Tuesday, March 30, 2010

John Wyclif and the Origins of Lollardy

A little something on Wyclif and the Lollards that might become a section of a simple book on church history someday:

Lollardy (sometimes spelled Lollardie) was the name given to an English heretical movement that began near the end of the fourteenth century. Its origins can be traced back to the teaching, preaching, the personal network and, above all, the writings of John Wyclif. [1]

We don't know when Wyclif was born, but it was likely sometime in the mid-1320s, near Richmond in the northern county of Yorkshire. Ordained a priest in September 1351, he spent most of his adult life at Oxford. He was a steward at Merton College in 1356, and a master at Balliol College by December 1360. He received the doctorate in theology in either 1372 or 1373. By all accounts, he possessed a tremendous mind and capacity for work. He was, in the words of Knighton, “second to no one, unequalled in the disciplines of the schools.” [2]

In his early writings, Wyclif made an argument for the disendowment of clerics who were in mortal sin. In that state, he said, they had no divine right to position and power. This, of course, made him popular with the devout clergy who agreed with him. Most of all, it made him popular with the Crown.

Early on, he had a benefactor in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It was primarily the Duke's influence that led to Wyclif’s entry into royal service as a sort of schooled advocate who could help to undermine church privilege and the authority of the Pope. During those years, Wyclif stayed busy writing and preaching.

On May 22, 1377, Gregory XI issued five papal bulls condemning the views of Wyclif. Detained for a time at Oxford, he was soon released due to popular support there. In later skirmishes with Archbishop Sudbury and his successor, William Courtenay, Wyclif was protected by the likes of Gaunt and, on at least one occasion, Joan of Kent, mother of King Richard II.

By the late 1370s, however, Wyclif was doing more than simply attacking the abuses and the wealth of the church. Most significantly, he dismissed the orthodox, traditional understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, he denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. As a result, in May of 1381, William Barton, chancellor of Oxford, presided over a committee that condemned such heresy, though without specifically naming Wyclif. Then, on June 13, 1381—Corpus Christi day—peasant rebels, angry over an attempt to freeze wages, came to the outskirts of London and entered the city. [3]  During three days of mayhem, they killed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his De blasphemia, Wyclif wrote about the revolt. Although he never accepted even an indirect contribution to the catastrophe, chroniclers of the day did not agree; they saw a connection between public sentiment and Wyclif's influence. By then, Wyclif was no longer looked on as an interesting and useful radical, but more as a dangerous and loathsome heretic. He could no longer count on the critical support of some of the clergy and aristocracy, and by October 1381 he had retreated to his out-of-the-way parish in Lutterworth where he died at Mass on the last day of 1384.

The period in which Wyclif wrote his more-popular works and led a public life had lasted hardly more than a decade. But he left behind a large number of books and treatises, in English as well as in Latin, and not a few personal associates who were still at Oxford or who had since gone out from there, providing leadership for the group now known as the Lollards.

[1] Here I depend heavily upon Anne Hudson and Anthony Kenny, “Wyclif [Wycliffe], John," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 60: 616-30.

[2] According to Steven Justice, “Lollardy,” in Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), 663, n. 3, where the author cites Knighton, Chronicon, edited by Lumby, vol. II, 151.

[3] Norman F. Cantor, The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 253-54.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Church Elders and Their Children, 4th and Final

In the first post in this series, I raised a question: Does Titus 1:6 teach that a prospective elder's children must be Christians? In the New International Version that verse contains the phrase "a man whose children believe." According to the wording of the King James Version, an elder is expected to have "faithful children." Churches of Christ have typically thought that this expression means that one or more of a prospective elder's children must be baptized believers. Otherwise, according this view, the man is not qualified to be an elder. But is this the right understanding and application of the passage?

The second post takes up a more-specific question: What does the Greek word pistos actually mean in Titus 1:6? As we saw, this term has a wide variety of possible meanings. In the New Testament, only a fraction of the occurrences clearly refer to someone's Christian faith, or Christian identity. Most often, pistos doesn't speak of a believer. Instead, the word simply means "faithful" in the sense of "dependable" or "reliable." However, the majority of popular English translations favor the idea that in Titus 1:6 pistos denotes a believer. The 20th Century New Testament went so far as to translate the phrase, "whose children are Christians." But in this passage is that really what the Greek term means?

