Rightly Dividing the Cultural Background to 1 Corinthians 11

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The Corinth Channel

There are a lot of cultural challenges to 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, a passage that invites discussion about the trinity, gender roles, the use of head coverings, and the role of angels in public worship. Tomorrow I will preach on this passage, but today I share a number of quotations from various commentaries related to various cultural and theological challenges in this passage. These quotes provide some background to this enigmatic passage.

Dress

In the context of prayer and prophesy, it makes sense that dress would be considered. For prophets often had a particular dress. Moreover, they often symbolized in their appearance various biblical truths. So for instance, John the Baptist appearance is given as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4). Importantly, this outward dress identified him as a prophet in the manner of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8: “They answered him, ‘He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.’ And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’)

Likewise Isaiah 20 records how God commanded Isaiah to walk through Israel naked for three years to indicate God’s coming judgment on Egypt and on those who trusted in that foreign power. This outward expression of God’s will fits other examples too. For instance, the high priest wore garments of beauty and glory to reflect the presence of God’s holiness with Israel (Exodus 28:2); Nazirites did not cut their hair in order to express devotion to the Lord (Numbers 6); and many grieving saints tore their clothing or wore sackclothe and ash in order to express their contrition. So, throughout Scripture, clothing and hair did play a part in expressing worship to God.

Moving from Old Testament to Greco-Roman culture, the same attention to dress is found.

The Greeks’ self-identity arose most from their speech and education, while our Roman often distinguished himself by what he wore. It was not the Greeks eschewed head apparel. Rather it was clear to them and Romans that the habitual propensity of Romans to wear head apparel in liturgical settings stood in sharp contrast to the practice of others. (R.E. Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” NTS 34 (1988): 494; cited by Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth24) Continue reading

The Air That We Breathe: Expressive Individualism, I, and Me

mirrorFew modern theologians have helped me think more clearly about culture than David Wells. His collection of works on modernity and postmodernity (listed below) address the many ways evangelicalism has been bent and broken by chasing the winds of culture. Considering the ways the modern world (with its penchant for technology, urbanization, consumerism, and mass communication) has refocused Christianity, and the way modern philosophies have turned religion towards the subject, he shows why so much modern Christianity mirrors the world, rather than prophetically modeling a different way of life.

For me, his observations have been a helpful corrective against the acids of culture that eat away at our soul. He has given me eyes to be a better cultural exegete, and his Reformed convictions, have pressed me back to the Bible to see what it says about any number of topics. Most recently, I picked up his Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision to consider in more detail the effects of individualism on the church.

What follows are a few quotes, observations, and insights on the topic of expressive individualism—a poisonous air wafting through so many American churches.  Continue reading

Exposing Abortion’s Allies (pt. 1): Expressive Individualism (Genesis 4:1–8)

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Abortion is a bloody evil that has taken the lives of almost sixty million children since 1973. Rightly, Christians (and non-Christians like Secular Pro-Life) have stood up against this modern-day holocaust. Through prayer vigils, sermons, information campaigns, legislation, and pro-life marches, much ground has been gained ground in the fight against abortion. But much ground remains.

In this year’s Sanctity of Life sermon, I addressed one issue related to the ongoing survival of abortion, and that is the rampant self-willed individualism that pervades our culture—and the church. In fact, the cocktail of personal autonomy, expressive individualism, isolated self-dependence, sexual immorality, and trust in technology has created a five-fold elixir that continues to fuel the abortion movement.  Therefore, I made the case that in addition to combatting the flames of abortion, we must aim to cut off abortion’s various fuel supplies.

