Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Female Deacons, 4

Did the earliest Christian communities apppoint female as well as male deacons?

My own study suggests that before the 1860s, writers within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement gave one answer: Yes. The New Testament churches ordained and employed not only elders and deacons, but deaconesses as well. So, they said, modern-day churches have Bible sanction and should do the same. Take a look:

"From Ro. 16:1 as well as from 1 Tm. 3:11 it appears that females were constituted deaconesses in the primitive church."
Alexander Campbell, "Order," Millennial Harbinger 6, no. 10 (1835), p. 507.

"It is generally regarded, among our brethren, as an essential element in the restoration of the primitive order, to ordain, in every church, both deacons and deaconesses."

W. K. Pendleton, "Discipline, No. 7," Millennial Harbinger 5, no. 5 (1848), p. 292.

"The Phoebes should . . . constitute a part of the diakonoi of every fully organized congregation."

Robert Milligan, "The Permanent Orders of the Christian Ministry -- Of Deacons," Millennial Harbinger 5, no. 11 (1855), p. 626.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Female Deacons, 3

In the previous post on this subject, my goal was a simple one. I wanted to show that there's plenty of evidence to indicate that at least some of the Judaisms in the ancient world recognized female leaders. There were, in fact, women who served as heads of the synagogues. And some synagogues had priestesses.

Again, here's the connection I want to make. More than anything else, it is the synagogue that provides the setting for the establishment and growth of earliest Christianity. Recording the first mission trip, Luke tells us "At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue" (Acts 14:1).

Evidently, Christian assemblies were even called "synagogues." Here I'm referring to the Greek text of James 2:2. Most English translations lose their nerve and say something like, "Suppose a man comes into your meeting . . . " (NIV). But the text quite literally says, "For if a man comes into your synagogue . . . "

When we put the facts together, what seems clear enough is that the earliest Christians wouldn't have blinked at the idea of a female appointee called a diakonos, an official "servant." If we have a problem with the idea, it must be remembered that it is our problem. It certainly would not have been theirs.

One reason I mention this has to do with an objection to my theory. That objection goes something like this: Because Judaism in particular, and the ancient world in general, were so very patriarchal, female appointees among the earliest Christians would have been unthinkable. But in light of the evidence, it should be obvious that this objection survives only by ignoring the facts. To the next point.

I mentioned in the first post that female deacons are known in early Christian history, the New Testament foreground. The earliest and best support for this view can be found in an ancient letter.

In the year 112 A.D., less than two decades after the death of the Apostle John, a Roman governor named Pliny (the Younger), wrote to his boss, the Emperor Trajan.

What I find especially interesting about their correspondence is that Pliny asks what he should do about one of the many odd and suspicious groups in the province he now governs. What should he do with people publicly accused of being Christians?

Trajan had previously sent Pliny to serve as governor of a rough and rebellious part of the Empire, the Province of Bythinia, a region where strange and superstitious clubs were common, one of them being the church. Pliny wants to know if the way he has handled things so far is the right way, or if there something more the Emperor can tell him regarding interrogations, trials, and sentencing.

In one section of his letter, Pliny explains that, in order to enforce his prohibition of political associations (here we must remember that the expression "Jesus is Lord" would have been heard by Romans as political, rather than religious, speech), Pliny had found it "necessary to extract the real truth" from the Christians. He had done this, he says, "with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses."

The significant Latin word in this passage, of course, is ministrae, rendered "deaconesses" in the standard English translation of the correspondence, and rightly so. Had Pliny wanted to say that these two women were simply members or were a part of the Christian community, he could and certainly would have said so without using what can only be understood as a sort of technical term: ministrae, which means "ministers" or as I would call them, "deaconesses."

Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms?

A Bit of Bibliography:

I do not currently have access to a copy of the standard text of Pliny which is found in the Loeb Classical Library. The Loeb series is so nice because you get the Latin or Greek text on one side of an opening, and translation into English on the opposite side. To read, in the Loeb edition, the letter quoted in this post, you would need to get this volume of the series.

