Here at Brethren Life and Thought we are trying out a new format of blog. Below is a brief excerpt from a sermon on Acts 15 shared by Steven Schweitzer, dean at Bethany Theological Seminary. Rather than post the whole sermon, Bethany has graciously provided the video of the sermon delivered on September 25, 2013 as part of a series on difficult scriptures.
… We can approach Acts 15 from many starting points and methods. Questions of chronology and history are needed and helpful. Situating the passage in its literary context is useful. Placing this chapter in conversation with the biblical canon, a canonical reading, is beneficial, and I would say essential to elucidate meaning. Yet, this is not an easy text. If we stop to consider this Jerusalem Council, pondering this pivotal moment in the life of the Church, noticing how the story unfolds, and how it relates to other canonical texts, we are confronted with something that makes us quite uncomfortable. There is such a tendency to idealize and romanticize the early Christians—and we constantly read ourselves back into these formational stories. I believe we must at least begin by slowing down and paying attention to what the biblical text actually does and does not say.
In Acts 15, we encounter an intense conversation, some might say a dialogue, a debate, or perhaps a “knock-down, drag-out fight” among early Christian leaders. The Greek words used are rather intense, and this was certainly an animated event and not one governed by Roberts Rules of Order. The presenting problem: there are all these Gentiles becoming followers of Jesus; some of the Jewish followers of Jesus wanted these new converts to be circumcised and follow the Law and others thought they did not need to do so. The church gathered together its leadership—the text says “apostles and elders”—to discuss the issue and decide how to live into this new reality. …
Steven Schweitzer is Academic Dean at Bethany Theological Seminary. His PhD is from the University of Notre Dame. He has published a number of essays and articles along with his book Reading Utopia in Chronicles (T&T Clark International, 2007). Along with his courses in Hebrew Bible, he is currently teaching an elective on Theology and Science Fiction.
By Robert Raker
There is a common misconception about simplicity and its relationship to Christ and Christianity. In fact, this
misconception has caused many within the church to abandon this centuries old Brethren practice completely. But why?
The problem is that, as with mo
st Biblical issues, we have gotten away from what the Bible really teaches. When asked what simplicity in the Bible means, most would probably answer something like giving up worldly things, or living without nice things, or living on the bare essentials.
But this is not what the Bible teaches about simple living. Indeed, simple living is not about the absence of things, but about the absence of the need for things. Here I want to consider two scriptures and hopefully clarify the idea. The first text we’ll examine is Matthew 6:25-34.
This passage should be familiar to those even loosely acquainted with the Bible. Anytime someone faces worry or doubt this passage is used to bring comfort or lend support. It is a part of “The Sermon on the Mount,” one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, .
While the entire passage could be
read in regards to simple living I want us to focus in on three main points. First, in verse 32 Jesus says, “the pagans run after all these things.” The key word here is “run”. It is my belief that what the Bible teaches regarding simplicity is more about attitude toward our possessions than the actual possessions. And here Jesus plainly states that those who run after, or pursue, these things are the pagans, not merely those who own them.
This idea is supported in the next verse when Jesus says we are to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,” Again, we see the idea that to have these things is not necessarily. Rather, to pursue them before God’s kingd
om and righteousness is bad. Jesus is reminding us what should come first in our lives. In other words, its all about the attitude. This idea is completed in the second half of verse 33. “All these things will be given to you as well.” God wants us to have things, that is the things we need and desire, but He will only give them to us when we pursue Him first.
Our second passage comes from I Timothy 6:3-10. In verse 6 Paul tells Timothy that, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” This is another way of saying, “Seek first His kingdom.”
Simple living is about being happy with what we’ve been given rather pursuing more and more and more. But again, we must be reminded that the possessions themselves are not harmful, but rather our attitude toward them. This is an idea Paul expounds on in verse 10, another well know passage. Who among us hasn’t heard this at some point, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” However, if we scan this verse quickly, without stopping to examine it, we can lose the true meaning.
I have heard people say that this verse teaches that money and the things it purchases are evil and should
therefore be avoided at all cost. This is not what Paul is saying. Paul says that, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Its our attitude toward it that matters not the money itself.
Try this experiment. Take a dollar bill out of your wallet and place it on the kitchen table, or desk in front of you. Now watch closely. Has it moved? Has it done anything other than possibly been moved by a fan or breeze? Of course it hasn’t! It’s only money. The point is this: money, or possessions have no power in and of themselves. They cannot think, read, talk, or walk. The only power they have is the power we give them. That’s why Paul says the love of money is the root all evil and not money itself. Its all about the attitude.
Still later in this verse Paul takes it one step farther when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
These are just two of the many scriptures which demonstrate that possessions are not evil, but our attitude toward them. Is it wrong to have nice th
ings? If they cause us to pursue more nice things then the answer is yes. But if we are satisfied, or content, with the things which God has blessed us with, and continue to place His kingdom and righteousness above our things then the answer is no. When it comes to simple living, its really all about attitude.
Robert Raker is an ordained minister in the Southern Ohio District of the Church of the Brethren. He is currently between assignments as an interim pastor. He enjoys spending time with his wife and children, writing, and teaching a weekly home based Bible study
This post original was published on the blog Women in Theology. In a culture which capitalizes so much on desire, exploring the topic is an important theological task. Though this is a longer discussion than is usually shared here, the E. Lawrence gives a helpful reflection on desire as a theological category. It is shared here with her permission.
