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The Ministry of Reconciliation

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

When I consider the difficulty of mending broken human relationships, I’m reminded of the nursery rhyme about how “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”  Any professional counselor is able to relate cases of marital or other interpersonal conflicts where the alienation of the parties from each other is so deep as to seem irreparable.  In such cases, the counselor will try to help each party to understand how the matter appears to the other person or persons, since the conflict developed in the first place and deepened because each side assumed that its way of seeing things is the norm.  Therefore, each one interprets every action and argument of the other to be either dishonest or perverse.  If the two are to come together again (that is, be reconciled), one or both of them must take the risk of reaching out toward the other.

Matt. 5:23-25 lays out the importance of reconciliation among humans who are spiritual siblings: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  These words are addressed to people who purport to be followers of Jesus and therefore are expected to respond to His words as a spiritual command.  In that light, it is significant that the person who knows he is alienated from his brother has an obligation that goes beyond whether the “something against you” is valid or not.  Even if (in the honest opinion of the one being accused) the brother who has taken offense is wrong, it is so important to take steps toward reconciliation that one is not even to participate in a worship service until every effort is made to bring about reconciliation.  This is a step that goes beyond the common sense of trying to settle a dispute out of court, rather than run the risk of losing a lawsuit.  What Jesus commands in this case is in the same spirit of not insisting on one’s own right that is commonly referred to as “going the extra mile” (see Matt. 5:28-32).

There is no way in human terms to understand the basis of Jesus’ teaching about selflessness in the Sermon on the Mount without reference to a much larger and more significant reconciliation that has been brought about by God’s initiative.  It is only as a reflection of that move of God toward us that we can effectively carry out reconciliation between humans.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:8-11)

Paul uses this truth as a rationale for how we as believers are to act:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17-19)

John pointed out that we love (indeed, are even able to love) only because God has first loved us (I Jn. 4:7-12), even to the extent of sacrificing His Son when we didn’t deserve it.   In the same way, we also seek reconciliation with others because God has first gone more than “the extra mile” to be reconciled with us, even while we were fallen creatures.  Another aspect of basing our response to others on what God has done for us is demonstrated in the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though forgiven an unpayable debt by his master, refused to forgive a much smaller debt owed by a fellow servant (Matt. 18:21-25).  Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the unforgiving servant, and He states this condemnation even more bluntly in a comment attached to His giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:14-15): “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Loving our siblings in Christ, even beyond what is reasonable, forgiving them beyond what they deserve, and seeking them out for reconciliation beyond what seems justified are God-enabled reflections of His unlimited desire to be in fellowship with us.  These principles are especially difficult to apply in a culture and a society which places a very high value on standing up for our rights, but if we are to have the privileges of fellowship with God, the price is a willingness to give up our “rights,” if necessary, in order to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Note: A word of caution is in order about applying the normal principles of reconciliation outlined above.  A desire for reconciliation should never become a means of enabling an abusive person to continue his or her behavior.  Nor should an abusive person be allowed to use emotional blackmail to pressure a tender-hearted reconciler to submit to abuse. Being a willing victim of physical or emotional abuse is never an acceptable price to be paid for some kind of surface reconciliation.

Our Double Baptism

A Twilight Musing 

by Elton Higgs 

 

We’re all familiar with the first baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist, who had to be assured that it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized, in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).  Jesus set the pattern of baptism as a mark of the beginning of the Life that God gives, and a special manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit after His baptism was seen as it descended “like a dove” and came “to rest on Him” (v. 16).  That was followed by a heavenly voice saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (v. 17), archetypically reflecting our purity before God as we begin our walk with Him.

But Jesus spoke of a second baptism that He had to undergo, concerning which He was anxious, even while He recognized its necessity:  “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!  I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:49-50).  He mentioned this baptism again when He responded to James’ and John’s request to have special seats of honor beside Jesus when He comes into His kingdom.  Jesus answered,

You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  And they said to him, “We are able.”  And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.  (Mk. 10:38-40)

This passage establishes a link between Jesus’ second baptism and the cup of suffering that He prayed fervently to be delivered from in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:39-46).  Obviously, Jesus saw His coming suffering as a second kind of baptism, and when we couple this with statements in the epistles about not only the inevitability but the appropriateness of suffering by followers of Jesus, we see that we, too, must expect to go through a second baptism.

John the Baptist seems to be contrasting the two baptisms when he says of Jesus, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12).  I take the reference to the baptism in the Holy Spirit to be the water baptism that Peter promised his hearers in Acts 2:38 would be accompanied by “the gift of the Holy Spirit”; and the baptism in fire to be the second baptism, the suffering that purifies and tempers and makes stronger the character of Christians.  Submitting to the first baptism is cause for rejoicing and praising God, and new Christians are often appropriately exuberant, feeling the reality of having been cleansed from all sin.  But just as Jesus had to go through a second and very different baptism before His walk on this earth was done, so we who follow Him must embrace the baptism of suffering that brings us to maturity in Christ.