Unable to tackle all of these allies to abortion, I focused on expressive individualism, something captured perfectly in LeCrae’s song, The Good, the Bad, the Ugly. In that song, Lecrae recalls the way his own self-will overcame his young Christian faith and led him to assist in the abortion of his child. It is a sobering song but also illuminating. Here’s what Lecrae rhymes,

I remember back in ’02/ I was in school and actin’ a fool
My soul got saved, my debt had been paid / But still I kept running off with my crew
Sex on my brain, and death in my veins / I had a main thing, we stayed up ‘til 2 (Smokin!)
Waking and baking we naked, my body was loving it / Soul was hating it,
And time and time after time, our bodies were close / The girl was so fine
We heard a heart beat that wasn’t hers or mine / The miracle of life had started inside
Ignored the warning signs / Suppressed that truth I felt inside
I was just having fun with this, I’m too young for this / I’m thinking me, myself, and I
Should I sacrifice this life to keep my vanity and live nice?
And she loves and trusts me so much that whatever I say, she’d probably oblige
But I was too selfish with my time / Scared my dreams were not gonna survive
So I dropped her off at that clinic / That day a part of us died

This song shows how self-will leads to and fuels abortion. It also reminds us that the God of resurrection and redemption is able to bring forgiveness and healing to all people, the same message that we find in Genesis 4. In truth, the only way we will make abortion unthinkable is to begin exposing and defeating the worldview beliefs that swirl around self. That’s what I sought to do yesterday, and I pray that God would help us to continue to take captive thoughts that lead to abortion and all forms of sin.

You can find the sermon online and the sermon notes here. Discussion questions and further resources are below. Continue reading

Exposing the Allies of Abortion: Personal Autonomy, Hyper-Individualism, Sexual Immorality, Technological Utopia

light-bulbAn abortifacient is any man-made device which leads to an intentional miscarriage. Typically, this word is used to describe drugs or devices which terminate a pregnancy. But I want to suggest that it is not only chemicals and syringes that abort babies. Ideas do too!

For instance, when a Christian learns their method of birth control kills embryos, they change. Why? Because knowledge of the world makes their biblical convictions sharper. Psalm 139 says that God forms the child in the mother’s womb, and anything that might result in destroying God’s handiwork is impermissible for biblical Christians.

This is the way that ideas save life or destroy it. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, believed among other things in the Satanic lie that the white race was superior to all others. Accordingly, her ideas led her to found an organization which targeted the elimination of babies—but especially black babies.

Ideas have consequences, and conversely, consequences spring forth from ideas. And so in the battle to protect life, and especially unborn life, we must not only confront the legal system and the abortion providers; we must confront the ideas that strengthen and make plausible abortion. We must confront the lies that lead young women to turn against their child. And we must confront ourselves for believing some of the same lies that fuel abortion.

In truth, abortion only exists in a world with a number of pre-requisite factors. Just as a fire requires a certain source of fuel to keep it burning, so abortion requires a certain number of ideas to keep it burning. And like with the fire, we must bravely confront flames. But just as important, cut off the fuel supply. Hence, with the fires of abortion, we must expose the beliefs that make abortion plausible, even desirable. Only then will we will be able to see abortion stamped out in our day. Continue reading

Take Hold of God and Give Grace: Sixteen Considerations for Election 2016

 

electionWhat do we say to our church in the face of the impending election? Pastor, what will you say to a church divided on the issue? Christian, how are you holding fast to the gospel and protecting your church from the divisions that this election could produce in the church? What is most important in this electoral season—winning the presidency or preserving the Church’s witness to the world?

As a pastor, these are just some of the questions on my mind, and so I write this post as an attempt to help shepherd our church and to think biblically about how Christians might maintain a focus on Christ in this tumultuous season. My prayer and aim is to see Christians of different political convictions retaining focus on Christ and his kingdom, even as they live out their faith in the public square.