The third post included two main ideas:

A. Churches make a mistake if they approach 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 primarily as legal texts. It's better to see these passages as descriptions of the ideal elder. In many cases, a church has done without elders because the people saw these passages as hard-and-fast checklists. As a result, they came to the conclusion that "nobody was qualified." As I see it, always responding to every stickler's objection has hurt many congregations of the Churches of Christ. Anemic traditionalism, rejecting anything that doesn't match the norm of recent memory or the status quo, is not the same thing as faithfulness. It's not even good conservatism.

B. In order to answer our question about the phrase in Titus 1:6, we should pay careful attention to its literary context, the words that surround the word in question.

At this point, I want to finish out this series, attempt to fill in any gaps, and then leave it for you to evaluate.

Pistos in Titus 1:6

To decide what Paul means by pistos in Titus 1:6, our only recourse is to pay close attention to the qualifying statement that immediately follows it. In Greek it says, me en datygoris asotias ey anupotakta.

The King James Bible translates this, "not accused of riot or unruly." The New International Version says, "and are not open to the charge of being wild or disobedient." A few notes on the specifics of the Greek phrase behind these expressions:

1. The first qualifier, according to the KJV, is that the elder's children are not accused of "riot." The NIV has "being wild." These renderings come from asotia, an especially strong word that isn't easy to translate into contemporary English. "Debauchery" sounds odd and archaic. So what is the right word? Apparently, I'm not the only person who's bumped up against this question. In the few other places in the NT where asotia occurs, translators evidently have a hard time coming up with just the right English expression.

Take, for example, 1 Peter 4:4, one of the few other verses in the NT where asotia is used. Here, the word shows up in a context where the Apostle is describing the reaction of pagans to their neighbors who have recently become Christians. The NIV has, "They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation." The New American Standard Bible and the New King James Version also use this odd word. Does anyone say "dissipation" anymore? Did they ever? Does anyone know what it means? To borrow a line from my teacher Jack Lewis, this is where most Bible readers, because they don't know what the word means, will just have to have a reverent feeling and go on. Here, Today's New International Version (TNIV) stretches it out in English, but nonetheless offers a huge improvement: "reckless, wild living." That's a fine rendering of what Paul is saying, I think.

2. The second qualifier is that the elder's children are not open to the charge of being "unruly" (KJV) or "disobedient" (NIV). Much like the first qualifier, this isn't the language of pulling your little sister's ear, or taking a bite of food before the prayer. Instead, this word describes hardcore rebellion. It speaks of someone who has no intention of obeying the rules. A few verses later, in Titus 1:10-11, Paul uses it to describe the "rebellious people" who by their teachings are "ruining whole households" (NIV).

So, these are the words used in Titus 1:6 to negatively define what it means for an elder's children to be pistos. But, if in this verse the word supposedly means "believing" (as in "Christian"), those descriptors certainly don't set the bar very high, do they? It would sound odd, it seems to me, if you described someone else as "a Chrisitan; you know, someone who isn't completely wild and rebellious."

In fact, the more we examine the context, the less likely we are to understand pistos in Titus 1:6 to mean "believer" or "Christian." Rather, taking everything into account, this verse seems to be saying: "An elder is a Christian man with a proven ability to manage a household. Above all, this means that his home isn't a place where people run amock. His residence doesn't resemble a notorious frat house." My conclusion, therefore, is that in Titus 1:6 Paul does not expect that all of a prospective elder's children must share his Christian faith. What's more, the view that I'm proposing matches up well with what we find in the other New Testament description of the ideal elder.

The Parallel Passage in 1 Timothy 3:4-5

Anyone who compares Titus 1:6-9 with 1 Timothy 3:1-7 will notice something about that second passage: it nowhere says or even suggests that an elder's children must be Christians. Instead, it says, "He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)" (1 Timothy 3:4-5, NIV).

The question comes naturally: Why would Paul insist in Titus 1:6 that an elder must have children who are Christians, when in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, sent to a different destination, he makes no such demand? But the question begins to disappear when we do two things (1) pay close attention to how the other words in Titus 1:6 help us to understand what Paul means in this verse when he speaks of the elder's children as pistos. (2) use 1 Timothy 3:4-5 as an interpretive parallel.