Jesus tried to instruct His Twelve Disciples about what lay ahead for Him (and them), but they were obtuse and spiritually insensitive.

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  (Mark 8:31-33)

Believers often share Peter’s resistance to the progression from the joy of the first baptism to the second baptism of mature suffering.  It’s significant that later on, after many years of leadership in the early church, Peter speaks with great perceptiveness about the fire of the second baptism: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (I Pet. 4:12-14).

So, just as Jesus experienced His first baptism and the accompanying endowment of the Holy Spirit as the beginning of a new life of service and ministry, so we who confess faith in Him experience the rite of baptism and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as a joyful entry into our new life with God.  But God also calls us to share His Son’s experience of the second baptism, which is the necessary entrance into the completion of God’s purposes for our lives on earth.  Jesus told His disciples that they would suffer with Him (“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” [Jn. 15:20]), and those who preached the Gospel afterward also made clear that confessing Christ and being baptized in water will eventually, as the believer matures, lead to a second baptism of suffering.   Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).  And again: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).

What a pregnant clause, “It has been granted to you.”  The gift of suffering in the likeness of Christ is as much a manifestation of God’s grace as the gifts of eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we received in our first baptism as new believers.  The second baptism in the fire of trial is redemptive rather than destructive only because our Savior has been there before us and sanctified our suffering.  He was willing to be born in the flesh so that He could be anointed in power in His first baptism; and He was willing to submit to the “second baptism” of innocent suffering and death for the sake of all mankind.  It is following his path from baptism in water to baptism in fire that marks us as fully redeemed children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

Twilight Musings: “A Selection of Mini-Musings”

By Elton Higgs 

 

  • On the surface, it may seem that one who is downcast because of his lack of accomplishment or his moral inadequacy is being self-deprecating. It is equally possible, however, that he is engaging in a subtly perverse game of “unholier than thou.”  It may be a retreat from the obligation of godly sorrow by sharing with others a problem for which no solution is sought nor will one be accepted.
  • How important it is that we learn to give over to God those activities in which we feel especially capable! Pride focuses on what we have done for God; humility focuses on what God has done for us and through us, in spite of—and sometimes because of—our weaknesses.  Let us rather say, “Better to be a failure for God’s glory than a success for my own glory.”
  • One cannot hope in this life to have answers to all his questions, for even life in Christ brings as many questions as answers. But one can, through giving his life to God, at least participate in the mystery.  That is a great adventure!
  • One cannot stop at the level of his own relative moral goodness in considering evil. Evil and its consequences are transcendent; that is the reason that bad things happen to “good” people and good things happen to “bad” people.  Actually, we are all victims of (as well as participants in) Evil, and only the transcendent God can combat it.  The book of Job was probably written to show that even though the Hebrews’ religion was mostly concerned with human moral matters, it was a transcendent Evil One they had ultimately to contend with.
  • Mankind’s basic desires are paradoxical. On the one hand, people want security, which involves the regularization of life and therefore the abridgment of freedom and spontaneity; but, on the other hand, they also want freedom, adventure, and individuality.  Perhaps one has truly fulfilled himself only when security and freedom become one for him.  Is that not what God offers when we give up to Him so that He can give us back our true selves?
  • A certain amount of agnosticism is a necessary part of intellectual humility. One must find a tenable mid-point between complete knowledge and complete ignorance.  That is merely another way of saying that we must have enough shared knowledge to communicate with each other, but must not aspire to the power of an intellectual tyrant.  Agnosticism must be approached from a desire to assume the responsibilities of reason, rather than from a desire to avoid affirming anything.
  • There are many infernal counterparts to Divine Order, but these appeal to man’s desire to have everything perfectly defined so that he can be a master of knowledge. Satan’s order is only of the intellect, a merciless order demanding that everything fit into it—nothing is left unexplained, except that which remains to be explored by future research and consideration.  God’s order, on the other hand, is ultimately defined by His Personality (if one can use the words “defined” and “personality” at all in regard to God).  And yet, at the same time, God’s order invites the operation of intellect in apprehending it, but in a way that is free to accept things that go beyond its understanding.  The order of Satan finally becomes so hard that it is brittle and shatters, while the order of God has the resilience of ongoing life and the extra dimension of intuitive truth.
  • What does proper Christian motivation consist of? This is a trickier matter for a professional person than for a laborer, for a professional person must define his job as well as do it, and there is more opportunity in the latter case for one to waste time.  Motivation has to do with a focused perception of goals coupled with feelings of responsibility, or perhaps of selfish ambition.  Purely human motivation nearly always comes from a need for self-aggrandizement, and even that motivation which is thought to be idealistic is often merely a cloak for feelings of doubt about one’s worth. 

