forgoing the blessing of children 5 (final)

In this post I’m going to make some conclusions, engage with readers’ comments, ask some questions and respond to Christopher Ash’s book Marriage: sex in the service of God.

Concluding remarks

Of course children are a blessing! Of couse raising and nurturing children to love Jesus is an important ministry, equal to any other! My purpose in writing this series has not been to diminish the ministry of parenthood, but simply to argue that as Christians, we are free to choose wisely on this matter.

Why are we free? Firstly, the purpose of marriage is not to reproduce but to become ‘one flesh’ and so to witness to the coming heavenly reality of Jesus and his Church. A marriage without children is not deficient. Secondly, the purpose of childbirth in terms of God’s redemptive plans for the world has already been achieved through Jesus. Thirdly Jesus has transformed the meaning of fruitfulness and of family  – both these are blessings open to anyone regardless of their marital status and fertility. These blessings are ultimately experienced only through him. It’s Jesus who makes all the difference. Although it is good to have children for many reasons, the ultimate purpose of childbirth is already accomplished. Therefore we’re free to choose whatever may be wisest, most loving, most beneficial for God’s people.

Responses to readers’ comments

Does the Old Testament teach salvation by childbearing?

Yes and no. I think this is one of those things where there’s a tension which is finally made clear in the gospel. Children are certainly a sign of being blessed by God, you could even say they’re a reward for faithfulness in the Old Testament, a sign of salvation. So the promise to the eunuchs of something even better in Isaiah 56 would have been a bit of a mystery – “what could be better than children?” they must have asked.

There’s a sense that salvation will come to Israel through corporate childbearing (ie not I’m saved because I had a baby but God’s people are saved through their multiplying as this led to the Messiah’s birth). They are God’s chosen nation in his plan to redeem and bless the world and so salvation came through their being perpetuated as a people. If you were unmarried or infertile, therefore, you couldn’t participate directly in bringing this salvation.

On an individual level however, no, the Old Testament doesn’t teach salvation through childbearing. God has always wanted faith. The confusion comes in when God blesses faithfulness in the Old Testament by giving people children. Part of the reward for faith was to participate in the procreation of God’s people and hence the redemption of the world. So it became very easy for ancient Israelites to put their hope in procreation (just as they also did in the Law) rather than in God himself.

What about women being ‘saved through childbirth’?

I deliberately avoided this passage because it’s so fraught! As someone almost completely unqualified to interpret one of the most contested passages in the Bible, I’ll just tell you which interpretation I lean towards, but sorry, I can’t give any strong conclusions.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But she will be saved through [the] childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

To me it makes sense that ‘she’ refers back to Eve. Eve’s childbearing was cursed, but God used it, redeemed it, by using it to bring the birth of the Messiah. So those who continue as faithful Christians will be saved because God used women’s childbearing to bring Jesus. Obviously this reading fits best with how I already understand childbirth in salvation history, so there’s probably some confirmation bias operating. I like Tony Escobar’s take on it here.

Does this mean marriage is also transformed in the New Covenant?

Yes! Marriage also changes with the gospel. It’s no longer all important. Marriage (and kids) is no longer how you contribute to God’s plans in history. This is why Paul is able to argue in 1 Corinthians 7 that although marriage is good, it’s actually better to be single. But marriage is not completley done away with because the ‘one flesh’ relationship points us to the future even more clearly than before. Whereas in the past procreation pointed Israel to the hope in a future redeemer, now marriage points us to the ultimate ‘one flesh’ relationship of Jesus and his church. So in the New Covenant, both marriage and singleness are good options and are witnesses to our hope in Jesus. Marriage because it’s an imitation of Jesus and his bride, singleness because it shows that we don’t need worldy families or heirs – we’re looking forward to our heavenly family.

Response to Christopher Ash

In the chapter ‘Children in the Service of God‘, Ash argues that ‘it is God’s general will and purpose that when a man and woman come together in marriage they should have children. The project… is natural and integral part of their service of God in marriage.’ But he is clear to point out that procreation in marriage is not ‘a goal of marriage in its own right’, it’s not an ends in itself but points to ‘the greater goal of the service of God’.

