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Movements are exciting. And a bit scary.
What’s scarier is this, another venture into the often heated conversation of women in ministry… or more recently called, (a Christian) Jesus Feminism. I’ve written a couple times on the subject already (a basic look, a studious look, and a warning for a movement), but I can’t help but notice all the energy and friction around the subject of holy feminism.
Especially if I’m not 100% on board with everything about that’s being said and done in the name of it.
The Stamp of This Generation
I pre-ordered Jesus Feminist written by Sarah Bessey in October because the title caught my attention. It’s a catchy title, for sure, but I was drawn to it because I’d just began seeing a pattern in our American society. Tolerance. Or justice. Or equality. Pick whichever of those words offend you the least, and you’d have the single thought that has fueled this generation. From electing our first minority president (twice), to passing controversial homosexual matrimony laws, to a slew of other conversations and debates going on in twitter feeds and blogs centered around civil equality.
Hollywood has not slept on this phenomenon. It’s not coincidental that movies like The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom, Blue is the Warmest Color, Winnie Mandela and a few others I’m totally sleeping on right now have all come out in the same year.
It is also not surprising that now is the time to revisit the matter of women in ministry inside the church.
The IF:Gathering was my first brush with, what must now be seen as a movement occurring in Christian women today. It is indeed a time when ladies from across the country are speaking loud and clear about the deep-seated angst lying dormant inside them that bristles at the idea that God sees men differently than women. An angst that wants to be freed from any sort of restraint to follow after God into whatever places he is taking them… even to the pulpit if necessary.
Can’t science and God just get along? Apparently not.
Now more than ever, the claws are being drawn. Atheists are growing more and more mobile in this Information Age, and science is most often their weapon of choice. Christians, whether they like it or not, will face some version of this question: Doesn’t science disprove God? It’s inevitable.
So it behooves us to at least give it some thought. For me, like many of the tough questions we talk about, I like to center in on the wording.
The problem with the reliance of science to reveal all things is that science is still ignorant. Or, maybe it’s better to say, science is still learning. We all know that scientific finds have propelled our society in great ways in the areas of technology, social policy, business, art, and many other facets of life. It is more than understandable to hold science to such a degree that all life’s experiences should be filtered through it. In fact, to do so is reasonable.
In fact, for all its discovery and investigation, experimentation and theory, science spells out a sort of faith story. And that faith story is anchored in the hope that all things are explainable, observable and therefore understandable. It hopes, with expectant certainty, that all real things can be known and proven. In this sense, science is perfect. Science is without flaw. Science is such a reliable mechanic that reality must be determined by its laws and practices. It is the absolute. The one thing in life no one can dispute. In a sense, science is a type of god. It is an undisputed set of ideas that all things must adhere to.
That creates a problem for me.
We’ve all had this happen. Our child presents us a drawing they’ve been toiling over for half an hour with a chest full of pride and beaming smile. We grab the sheet of paper from their outstretched hands, and proceed to examine something that looks like nothing we’ve ever seen. And the game begins.
Is it a primitive beast, a small horse, or a ruby slipper? Or, is it just scribble scrabble, an attempt by our young art prodigy at abstract, Picasso-like art? We’re just not sure. So, we widen our eyes, cock our head to the side, smile and say, “Ohhhh, that’s nice!” just before looking up at our kid, smile still in place to ask, “What is it?”
Proudly, our child informs us, with a hint of ”I can’t believe you have to ask” in their voice, what it is we’re looking at. After which we cross our proverbial fingers, pat our kid on the back while telling them how awesome they did. “This looks just like a dinosaur!”
And why do we tell them this? Because, if that child really has passion or raw talent for drawing, he’s only going to get better. He just needs developing and a little confidence and support. We inherently know that, for our kids, the path to excellence is long, and requires patience, perseverance and coaching. We understand the path to excellence is achieved through empowerment, not in lieu of empowerment.
We’ve been talking about the book of James and how it compares to the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s continue below…
The theological implications in the Letter of James are perhaps the most interesting aspects of the book. James has been scrutinized for his Soteriology concerning the relationship of works and faith. That is, his statements regarding the role of faith and works in the salvation experience require extra attention. What does the Sermon on the Mount have to say to this? How does the Sermon on the Mount inform James’ soteriological position? Though the teaching appears out of step with Paul’s teaching, is it in step with the teachings of Jesus?
In the previous section, we cautioned against making excessive connections to the Sermon on the Mount. This is especially difficult when considering the theology of the two works side-by-side. But, I have to wonder what theological expectations we should have of every writing in the New Testament. In other words, shouldn’t we expect most, if not all, of the New Testament writings to be influenced by the teachings of Jesus? Scholars are quick to point out that James and Jesus align in their acknowledgment of man’s sinful nature, their admonishment against sin, their speaking of God’s judgment, and their urging of their audiences toward confession. We should expect to find such theological harmony.
Due to the nearness in grammatical presentation of these writings, I find it far more informative to identify the differences in their theological elements. Again, we should expect full theological harmony with all of the scriptures. So when that harmony appears interrupted, as it does here, it’s worth our investigation.