Sometime back, I reviewed George W. Knight's fine commentary on the Greek text of the Pastoral Epistles. More than anyone else, he helped to solidify some of the conclusions I was coming to on this question several years ago. His observations on Titus 1:6 sum up my own thinking:

The qualifying statement here, "not accused of dissipation or rebellion" emphasizes behavior and seems to explain what it means for tekna (children) to be pistos (faithful). Likewise, 1 Timothy 3:4 speaks of the overseer "keeping his children under control with all dignity." In both cases the overseer is evaluated on the basis of his control of his children and their conduct. . . . What must not characterize the children of an elder is immoral and undisciplined rebelliousness, if the children are still at home and under his authority. Paul is not asking any more of the elder and his children than is expected of every Christian father and his children. However, only if a man exercises such proper control over his children may he be an elder. (G. W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992] pp. 289-290. The link over the title provides almost all of the text of Knight's commentary, including the section quoted here, compliments of Google Books).

A Challenge

I understand that this view runs against the general pattern of English Bible translation. And if you begin to looking around in the English commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles, you will often find the same thing. Great scholars from the previous generation (for example, J.N.D. Kelly, d. 1997) as well as more-recent commentators (for example, Luke T. Johnson) assume that our passage in Titus demands that an elder's children must be Christians. This view, and its corresponding practice, has also held an honored position among the Churches of Christ, though it has often been applied inconsistently and, as I see it, legalistically.

It's high time, though, for us in the Churches of Christ to embrace our own rhetoric on this question; to "go back to the Bible" and "handle aright the word of truth." If a compelling case can be made for the traditional interpretation, then a congregation should stay with it. But if, on the other hand, it seems clear that the congregation has been more strict than Scripture is, then a choice has to be made. Either the group can be as open as the Lord is. Or they can take the Pharisaic path of seeking "safety" by maintaining a man-made hedge that encircles and "protects" the Word of God.

Naturally, I'm interested to hear your comments and observations. Although I use comment moderation in order to prevent spam and ugly comments from angry exes, I never censor disagreement. So tell me: what do you think?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Church Elders and Their Children, Part 3

[A part of your problem is] your interpretation of who is eligible to be an elder . . . you are excluding an awful lot of folks from being your elders by a very legalistic interpretation of what Paul wrote. Can you have a non-believer in your home? Must you have multiple children? If your youngest child is not old enough to be baptized, are you not eligible to be an elder? . . . You are cutting off openings for your younger brighter folks coming along who are in touch with the culture and who are very gifted, able people. --Lyle Schaller, "dean of church consultants," speaking of the Churches of Christ, Interview in Wineskins magazine, Volume 1, Number 11 (April 1993), pp. 9-11.


If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. (Titus 1:6, King James Version)

An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. (New International Version)

Here's the question: Does this verse mean that a prospective elder must have one or more children who are baptized believers in Christ? As Schaller pointed out, most congregations of the Churches of Christ say, "Yes." But there are several good reasons for understanding this passage in a different way. That's what this series of posts is about.

Before taking the discussion further, I want to say something about why this is significant. From 1993 through 2005, I worked with two congregations of the Churches of Christ in Connecticut. During that time, I became fairly well acquainted with the congregations of New England. In the 1990s, of about 81 congregations in the six New England states, only about 10-15% of those churches had ordained elders. Since then, some of these churches have taken that step for the very first time. Many of the congregations have been in existence for 30, 40, even 50 years or more. But even now there is only a small percentage of elder-led churches in that region. And why?

Legal Texts?

In general, the answer has much to do with an approach to elder selection that sees 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 as legal texts. This approach begins by assuming that if any prospective elder does not match up well with every descriptive phrase found in both of these passages, he is thereby disqualified. The church cannot appoint him, because he is not a God-approved elder.

This practice begins with a number of faulty assumptions. For example, we can begin by asking, "Why use these two passages in a way that would have been impossible for both of the original recipients?" Timothy didn't have a copy of the letter to Titus. And Titus wasn't reading the First Letter to Timothy. Making a super list by combining both texts is a practice of many contemporary Churches of Christ. In effect, it becomes a tool by which congregations start picking off elder candidates. Ironically, this practice of the Churches of Christ was never followed in any New Testament church. Another series of posts on this subject would focus not so much on the "trees" (like our phrase in Titus 1:6). Instead, it would back away from particulars and think about how best to understand and apply the "forest," the biblical teaching about shepherds.