These are the main contours of Ash’s argument:

  • Part of the reason that it was ‘not good’ for the man to be alone in the garden was that he needed a woman in order to procreate. (I just don’t see any Biblical evidence for this claim.)
  • In the post-fall world, procreation of godly offspring is good. But since the world is fallen and only sinful children have been born, the blessing of procreation is ambiguous. (I agree.)
  • When Abraham was called, the universal blessing to humanity of fruitfulness and multiplication was transposed to his descendants. When Israelite couples had children, God’s purpose was that their offspring should carry on God’s task of bringing his rule to his world. (I agree with this too.)
  • The Old Testament is really pro-reproduction! (I also agree)
  • Having children is not just about procreation but also about nurturing them, a task which requires a righteous character. This means that procreation is deeply personal – it involves the couple, the child and God and all their relationships(once again, I agree)

So we’re mostly in furious agreement.

Then he goes on to critique Karl Barth. I had the pleasure of discovering that Barth somehow trickled down to me – what I thought I had come up with myself in this blog was actually just echoing Barth’s argument in Church Dogmatics III.

Ash argues against Barth that:

  1. Israelite reproduction was not solely directed towards producing the Messiah because some Israelites would not have directly contributed to Jesus’ line.
  2. The blessing to Abraham’s offspring is not directed exclusively to Jesus. Instead, the good of procreation in Israel was directed to both the Messiah and the people whom the Messiah will rule. He writes that ‘it is not persuasive that at the “Christ instant” in salvation history the people of God has collapsed into one man’ because of the presence of righteous Jews at the time of Jesus.
  3. Although Paul and Jesus are both silent on the procreational good of marriage, this is because they assumed it.
  4. We need to have babies physically first so that they can be reborn spiritually. We have an obligation to produce the next generation.
  5. Having children is a sign of the Christian hope that God is redeeming the world.

Our main disagreement is about Jesus, the scope of his work and the difference it makes. Here are my brief responses.

  1. I would say Israelite reproduction was directed towards producing the Messiah. It was, however, as a people rather than as individuals such that those who aren’t actually ‘in the line’ contribute through growing the people and the society from which the Messiah came (in Romans 9:5 Paul credits all Jews with the human ancestry of Jesus even though they weren’t all ‘in line’).
  2. The blessing to Abraham’s offspring is not directed exclusively to Jesus, but it is ultimately for Jesus and through Jesus (see the discussion of the ‘seed/offspring’ in Galatians 3). The people of God does collapse down into just one person – Jesus – in the Gospels. Everyone deserted him, he went to the cross alone, as the only faithful Israelite. Moreover, Jesus does not need a biological people or remnant to rule, he’s building a spiritual people (1 Peter 2).
  3. Whereas Ash presumes that Jesus and Paul are silent on procreation because they presume it, I would say they are silent because they are not concerned about it.
  4. I’m unaware of any Biblical evidence that supports the idea that Christians are responsible for producing the next generation so we can have people to evangelise. There seem to be plenty of people around to me.
  5. I agree that having children is an act of faith that God is redeeming the world, and have some sympathy for this argument. At the same time, however, I think that not having children is equally an act of faith that God will reward sacrifices made for his sake and that our family is ultimately found through Jesus and his Church, not procreation. Interestingly, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 7 is almost the opposite to the argument that we should procreate because we trust God’s good future for this world. Paul argues that since the ‘world in its present form is passing away’ we shouldn’t be too concerned about earthly things like family. We shouldn’t seek to get tied down because what matters most is our devotion to Christ.

Ash then goes on to attack Christian couples who think differently to him and have chosen not to have children. Although he is careful to mention that we need to avoid legalism and that only God knows our hearts, he insinuates that such couples are probably selfish and irresponsible. Such a marriage might not even be ‘real love’ according to him, because they are presumed to be unwilling to love the stranger. Those who choose childlessness for the sake of ministry he dismisses as probable liars. Couples who, for whatever reason, feel unable to have children apparently lack trust in God’s goodness.