The older I get, the more I think that the crux of becoming a mature person, the person God has created you to be, is about discerning your desires. Your deepest desires. I have to admit upfront that I am not necessarily sure what you should do with your desires in all cases (especially since there are life-giving, truthful desires and selfish, destructive desires…), but I think we should decide it’s a good thing that desire is there, inside of us, and we should strive to know it.
Perhaps if I continue to get older, I will stop pursuing this line of thought and decide that something else is key. But, as it stands, as I am on the cusp of turning 30, I think that being honest about your desire lines is necessary for mature adult personhood.
If you’re studying Christian theology, I can imagine a certain uneasiness cropping up at this point, at least for some of you (especially some of my peers at my graduate institution). But no, I’m not blessing consumerist individualism. Or hedonism. Or any form of extreme self-indulgence, really. I’m not telling you to go in peace and excessively indulge in whatever happens to get you off, whether it be shopping or food or porn or sports.
I’m not even blithely endorsing expressive individualism, which, as a distinctively modern phenomenon, pivots around the centrality of the individual self and its unique worth, a singular identity that just has to be expressed. (“My self-expression is my only truth.”)
Importantly, I’m not adducing the concept of discerning your own desire as a way of ignoring the desires and needs of others. In reality, clarity about one’s own desires, and an ability to see—to empathize with—the hopes and wishes of others, should rise in tandem together. (But how all that gets concretely negotiated is obviously very complicated…)
Hopefully some of that throat-clearing is done now. What am I up to, then?
To begin, I’ll say that I’ve been reading Anglican feminist theologian Sarah Coakley lately. Also, she plays an important role in my dissertation. This return to Coakley’s corpus is especially timely given the impending release of her much-anticipatedGod, Sexuality, and the Self later this month in the US. (Could this turn of events be a beacon of hope for the coming release of David Tracy’s God book?! Do the books of lore eventually get published?!)
A couple things about Coakley. The cornerstone of Coakley’s work is a particular kind of prayerful practice: allowing oneself to be de-centered by God so as to become still, to be able to discern and follow through on the possibility of right relationships within the world. In her famous essay entitled “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing” fromPowers and Submissions, she writes (and I quote at length):
What I have elsewhere called the ‘paradox of power and vulnerability’ is I believe uniquely focused in this act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly ‘empowered’ here if we cease to set the agenda, if we ‘make space’ for God to be God…[E]ngaging in any such regular and repeated ‘waiting on the divine’ will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable…But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, ‘empowering’ in a mysterious ‘Christic’ sense.
Even though I continue to have some reservations about the ease with which Coakley brushes past the potential psychological burdens of sustaining contemplative practice described in such self-effacing terms, I remind myself that she intentionally makes this argument in response to post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson and the latter’s rejection of a discourse of kenotic vulnerability before God. In other words, Coakley is keenly attuned to the reality of women’s oppression and noxious infantilization under the rough hands of patriarchy. And, it is precisely in and through this concern that she argues that making space for a powerful triune God in prayer does not reinforce subjugation, but rather, gives one the strength to resist it. So, to understand Coakley, you’ve got to understand how important the paradox of prayerful human vulnerability before a powerful God is for her thought.
But to really understand Coaklian vulnerability, you’ve got to locate it in proximity to her account of desire, and that is what currently interests me. For Coakley, the act of making oneself vulnerable allows for a couple significant things to occur: you become in touch with your desire for God, and, through that, you also become in touch with God’s desire for you: “There is our own primary desire for God, of course, which we strive in prayer to put first; but underlying that is God’s unique and unchangeable desire for us, without which all our own striving is fruitless.”To make space within oneself for God, is to connect—and reconnect—with a yearning for God, to be filled with God’s goodness (“Our hearts are restless,” etc.). And, then, if we sit with this desire, we realize we are being buoyed up by a stronger, underlying undercurrent of divine love directed at us, permeating us, praying within us (cue Romans). In grasping for God, we realized we are always already being grasped (and this point reminds me of Rahner’s notion of mystery as superabundant, positive and gracious).
Importantly, this matrix of divine and human desire that suffuses prayer also affects our desires as directed at people and things within the world. Specifically for Coakley, this means that our sexual desires and our desire for God are entangled with each other: “No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered…Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will nor allow this, or not for very long.” Among many things, I take this to mean that our sexuality, in its essential goodness at its root, is a compass to help us discern the precise ways that we each choose to love God in this life. And, inversely, our love for God directs us to expend our energy toward particular people in particular ways, including sexual ways, in our lives. (Perhaps surprisingly, though, Coakley, as I recall, defends celibacy precisely as a particular kind of channeling of sexuality into various other forms of intimacy with groups of people.)
I like the way Coakley retrieves the Christian insight that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level, in relation to God (and it’s definitely there in the tradition. See the Bible, the mystics, other people). In making this argument, she—unsurprisingly—puts me in mind of Rowan Williams’s essay “The Body’s Grace” and the way he understands same-sex desire in a similar theological paradigm. I like what these Anglicans are doing.
At the same, time, however, as a Catholic who is all-too-familiar with JP II’s theology of the body, I know how this high theology of sexuality can easily be deployed in service of homophobia and static gender roles oppressive to women. (In sum: sexuality is amazing when you are in a heterosexual marriage and the husband/God/Christ “initiates” and the wife/humanity/Church “receives.” The ontology of Everything Ever, especially Your Interlocking Genitals, stipulates it!)