And so in 2016, I offer 16 considerations—six ways we can take hold of God and ten ways we can give grace to one another, even as wrestle with the challenges of this year’s election. May God use these to encourage and challenge your heart. May he be pleased to use them to purify our hope in him and our church’s commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

Six Ways to Take Hold of God

1. Take heart in God.

God is sovereign and we can rest in his rule (Psalm 103:19; Daniel 4:34–35). No matter what happens on November 8 (or on any other day), it will not overturn his work in the world. In fact, for good or bad, God will use this election to expose idols, test faith, and ultimately gather sheep. Scripture repeatedly tells us no king, no nation, no president has the absolute power to halt God’s kingdom. We must remember this, preach this to one another, and take comfort in this fact—God’s kingdom has come and is coming. Continue reading

How ‘Be Still and Know’ Is a Call to Arms: Five Ways to Labor from Rest

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[This post depends largely on yesterday’s exegetical consideration of Psalm 46.]

If the first step in troubled times is to take refuge in the Lord, it is not the last step. Only by reading Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God”) in isolation from the historical context of the Psalter or the whole counsel of God found in the rest of Scripture could we walk away from Psalm 46 and believe passivity is proper.

Rather, the best reading of that classic devotional verse is to see that it is a word spoken by God to the nations that he will subdue them (cf. vv. 8–9). For us, in other passages then he tells us to take up arms—the sword of the Spirit and the prayers of faith (Ephesians 6)—to engage in the battle we find all around us.

Indeed, to believe in God is not “nothing.” Rather it is the foundation of all good works (see Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:8–10; James 2:14–26). Likewise, Word-inspired intercession is not “nothing.” To the world, prayer seems like pious but powerless chore. Yet, James 5:16 rightly corrects us: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Therefore, as we abide in the shadow of his wings, we find that abiding in his Word and prayer are two powerful actions. Still ,such Godward devotion is not a cul-de-sac but a rest area that leads God’s people from the church gathered to the church scattered, from worship to work in the community, the state, the nation and beyond.

Indeed, with that centrifugal framework in mind, we are ready to move from the safety of God’s refuge into a sin-cursed world desperately in need of redemption. And to help us think about how to move into the culture from the firm foundation of refuge in the Lord, let me suggest five ways to labor from rest. Continue reading

Two Truths For Troubled Times: A Meditation on Psalm 46

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Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
10  “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
11  The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
— 
Psalm 46:8–11 —

Has the election season of 2016 brought unusual stress? If so, consider the words of Psalm 46, a psalm which gives us to truths for troubled times.

In that passage, the Sons of Korah — a people whose own existence depended on the sheer grace of God in the face of cataclysmic judgment (see Numbers 16) — speak of fearlessness in the face of a crumbling world. They write,

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

My question: Where do they find the grace to say “we will not fear though the earth and that is in it gives way”? To most of us when the foundations shake and the rafters rock, we tremble. And in that trembling we look for cover, yet hasty searches for safety in tremulous times often leads to devastating results.

The answer comes to us in verse 1, “God is our refuge and strength.” Because he is a refuge, we don’t need to look for another. And because he is present with us in the chaos of this fallen world (“a very present help in trouble”), therefore we will not fear. Still, such fearlessness takes more than the right answers to theology exam; it takes personal knowledge of a God who is with us and for us. Continue reading

Talking Like Jesus: Six Ways to Hold Out Truth in a Hostile World

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200In our day public speech about Jesus is becoming more and more costly. For instance, the state of Georgia has requested the sermons of Dr. Eric Walsh, a lay pastor and public health expert, who was fired from the Department of Public Health over (it seems) his religious beliefs. What is going on?

On the one hand, we are watching a sea change in our country. The religious liberty conferred on us by our founding fathers and established in the Bill of Rights is being taken away.  On the other hand, we are witnessing in our country what Jesus said would happen to his followers: we are hated by the world, because the world hates him.

In other words, American Christians are experiencing, for the first time in generations, what other disciples have experienced for centuries—verbal and even violent opposition to the truth of God’s Word. Such enemy fire makes speaking up for Christ difficult, if not dangerous. Yet, such resistance may also be the very means by which Christians can show what it means to follow Christ—bearing witness to Christ through our own afflictions. But to bear faithful witness, we need our minds to be renewed by God’s Word.