Only in extreme circumstances (such as a rare medical condition) may a couple decide not to have children, but it must be a ‘reluctant’ choice such that they feel ‘frustrated in their yearnings’ to have children. This is a concession due to the brokenness of our world. To me this is confusing. He admits that choosing not to have children may be wisest for some, but insists that they should feel some kind of anguish about the decision (perhaps to signal that they weren’t being selfish). That is, they need negative feelings, despite it being the wisest, godliest option! To me, this model seems to doubt God’s goodness as it implies that we should feel conflicted when exercising wisdom in good conscience. That’s not grace.

Some questions

  • What have been your experiences on this issue? Have you chosen to have kids or not have kids as an act of faith?
  • How can we best support parents and infertile couples without implying parenthood is always compulsory?
  • Does this change how we think about sex? Can we dissociate sex from procreation without pornification and objectification? What does ‘one flesh’ really mean?
  • What can we learn from figures in the Bible who didn’t have children? I suspect Priscilla and Aquila had no kids, possibly also the Samaritan woman at the well (which might be why so many men rejected her).
  • What have I missed?

forgoing the blessing of children 4

This is my fourth post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. I’m working through these points.

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

I’m also going to add a final post after this one with concluding comments, responses to readers’ questions and still more questions. A reader introduced me to Christopher Ash’s book Marriage: Sex in the service of God which argues the opposite to me, so I’m also planning on making some comments on his argument.

Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions

Wealthy Christians in the 21st century have a lot more decisions to make than those in the first century. For most people throughout history, your work, your spouse, where you lived was not up to you to pick – so the Bible doesn’t give specific advice on making these decisions (except marry a believer if possible). Now many of us have more technology, more money, better health, better transport and can choose all these things ourselves. We also have very effective methods of contraception and have more control over whether and how many children to have. Obviously the Bible doesn’t consider a situation where you could be married and have control over whether or not to have kids – it’s not a first century question.  Like all the other decisions we now make, we need wisdom in this one too.

I argue that Christians are free to make this decision – wisely and lovingly – just as we make all our decisions in life. Firstly a general principle. Christians are never free to choose anything just out of self-interest. We always consider the interests of others as we seek to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. So being ‘childfree’ simply to pursue the DINK dream is not likely to be a loving option.  That said, it is ok to consider your own happiness in decision-making (1 Cor 7:40). Secondly, just because something is good, doesn’t mean that it’s always wise or loving to pursue it. We see this principle in operation with Paul’s arguments in 1 Cor 7 about whether or not to get married. Marriage is good, but singleness is really good. You can’t be both simultaneously but both options are fine, so we need to exercise wisdom.

If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honourably towards the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin – this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

(On a side note – singleness is also transformed in the New Covenant. To even consider remaining single, and therefore rule out having an heir, went radically against 1st century norms but Paul says it’s the better option. The Gospel has totally changed things for families.)

So the question is, can it be ‘good’ to be married without children. Could that be a good option?

I say yes. First, look at Genesis 2. It was ‘not good’ for the man to be alone, but when the woman was formed (a marriage without kids) it was good. I’ve already argued that having children is not the purpose of marriage and that in terms of God’s redemptive plans for the world, the purpose of childbearing is fulfilled in Jesus.

Second, following Paul’s logic about marriage, I would argue,  it can be good not to be childless. Paul’s logic can apply to the decision whether or not to have children. It’s the same factors which need to be weighed up. It involves choosing between good options – marriage or the freedom which comes with singleness, having kids or the freedom of not having kids. Paul’s principle is wherever possible to choose your relationship or family status with your personal situation, temperament and  what’s good for the Kingdom in mind. However, he does emphasise the benefits of being unattached.