Furthermore, I am aware of the ways that construing desire almost exclusively in terms of sexuality can problematically reduce desire down to one particular slice of human passion and feeling. I don’t think Coakley actually holds such a narrow conception of desire, but all too often in her work, desire is glossed in terms of sexual eros, and then she rest content to play with the supposed scandal created by crossing the gap between that desire and the desire for God. But I want more. (Wording intentional there.)
So, in returning to the opening of this post, and my positing that discernment of desire is pivotal for becoming an adult, I’d like to take Coakley’s positive valuation of desire and think about it in ways that include sexuality but also go beyond that. I’d like to think about the importance of desire more holistically in living a good life.
Desire, to my mind, is about figuring out what—and who—gives you the energy to be an instrument, an agent, of divine grace within the world. What lights you up and sets your ablaze? What makes you fully alive for God’s glory? Where do your passions lead you? What gives you glimpses of exuberance, of ekstasis, of joy? In other words, in all senses of this phrasing: what turns you on?
This kind of discernment isn’t about opposing desire and work, or desire and self-sacrifice for others, or desire and other frameworks for moral reasoning. It’s about gaining the kind of self-knowledge that is rooted in being a creature of God. Note that, in the list of questions I offered, I didn’t separate the joy of authentic human desire from living for God’s glory. The two are together. That’s the kind of passion I mean.
As I’ve gone through my twenties, I’ve noticed that the push for adulthood as an escape from childhood seems to go hand-in-hand with trying to fit into the expectations and wishes of others for us. The pressure doesn’t have to be as blunt as your parents wanting you to have a Responsible Job even though you Let Them Down by doing something silly like going to graduate school for a humanities degree. (That’s actually not my particular situation, luckily.) Rather, the external pressure can be much more subtle and diffuse.
For example, if you’re at a prestigious graduate institution to get your doctorate, you can gradually imbibe through the general intellectual ethos that being a “good” scholar is about putting all your energy into research (so you publish like a maniac) and the intellectual crushing of opponents whenever possible (there has to be violence at some level…). Or, to take another example, you may think that one particular romantic partner is the “right” choice for you based on various external criteria you have appropriated over the years. But in both these cases, you may come to realize that what you’ve been “groomed” to think about what’s proper and ideal is not actually what gives you energy and sustains you. In the first case, maybe you want to teach and lead a quieter—but no less profound—intellectual life geared around mentoring. And in the other case, maybe you come to see that your partner, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into your desire lines as they orient your life. Maybe you want to be with somebody else, somebody who doesn’t fit the profile. Maybe you want to be indefinitely independent and single and use that particular freedom as an opportunity to direct your energy in new ways.
I hope these examples show that my emphasis on desire is not a rejection of broader frameworks for moral reasoning that include discerning right/wrong, the rights and needs of others, the formation of empathy, etc. (and these frameworks, of course, are initially exterior/heteronomous before they are internalized and learned over the years, and that’s good and normal).
I’m simply saying that there are too many people walking around with a false sense of direction in their lives when, in truth, they really don’t know what they want from life, who they are supposed to be, or that it is a good thing to stop and contemplate these desire lines as a mode of adult spiritual and emotional askesis. Women in particular, please listen up.
Before you dive headlong into the task of Meeting Expectations, at least take a second and think about protecting your joy and your energy any which way you can. The thing, too, is that God wants that, anyway.
 Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 34, 35.
 To be clear, I am not sure that Coakley ever adequately answers Hampson’s (albeit bluntly overstated) critique. Something to ponder.
 Sarah Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), 37.
 Ibid., 37.
E Lawrence is currently a PhD candidate in systematic theology. Her academic interests include theological anthropology, specifically theologies of disability, and feminist and womanist theologies; the intersection of ethics and systematics regarding love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; the relationship between suffering and oppression and the cross; and embodiment and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. And, as Netflix informs her, she also enjoys “TV shows with a strong female lead.”
David Fitch(Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary) shared these reflections on his blog “Reclaiming the Mission.” Given the recent conversations in the Church of the Brethren regardingour polity for ministerial leadership, his remarks seemed appropriate to share with our readers. With David’s permission, I have reposted his remarks here. To follow the significant discussion that has already taken place you can click here to head over to the original post. Much thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with Brethren Life and Thought. To read up on the recommendations before the Church of the Brethren, a number of resources are available here.
So I am sure I’m not the firstto come up with this notion (look here for instance), but it seems to me denominations in the West need to create a new category for commissioning leadership. We need an new order of pastors for mission.
For hundreds of years, and still within my lifetime, churches in the West have been confined to the traditional structures of clergy. This order of professional clergy was defined by a time when there was huge demand for the full time pastor to order the entire ministry of a congregation. Seminaries were structured to educate persons for this role. They learned Biblical exegesis, preaching, administration, pastoral care, leadership, etc. all in one package. The process to ministry included getting a MDiv at a seminary, passing ordination exams and interviews, and then candidating for a post at one of thousands of local churches.