    Curabitur venenatis ante nisi, non hendrerit dui porta ut. Duis sollicitudin vulputate facilisis. Curabitur dictum lacinia tortor vitae tincidunt. Morbi mattis purus blandit dapibus vulputate. Sed sit amet massa non justo porttitor commodo. Ut blandit neque non ullamcorper auctor. Morbi magna tortor, luctus a urna ac, gravida consectetur sem. Vivamus vestibulum libero quam, vel tristique lorem consectetur rutrum. Nulla sed mollis nulla. In volutpat, turpis at facilisis maximus, sapien sem aliquam neque, quis luctus lorem justo eget ipsum.

    Christian motivation, then, springs from the paradoxical situation of being at the same time comfortable with oneself because God accepts him as he is, and uncomfortable enough to work hard.  We should be uncomfortable when we fail to make the most of the opportunities and gifts that God has given us.  But it goes beyond that.  We must come to understand—to feel—that what we do with our opportunities is an act of love, a response of thanksgiving toward God.
  • The first half of one’s life is spent in coming to realize that he is not as good as he thought he was. The second half is spent in learning to live with that realization.

Image: “I wrote you” by 50 von 36,” CC License. 

Twilight Musings: “Gender Benders”

by Elton Higgs  

The worldwide Women’s Marches earlier this year brought to the fore once more the tangled morass of arguments and battles about sexuality launched in the 1960s.  Marchers interviewed by the news media were eager to assert that the marches were not just about women’s rights per se, but about justice in all matters pertaining to freedom of choice and equality of opportunity.  They did not want anybody’s identity to be determined by anything other than each person’s self-definition.  There is certainly some common sense to the principle of equal opportunity and not being defined by incidental characteristics.  Indeed, as Christians we are taught that we are all one before God, to be valued by each other as each of us is by God, without regard to race, gender, or socio-economic standing.  But the current militant arguments on gender turn back on themselves and involve unrealized—or at least unacknowledged—contradictions, because their proponents are sometimes zealots for radical free will and at other times fervent determinists.

The early 20th century granting of voting rights for women gave women a formal voice in the shaping of social and political policy, a privilege which was used to protest against all other forms of discrimination against women.  Western women had their boundaries of activity in society further expanded by being called to work in factories during two world wars in the 20th century.  Added to that, WW I signaled the deliverance of women from the stereotyped image of sexual innocence promoted by the Victorians, and the “Roaring Twenties” brought much license in women’s public appearance and behavior.  After a brief re-emphasis on the domesticated female in the fifties, the baby boomers of the sixties took full advantage of the availability of “the pill” to promote sexual freedom, which enabled women to experience full sexual expression without the “threat” of being taken out of circulation by pregnancy.  With the reproductive handicap removed, feminists at this point were able to argue that traditional sexual roles are not biologically determined, but are merely the cultural constructs of self-interested and self-perpetuating patriarchal power.  And if the biology of sexual identity is incidental rather than essential, people are free to decide for themselves how their sexual roles are to be defined.  Sexual identity is determined by what one wills it to be, not by biology at birth.

It’s obviously a short and seemingly logical step from this position to what we have seen in the latest stages of this sexual revolution: if one’s sexual orientation or desire is contrary to his/her biological identity, what of it?  Biology is incidental, so if I choose to follow an inclination to be other than what my biology implies, and I decide to form a sexual union with someone of my own gender, or even to change my gender, it is my right to follow my own willed sexual path.  The irony of ending up here, of course, is that homosexual militants insist that they are born with the sexual orientation that they identify with, so they should be allowed to accept the way they were born and not be told that it ought to be otherwise.  (Ironic, isn’t it, that the same deterministic principle doesn’t apply to one’s biological sexual identity?)  Which is it to be, choice and willed action, or submission to destiny and predetermining influences?

The most recent militant push for self-defined sexual identity, the supposed right of individuals to decide their proper gender for themselves, abandons even the pretense of logic.  This project assumes that it is an individual’s right to force other people to act toward them in complete acceptance of a self-defined, counter-physical gender identity, so that they are allowed to mix with the biologically opposite sex in the most intimate of public places, the restrooms.   (Those who have gone through medical gender-change are a different matter, practically speaking, although their situation still involves moral questions to be dealt with.)

Ironically, all of this sophistry, by seeking to erode common-sense methods of determining gender, threatens to destroy true liberty rather than to expand it.  If there is any real “freedom to choose” in human beings, it does not consist merely of an anarchy of possibilities that creates infinite islands of individuality.  Rather, the power of choice enables meaningful directions of the will toward participation in a world ordered by both natural and moral law.  Just as the scientist works in the context of a natural order that sets boundaries to what he concludes from his research, so are there necessary boundaries to defining who we are and deciding how we ought to conduct ourselves.  Desire and preference are not self-validating reasons for rejecting those boundaries, nor will they change the disruptive consequences of non-bounded choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 Was this Resurrection Really Necessary?