Learning from Jesus

The Gospel of John shows Jesus in constant conversation with the Pharisees whose anger towards him ultimately nailed him to a cross. As John records, they questioned him, debated him, and sought to arrest him long before they succeeded in ending his earthly ministry. Still, as the beloved disciple records, Jesus constantly responded with wisdom, grace, and truth. While John’s goal in presenting these dialogues is to testify that Jesus is the Christ whom we should trust and obey (John 20:31), his recordings also show us how Jesus spoke to those who accused and opposed us. If we are going to continue to bear witness for Christ amidst enemy fire, we must learn what such speech looks like.

If silence is not an option for a follower of Christ, and it is not (see Matthew 10:32–33; Acts 1:8), how can we learn to wear our cross and speak on his behalf with boldness and wisdom? If the gospel is our message, what is the manner in which we proclaim it? How does Scripture teach us and Jesus model for us such engagement with the world?

Those are questions we should be asking, and one place we find an answer is in John 7. Continue reading

Liturgical Lathes: Idolatry, Imagination, and James K. A. Smith’s ‘Homo Liturgicus’

jkasFew books have been more illuminating for me in 2016 than Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In fact, his anthropological observations have provided much background to the dangers of idolatry that we find in 1 Corinthians 10 (our church’s current sermon series).

In what follows, I will trace a few of his main points, to show how Christians who don’t want to worship idols yet create them through the rhythms of their lives. This post is the first in a brief series to interact with Desiring the Kingdom and the modern challenge of identifying idols and the liturgical lathes that create them.

Homo Liturgicus

In biology, the human species is called homo sapiens. Sapiens, or sapient, is a term for wisdom and intelligence (e.g., God is omni-sapient, all-wise). Compared to all other species, humans possess a higher degree of rationality and intelligence, hence we are called homo sapiens. 

Smith takes this idea and shows how philosophers and theologians have defined humanity in terms of rationality (“I think, therefore I am”) and belief (“I believe, therefore I am”) (40–46). In contrast, he argues we should understand humans as basically affective–“the human person as lover” (46ff). He critiques purely-cerebral anthropologies, and argues we must consider the human body and the heart: “If humans are conceived almost as beings without bodies, then they also are portrayed as creatures without histories, without any sense of unfolding and development over time” (47).

While his argument may, at first, sound as if he is denying the place of the intellect, it must be remembered that this philosopher (whose vocation trades on the intellect) is offering a corrective to disembodied anthropologies which forget how much our bodies impact our thinking, feeling, and believing. In fact, Smith’s taxonomy of thinking, believing, and loving anthropologies helps us recover an Augustinian view of humanity, with its attention to affections and desires. In our hyper-visual, über-sensual world, we desperately need this corrective. So, let’s dig in. Continue reading

Transgenderism: But One Fruit on Individualism’s Pernicious Vine

bookIn recent days, the subject of gender and transgenderism have been the talk of our county and our church. Coming, therefore, at the perfect time is Vaughn Roberts little book TransgenderIn preparation for my sermon on the subject I read his book with great profit.

In less than 80 pages, Roberts, a British pastor who has himself grappled with same sex attraction, introduces the subject (ch. 1), sets out a biblical response through the framework of creation (ch. 3), fall (ch. 4), and rescue/redemption (ch. 5). He concludes with a chapter on wisdom (ch. 6), where he speaks to individuals and churches on how to lovingly and truthfully respond to our trans neighbors and family members. Still, the chapter that is most important in his book is chapter 2, titled “The iWorld.”

In this section, Roberts frames transgenderism against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the (post)modernism turn towards the subject. In just a few pages he explains how a recent flurry of advocacy for an age-old condition, i.e., transgenderism (see Deuteronomy 22:5), stems from a Western world head-over-heels in love with the self.

Continue reading