This made sense in U.S.A. , Canada and even Europe in the last 50-75 years. But the world has changed and we need less and less full time professional clergy. The churches that flourish with full time paid professional staff are large mega churches who need specialists – worship pastor, C.E.O. senior pastor world class communicator, children’s ministry pastor, justice ministry manager, director of outreach, executive pastor, etc.etc. The other kind of churches looking for a full time clergy are the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. More and more of these churches are floundering smaller congregations looking for a ‘savior.’ It is true that there are more mega churches but they grow on the backs of the shrinking of the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. As we consolidate existing ‘successful Christians’ into larger and larger churches, the old-fashioned single pastor-small staff churches shrivel unable to even pay one pastor let alone a church secretary. The net-net result is we need fewer and fewer full time clergy to ‘service’ the remaining Christians left in our society.
I suggest there is a need for a new order of clergy (if I may call it that): a missional leader who can understand the relationship between work and ministry so that it is seamless. He or she dedicates 10-15 hours a week to organizing the Kingdom community in their local context. He or she knows her gifting and can lead out of that gifting. He or she has a job that he/she can support her/himself and her family with. He/she can develop a job skill that can adapt to changing circumstances. Often, he or she adjust their work hours so that she can work a tad less than the average 40 hour week. He or she can then give time to the leadership of their community without disrupting a daily/weekly rhythm of being present with family and neighborhood as well. The small church community can offer a small stipend to make up the difference. He or she does all this with 3 to 4 other leaders who do the same. Each is recognized for one of the five-fold giftings out of which they minister and lead in relation to the other leaders. They are apostle, prophet, pastor-organizer, teacher-organizer, evangelist working together, 15 hours plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours plus 15 hours. They are doing more out of multiple giftings than one single pastor ever could. They are bearing each other’s burdens. They are a “band of brothers and sisters.” This becomes a sustainable missionary kind of ministry that changes the whole dynamics of ministry because they are present in jobs, families and neighborhoods and makes possible long term ministry in context. It is, in essence, a new version of the old monastic orders of mission adapted to the capitalistic societies in the West while providing the means to resist (and provide witness) to its more oppressive sinful patterns.
Denominations need to define a new order of clergy because anyone seeking to operate in ministry this way will easily get defeated. Some of the more obvious ways they will get defeated are:
- They will get caught up in bi-vocational ministry where they will be expected to get a full time job, and do the work of a full time minister (because no one changed the expectations). This is chaos and recipe for personal disaster. It simply will never work. We need a new order of clergy then to redefine bi-vocational ministry and fund a new imagination for what this kind of order of mission might look like.
- They will get ordained into ministry and become bi-vocational and missional but the denominations will still expect them to fulfill all the old requirements of the traditional form of full time pastorate. They will have to go to local ministerial associations, represent the church at local events, make sure the furnace is working at the church, take care of funerals and attend civic events, fill out data sheets for the denomination. But reality is, they have other jobs! They need to be given credentials that recognize the new rhythms of life they have committed themselves to. (This stuff nearly killed me when I was a bi-vocational pastor).
- They will get a job, take up local contextual ministry and they will not understand the relationship between their work and ministerial leadership calling. They will not know how to look at their jobs once they get successful. They will not be able to be comfortable with 15 hours a week working for the organization of the church (because no one provided these expectations). They will not know what it means when their churches start to grow and some leaders ask them to quit their jobs because they will have allowed the identity of their jobs and its monetary success to overwhelm them. An imagination for the way work and ministry and family (when there is one) go together needs to be cultivated and this can best be done through defining a new order of clergy and then bringing those practicing together to discuss and offer visions for what this looks like.
For all these reasons we need to fund a new imagination for a new emerging clergy class that are in essence self sustaining contextual N. American missionaries. But the denominations for the most part have not navigated this. My guess is, if the denominations formed a new order of clergy, helped developed imagination and supporting structures for it, there would be untold numbers flocking to this group. There are literally thousands of second career people, and thousands of younger seminary graduates dissatisfied with current options (dying small church senior pastor or mega church staff person) who would gravitate towards this kind of commissioning. But we have no larger imagination for it. A new order of clergy could help and support these kind of missionaries and stir up such an imagination. Such an order of clergy could seed a whole new mission for a renewal of the Kingdom in N America.
What do you think? Denominational leaders, do you have such an order of clergy in your structures? Of course, it goes without saying that we need to fund the education of this new order of clergy differently, not taking people out of their context, but providing training along the way over longer (more affordable) periods of time. There are many seminaries preparing to do this. We know we have to do it. I can’t wait til Northern unveils its new program for doing just that.
A Preacher’s Review of Joshua: Believers’ Church Bible Commentary by Gordon Matties (Herald Press, 2012).
Reviewed by Frank Ramirez
A few years ago when I was the junior partner, with Christina Bucher and David Leiter, co-editing the book The Witness of the Bible Scriptures for a New Testament Church, I was cornered at Annual Conference and angrily scolded for doing any such thing. The Old Testament, I was told, was antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
Needless to say, stories from the Book of Joshua were Exhibit Number One. That was the case not only with this one per
son, but with several others over the years, whenever I admitted my enthusiasm for the Hebrew scriptures. Never mind the poetry of Ecclesiastes, the thunder for justice from the prophets, the slight of hand by the Chronicler (Now you see Bathsheba, now you don’t!), or those pesky lions in Daniel’s den – it usually gets back to Joshua when it comes to all those Marcionists who have no patience with the thick half of the Bible.
So I picture all those Mennonite and Brethren scholars the day they handed out the assignments for the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, hanging back when, echoing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, someone said, “So who wants to write about Joshua? Anyone. Joshua? Joshua? Sixth book of the Bible. Joshua?”