In this post, I have quoted from an English translation of Pliny that I found on-line. You can read the letter I'm referring to here.

Friday, May 25, 2007

William Harlie Fewell (1928-2007)

We buried Harlie Fewell yesterday. His funeral was in the afternoon at the San Jacinto Church of Christ in Amarillo, a congregation where Harlie once served as a elder, and where he had been a member for at least fifty years. He and his wife, Lerline, were married for sixty-one years.

I didn't meet Harlie until January of 2006. By then, age and sickness had already reduced him to a shell of what he had been in his prime. Even so, his spirit shined through so that most anytime I talked with him, I would walk away thinking, "What a man."

Not long after we first met, Harlie mentioned to me that I could easily remember his name by imagining what you might put into a motorcycle: Harley fuel. That was him.

There's a certain species of Christian you might call salt-of-the-earth West Texan. Harlie personified that. He was a little guy with a huge heart whose phrases and gestures would make you smile and sometimes laugh out loud.

Behind all of the good-natured joking, however, there was this earnestness, this seriousness about life that would have led Harlie to die trying to do the right thing.

One of Paul Faulkner's standard lines is, "Act better than you feel." Harlie had mastered that. The last time I ever saw him alive, he was wearing the neck brace that held up his head and was carrying the oxygen bottle he needed for breath. He had come to the nursing home to (get this) help conduct the Wednesday-afternoon devotional for those old folks.

At the end of the devotional, like a sideshow barker, Harlie stood up, opened his arms, and raised his voice: "Everything's been great today! The singing was good. And Leonard gave us a good message. And we're glad you came out." Then, with gusto, he led the group in his trademark song:

Wonderful, wonderful, Jesus is to me
Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God is he
Saving me, keeping me, from my sin and shame
Wonderful is my redeemer, Praise his name

We sang it through twice, as always.

During the funeral one of Harlie's sons, Glen, remarked that his dad never thought himself worthy, that he sometimes doubted his commitment, whether he was acceptable to the Lord. Glen had reminded his father that Jesus Christ had already taken care of all that. Harlie agrees today. May his memory be for a blessing.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, "Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them." --Revelation 14:13

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Female Deacons, 2

In the first post on this subject I hinted that in my view the New Testament speaks of female deacons. I also mentioned that this view is apparently consistent with

(1) NT background
(2) early Christian history
(3) the views of early reformers in the Restoration Movement

Not wanting to drag this out or make anyone's eyes glaze over, I do want to identify a few bits of evidence that might jump start your own thinking. Consider the first item: the New Testament background.

I begin with the assumption that the most significant aspect of NT background is the Judaism(s) leading up to and including the time of Jesus and the earliest Christians. And what do we see when we examine the synagogues of that period? Plenty to suggest that females in official roles would have been nothing new to those folks:

1. For example, a Greek inscription discovered at Smyrna (Izmir) and that dates from the early Christian centuries reads as follows:

"Rufina, a Jewess and head of a synagogue (Greek: archisynagogue), built this tomb for her freedmen and her house-slaves . . . "

2. Another text comes from Myndos (in Caria, western Turkey) and reads as follow:

[The beginning is lost] . . . . "of Theopempte the head of a synagogue
(archisynagogue) and her son Eusebius."

3. A third comes from Kisamos (on the island of Crete):

"Here (lies) Sophia of Gortyn, an elder (presbytera) and female head of a synagogue (archisynagogissa) of Kisamos. (May the) memory of (this) just woman (be) forever. Amen."

As heads of synagogues these women would have been, in the words of rabbi and scholar Shaye Cohen, "responsible for supervising the services, specifically for deciding who should read the Bible, lead the prayers, and give the sermon. The archisynagogue was something between a president and a rabbi."