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

For Paul, the downside of marriage is that it can distract from devotion to Christ, so getting married is a decision one should make with caution. How much more does having children present an opportunity for distraction from devotion to the Lord. A parent’s interests’ are divided again; it’s not just the other spouse and the Lord, but now kids too. If you want to be free from concern, having children is not the way to do it! I would say, according to the logic of this passage, that it might be good for some couples not to have children and so be freer to serve the Lord.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it is ‘not good’ for a couple to not have children. But even if it were ‘not good’, this would not mean it is out of the question for Christians. Jesus explicitly calls his disciples to put his kingdom before anything else. This could include giving up good things, blessings from God, including even a spouse or kids for the surpassing goodness of his Kingdom. See Luke 18:

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’

Why might a couple decide to go without children?

I don’t want to be too prescriptive here because I want to emphasise our freedom as people under grace to make wise and loving decisions.

What factors might influence the decision whether or not to have children? Children open some doors and close others in terms of ministry. Cross culturally they can help build bridges between cultures, but then again, children’s educational or health needs might put a limit how much cross-cultural ministry parents can do. Some couples may already have responsibilities as carers and not be able to take on parenthood in addition. Some couples may not have children for health reasons. I want to emphasise that their marriage has not failed to achieve its purpose if they feel unable to take on parenthood. Some may want to continue a ministry living an area which is not appropriate or safe for children. You also don’t need much money when you don’t have kids. For me, at the moment, not having children means that my husband are free to be a bit financially ‘irresponsible’ as he trains for ministry. There are many reasons why, for some couples, the wisest, most loving way to serve the church may involve not having children. Indeed, the way for them to be the most ‘fruitful’ might mean not reproducing! I think we can thank God for reliable contraception so that they can make this decision.

Finally, this is not to say that some couples ought not to have children. Having children is never selfish or wrong. I want to reaffirm that children are a blessing. Also, there’s every chance God will send ‘surprise’ blessings – getting married always means being open to the possibility of children. However, the choice to forgo the blessing of children is a valid choice for Christians – it still goes against the grain of our culture as it points to a hope in our heavenly family – so it is a decision we should support and respect.

forgoing the blessing of children 3

This is my third post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. I’m working through three points.

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

In this post I’m working through children in the Old and New Covenants. This is going to be a long post.

The need for offspring

Under the Old Covenant, the way you had ‘eternal life’ and ensured the continuation of your ‘name’ was through male offspring. This was how your ‘house’ continued forever. For example, the laws around Levirate marriage (where you have to marry your dead brother’s wife, see Deuteronomy 25) were all about ensuring the continuation of your dead brother’s name. That’s also why there’s such strict laws about kicking someone in the balls – you had to be able to procreate! If you failed to have children, it was like you were ‘blotted out’, deleted from history, as if you were never there.

It follows from this that women’s main role in the Old Covenant people was to be mothers. Being a mother of Israel was a high calling. Still, it put heaps of pressure on women to have lots of male babies. For a woman, to be infertile in ancient Israel meant you could not fulfill your social role, your main duty in life.

In addition to ensuring the continuation of your name, having children was the way that God’s people grew. That’s why there’s so many genealogies. So, in Malachi 2 we learn that God wanted Israelite marriages to produce ‘godly offspring.’

You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

The hope of a new covenant

Surprisingly, the prophets spoke of hope when not having kids no longer meant being cursed or ‘blotted out.’ The prophet Isaiah spoke of an everlasting name even for those those who did not have children.

Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

In Jesus, this hope has arrived

Jesus fulfills this hope. In the New Covenant, your children are no longer your salvation. Eternal life and a name that ‘endures forever’ is not found through baby boys but through Jesus. Our names will never be ‘blotted out’, in fact we are given new names, Jesus’ own name (Rev 2,3,14).

The people of God in the New Covenant don’t grow through childbirth. We are not a biological people, but a people born of the Spirit. John’s Gospel is pretty clear on this:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God…

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Jesus is now  building a spiritual ‘house’, a spiritual people.