“Christ” and Evidence of Salvation
Two areas interest me greatly where the Letter of James is concerned. First, his Christology. The writer does directly acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, but only on two occasions (v. 1:1 and 2:1). In other passages, the acknowledgment is more indirect by his use of the word Lord.
On the one hand, such an indirect acknowledgment follows the spirit of the writing. It fits alongside the lack of “quotes” from Jesus. But the lack of more direct acknowledgments trouble me. For a writing so influenced by the teachings of Jesus, you’d think his name would be mentioned more than twice. Perhaps the “Lord” designation is enough to overcome this particular objection.
The second area of disharmony lies in the Soteriology of the two writings. Much is often made of James and his inconsistency (at least on the surface) with Paul’s teachings about salvation, faith and works. However, the scholarly community appears to have accepted that the view of salvation in James aligns nicely with the Sermon on the Mount. Of this, I’m not so sure. When we consider James 2:21-24, most scholars find they agree with Matthew 5:16 and Matthew 7:21-27. I’m not so sure.
We’ve been talking about the book of James and how it compares to the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s continue below…
James & Jesus
The Book (letter) of James is greatly influenced by the teachings of Jesus. There are a couple of theories about the ways the teachings of Jesus influenced the writing. We mentioned earlier how James may not have been a follower of Jesus prior to his resurrection. Obviously, this means we can’t take for granted that James heard all the teachings of Jesus firsthand. This also means we can’t be certain James even heard the Sermon on the Mount firsthand, especially if we accept the sermon as happened earlier in the ministry of Jesus rather than later. So the question becomes, how was James so influenced by teachings he did not follow?
There are a couple possibilities. Some scholars rely on the rich, Oral tradition of the first century Jews. As a largely illiterate community, where books could neither be read nor afforded, teachings and traditions were passed on orally from generation to generation. Peter Davids offers this on the subject.
“Behind this phenomenon lies a feature of the early church. Before the Gospels were produced, there were probably some written records of Jesus’ teaching (Luke refers to some source in Luke 1:1-4), but the basic tradition was oral… Early Christians memorized [Jesus’] teaching much as Jews memorized that of their teachers. Further evidence of this lies in the Gospel of Matthew, where the teaching of Jesus is divided into five blocks (Chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), each of which has a single theme. These are designed for easy memory (since most Christians could neither read nor afford books), with numerical sequences and link-words being used to aid memory.” (Davids 1989)
So then, James could simply have learned Jesus’s teachings through the Oral tradition. Remember, the Gospels were not yet written, so James did not have them as a resource.
A second possibility brings up the Q source. Q is a hypothetical source believed to be shared by Matthew and Luke (but not Mark). Some scholars identify the Q source as an oral tradition received by Matthew and Luke. Others suggest it is a written document from which they reference. In either case, this possibility suggests James had access to the Q source as well as Matthew and Luke, and from it could have come the influence of Jesus’ teachings. Many attribute this common source to the similarities we will later discuss between Jesus and James. Particularly the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew.
The author of the book of James never quotes Jesus, but the language, examples and wording he uses sounds very much like the words of Jesus. Scholars have been hooking the sayings of James with the sayings of Jesus for decades. Some of them have come up with as many as sixty-five points of convergence (Batten 2011). Others only find a few. In his paper about James and the Sermon on the Mount, Virgil Porter diagrams forty-five statements in James that are hooked to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
The Book of James has the reputation as a practical work of wisdom. Some might even call it “the Proverbs of the New Testament” for its scattered layout of ideas and it’s emphasis on taking theological and doctrinal ideas and putting them into practice. It’s a favorite for many Christians I know, probably it’s “straight talk” way of communicating. On its surface, James feels easily digestible. Its themes resonate with the side of our brains that want practical action. When James says to watch our tongue, it resonates with us, and it’s something we can put into action. When he says our works are aligned with our faith that, too, resonates. And on and on.
In the next couple of posts, I’d like to share a little work I did on the relationship between the writing in the Letter of James and the teachings of Jesus. We will spend most of our time looking at the Letter of James in concert with the Sermon on the Mount. We’ll take a look at some of their similarities and differences in hopes of understanding the intent and purpose of the writing.
Who Wrote the Book of James?
The first major clue about the author of a book in the New Testament is in its title. Of the twenty-seven New Testament books, twenty-five of them are named after a person or group of people, which usually tells us to whom the writing was meant, or from whom the writing comes. The latter is true in the case of the Letter of James. The opening verse affirms the conclusion by attributing the writing to “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,”(NIV) and addresses the letter to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (NIV).
But which James?
The natural thing to do is search the New Testament for all prominent characters named James. Should we do this, we’d find several mentions of four different characters with the name. There is James, the son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19), James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18), James the father of Judas (Luke 6:16) and James, the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:19).
History allows us to narrow down the prospects quite nicely. James, the son of Zebedee would certainly have traveled with Jesus as one of the twelve and so would have experienced the teaching of Jesus firsthand. However, scholars are skeptical about whether the son of Zebedee lived long enough to have authored the letter since Herod Agrippa had him killed between A.D. 41 and 44 (Acts 12:2). It is possible if we date the writing in the early part of the century. Too, history does not reveal the son of Zebedee as key to the early church movement. It’s not likely he is the author.
