement with the power of God, and a character that increasingly evidences the virtues of love, joy, and peace, then why not devote our entire lives to attaining it? And, why not devote the energies of our churches to teaching others to do the same?

Willard goes on to say: "Are we seriously and realistically about the business of Christian spiritual formation as measured by unqualified love of Jesus Christ, and as specified by our 'job description,' in the Great Commission? How does our work, what we really do, actually relate to the charge he has left us? How much of what goes on in ourselves, our local assemblies, our denominations, and our schools, is dictated only by 'futile ways inherited from [our] ancestors' (1 Peter 1:18)?...This question is surely put to each of us individually, as well as to all our institutions and programs, by the one who said, 'Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do what I tell you?' (Luke 6:46)."

As I have referenced earlier, Jesus' language in the Great Commission makes it clear that his aim in the church, his job description for God's people, is that they bring disciples to the point of obedience to "everything I have commanded you." And yet, I know of no current denomination or local congregation that has a concrete, practical plan and/or practice for teaching people to obey "everything" Jesus has "commanded."

I think Willard is correct when he concludes that if we continue in this way, gradually drifting from the mark set by Christ's Commission, we will "increasingly find it harder to differentiate ourselves in life from those who are non- or even anti-Christian." God help us reclaim our responsibility to make apprentices to Jesus whose lives reflect the eternal life that Christ offers to the whole world.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Tired of being tired

This picture sums up where I've been for the past few days. And, unfortunately, my weariness doesn't seem to be lifting. I hope to be able to post something soon, but we'll have to see what happens. Grace and peace to all.