So Jesus also gives family a radical new meaning – it’s not your earthly family which matters any more – real family is in the Church.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said,“Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

In Jesus’ Kingdom, being a infertile is no longer a curse. In fact, he teaches that people might actually choose this life for the sake of his Kingdom. This is something radically different!

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

So what why does the Old Testament talk so much about childbirth?

So if Jesus redeems us from a world where can only hope at eternal life through having children, if he actually gives us a name that endures forever and a real lasting family in his Kingdom, what was the point of having children in the Old Covenant? Why does the Old Covenant seem so pro-reproduction?

As I’ve already said, having children was the way that God grew his people in the Old Covenant. It was through Abraham, his offspring, Israel, that God would bless the whole world. Could it be that the point of childbearing in the Old Covenant was to bring the world our Messiah, Jesus?

Paul seems to imply as much in Galatians 3 when he says that Jesus is the ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ of Abraham.

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,”meaning one person, who is Christ.

Throughout the Old Testament there is a hope that perhaps the offspring of Adam and Eve will redeem the world. The very first mention of childbearing in the whole Bible is a reference to ‘offspring’ fighting with the serpent. Cain was a disappointment. So we have genealogies, lists of male children. Enosh gave us hope. Noah might have been a fresh start, then we get to Abraham and the promise to his ‘offspring.’

At significant points, God gives a miracle to an infertile woman, providing a child of the promise: Sarah and Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob, Rachel and Joseph then latter Hannah and Samuel. These reinforce the idea that God himself is building his people and it is God who will bring future redemption through the continuing line of offspring.

As Christians we believe that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. God used the labours of all those Israelite women through the generations to bring us the Messiah. The genealogy in Luke, going all the way back to Adam and God, gives a hint that this was where all that childbearing was directed – to Jesus.

So when we read in Malachi 2 that God desired Israel’s marriages to produce ‘godly offspring’ how do we interpret Godly offspring as New Covenant people? God’s desire to see Godly offspring has actually been fulfilled. We know him. Jesus is the godly offspring.

Jesus fulfills everything for humanity

In Jesus the purpose of childbirth in God’s plans for redeeming the world has been fulfilled. Not only is he the fulfillment of Israel’s hope in ‘offspring’ which would bring God’s redemption. Jesus has fulfilled every requirement and purpose for humanity. He is the new Adam, those who are in him are the new humanity.

So he fulfills the command that humanity ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.

What about ‘fruitfulness’? Yes, that now happens, not by having babies, but by being in Jesus, the source of all fruitfulness.

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

The ‘fruit’ in John is Love – but Jesus is the vine, we’re just branches. He is the source of our fruitfulness.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul brings together the ideas of fruit, filling the whole world, multiplying and having dominion, showing us that all this accomplished in the gospel of Jesus.

The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world …. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God…

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

A final note about infertility in the New Testament

It’s no accident that the final miraculous birth to a ‘barren’ woman recorded in the Bible is Elizabeth and her baby John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant. When a baby is born to the virgin Mary, it’s like a new beginning.

Women are much more prominent in the New Testament than in the Old. In the old, most of the women’s stories have to do with childbirth and contributing to a genealogy, but in the New Testament, after the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, there’s no interest in fertility or genealogies at all. The trope of the miraculous birth to the ‘barren’ woman abruptly ends. Jesus alludes to plenty of Old Testament miracles, but he doesn’t miraculously enable any women to get pregnant (ok maybe the bleeding woman, but the narrator doesn’t mention that she bore her husband a son – it’s not the point of the story). This is something new and different.

Instead of producing offspring, we hear about women’s responses to Jesus, their discovery of the empty tomb, their faithful service, their work proclaiming the Gospel. Women’s purpose in life is no longer to produce offspring for Israel, but to be part of Jesus’ Church.