 

By Elton Higgs

Recently a pastor friend asked me how I would have answered a question from a member of his congregation: “Wouldn’t Jesus’ death on the cross have been enough, without the resurrection?”  I can see how someone with only a casual or beginning knowledge of the Bible could ask that question, since we often speak of Jesus dying for our sins, without reference to his resurrection.  The questioner may well have thought, “The animal sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament period were sufficient for reconciling children of the Covenant to God, so why would not the perfect sacrifice of Christ not be sufficient to take care of all human sin?” I told my pastor friend that my initial answer to the questioner would be short and simple: “No, the death of Christ alone would not have been sufficient for our salvation!”  But the question deserves a fuller answer, one that addresses the misconceptions and misunderstandings that the question embodies and makes clear the basic theological principles embedded in the statement, “Christ died for our sins.”

The bottom line about the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection is found in Paul’s exposition on the matter in I Cor. 15, where he concludes (addressing those who “say that there is no resurrection from the dead” [15:12]) that the resurrection of Jesus is at the core of the deliverance promised by the gospel.  “If Christ has not been raised,” he explains, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . .  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:17, 19).  The phrase “in this life only” launches us into a discussion of the key difference between sacrifice for sins under the Old Covenant and the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of all humankind, a distinction which is the subject of the central block of chapters in the epistle to the Hebrews.

Hebrews 4-10 makes clear several key facts about the necessary function of animal sacrifices under the Law of Moses, but also about their insufficiency to deal completely with sin (“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” [10:4]).  That insufficiency rested in their inability to cancel the ultimate penalty of sin, eternal death.  To put it another way, sacrifice under the Law dealt only with temporal forgiveness for failing to live up to the standards of the Law.  Obedience to the laws of sacrifice and penitence were sufficient to restore the worshiper to good standing with God, but neither that obedience nor that sacrifice had the power to cancel the ultimate consequence of sin, the death of both body and soul.  Some biblical interpreters have said that the effect of animal sacrifice under the Law was to “roll forward” the sins of the people in anticipation of the perfect, complete sacrifice of the spotless “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Catholic doctrine speaks of two kinds of absolution, “de culpa,” from the guilt of sin, and “de poena,” from the penalty of sin.  In those terms, forgiveness through animal sacrifice under the Law is only “de culpa,” whereas forgiveness through the death of the perfect Lamb of God is both “de culpa” and “de poena.”  But for Jesus’ innocent death to overcome death as the penalty for sin, His body had to be resurrected to complete that victory, and for that victory over eternal death to be applied to those who accept Him as Savior.

The book of Hebrews also makes clear that the same Jesus who died in human form on the cross, in ultimate obedience to His Father, also became the heavenly High Priest for all who accept His sacrifice in faith and are thereby made to be children of God (see the whole of chapters 7 and 9, and chap. 10:1-23).  We, like our dying and resurrected Savior, will achieve the final victory over death when we are clothed with a new body like His and are taken to dwell with Him, forever alive.  Consequently, both now in anticipation and one day with all the saints in our eternal home, we can sing, “Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I. Cor. 15:57). It is a glorious victory, won through efficacious dying turned into triumphant resurrection.

Simon of Cyrene Takes the Cross (Luke 23:26)  

 

But I was only looking on!

No lover of this miserable Nazarine,

Who pushed his truth too far

And tempted power to kill.

The cross he bears

Is self-inflicted shame and pain.

I have no part in this

Except conscripted brawn!

–Heavier than it looks;

A burden more than wood.

Amazing

That he bore the thing this far,

And carries still

A weight He cannot share.

                                                  –Elton D. Higgs

                                                  (Apr. 8, 2012)

Twilight Musings: Summary and Conclusions for “What’s a Body to Do?” (part 4)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

By Elton Higgs

What, then, are the practical implications of all of this for our life together within the Body of Christ?

(1) In the first place, we had better all get it right in regard to what power means within the Body. There can be no question about God’s expectation that those in authority will encourage and enhance the ability of those in their charge to realize their full potential, perhaps even enabling them to achieve a fuller potential than they realize is possible. We are one in Christ, joint-heirs and brothers and sisters of Him and of each other, without regard to our earthly, circumstantial relationships. No exercise of authority by husband, elder, employer, or parent is to involve demeaning or devaluing those who, under God, submit to them; and with the exception of parents’ responsibility to keep their children under control, in none of these situations is an individual in power authorized to demand submission from others. (It should be noted that elders may sometimes have to exercise leadership in disciplining a wayward member, but in my opinion this should be done only in cases of disruptive behavior or bringing shame on the church, and never without consultation with other mature members of the Body, so that the disciplined member is the subject of congregational action, not just excommunication by the elders.) If the attitudes of mutual submission and putting others’ welfare above our own governed every member of the Body, there would be no arguments about relative advantages enjoyed by or denied to anyone.