In addition to the three quotes given here, there is inscriptional evidence from the same period indicating that at least some Jews of that time recognized certain women as priestesses. Impressive indeed. But it's my goal here simply to show that, if the earliest Christian communities appointed female deacons, this would have been no break with the Judaism of that time.

Source: Cohen, Shaye J. D. "Women in the Synagogues of Antiquity" Conservative Judaism 34 (November-December 1980), pp. 23-29.

Reactions? Comments? Criticisms?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

N.T. Wright on Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell's funeral was today. Just yesterday, I came across a short article published last Thursday by N. T. Wright. It is, no surprise, Christian to the core. Check it out:

Notes on Falwell From Afar

"I'm afraid we in the UK have only heard distantly of Jerry Falwell. Most churchgoers in England won't have heard of him at all; nonchurchgoers will only have heard of him as a strange character who pops up from time to time when people are writing 'how weird can they get' articles in our newspapers shaking their heads over American strangenesses.

My own sense, having spent a lot of time in the States over the years, is that he was a classic of his type and with a lot more integrity than some of the shady characters in the religious penumbra. But, insofar as I know what he taught -- which I freely admit would be second or third hand -- he was saying some things which I strongly say myself but I think in a different framework, and some things which I strongly argue against (e.g. on the present state of Israel and prophecy).

Within the strange, large economy of God's grace, which filters the truth of scripture through all of us imperfect interpreters, it may be that I make just as many mistakes as I think he did, but we are each called to be true to what we find in scripture and I have no reason to suppose he was not as obedient to that imperative as I struggle to be.

May he rest in peace and, with the rest of us, rise in glory where we shall look back on present disagreements like an adult looks back on childhood squabbles in the playground."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Why Not Start With Female Deacons?

Among the Churches of Christ in the United States, it's increasingly common for congregations to study and consider questions that typically come under the heading "Women's Role in the Church." (For reasons I have a hard time articulating, "Women's Role in the Church" is not my favorite expression. But it communicates. My friend and brother Dale Pauls has spoken of "Women in the Church at First").

In some cases (not many), these congregations wind up making practical changes. Said changes usually show up in worship assemblies. Women begin taking on roles previously filled only by men. They lead public prayers, preside at the Lord's Table, etc.

Now, from what little I've seen and heard, Scripture study and practical changes along this line are accompanied by a congregational disclaimer and explanation that goes something like this:

We're not reacting to the rise of feminism, at least not primarily. We are still (in fact, more than ever) a people of the Book. So, if caving to the culture is not what this is about, then what is it about? The results of better Bible study. When we read the Bible not as a flat constitution, but rather as a collection of occasional documents which must be interpreted in the light of context, we come out with different conclusions. And when it comes to our consideration of "Women's Role in the Church" those different conclusions have led us to different ways of thinking and acting.

Now, if and when preachers and elders and the congregations they lead say something like that, I have no good reason to doubt them. I'm neither a mind reader nor a heart discerner. And I'm certainly not the judge of someone else's servant.

However, what I wonder about is why all of this has, from what I can tell, by-passed the question of female deacons. The fact is, the female diaconate does not have two apparently-restrictive passages to climb over (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15). Instead, the female diaconate has two apparently-supportive passages going for it (Romans 16:1-2 and 1 Timothy 3:11).

The only person in the New Testament who is called a diakonos of a particular congregation is sister Phoebe, apparently a deacon of the church at Cenchrea (Romans 16: 1). And, a comparison of what Paul says regarding "deacons" (in 1 Timothy 3:8-13) with what he says regarding "the women" (in verse 11 ) seems to indicate that the two groups are parallel. Furthermore, the female diaconate is supported by both the New Testament background and early Christian history, not to mention that at least the idea, and sometimes the practice, has had wide support in the history of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

At any rate, in addition to the questions raised here, my explicit question is, If going with the Bible is what's driving current changes, then why all the neglect of what is a comparative no-brainer, the ordination of female deacons?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell: An Evangelical?