Well I don’t know if Gordon Matties, professor of biblical studies at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, volunteered, felt the call, or was drafted, but his commentary on Joshua is an exceptional tool for enthusiast and Old Testament skeptic alike. This volume is not only a valuable tool for pastors who may have to address the rare lectionary texts from Joshua every three years or so – it is a well-crafted apologia for an essential part of the canon, the pivot between Torah and the Deuteronomic history, and a powerful part of our family history we dare not ignore.
One quote, in particular, encapsulates the necessity for challenging ourselves and others with this Biblical book. Referring to some of the horrors described in Joshua 10 Matties writes:
I suggest that we live inside the conversation generated by this text, not inside this text alone. The text is part of a conversation within which the church wrestles, argues, and challenges. It is a text of terror that we dare not emulate; yet if we re
fused conversation with it, we run the risk of repeating the violence of which the text tells (247).
Matties encourages us to wrestle with the very different pictures of ethnic cohabitation, conflict, and accommodation presented not only between Joshua and Judges, but within Joshua itself. He also refuses to restrain the arc of this historical narrative into an archaeological straight jacket in order to bring us on board.
God is the central figure of the book, while Joshua, who only truly becomes “servant of Yahweh” after a long life of service, is revealed as one who receives the instruction of God, but is willing, such as in the mistakes made in what the author presents as the humorous encounter between the Israelites and the Gibeonites, to improvise and compromise.
The author doesn’t explain away tensions and contradictions within the book. In this way Joshua is quite like life. The peopl
e are to keep themselves pure, for instance, yet Rahab and others (including Caleb) are revealed as outsiders who become insiders. There is bloody warfare, yet the author insists it is not at its heart a conquest book, but a book of hope in the midst of darkness. The Book of Joshua reflects the best in us and the worst in us. And there is always hope, always a way out of the box that threatens to constrict and restrict us.
Matties grounds the book in our world, calling up stories and images from his own experiences in churches, the books he’s read, and from movies he’s seen. The Road Runner and Bugs Bunny, Apocalypse Now, the haka practiced by New Zealand rugby teams before an important international match, the scouring of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, Veggie Tales, Bob Dylan’s “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody,” and old Mennonites insisting “Es steht geschrieben,” (“It is written”) are cited in turn, as is the relatively new translation The Common English Bible, all to good effect.
On a personal note, as one who has always been awed and attracted to the encounter between Joshua and a Divine Other in 5:13-15 (I think I wrote an article for Messenger titled “Who Goes There?” on the subject decades ago), I especially enjoyed Matties’ willingness to let the mystery be.
The BCBC like all commentary series has better and worse volumes. This is one of the very good ones. I highly recommend it for p
ersonal study and sermon preparation. And since, as I’ve mentioned, the lectionary selections from Joshua are few and far between (you can preach about being strong and courageous from the first chapter and how you and your house are going to serve the Lord in the last chapter, and that’s pretty much it), perhaps this book will inspire some Brethren and Mennonites to preach a summer series on the book.
Matties’ dissertation Ezekiel 18 and the Rhetoric of Moral Discourse was published by the Society of Biblical Literature. He has contributed to The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and has published articles in church periodicals and contributed essays to collections.
Frank Ramirez has served as a Brethren Pastor for thirty-four years, and currently serves the Everett congregation in Middle PA. He and his wife Jennie share three children and three grandchildren, and enjoy travel, gardening, and totally different programming. Frank is the author of several books including The Love Feast, Th
e Meanest Man in Patrick County, and Brethren Brush with Greatness.
By Darla K. Deardorff
As we prepare to journey to Annual Conference and gather together as the body of Christ to discern God’s voice, I’d like to share with you the concluding words of the 2007 “Separate No More” paper to invite your prayerful reflection and response. As you engage in this reflection, you are invited to thoughtfully approach the questions that are asked and to listen prayerfully to what God is saying to you. For those who will be attending Annual Conference in Charlotte, please be prepared to bring and share that reflective experience through discussions with our sisters and brothers (at the Brethren Journal Association Luncheon, their insight session – both on Monday – and at other opportunities throughout the conference) – let’s engage in conversation around the following questions found in the “Separate No More” paper:
“How can we experience God more fully? What does it truly mean to be God’s family? What does it mean to truly be one in Christ? What prevents us from realizing the vision of Revelation 7:9? What do we need to do to achieve this vision?
As an intercultural team, these are the questions we have wrestled with and prayed about over the last three years. We have sought God’s guidance as we worked together to answer them and complete our assigned tasks. What we found was that God has taken each one of us on an amazing journey. We have heard God calling for the complete transformation of each of us, of our churches and of our denomination.
This is a plea for transformation, calling each of us to more fully and completely follow Christ’s example of loving all peoples – in loving our neighbours. Through Christ’s love, we become the all-inclusive family of God envisioned in Revelation 7:9.
To do this, we must be completely open to God’s work in us and among us. In truly opening ourselves to God, there is no limit to what God can accomplish. This is the way it was in the church described in Acts 2. This is the way it was with our roots in Schwarzenau, Germany. We began as Christians who allowed ourselves to be transformed.