(2) Given our frailty and flaws in the flesh, disputes and accusations will arise, and those in authority will too often abuse their power and advantage. What are those for whom God has commanded submission to do? One form of this question was poignantly expressed to me by a dear sister in Christ: “How do I separate my own continual need for humbling and molding, obey Jesus’ command to ‘bless those who persecute,’ but still stand up against what really, honestly seems to me to be sinful, destructive power structures in our church?” The first thing to be said is that submission doesn’t mean not being able or willing to voice opposition to “sinful, destructive power structures” or to a leader’s obsessive and inordinate use of power. If those involved in such behavior are not willing to listen to respectfully presented objections, then they, like the sowers of dissension, are “self-condemned” for their lack of humility and of concern for those for whom they have been given responsibility. Husbands and church leaders, they must remold themselves to fit the paradigm by which they actively cultivate the ability of their wives and the women of the congregation to contribute to family, community, and congregational life in such a way as to demonstrate and appreciate their value as co-workers in God’s vineyard, not to humiliate them. Precisely what the effects of this paradigm are may differ between specific families and congregations, but what in all instances it must mean is that women are given equal honor with men; that whatever submission they offer is taken as the voluntary fruit of their relationship with God, and not imposed upon them; and that any limits imposed upon their activity within the congregation be determined through communication and dialogue with them, not by edict from the leaders.

In this context, I must hasten to add that women should not put themselves or their children in jeopardy when a husband has proven to be abusive. When a husband so grossly perverts his power and his physical or social advantage over those who are weaker, those who are in danger are not obligated to be enablers of his abuse, and he must be curbed by the discipline and control of both civil and church authorities. As Paul used all legal means to avoid unjust treatment, so in such cases should contemporary women in free societies avail themselves of all legal means to deliver themselves and their children from physical abuse. Preachers and elders who pressure wives to continue to live with their husbands under such circumstances are not reflecting the biblical principle of submission, but are making yet another legalistic application of it which demeans and injures the weak and brings reproach and shame on the church.

(3) The third point to be made here is that joint prayer is a marvelous leveler in the fellowship of the Body. It is very difficult for people to go on their knees together before God, sincerely submitting themselves anew to Him, and at the same time maintain the barriers to communication often raised by perceived abuses of or challenges to power. In times of prayer like this, we have a tangible manifestation of our being “all one in Christ Jesus,” where we are “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”–that is, where all the distinctions of authority and submission are set aside as we come humbly before the Lord as equals in our experience (and need) of His grace.

I know of no better place to conclude this study than “on our knees together before God,” and this is the prayer that I would leave with you:

Dear Father, enable us to think as Jesus thought, and thereby act as He acted: in humility, servanthood, obedience, and submission to the will of God. Help us also to know the power and strength of allowing these qualities to govern our lives; the freedom of grace that comes from trusting you for the outcome as we obey You; the sweetness of fellowship as You blend us together in the Body of Christ; and the certainty of our final redemption when all submission will be subsumed in our glorious eternal worship together before Your throne. In the Name of Jesus Christ, our King, amen.

 

 

Image: “Battle Center Methodist Church” by TumblingRun. CC License. 

Twilight Musings: “Legalistic Insistence on Submission Ruled Out” (part 3 of “What’s a Body to Do?”)

 

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

By Elton Higgs 

In view of the principles of freely given submission through the grace of God and mutual submission in love, we must conclude that a legalistic insistence on the submission of others is an attempt to enslave those whom God has set free, and that it has no place in the Body of Christ. The possibility of submitting again to a “yoke of slavery” from which we have been delivered is a subject that Paul addresses with a great deal of feeling, and that leads us to two related final principles flowing from the example of Jesus as obedient servant.

  1. Submission according to the model of Christ is, spiritually speaking, a free and voluntary act, empowered and given meaning by the grace of God, and not by any principle of law. Christ set us free from the Law, so all acts of humility, obedience, and submission will be expressions of spiritual freedom, whatever our exterior circumstances may be (Rom. 5:18-21; Rom. 6:12-19; Gal. 3:23-4:7; 5:16-25; James 4:7-10; I John 2:3-5).

Paul’s teaching on grace continually stresses our deliverance from bondage to sin through the sacrifice of Christ and our freedom in the grace of God. In Romans 6 he says,

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:12-14)

We are no longer subject to the rule of sin because we have been delivered from slavery to it. Even the perfect Law of God delivered through Moses has served its purpose of making evident our slavery to sin and pointing us to Christ, and it is now set aside (Gal. 3:23-25).  And in the freedom of our new life, we can, by the grace of God, offer to Him ourselves and our bodies to be used “as instruments of righteousness,” because we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Walking in this new-found freedom of grace is in another place described as living in and being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25), which is God’s new life within us, marking us as legitimate, free-born children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:13-17; Gal. 4:6-7).