Conclusion

Of course, having children has many good purposes – children bring great joy, they teach us many things about ourselves and about God, and they show God’s kindness across generations. But in terms of God’s redeeming plans for the world, the purpose of childbirth has already been fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the purpose of children in the Old Covenant – he is the offspring – as well as the command to humanity to be fruitful and subdue the earth. We’re fruitful too, not through childbirth, but through growing in love, in Jesus.

forgoing the blessing of children 2

This is my second post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. Here’s an outline of my points:

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

Marriage is not about kids, it’s about being ‘one flesh.’

The argument that God made marriage for having children often comes from Genesis 1:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.

This passage, however, tells us nothing about marriage. In Genesis 1 God addresses humanity as male and female. Humanity is to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’. For teaching on marriage, we need to go to Genesis 2.

God said it was ‘not good for the man to be alone’ and so he made ‘a helper suitable’ or a ‘fitting complement’ for him. They are equals in every way. God slices the man in half and makes a woman so that in marriage, the two are (re)united as ‘one flesh.’ They’re made for each other; Genesis 2 teaches that God made man and woman so this ‘one flesh’ union could be possible. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.’ Why? So that they could have kids? No. It’s so that they might ‘become one flesh.’ Adam and Eve’s marriage is fulfilling its purpose in the garden. There’s no sign of any babies yet, and it was good.

(In fact the first mention of childbirth is after the fall – the woman’s ‘offspring’ will fight the serpent – but more on that in the next post)

Let’s jump to Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19 in the New Testament.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’

Jesus also teaches that God created humanity male and female so that the two could become ‘one flesh’ in marriage. Divorce is a terrible thing, not because of anything to do with children and the need to produce them but primarily because it violates the ‘one flesh’ relationship. Then Jesus goes on to something more radical: family is no longer of paramount importance in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In 1 Corinthians 7, however, Paul does bring children into the question of divorce.

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

This passage is a tricky one. What do you mean ‘I, not the Lord’, Paul? But what is clear that Paul is not at all concerned that by getting divorced the opportunity for a marriage to produce children is lost. If children were the primary purpose of marriage you would think Paul would instruct them to stay together to keep having kids. No, Paul is concerned that the children of divorce will miss out on being part of the church and receiving the gospel. It is still the gospel which saves them.

Moving onto a more famous (and cheery) marriage passage, Ephesians 5.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Here Paul teaches that the unity of ‘one flesh’ is actually about Jesus and his church. Marriage is a shadow of the ultimate reality of our unity with Christ. It’s like married people point to the real ‘one flesh’ relationship. But again, what about the children? Where are they? It seems to me that being ‘one flesh’ is actually an ends in itself.

Finally Revelation 21.

 ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God.

In Revelation 21, the wedding is the culmination of history. God’s purposes aren’t completed when the ‘bride’ finally has a baby! It’s the wedding! It’s the reunification of heaven and earth, of God and humanity. If our earthly marriages are a witness to this great future, having children, as far as I can see has little or nothing to do with it.

Two gold rings - reflected candlesThere is another passage about the purpose of marriage which often gets brought up in this debate. Malachi 2.

The Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

There we have it: apparently God wants marriages to produce ‘godly offspring’. I’m actually going to leave this passage for now and deal with it in the next post where I talk about children in the old and new covenants. I’ll just say, now that we need to interpret Old Testament passages as Christians, not ancient Jews, and in the light of Jesus’ gospel.

Children are a blessing of marriage, but not the purpose of marriage. The purpose is to be ‘one flesh’, a foretaste, a living breathing metaphor of the union God has planned for himself and humanity.

in defence of generous orthodoxy

I like the attitude generous orthodoxy. That is, an approach to theology which values and strives for orthodoxy and truth, yet is generous towards people with whom you don’t quite see eye to eye. Generous orthodoxy holds fast to the Bible, yet is open to correction from fresh Biblical investigation. It assumes the best of others who interpret the Bible differently, because we all see through a glass darkly.

So Mark Thompson’s (the incoming principal of Moore College) recent post on ‘guarding the gospel’ made me anxious.

…there would always be those who wanted to claim the label ‘evangelical’ while actively working to undermine one or more of the basic convictions of historic ‘evangelicalism’.