That said, I want to return to our question. In my experience, the phrase we're studying is one of the most-common sticking points when it comes to whether a man is deemed qualified. The last post looked at some of the different ways that the Greek word pistos is used in the New Testament. Again, this is the word in Titus 1:6 that, in the New International Version, is translated "a man whose children believe." In the King James Bible the phrase reads, "having faithful children." Do those words expect that the elder's children must be Christians? In the last post we noticed that the Greek word pistos refers to Christian faith or identity in only about 25% of its 67 occurrences in the New Testament. This naturally raises the question of how pistos should be understood in Titus 1:6.

Context is Key

Before getting to that question we should clarify something that everyone knows intuitively about the meaning of any word; namely "the determinative function of context." I put that phrase in quotations because it comes from a book by Moises Silva called Biblical Words and Their Meaning. Anyone interested in how the field of linguistics can help us to be better interpreters of Scripture should read it. (The link over the title provides almost all of the book's content). A shorter overview of many of the same ideas can be found in Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Chapter 3, "Basic Concepts," pp. 44-62.

Here's a bit of what you will encounter in those readings: Consider the sentence, "I sang before Queen Elizabeth." Upon reading that, most people assume they understand what is being said. The person is claiming to have performed for the Queen. However, what if you later discovered that Queen Elizabeth also sang on that occasion? In that case, the word "before" would not be interpreted as "in front of." Instead, it would more likely be a reference to time, as in "I sang before Queen Elizabeth sang." So, what does "before" mean? Only context provides the decisive clue. Or consider these sentences:

I ate ice cream with my friend.
I ate ice cream with my pie.
I ate ice cream with my spoon.

What does the word "with" mean? It all depends on the words around it, right? This is something that we all know. But we rarely think about it because we make any necessary adjustments naturally, without needing to think about it. The main point is this: What determines the meaning of a word in a sentence are the words that surround it. And, if you know something of the background, the history behind a statement (as in the example of singing "before" the Queen), that also can be decisive.

Now, let's apply these basic ideas to our interpretation of Titus 1:6. What do the words surrounding pistos tell us about what it means in this particular verse? To quote the passage again, a prospective elder's children should be pistos, "not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient" (NIV).

Almost as if Paul knows that people might wonder what he means by the Greek word in question, he adds that defining phrase. Again, in the King James, the phrase is translated "not accused of riot or unruly."

Question: Is that the sort of phrase Paul would use to describe people of Christian faith? Maybe. Or is that the sort of phrase he would use to simply say, "The elder's children, regardless of their age and personal faith, speak well of their father's ability to manage and direct a household"?

I vote for the latter. In other words, I don't believe that Titus 1:6 expects or requires an elder's children to necessarily be Christians. In the next post, I'll bring in another passage that can help make the case. Then, I'll conclude.

Naturally, I'm curious to hear your responses to these posts so far. What do you think?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Church Elders and Their Children, Part 2

He is Translation's thief that addeth more,
As much as he that taketh from the store,
Of the first author.

--Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) in, "To Dr. Witty"
My last post included three main ideas:

1. The New Testament teaches that each congregation of the Lord's people should be "self-governing under Christ." This congregational form of church government is distinct from what is called the presbyterian form (where presbyters guide all the churches of a region). It is also different from the episcopal form (where an individual like the Pope has oversight of all the churches).

2. The New Testament also teaches that each congregation of the body of Christ should be led by two or more mature, Christlike men who have been ordained, formally appointed to their work. The Scriptures typically refer to these men as shepherds (as in 1 Peter 5:1-4), elders, or overseers.

3. In the New International Version, Titus 1:6 says, "An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient." In contemporary Churches of Christ it is commonly believed that this verse teaches that a prospective elder must have at least one son or daughter who has come of age and has become a believer in Christ. Someone might ask, "If that's the meaning of Titus 1:6, then why would a church settle for just one Christian son or daughter? According to this interpretation, wouldn't Titus 1:6 expect that all of the elder's children would be Christians?" Good question. However, at the end of the first post I said that there are some problems with this traditional understanding. That's what I want to take up next.

Pistos in the New Testament

In Titus 1:6, the expression "whose children believe" (the King James says "having faithful children") is translated from the Greek adjective pistos (pronounced piss-STOSS, with the emphasis on the second syllable). This word occurs 67 times in the Greek New Testament and is used in a variety of ways:

1. Sometimes pistos is used to describe God the Father. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, for example, Paul says, God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful" (pistos). Another example comes from 1 John 1:9. It says that if we Christians confess our sins, "God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness."