It is significant that Paul chooses the context of these arguments affirming that we live under grace and not under law in which to make his most egalitarian statement about the relationship between those who are in Christ. Having been delivered from the authority and power of the Law, Paul says, “You are all sons [i.e., children] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-29). Consequently, whenever submission is practiced in the Body of Christ, it is not to be seen as in any way devaluing the one submitting, nor conferring superiority on the one being submitted to. Any submission which is forced and not freely given seeks to devalue the one submitting and compromises our deliverance from slavery to the Law. In a case of this sort, the submitter can act in free obedience to the will of God and experience the freedom of grace, while one who tries to enforce submission has stepped outside of grace by refusing to submit to God’s instructions to those having power. It is those instructions that underlie the final principle springing from the servant-example of Jesus:

  1. Any attempt within the Body of Christ to enforce submission from others (with the exception of parents controlling children–I Tim. 3:4) is a divisive work of the flesh, and not of the Spirit, and is a denial of the freedom we have through God’s grace. (Rom. 8:5-8; Rom. 16:17-19; II Cor. 11:4-9; Gal. 2:4-12; 4:8-11; 4:23-5:1; 5:24-26; Col. 2:20-23)

One kind of submission is not only forbidden in the New Testament, but is characterized as a betrayal of the freedom Christ died to obtain for us. In presenting his allegory of the two wives who bore children to Abraham, Paul says, “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman[Hagar], but of the free woman [Sarah]. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:31-5:1). The “yoke of slavery” in this instance took the form of insisting that those males who had accepted Christ had to be circumcised, thus tying them to the Law based on merit which was set aside by the death of Christ. Earlier in the letter, he spoke of the work of false teachers whose purpose was to spy on the “freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” Paul is adamant in his resistance to this attempt, saying, “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (Gal. 2:4-5). When even Peter was carried away by the “circumcision group” (2:12), trying to “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” (2:14), Paul “opposed him to his face” (2:11) in order to defend the principle of grace as the source of salvation, and not law-keeping.

The Judaizing teachers who came in for such scathing words in the letter to the Galatians were challenging and seeking to replace both Paul’s message and his authority, both of which, he makes clear, were given to him by God Himself (Gal. 1:8-12). The foundation of Paul’s message, the “truth of the gospel,” both as originally delivered to the Galatians and in his letter to them, is that one “is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). The charge against the false teachers is not merely that they are voicing a differing opinion, but that they are attempting to use their influence to re-enslave people to the attainment of righteousness by their own efforts, instead of relying on God through faith in Christ. They are not people who have a real concern about brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather people whose objective is to exercise control over others through requiring circumcision; as Paul puts it, “they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh” (Gal. 6:13). In other words, they are the sort of people described in Romans 16 who “cause divisions and put obstacles in your way” (v. 17), and those in Titus who foment “foolish controversies and quarrels about the law” which “are unprofitable and useless.” Such a person is to be warned once, “and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 2:9-11).

Motivation and attitude are everything here in evaluating the character of these disruptive teachers and assessing the danger that they pose. They were obviously more concerned with exercising power and coercing people than with following God’s way of grace, humility, and service. In the same way, if a member of the Body of Christ today seeks to gain power over others by demanding a kind of submission which would be a regression to law-keeping and a renunciation of the freedom of grace that we all have in Christ, that person is a sower of dissension and disharmony, a divisive person who is “self-condemned.” While one who refuses to submit to a divinely appointed authority may miss an opportunity for growth and cause the Body to have a weaker testimony to the world, the wielder of fleshly power in the Body who is able and willing to reject the freedom of God’s grace inflicts even greater damage on both himself and the Body by demanding legalistic conformity from others for his own satisfaction and aggrandizement.

(Next week: Part 4 of “What’s a Body to Do?:  Summary and Conclusions)

Image :Dirck van baburen – Christ washing the apostles feet. CC License. 

Twilight Musings: “What’s a Body to Do?” -Part 2

Part 1

Part 2

By Elton Higgs 

Theological Principles Based on Jesus’ Example and Teaching on Submission

 

  1. All submission to others must be a direct outgrowth of, and subordinate to, our submission to the Lord. (Rom. 13:1-7; I Cor. 10:28-33; I Pet. 2:13-16, 18-19).
When we submit to civil authorities, it is not only out of fear of punishment, but “also because of conscience” (Rom. 13:5). As Peter puts it, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (I Pet. 2:13). When Paul urged the Corinthian believers not to eat meat offered to idols out of deference to the tender consciences of others, it was not that he was allowing himself to be coerced by the “tender conscience” people (“why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” [I Cor. 10:29]), but that he chose to uphold an underlying spiritual principle: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Paul seeks not to cause anyone to stumble, but to “try to please everybody in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (I Cor. 10:31-33).

The same principle is made explicit in Ephesians: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:21-22).  Children are to obey their parents “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1), and servants are to obey their masters “wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Eph. 6:7). In the most explicit admonition to submit to spiritual leaders (Heb. 13:17), the rationale is that as these men “watch over you,” they “must give an account” to the Lord of us all for the discharge of their responsibilities, and submission to them is to the “advantage” of the whole Body.

In many of the exhortations to submission in the New Testament, the people being submitted to were not necessarily worthy of the submission, and that was not the reason for the requirement; rather, the principle was to be voluntarily subject to them as a part of our submission to the Lord. Who of us in our right mind would contend that we are worthy of being submitted to? Since only God is worthy of our ultimate submission, we run the risk of a kind of idolatry if submission to another is not a direct consequence of our being submitted to Him. In that context, an act of submission becomes a manifestation of trust in God, and not primarily in the human being to whom secondary submission is being rendered. Accordingly, those being submitted to are given instructions focusing on their need of humility, sensitivity, and a special awareness of the awesome responsibility connected with the position that God has allowed them to occupy. The next principle shifts the spotlight from the submitters to the people exercising authority.