Yesterday we learned that Jerry Falwell had been found dead. Something I've noticed since then is that in television broadcasts (the one by Charles Gipson, for example) and in written notices, Falwell is referred to as an evangelical. So far, I have seen the word "fundamentalist" only once, and that in a quote from James Dobson, not in a description.

Now, I know, news people have not earned a reputation for knowing what they're talking about when it comes to religion. So I can only wonder. . . . In the minds of news writers, does the term "evangelical" mean something like "any Christian who is right of center"? Do they think that "evangelical" is a synonym for "fundamentalist"? Did they decide that, since being any sort of religious fundamentalist means you're pathetic, they'd take it easy on the deceased by calling him by another name? Or is there something more sinister going on here?

No doubt, in the days ahead, some of Falwell's worst moments will be recalled. For example, I quote from an already-published story:

"In 1999, he told an evangelical conference (emphasis mine, FB) that the Antichrist was a male Jew who was probably already alive. Falwell later apologized for the remark but not for holding the belief. A month later, his National Liberty Journal warned parents that Tinky Winky, the children's TV character, was a gay role model and morally damaging to children. "

If Falwell is identified as an "evangelical," then the news media will have done much to erase the real differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The latter group, today's true "evangelicals," emerged when they rejected the radical separatism, anti-intellectual tendencies, and weak social concern of fundamentalism.

To refer to Jerry Falwell as an evangelical is a category mistake, at best. At worst, it is an attempt to link Falwell and his follies in the spotlight, with every political candidate known as any sort of conservative Christian.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Question for You "Book People"

Because you're reading this, there's a good chance that you're a book person. Book people are a subset of human beings. Not only can they read, they almost always like to read. Something. Anything.

For book people, reading is a love affair, an acute fever. However, like people who are really into wine, the tastes of book people are discriminating. Book people both know and prefer the good stuff. The fact that there's a lot of rock-gut reading out there is, for book people, one point in favor of the doctrine of original sin.

Book people know in their bones that the Internet does not portend the extinction of the book. For part of the glory of reading is the peculiar smell of a fine book, the way it feels in your hands, the texture of the page, the quality of the print. Book people do not merely read books. They experience them.

At any given time, there are at least a couple of books hanging around book people. Books lying on night stands, riding in cars, sitting on desks, tucked beneath arms, lounging on porches . Book people have figured out that different places and different times of the day call for different types of books. So they arrange their books. A small collection for every place, and every place with its books. (No, I have no books in my bathroom. But some book people have some in theirs).

Most book people would go so far as to say that they love their libraries. It's been said that the great scholar J. W. McGarvey, just before going on a trip, would sit quietly for a few minutes in the presence of his books, looking at them, communing with them. To non-book people, this sounds bizarre. To book people, it strikes a chord.

Book people know that some books bear re-reading every other year or so. Some books are that delicious, that significant. Such books are not merely read. They are consulted, interviewed, loved for what they are.

So here's my question, book people: Which books do you read every so often? What titles have you have gone back to over and over again? Why?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Monday Medley

Our Weekend:
We have a little amusement park here in Amarillo: "Wonderland!" We'd never been there before, but Aubrey's school band was going last Saturday. Michele and I wound up going as non-paying chaperones. In spite of our free admission and the chaperone title, we had basically no responsibilities. Woohoo!

By late afternoon, the three of us were on our way to Altus, Oklahoma. We spent the night with my folks and went to worship with them Sunday morning. My years in Connecticut didn't afford many opportunities for me to be with my mother on Mothers' Day. I was so glad I got to be with her yesterday.

The Demise of Dogma?
"The only church of Christ is the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter" --Pope Benedict, speaking last week to the bishops of Brazil, as quoted on last Saturday's broadcast of "NPR Religion."

The Bible and Tattoos
The same chapter of the Bible that says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) also says, "You shall not tattoo yourselves" (v. 28).

No believer that I know of has argued against the positive statement found in verse 18, especially since Jesus repeated it and said it was super important. On the other hand, any number of believers have violated the letter of the prohibition found in verse 28. Have they violated the will of God?

