October 31, 2009

Life, Doctrine and Women's Ministry

Also posted at Gifted for Leadership

Whether through books, Bible studies, retreats, or conferences, a central focus of women’s ministry has been on the practical dimensions of Christian living, either presupposing the theological understanding of the audience—which isn’t always wrong to do—or simply neglecting to ground the practical in a richer theological framework.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we aren’t teaching women Scripture, but in the rush to fill in the blanks, we aren’t teaching women to handle the Word as theologians. Some women’s ministry leaders have made statements that undermine the process of doing theology, suggesting that because knowing theology is not provisional for salvation that somehow it lacks practical value. We are good at teaching principles and precepts from the Word, but are we communicating interdependence between life and doctrine? Is there a place of theological education in the context of women’s ministry?

“Life and doctrine are interdependent.” These are the words of John Frame who serves as the chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. From his book, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, he argues for a more integrated understanding of the practical and the theoretical, suggesting that one cannot exist without the other. He writes: “The Greek terms based on didasko typically refer in the Pastoral Epistles to a teaching of the word of God that leads to spiritual health. This is ‘sound’ or ‘healthy’ teaching. So doctrine, defined as this kind of teaching, also has an ethical goal. It is not given to us merely for intellectual contemplation.”

Life and doctrine were never intended to be separated and any attempt to teach about the day to day Christian life without Christian doctrine provides for a limited or empty experience. By ethical, Frame is referencing the ongoing process of sanctification of becoming more conformed to the image of God.

Granted, the “ivory towers” of academia have given at least the perception that the theoretical has no real relationship with the daily struggles of everyday people, but the content and tapestry of our worldview plays an extremely relevant role to how we live. This means that what we believe (or don’t believe) directly impacts our daily lives. As Christian women who are able to spend time together in small groups, Bible studies, retreats, and conferences, a more concentrated focus needs to be devoted to teaching women to own the content of their faith so that they are equipped to apply the eternal truths of Scripture to their lives on their own.

October 28, 2009

What Should Christians Really Expect?

Also posted at First Things

It is being reported today that Christianity is undergoing yet an assault via loons in the entertainment industry. There’s not much new about that. In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David urinates on a painting of Jesus, causing a woman to believe the painting depicts him crying, as if a miracle has occurred.

Two things cross my mind as I read more about this story. First, as Christians why is this so shocking? It is disturbing, but these are not followers of Christ perpetrating these actions. It’s not like we can expect them to act as believers if, indeed, they are not.

Secondly, perhaps we actually contribute to the problem of political correctness by demanding that we, as representatives of Christianity, be treated with the same so-called tolerance and respect offered to other worldviews. I hear it framed this way frequently by conservative pundits, let me apply it to this case: “Well if this was a picture of Mohammad you would act less offensively.”

No doubt Christianity is the red-headed step child (how’s that for pc?) of contemporary culture, but this provides for an opportunity to speak truth, not suppress it in some sort of worldview fairness doctrine.

October 27, 2009

Moral Reform & Ministry to Women: an excerpt

Also posted at First Things

With a sense of urgency, the body of Christ needs to be equipped to give an answer to obstacles and objections to faith as a matter of discipleship within the church as well as for the gospel ministry each member of the body has outside of the church. And how we live from the point of conversion onward will reflect to the world a certain degree of faithfulness to the truths we claim. Transgressions by well-known “family values” politicians who might otherwise be regarded as moral reformers in the years that follow their civil service are often regarded as a failure of the Christian worldview, leaving the church ashamed and silent. The old adage “talking the talk without walking the walk” is taking on a greater sense of relevance in this new century. And due to advancements in technology, sometimes the specific decisions that we face in life need a bit more ethical reflection than a congregation is generally equipped to face. The 21st century believer is confronted by a plethora of ideas and decisions, and the church must stand firm and prepare her people to think theologically in such a way to impact all areas of life. We must prepare a place for deliberate theology, apologetics, and ethics education in the church, especially in the sphere of women’s ministry. Why particularly women’s ministry?