God is calling us today, to be transformed into a whole body of Christ, so that we are SEPARATE NO MORE. So this is not merely a paper containing recommendations. This is a call for transformation. Without transformation, there may be no effective implementation of the recommendations. For as Matthew 9:17 says, “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Sisters and Brothers, this is a call for new wineskins – for total transformation through being open to God’s guidance. This is the only way to realize more of the Revelation 7:9 vision. In this transformation and moving toward this vision for the church, we are called into reconciliation – and God can use this message and ministry of reconciliation to literally transform and heal our society and our world.
(To read the full “Separate No More” paper, please go to http://www.brethren.org/ac/statements/2007MultiEthnic.pdf)
Darla Deardorff is a member of Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren and a member of the Study Committee that wrote the “Separate No More” paper adopted by Annual Conference in 2007. She will be speaking at the Brethren Journal Association Luncheon on Monday, July 1, as well as at the insight session that evening, “Unity Within Diversity- Diversity Within Unity: Implications for Brethren Today.” Her bio can be found at http://sites.duke.edu/darladeardorff/
by Joshua Brockway
In my work for the Church of the Brethren I increasingly find myself involved in discussions about our relevance today. Sometimes this is cast in the frame of doing workshops on Brethren Heritage, and in others it is outlined precisely in terms of relevance.
Running in circles outside of the Church of the Brethren, it is clear that we do have something to offer the wider church as it lives into the crumbling of imperial Christianity- more often called Post-Christendom. This interest often comes in the form of seeking out Anabaptist traditions- groups whose very genesis came about in a simple act of adult baptism, an act of civil and ecclesial disobedience. Now centuries later, after derision and flat out persecution, these Anabaptist traditions are hip!
It is interesting, and worth discussion, that this surge in interest falls out in varying ways. Some use the name “Anabaptist” to talk of the whole diverse tradition past and present, while others choose a more nuanced form and speak of themselves as Neo-Anabaptists. In many cases writers, including the likes of Harold Bender and Stuart Murray, have attempted to offer a kind of type for Anabaptism in order to get a handle on just what we mean by this name.
Coming from an historic tradition within Anabaptism I have found myself trying to draw lines that help make this small, yet complex, tradition intelligible. This is often complicated because the historic communities often fall into sectarian modes- playing name games with each other, working on insider topics, and occasionally dismissing those who are not “true Anabaptists.”
After many blog, face to face, and Facebook conversations I have finally (and tentatively) come to a helpful taxonomy for this rich matrix of Anabaptism- both of the neo and traditional varieties. What I offer here is by no means complete or comprehensive, but simply a frame within which we can understand just what we mean by Anabaptism. I argue below that the dividing line between Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism is to be found in the practice of baptism- that is, whether the community of referent baptizes believers or infants.
Any wisdom to this outline is due to the great conversation partners while any faults are, unintentionally, my own.
Historically speaking, the Anabaptists first emerged in the early years of the Reformation. A group of Swiss, initially connected to Zwingli, they were disenchanted with the steps of the reform to date. This group gathered together for the studying of scripture and constructed a short document outlining the central tenants to their way of life as Christians. The Schleitheim Confession, though the core values of this new group, should be set immediately within this group’s decision to baptize one another based on a conscious confession of faith. This act, and not so much the faith they professed, literally broke the law and imposed on them the name of Anabaptists- Re-Baptizers.
Though the Schleitheim Confession makes clear that Christians are not to take up arms for the state, soon after the tragedy of Munster challenged the assumption, both then and now, that Anabaptism is necessarily non-violent in posture. It was not until Menno Simons came along in the wake of armed Anabaptists that a peace testimony became part of the tradition. There, however, Simon’s emphasis on the earlier Schleitheim statements regarding violence was a posture of biblical pragmatism. Since their practice of a believer’s baptism already challenged both civic and ecclesial authorities, a “quiet in the land” posture of non-violent, non-resistance (based in part on Romans 13) was simply prudent for the survival of the group.
As with many groups, different forms of Anabaptism soon followed- even up through the 18th century. Some groups took on a more sectarian or withdrawn posture, such as the Hutterites and Amish. Still others emerged on their own, such as the Brethren (Schwarzenau Brethren) who merged their Pietist sensibilities with adult baptism.
In the 20th century, Harold Bender set out to outline just what this thing called Anabaptism looks like. His work on an “Anabaptist Vision” was clear for its day in that it offered some markers for this tradition. Most recently some have rightly dropped Bender’s vision for a more historically nuanced picture, preferring instead to talk of the many visions and forms within the wider umbrella of Anabaptism. Even the once dominant narrative of the Brethren as holding together the distinct tradition of Anabaptism and Pietism has been critiqued in favor of naming the many influences that merged into the Dunker tradition. There were just too many forms of Anabaptism to talk of it in any singular fashion. Often, then, efforts to distill the distinctive is a kind of argumentative task to speak internally to the tradition itself- saying what we should be about- and then to a wider audience- making the tradition applicable.
Most recently, this desire to articulate a clear vision for those inclined to Anabaptist thought has come by way of England. There, through a strong relationship with the Mennonite Mission Network, a group of British church leaders began collaborating in a loose network. Stuart Murray (Stuart Murray Williams) penned a summary of the network’s discussions that outlined their understanding of Anabaptism. That summary was published in the US under the title Naked Anabaptist. In that book, Murray is clear that Anabaptism, as they understand it, is a theological perspective in the light of Post-Christendom. In the decades following the ecumenical movement, the UK network is often at pains to say that affinity with these markers of Anabaptism need not institutionally convert others to the historic denominations. Rather, it is possible to be an Anglican Anabaptist, Presbyterian Anabaptist, or even a non-denominational Anabaptist.