  1. New Testament admonitions to submit are balanced by instructions to those being submitted to, urging them to act with tenderness, compassion, and loving care toward those under their authority, seeking always to build them up and affirm their value, and never to exercise authority in a demeaning or self-exalting way (Eph. 5:21-33; 6:1-9; Col. 3:18-4:1; I Tim. 6:17-19; James 5:1-6; I Pet 3:7-8; 5:1-3)

The most detailed and emphatic teaching of this sort is to husbands, coming after an unambiguous admonition to wives to submit to their husbands (stated twice–Eph. 5:22, 24). Taken out of context, this adminition is often seen as a liability for wives and a license for husbands; it is neither, as the subsequent instructions to husbands make clear:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Eph. 5:25-28)

As a preacher friend of mine tells couples he counsels, for a husband to be the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church means that, like Christ, the husband is to be first in line for the cross; or as C. S. Lewis refers to it in his marvelous little book, The Four Loves (in the chapter entitled “Eros”), if the husband wears a crown, it is a crown of thorns. Far from authorizing a man to demand and enforce the submission of his wife, Paul instructs the husband to give himself up for his wife as did Christ for the church, even going so far as to cover her faults, if necessary, in order to present her “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). That doesn’t sound like a license to be lord and master in any worldly sense of the exercise of power.

In I Peter 3:7 is another balancing command to husbands, following six verses on wifely submission beginning, “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands”; the writer continues, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” The next verse, moreover, is another admonition to mutual submission: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers [and sisters], be compassionate and humble” (I Pet. 3:8). The rationale here is that the husband is to be especially considerate of his wife because of her societal and physical vulnerability to being abused, and respectful of her because she is a “partner” and is as much an heir of God’s kingdom as he is. Describing wives as “the weaker partner” does not imply any kind of inferiority of intelligence or character or ability, for in these areas women often prove to be superior to their husbands, and even to men in general; but rather it refers to physical, emotional, and social vulnerability. It would seem evident that the ease with which women have been mistreated by men throughout history indicates that they are in many ways inherently at a disadvantage in dealing with men, from having less physical strength to their function in the structure of the family, in which their special responsibility for the bearing and nurturing of children creates the need of special support in these activities. In our own society, the large number of single mothers shows the susceptibility of women to being abandoned.  So the obligation of the husband as set forth in this passage is to be especially aware of how his physical, emotional, and social advantage needs to be used for his wife’s benefit and support (not for boosting his ego), so that both of them can experience shared and unhindered prayers as fellow-heirs of the Kingdom of God (3:7).

I have concentrated on the counter-balanced divine instructions to wives and husbands both because they are the most detailed of such instructions and because there is so much misunderstanding and controversy surrounding them. But the principle of mutual submission is reinforced in the New Testament teaching regarding other relationships in which power might be (and often is) exercised in an ungodly way. Immediately following the husband-wife passage in Ephesians are two such teachings (which are also set forth in the same pattern in Col. 3:18-4:1):

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise — “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:1-9)

Even though children are unequivocally instructed to obey their parents, and elsewhere parents are given the charge to require such obedience, there is nevertheless the caution to fathers (as those ultimately responsible for enforcing parental authority) not to “exasperate” their children, but, “instead,” to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Training and instruction are processes that require patience and understanding, and whatever firmness may be required to keep children at the task of learning, they are always to be encouraged and valued in such a way as to engender and build on the hope that they are both capable of learning and worth the trouble of teaching. Any heavy-handed use of authority that would demean them or deprive them of hope (or embitter and discourage them, as in Col. 3:21) is prohibited. In the slave-master relationship, masters are to eschew the impersonal and devaluing treatment (“Do not threaten them”) that might be tolerated or even expected in the worldly view of things, but that has no place in the Body of Christ, since slave and master stand as equals before God.

Abuse of the poor by the rich is scorchingly attacked in the book of James (2:5-7; 5:1-5), and, in a more positive way, the rich are encouraged by Paul to act responsibly and generously with the wealth and power that God has given them (I Tim. 6:17-19). Even the duly appointed spiritual leaders of the Body of Christ are not to “lord it over” those in their charge, but are to be examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:2-3).

(Part 3 next week, “Enforced Submission is Forbidden”)

 

Twilight Musings: “What’s a Body to Do?” – Part 1

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

By Elton Higgs 

            (The following is the first part of an article I wrote several years ago that I think goes along with my recent thoughts on preserving and cultivating harmony between Christian brothers and sisters.  The remaining three parts of the article will be posted in succeeding weeks.)