2. In other parts of the New Testament, pistos describes people without necessarily referring to their identities as Christians. For example, Hebrews 3:5 says that "Moses was faithful as a servant in all God's house." In Matthew 25:21 and 23, two servants in Jesus' Parable of the Talents are commended as "good and faithful servants."

3. Pistos can also refer to something rather than someone. In Revelation 22:6, for example, an angel says to John, "These words are trustworthy and true."

Clearly, this word can be used in ways that include no hint of the believing character of the person or thing being described. In fact, only about 25% of the New Testament occurrences of the word (16 out of 67) fall into that category. However, when it comes to Titus 1:6, it's obvious that English Bible translators have thought that pistos means precisely that in this context. A few of their renderings:
  • "a man whose children believe" (NIV)
  • "his children are believers" (RSV)
  • "whose children hold the faith" (Ronald Knox)
  • "whose children are Christians" (20th Century New Testament)

I contend that these expressions are overstated, unwarranted mistranslations of the phrase in question. Next time, I'll say more about why I think so.

In the meantime, as always, I welcome your feedback. What do you think?


Note: For a good, short article on the Greek word pistos, scroll down to pages 97-98 of Volume 3 of the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. (Google Books includes a button for increasing the size of the text if it appears too small). For much more, consult the massive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament ("Kittel"), Volume 6, which contains an extensive article by Rudolf Bultmann, beginning on page 174.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Church Elders and Their Children, Part 1

I'm writing this series of posts in order to respond to a specific question. From experience, I know that in the Churches of Christ, my religious family, this is an important issue. I suspect it also has meaning in other fellowships as well.

But before I raise the question, a short introduction for those who might be reading this from an "outsider's" point of view. Although we don't usually talk about it in these terms, people in the Churches of Christ believe that the New Testament envisions a congregational form of church government. This is distinct from a church government that is either presbyterian or episcopal. In other words, we don't believe that the Bible speaks of a presbytery that rules over all the congregations in a region (the presbyterian form of church government). Nor do we think that the Scriptures anticipate the Roman Catholic Papacy, or the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (these being examples of the episcopal form of government). Instead, starting from the premise that the Christian Bible, given by God, has a unique and exclusive authority, we believe the Scriptures teach that a single congregation of believers should be "self-governing under Christ" (an expression used by Wallace Alexander in Introducing the Church of Christ, pages 71-75).

When it comes to the leadership of each independent congregation, the Bible exhibits, if I may I say it, a pattern. (There is a huge difference between identifying a pattern and, on the other hand, insisting on a narrow patternism). According to the biblical precedent, a plurality of men referred to as elders (or shepherds, or overseers), under Christ, serves, nurtures, teaches, provides an example for, and manages an independent, single congregation, the one that they're a part of.

Not only that, the Bible provides ideal descriptions of elders and their various roles in the life of the congregation. Some descriptions refer to an elder's qualities or characteristics (in paragraphs like 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9). In other passages, we read about what elders actually do (see, for example, Acts 20:28-31 and 1 Peter 5:1-4). By giving prayerful attention to passages like these, congregations can be led by the Lord to develop, identify, and appoint their elders. The New Testament depicts this as something that happens under the leadership of evangelists, Christ's Apostles and their delegates (see, for example, Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5).

Now I know, there's so much more that begs to be said about my subject. But I want to get to the point of this series. Here's my question: Does Titus 1:6 teach that a prospective elder's children must be Christians?

According to the King James Version, the Bible of English-speaking Christianity for centuries, the verse says, If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

In the New International Version, today's most-popular English translation, it says, An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.

To the minds of many people the phrase having faithful children (KJV) or whose children believe (NIV) means that, in order to be qualified to become an elder, a man must have Christian children. In countless instances, a congregation has settled for at least one son or daughter who has grown beyond early childhood and has since become a believer.

In the posts that follow, I plan to critique this interpretation and practice, and explain what I think is the truly-biblical alternative. About any of this, I'd love to hear your thoughts, questions, experiences, etc.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A video about every book of the Bible

That's the tagline for a website I just came across. Apparently, the project is being done by scholars at the University of Nottingham. So far, I've watched only a few of the videos. My reviews would be mixed. It's an interesting idea, though. Check it out. The name of the site is Bibledex.