Old Testament specialists tells us that tattooing (or painting) the body in the ancient world was an explicitly pagan thing. It may have been done to ward off evil spirits, or to identify a person as belonging to a certain pagan group. Either way, the very appearance of a tattoo would have meant a rununciation of what the Bible affirms: that there is only one true God and those who are faithful to him will not be harmed but will, instead, be secure. These days, tattoos don't necessarily mean the same thing. So, while I'm not a fan of tattoos, neither do I believe that they are against the will of God.

The Authority of the Old Testament
The question of how Christians might apply the teaching of, say, Leviticus 19 was part of what we talked about in the last class session of the Old Testament course. I gave the students a copy of the question as it's worded in a classic book by John Bright:

" [People who affirm] that the Old Testament is in each of its texts inspired of God and affords in all its parts a revelation of his character, purpose and will . . . must still face the question: How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings and expressions . . . to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the believer, and how proclaimed as such?"

How can, how should, the Old Testament function as a word from God within the church? What principles of interpretation, for example, serve to open up that part of the Bible as a word on target for Christians?

The Church Sings!
"The Christian church sings. It is not a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. But from inner, material necessity it sings. Singing is the highest form of human expression....What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church. And where...it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation....The praise of God which finds its concrete culmination in the singing of the community is one of the indispensable forms of the ministry of the church." -- Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, part 3, chapter 16, par. 72, #4.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Intro to World Religions" at Amarillo College

I'll be teaching a course on World Religions at Amarillo College during the Summer I session. The course will begin on Tuesday May 29 (just after Memorial Day) and will run through July 3rd.

Classes will meet Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. on the Washington Street campus, in Durrett Hall. Topics will include the following:
  • Native American Spirituality
  • Hinduism
  • Buddhism
  • Judaism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
In addition to those taking the class for credit, Leisure Studies and Continuing Education students are welcome. The only required textbook is the 5th edition of Warren Matthews, World Religions. For sign-up information and access, go to the Amarillo College "Prospective Students" page, here.


"Every mother is like Moses. She does not enter the promised land. She prepares a world she will not see." -- Pope Paul VI

"This is a moment that I deeply wish my parents could have lived to share. My father would have enjoyed what you have so generously said of me -- and my mother would have believed it."
--Lyndon B. Johnson, as he began the commencement address at Baylor University, May 28, 1965.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What Church of Christ Scholarship Should Be, 3

This is my third and final post on the article by James W. Thompson, "What Is Church of Christ Scholarship?" Restoration Quarterly 49 (First Quarter 2007), pp. 33-38.

In the titles for these posts, I've taken away the question mark and rearranged the words so that an assertion is made rather than a question asked. The reason I've done this is because Thompson himself is not interested only in mere description. In the second half of his article, the expression "I suggest" comes up over and over again. He wants to offer direction, too.

So what are the suggestions he offers? In the last segment of the article he asks, "What is the role of the Church of Christ scholar?" Thompson answers:

1. "I suggest, in the first place, that all Christian scholars will recognize that, while the Enlightenment approach to scholarship has proven beneficial, it does not offer the only paradigm for academic study." Thompson goes on to imply that because "scholars and worshipers are responding to different questions" those scholars who genuinely want to serve the church will finally speak about the Bible and from the Bible as though it really were a religious text and not an historical artifact. I believe it was Phillips Brooks who talked about the difference between looking at a telescope and looking through it to worlds beyond. However, along this line Thompson does not address the question of how scholars are to handle the tug they'll experience between the two worlds and their remarkably-different enterprises.

2. "I suggest, in the second place, that the Church of Christ scholar engages the tradition both to commend and to offer critique." This is a balancing act. And the scholar's ability to stay on the tight rope is, finally, a challenge that he or she must take up and deal with regularly, much like the circus performer (I know, a comparison we could have a lot of fun with).