“What’s a Body to Do?” – Part 1

The Example and Teaching of Jesus

Tensions and conflicts within social organizations develop because people have desires and objectives that clash with each other. Because different groups and individuals feel that they have an absolute right to satisfy those desires and pursue those objectives, even at the expense of others, the outcome of such conflicts is usually determined by which group or individual most effectively exercises power over the others. In one vein of worldly wisdom, this enforcement of a hierarchy is the only way to bring order to the society. There is another vein of worldly wisdom, however, that is less cynical, and that, indeed, expresses a kind of egalitarian idealism, based on the humanistic principle that “all men [read ‘people’] are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” as individuals. This Enlightenment ideal, soaringly and memorably expressed in our country’s Declaration of Independence and associated with the throwing off of tyranny, has evolved in our society into a kind of free-standing, self-validating individualism that trumps every other value and concern. Although the principle of individual rights is generally seen as a noble challenge to the raw exercise of arbitrarily established power, its dominance poses a serious challenge to God’s way of dealing with relationships between people in the church, the Body of Christ. God makes no apology for speaking of His people as His Kingdom, with an absolute ruler and subjects who are to submit completely to His authority and will. But how are we to deal with this uncompromising terminology for the society of God’s people and the biblical principles that are drawn from it in an age where individual freedom and rights are assumed to be unchallengeable ideals? And how are the concepts of servanthood, obedience, and submission which are central to the New Testament church to be implemented without compromising the worth of individuals, which is also a vital part of the Gospel message?

An organism, not an organization

Perhaps close to the core of the problem is that the designation “church” has been attached to Christian societies in such a way as to define them as primarily political entities; it seems rather natural to speak of “Church polity,” but it is awkward to speak of “Body polity.” There is certainly nothing wrong with the word “church”–it is a biblical term that describes the aggregate of those who belong to Christ—but the word has been appropriated and applied in ways that picture the church primarily as an organization, and not as the organism it truly is, i.e., the Body of Christ. I think it is necessary to emphasize the Church as Body in order to correct the impression that the dynamic of politics that obtains in human social organizations is appropriate and applicable to the Body of Christ. Within Christ’s Body, people relate to one another according to the model of their Master and King, and not according to the wisdom of the world.

Let me set out first what I see to be the implications of New Testament teaching on relationships in the Body of Christ for dealing with the seemingly contradictory principles of hierarchy and submission to authority, on the one hand; and assertions of the equality of all Christians on the other.   In Part 2 of this article, I will make some applications of this teaching to practical difficulties commonly experienced in the Body of Christ, based on the primary principles in the headings below.  I shall begin, though, with the foundation truth upon which all of those applications are built:

Jesus is the model for free and positive submission and obedience.

When the boy Jesus was found in the Temple by his parents after a three-day search, he gently chided them for not knowing that they would find Him there; but afterward, “He went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). Even this early, He established the practice of being in voluntary submission in a circumstance where He had more understanding than those who had temporary authority over Him. I wonder if Jesus didn’t find it increasingly incongruent to be under the governance of Mary and Joseph.   Although they had been chosen for their dedication to God, they were subject to human limitations which must have been apparent to Jesus as He grew up.  His obedience in this situation must have been preparation for the profound obedience to His Father in Heaven which, the writer of Hebrews tells us (Heb. 5:7-10), He had to learn through suffering, even though He was the Son of God.

Toward the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus had occasion to demonstrate graphically to His disciples the lesson of achieving greatness through being a servant. Having already remonstrated with them about their competing for superior position in God’s Kingdom (see Matt. 20:24-28), He gave an object lesson at the Last Supper to underline His previous statement that “whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”  (Matt. 20:27-28).  John tells us that

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him!  When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:3-5, 12-17)

The contrast between what Jesus was (the almighty Son of God) and what He voluntarily became (a servant to sinful mankind) is strikingly spotlighted in the prelude to the foot washing scene, which states that He was acutely aware “that the Father had put all things under his power.” The fleshly mind finds it hard to understand and accept Jesus’s lesson here: that voluntary submission to others in servanthood is not an act of weakness, but of strength; not a surrendering of individual worth, but an affirmation of it in a more profound way than any human exercise of power and prerogative could establish.

Jesus’s final act of submission came in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He prayed to be delivered from the bitter cup that He was about to drink, but ended with the words, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). As Paul says in Philippians, though Jesus was one with God, He

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death –even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6-11)

Thus, Jesus’s voluntary submission to the will of the Father, and His humble and obedient servanthood, led to the fulfillment of God’s plans for Him and for mankind: that Jesus Christ be exalted and honored as God’s anointed King and the savior of the world. Even at the end of time and the eternal consummation of all things, Jesus will “be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15:28). He is both our model of positive servanthood and obedience, and the One who enables those who follow His example to experience the fulfillment of God’s purposes in their lives–to be exalted in God’s way, not in the way of the world.

The life of Jesus, then, is the foundation of biblical teaching on submission, and from this foundation flow several other theoretical principles of Body life.

(To be continued next week.)