In the United States, a similar movement of interest in Anabaptism has come by way of the prolific theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauewas’ articulation of Anabaptism is often not the product of historical research into the Anabaptists of the 15th century but is rather a working out of the theology of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Hauerwas often speaks of the rich formative culture of the church in a way that merges Yoder’s work with that of noted ethical philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre. Yoder, as a former student of Karl Barth, and Hauerwas as a part of the later Post-liberal discussions stand in stark contrast to the dominant narrative of Enlightenment Liberalism. In a way, like the UK Anabaptists, readers of Hauerwas often bring their understanding of Post-Liberalism ecclesiology to their own denominations.
What, then, is the difference between an Anabaptist and Neo-Anabaptist?
An impulse within Anabaptist circles is to talk of two groups- Traditional Anabaptists and Neo-Anabaptists. For me, this distinction feeds the sectarian bias of the historic denominations. I, myself, have been guilty of this at times when I have asked in polite conversation just what Hauerwas has to say about Anabaptism from his position as an Anglican. What possibly could he have to say about a way of life he writes about in abstraction without taking part in the existing, explicitly Anabaptist denominations?
As I interact with people who come to Anabaptist through a variety of ways and have formed their communities intentionally around the various forms of early Anabaptism, I find this distinction between Historical and Neo-Anabaptists unhelpful. Given the diversity within the history regarding forms of Anabaptism, it is simply too sectarian to say that anyone not a part of the main historical groups should be considered Neo-Anabaptist.
Instead, I want offer this brief taxonomy:
Anabaptists are groups of believers who share any of the markers of Anabaptist thought, and practice them within the context of a Believers’ Church structure (i.e. that baptism is a rite for those who have consciously confessed their faith and are baptized on the condition of this confession).
Neo-Anabaptists, then, are those groups or individuals who have found many of the ideas and practices of the Anabaptist tradition to speak relevantly to our context today, but bring this theology and practice into their existing denomination.
This distinction, based around the Believer’s Baptism, upholds the historic first rite of the tradition as the marker between the two. Hence, we can find persons, like Hauerwas or those of the UK Anabaptist Network, who continue to live and work within more magisterial traditions and not hold them outside the fold. For it is clearly a new phenomenon within wider Anabaptism to find such Anglican or Presbyterian Anabaptists. The ecumenical movement has opened the door to less sectarian forms and made it possible to even think that traditional Anabaptist thought could be at home within the very traditions that once persecuted these “Re-baptizers.”
For those of us in historic denominations within Anabaptism, wriers such as Hauerwas and Murray, to name just two, often help us to see parts of our heritage that we often overlook. This is especially the case for the Post-Liberalism of Hauerwas. It is important for those of us who resonate with Hauerwas, yet remain part of denominations like the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites- whose denominational life has come to adopt a decidedly liberal trajectory- to name just what we are claiming by calling ourselves “Neo-Anabaptists.” We are not working from the kind of ecumenical synthesis made possible in the 20th century, but are rather adopting a decidedly Post-liberal re-reading of our heritage. We should more appropriately identify ourselves as Post-liberal Anabaptists rather than muddy the waters with the name Neo-Anabaptists.
Some may think that such a distinction is mere hairsplitting. And I should confess that I hope this is not just an effort in theological abstraction. For example, many have observed that Greg Boyd’s congregation recently joined the Mennonite Church USA. I do not take this move to be a homecoming, or the movement of a Neo-Anabaptist group to becoming Anabaptist properly speaking. Instead, I think this was a move to draw together two Anabaptist groups, links that were once ideological and practical, and are now structural. Before that coming together, I would not have called Boyd a Neo-Anabaptist. Yet for the likes of Hauerwas, I think the distinction is necessary, if only to name the divergence around baptism. For it was the baptizing of believers and not infants that marked these groups in their day and context.
There are indeed a number of markers for Anabaptism that need further attention, such as a Post-Christendom ecclesiology, the centrality (or not) of a Peace witness in all its forms, and the importance of mutuality and simplicity. Still more work needs to be done in terms of Christology- especially given that many of the Anabaptist traditions have a Christ-centered ethic but do not have a explicit theology of the Incarnation and atonement. Nonetheless, we can see that the taxonomy begins to get at the current contexts of Anabaptist thought- a plurality of contexts not much different from the first centuries of the Reformation.
Joshua Brockway is director for spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren. He serves as editor for this blog and book review editor of Brethren Life and Thought. His is currently writing a dissertation on the 5th century monk John Cassian.
Tim Harvey, pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, VA recently shared some observations on small groups in church life in preparation for their congregational business meeting. In this post Tim discusses the components of vibrant small groups in the life of the congregation. The post was originally shared on Tim’s blog on the Central congregation’s website.
Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley. We have each benefitted from their leadership.
Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708. Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.
In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas: someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides theirstudy together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.
The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.
Leadership is what brings the group together. Leadership takes a number of forms: a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few. In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.
A commitment to stay together is also critical. This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose. A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete. Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon: how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.
The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group. They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:
A small group should study together. This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.
A small group should do mission together. Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community. When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.
A small group should get together for fellowship. Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things. Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.
Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth. Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.
As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking. Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.
First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over. Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.
Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in. How are the above six characteristics on display in that group? Is there a clear investment in shared leadership? Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group? In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present? If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God! If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members? Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose? Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?
Tim Harvey is pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke, VA. He and the congregation work hard at issues of renewal and revitalization, both in the congregation and in the downtown community. Issues of spiritual and literal hunger are recurring themes in their mission and ministry. And yes, he rides a unicycle!
By Laura Stone
As the season of Lent comes upon us it is easy to question the appropriateness of the season for a tradition of the Radical Reformation. Laura Stone, a Church of the Brethren student at Andover Newton offered these reflections in the days before Ash Wednesday on her blog The Patchwork Pietist. We are grateful for her permission to repost her thoughts here.
The following sermon, by Katie Shaw Thompson co-pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren, was delivered on December 16, 2012. With clear pastoral insight, Katie places the then recent tragedy at Sandy Hook within the season of Advent.
Instead of the words of John the Baptist, I feel moved to bring you a different scripture reading this morning. This scripture is part of the Christmas story that is understandably often skipped over.
It is also a verse that flew around the internet and Facebook after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.These words are all too relevant for the grief experienced by so many.
Mathew 2: 16-19
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated,and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; She refused to be consoled, because they were no more.’
Sometimes I can read this passage and let it be something that happened far away a long time ago, or maybe never, maybe just another part of a great story. But not today. Now, after the news of yet another shooting I read this text and it hits close. Too close.
I don’t think you need to have an 11-week old son at home to feel how wrong, wrong, wrong this story is and how wrong, wrong, wrong the terrible violence that occurred at Sandy Hook elementary school was.
As the president said in his address,
Our hearts are broken today — for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain.
Our hearts are also broken because we are reminded once more just how real evil and suffering are in this world. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned that any human being could massacre innocent children, whether it is a man in Connecticut, or Herod, or Pharaoh.
I wish that I could pretend I didn’t believe that God’s peace and forgiveness could extend to men like that. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned at the thought that those could have been children that I know and love.
I wish that I could have some guarantee that I could keep my baby safe from violence of any kind. It would be easy in times like these for parents like me to be tempted to want to deadbolt our doors seal up our windows, and keep the world away from our children.
Yet, we know we cannot. And we know that to do so, would be to let evil win. To do so, would be to let murderers win.
In my New Interpreter’s commentary on this passage of Matthew, one wise scholar writes: “God does not will these deaths, but until God’s empire is established in full, rulers will do such things.”
I would add that those who seek power over others by violence will do such things, until God’s empire is established in full. I do not believe that God willed this terrible tragedy in Connecticut or that God willed that long ago terrible tragedy in Bethlehem.
But I do believe that God is in the midst of those tragedies. God walks right in and sits beside Rachel as she wails, and God mourns too. I do believe that God is a God big enough to hold all kinds of grief. I do believe that God is the spirit that ignites a spark of hope, and love, and yes, even joy, in the midst of the greatest darkness.
It would be easy in times like these for Christians like me not to want to light the joy candle. But it is precisely in times like these that we must. For in lighting the candle of joy even in the midst of grief we declare that joy will come again.
We declare that violence and hatred and suffering do not get the last word. It is precisely in times like these that we need all the celebration of Christmas. Not to celebrate with superficial smiles and shallow warmth, but rather with defiant cheers and tearful gratitude.
That is the true spirit of Christmas, That is the message of Christ.
No matter how dark the night,the light of Christ is brighter. No matter how terrible the violence, the peace of Christ is stronger. No matter how hot the hatred, the love of Christ is warmer. THAT is indeed something to celebrate!
At the beginning of this week I heard songwriter Tracey Thorn’s new Christmas album, I was particularly caught by her the words of her song entitled simply, Joy.
“When someone very dear,
calls with the words everything’s all clear.
It’s what you want to hear.
But you know it might be different in the new year.
That’s why, that’s why, we hang the lights so high.
You loved it as a kid
And now you need it more than you ever did
Its because of the dark
We see the beauty in the spark.
So light the winter fire
and watch as the flames go higher.
We’ll gather up our fears
and face down the coming years,
and all that they destroy
and in their face we’ll throw out JOY.”
It is important to take time to grieve and not to simply glaze over difficulties and pain. Yet, experts tell us that re-establishing some routine and order is important after trauma to re-establish a sense of safety and normalcy.
Even in the midst of their grieving a local church in Newtown, CT did just that. They held a live nativity service Saturday re-enacting that first Christmas night. Their celebration in the midst of grieving flies in the face of all the evil, suffering, and pain they continue to experience and reminds us all of light that is stronger than any darkness.
So we must celebrate with joy this Christmas, not with superficial smiles and shallow cheer, but with faithful warmth and tearful gratitude.
So, muster all the joy you can this season and invite someone to share it with you. For I find joy is grown and amplified when we share it with others, when I see it in the eyes of children or in the eyes of someone who needed it badly this season.
This need to witness to the joy, this need to share and amplify joy is why we tell children about Santa Claus. Its why we give presents, and prepare meals and go caroling, to share joy with others.
We light the joy candle on our advent wreath this week
In defiance of all that is dark and evil in this world.
In defiance of suffering.
May the spark of Christ shine brightly in our hearts this season despite the darkness of our world.
May it be so. Amen.