Thompson waxes eloquent on this point and I quote him at length:

"Scholars recognize the significant influence of this movement on their formation, and they commend the contributions of the Stone-Campbell movement to the wider public . . . . At the same time, scholars shaped by a community that demanded the priority of Scripture over tradition will give precedence to Scripture over the tradition of Churches of Christ, allowing Scripture to confront the church with uncomfortable truth as well as nurture it. Just as the role of the ancient prophet was to confront Israel with the highest values of its own tradition, the role of the Christian scholar is to challenge the church with the Scriptural witness that disturbs its level of comfort and causes it to continue in its own search for truth."

3. "In the third place, as with other traditions, categories that are rooted in the movement will frame the questions we ask of Scripture." That is to say, in the same way that Wesleyans begin with (quoting Joel Green) "the pursuit of holiness, . . . and the primacy of grace," Thompson says that it is extensively appropriate for scholars from Churches of Christ to read the Bible "with the recognition of the importance of ecclesiology for the interpretation of texts."

Of course, Thompson is aware that his second suggestion might militate against his third. That is to say, if I operate on the premise that the one true God speaks authoritatively through that book we call the Bible, what if the Bible teaches me that I shouldn't collapse theology or christology under ecclesiology? Folks from the Churches of Christ have produced a lot of books like "Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ." But not so many books on "Why I Love and Trust in Jesus Christ." Max Lucado reversed that pattern and was ostracized.

Yeah, that's an oversimplification. But it's right. It's like one of my former elders once observed, "A Baptist wants to tell you about the one true Savior. People from the Church of Christ want to tell you about the one true church."

So, should we accept Thompson's third suggestion? Is it really compatible with the second one?

4. Thompson concludes: "In the fourth place, this scholarship will address not only questions raised in the academic guild but also those that originate in the life of the church. The church has its own questions as it confronts the challenge of change. As the intellectual center for the life of the church, the school of theology maintains the resources for research and reflection that will benefit the church. As the church faces critical decisions involving corporate worship, evangelism, or missions, scholars will serve the church by offering insights for the church's consideration."

So ends the article. My questions are:

1. How do you respond to the suggestions that Thompson offers?

2. What might you have added to his list?

3. As I was asking above, in what ways do his second and third suggestions conflict? In what ways are they compatible?

4. Who would you point to as good examples of scholars who have worked (and are working) in order to serve the Churches of Christ?

5. Maybe a better question is, Can you identify some scholarly preachers among the Churches of Christ who have taken up and handled well the challenges that Thompson is talking about?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Mac Laptops

Okay, here's the deal. My daughter is graduating from high school in June and will be going off to college in late August. Her mother and I have agreed that her graduation present will be a laptop computer. It's my job to figure out exactly what kind of laptop.

Rather than surprise my daughter with something she might not like, I decided to spill the beans and get her input. I told her what her present would be and that I wanted to know what she was interested in getting.

Of course, one of the big questions was "Mac or PC?" By default, I know PC. I also know that most people much younger and much hipper than me (a group that's growing like kudzu!) tend to go with Mac. My prediction was that my daughter would say, "Mac." I was right.

So Mac it is. Now the questions I still have are:

1. Which Mac laptop? It looks like Mac has 2 main sizes and prices. I think we'll start with the smaller one, unless there's a really great reason not to.

2. But then the question becomes, How much memory, etc. should I buy? I'm looking for good operation and reliability, not fancy-schmancy, just-for-kicks stuff.

3. What kinds of accessories, add-ons, cases, etc. should I consider?

Your experiences with and advice about Macs would be welcome.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Wrong College?

And now for something entirely different.

Later this week, I'm doing a sort of after-dinner speech for high school seniors and their families. Thought I might start out with "Top Ten Signs You've Chosen the Wrong College."

Letterman did one of these years ago. It's on-line and I can use most of them. But I want to fill in the blanks. Any nominations? Again, the category is: "Top Ten Signs You've Chosen the Wrong College" . . . .