The experience of womanhood provides opportunity to address certain issues women in particular can relate to, and to disciple in a way that addresses deeply engrained ideas rooted in false belief, replacing them with truth. The choices that many women make about how to live—choices made prior to conversion and perhaps even early in their Christian walk—have consequences that come with them to the pew—when they eventually find the pew. Some of these consequences can never be eliminated, preventing them from finding functional reconciliation with biblical womanhood and related teachings. For instance, a single mother who has no choice but to work in order to care for her family can never fulfill the vision of womanhood that has her at home supporting a husband as head. Of course, this may be taught as the biblical ideal, but never being able to achieve it may have a significant effect on her relationship with God and those in her church. This is not to recommend the abandonment of biblical teachings on the family, church leadership, or parenting because they might seem irrelevant to the particular circumstances of many women. The issue I am raising is much larger.

The manner in which the teachings of biblical womanhood are often communicated is a “circle the wagons” approach for which a real potential exists to further marginalize women already on the fringes. Extra caution needs to be taken when communicating a pattern for living, especially to those whose day to day lives will probably never reflect a the model for marriage and family taught in scripture. Discipleship methods need to take into account that women are in a variety of places on their spiritual journey. Women whose lives will likely never arrive at what they have been taught about what God has ordained for marriage and the family are often left floundering, in a never-ending battle to please God. This biblical ideal is so highly regarded that often, little emphasis is spent on equipping all women to glorify God within their current reality.

Indeed, the church must continue to defend a family structure that glorifies God as reflected in scripture so that families might not be influenced or tainted by the whims of culture. But the church must also be intentional about educating and equipping the individuals and broken families who, by the leading of the Spirit, have found their way to the community of believers, but whose day to day life more closely resembles the ways of the world. This is, I believe, more a matter of Christian education than of therapy, the direction women’s ministry often tends to lean.

Conversion changes our position before God, but it does not immediately change the way we think or how we live in our particular circumstances. Women from all backgrounds certainly do need to understand what scripture teaches about the family, because they are being called to effectively impart those teachings to their children, unbelieving husbands, and perhaps other members of their family. In this sense, we must continue to affirm and actively embrace what scripture teaches regarding biblical womanhhood. But these women also desperately need to develop a fuller, more complete theology so that they can make sense out of their circumstances and critically consider how to live to the glory of God in all areas of life for the rest of their life. Trying “to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” in various circumstances is one of the greatest challenges for women today. This is virtually impossible if we continue to circle the wagons and communicate a message that essentially excludes women on the fringes.

October 25, 2009

Have the Doctrine-Obsessed Lost Touch with the Heart of Jesus?

The title of this post begs the question, who are the doctrine-obsessed and is that an accurate assessment of them? In the Washington Post’s Evangelicals Feel a Need for Renewal, this is one of many perspectives on what’s wrong with evangelicalism as discussed at a recent conference at Gordon-Conwell:

Richard Alberta, senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Mich., said preoccupations with doctrinal purity help explain why he struggles to round up other evangelicals to join him at anti-abortion events.

“When you get evangelicals among themselves, instead of addressing the social and moral issues, they get backwatered into some debate about dispensationalism or Calvin or Charismatic Renewal,” Alberta said. “There’s lots of suspicion, and those worries seem to act as filters that keep evangelicals from getting together.”

Similar frustrations were expressed by Travis Hutchinson, pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Lafayette, Ga. He said he routinely gets a cool response from other evangelicals when he asks them to join his efforts to minister among undocumented immigrants.

The problem, he said, is that the doctrine-obsessed have lost touch with the heart of Jesus. “The missing ingredient is not the primacy of the mind and doctrine,” Hutchinson said. “It’s the willingness to suffer.”

Is it the lack of cohesive doctrine that inspires the focus on doctrine? Scripture calls us not only to unity in mission, but also in unity in message.

October 23, 2009

Evangelicalism, Ethics, & Eggshells

Teaching ethics in a local junior college is a great opportunity to impact minds in my community. A somewhat ancillary discussion we have had in class is the usage of moral and ethical–terms with no meaningful distinction, though sometimes associated with different quadrants of society (e.g. business & ethics, religion & morality). Within evangelicalism, we similarly have our own usage for these terms, adding to the list Christian living and growing in Christ, among others.

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