James, the son of Alphaeus, would also have known the teachings of Jesus well as he too was one of the twelve who followed Jesus most closely. But, again, this James is unfamiliar and relatively quiet in scripture. One with such an unfamiliar role might want to introduce himself more fully. Where credence is concerned, we might also expect a mention of his firsthand discipleship to Jesus. Instead, the letter’s introduction suggests the audience would already recognize him, which also suggests a well-known James rather than an obscure one. History equally whispers about the son of Alphaeus, which makes him equally unlikely as the son of Zebedee.
James, the Father of Judas presents the same problem of obscurity.
There is, of course, the notion that a different James entirely wrote the letter. That is, one that is not mentioned in the Bible. This idea was presented by Martin Luther (Davids 1989). Martin’s case was that James was a fairly common name in the first century, and thus the letter’s introduction may not narrow down the list of prospects so easily. But again, the text seems to suggest the readers knew the writer. And the authority with which the writing is presented suggests he would have held a high position to its first century readers as well. As a catholic (universal) epistle which is intended for several audiences, writer would need to be widely known across several first century communities. An unknown, anonymous would not hold such authority.
This may be the single question that most affects our view of God, life on earth, and the life hereafter. It’s the question we all need to know the answer to. If God is going to judge me at the end of my life, what will I have needed to do to make him happy?It’s a simple question, really, asked in various aspects of life. Sometimes it’s asked differently, like “What does God really want from me?” and “What is good, really?“
What makes the question we’re asking particularly interesting is the words we’ve chosen. Words like “need” and “please.” Let’s take a second to unpack those words.
What do I need? is a sensible, if not responsible question. In the American bubble I grew up in, sensibility and responsibility are not mere ideas. They are ideals, buried deep into our sub-conscience, germinating ideas of worth, value, reward, and justice. “What do I need…” is a question that seeks to take control over one’s own fate. To reject the very notion of such frowned upon ideals as handouts and “free lunch,” of which, we’ve been told, there are none.
The concept is simple. Everything costs. We’ve been conditioned to believe we are largely responsible for coming up with what’s needed to cover costs. If we don’t, we are either freeloading or in debt. Neither of which settles very nicely.
Aside from this, there is a certain pride in feeding ourselves. There’s a feel-good about cashing the check we worked hard for and, in essence, reaping what we have sown. The Bible does run parallel with this thinking… to a point. You bible-heads out their know that “reaping what you sow” is a very biblical concept, coming straight from Galatians 6:7. Jesus talks a lot about how we can know a tree from the fruit it bears… which is to say that the effect of “good fruit” is from the cause of the “good tree.” At least that may be the way some choose to see it.
So then we are on good ground, or at least heading the right direction, when we start to think about what we “need” in order to please God.
The Christian community tends to swing from one extreme to the other. We’ve done it for years.
Let me admit that, when I heard about the mob of ladies clamoring to be a part of the IF:Gathering in Austin on February 7th and 8th, I got a little worried. I suppose it’s a sort of instinct I have. Whenever everyone seems to going in one direction, I hesitate. Let’s face it, we are a mob species. And while on the whole we are energized by ideas, we are more energized by each other. And for Christians, what begins as a spiritual movement, designed to give God the glory and release his people from fear, often turns into a movement driven by emotion.
As a black man, I’m reminded of slavery and the civil rights movement. History shows the same injustice was responded with two separate ideals. There was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought simply for equality, and there was Malcolm X going beyond equality into superiority (at least in his early days). One was content with neutral. The other, more emotionally driven, was content with superiority and justice (revenge). I can use these two names because they are equally recognizable, both in regard to the impact they made, and the followers they garnered. It is safe to say that one of these two men swung too far into an extreme. If we’re not careful, we’re prone to do the same.
What is the IF: Gathering?
The IF:Gathering, if you’ve never heard of it, is a conference designed for women. On their site they say, “We exist to gather, equip, and unleash the next generation of women to live their purpose.” The IF part of the name is a pointer to their central question. “If God is real, then what?”
On a conceptual level, I LOVE IT! I love the idea of equipping and unleashing. It’s an idea I’m often speaking about in our pastoral meetings on Monday mornings. I believe creating a culture of that grows spiritual leaders is increasingly crucial in the church. And I don’t think we’re especially good at it. Equipping, empowering (my addition), and unleashing leaders needs to be one of many lifelines coursing through the organizational side of every church body. Needless to say, the heart of the message is fantastic. I’m all in.
I also love the question. “If God is real, then what.” As a minister, my calling is to young adults (church, dechurched, seeking, and anti-church), and one of the biggest issues I face is getting to the first part of the question. Most of the time, it’s a hard time getting to the realization that God is, indeed, real. But should we get there, the “then, what” is great for moving forward. It implies that acceptance of the reality of God is the proverbial tap on the knee cap. Our spiritual reflexes should take over, and there should be some movement.