You see, I am one of the people who identifies with evangelicals but who doesn’t hold all the convictions many evangelicals held in the past. Does he realise he’s pushing me outside the camp?

So who can claim to be evangelical?

I always thought that to be evangelical was to be ‘gospelly’ (‘gospel-centred’ as the current jargon goes). Evangelicals have been defined by the four values – biblicism, crucicentricism, activism and conversionism – that is, evangelicals are ‘Bible people’, they believe Jesus’ cross is the key, they get stuff done and they evangelise.

But now, according to Thompson, evangelicals are those who uphold ‘basic historic convictions’. He has redefined evangelicals: they are no longer ‘Gospel people’ but people who adhere to certain traditions and doctrines from centuries past. Thompson’s evangelicalism is no longer an approach or set of values but orthodoxy handed down.

This worries me. Even more concerning, our ‘evangelical heritage’, to him, is interchangeable with the gospel itself!

…This is what explains the regular call for vigilance among Christian leaders in the New Testament. It is a vigilance Marcus Loane understood to be part of our responsibility as heirs of such a magnificent evangelical heritage here in Sydney. Some may seek to caricature this determination to guard the gospel in a variety of ways…

This is why he is sceptical of ‘generous orthodoxy.’ He writes as if we got it pretty much all worked out (admittedly not perfectly, perhaps we’re just ironing out a few things), sometime in the past, and we need simply to guard our theology against ‘drifting’.

If the evangelical heritage were gospel, as Thompson implies, then generous orthodoxy would be dangerous. There would be no need for generosity because our theology would not need improvement.

But our evangelical doctrinal heritage is not the gospel! Generous orthodoxy is an approach that acknowledges that any theology is our human interpretation of God’s Word, not God’s Word itself. None of us can say we have completed the task of theology. We need, therefore, to be patient and generous with each other as we weigh up the strengths of various theological ideas.

Generous orthodoxy does not mean relativism. The orthodoxy bit of generous orthodoxy acknowledges that some theology is better than others. So we so we can strive for orthodoxy with a spirit of generosity towards others who have different interpretations. Yes, I appreciate the need to guard the deposit (and I am not saying we should be quick to discard theologies which have served us well), but sometimes guarding the gospel can be done through correcting our misconceptions, through refining our theology.

Whereas Thompson casts suspicion on those who ‘call for more nuance’ or ‘room for disagreement’ I believe this is precisely what we need if we are to develop richer theologies, if we are to better understand God’s Word and ultimately if we are to guard the Gospel. It is a healthy attitude of academic humility which is willing to learn from others, even from people with whom we disagree. Generosity means assuming the best of Christians with whom we disagree – rather than assuming the worst (and I am not accusing Thompson of this). Assuming the worst all too often devolves into witch-hunts, name calling,  guilt by association and dropping the L word (calling someone a liberal is like bringing nazis into an argument: as soon as you do it, it’s clear you don’t have an argument).

It would be a tragedy if people with the insights we need to learn, the rebukes we must heed, the corrections that could aid the church were silenced by fears of being pushed outside the evangelical camp. I hope we can be generous towards people who might have uncomfortable, but necessary things to tells us.

(see Reformed and always Reforming for more on this)

we need to talk about the old testament

I’m often not sure what to make of the Old Testament. More than often, most of the time.

It often upsets me. It offends me. Not in the evangelical ‘the Bible is offensive because it tells me that I’m sinful’ way. No. It offends me when it appears not only to condone, but to promote actions and attitudes which are not simply a ‘softer’ version of Jesus’ teaching but actually in direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching. The racism, the violence, the tribalism, the sexism. There are parts I love – the imagery, the poetry, the drama. But so much of the Old Testament worries me so much so that I hardly read it anymore.

I just don’t know how to read it. I don’t have the tools. I don’t have a framework.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

I’m doing a PhD in history. I spend all day every day reading historical sources, not only for the information they immediately convey, but reading them ‘against the grain.’ That is, interrogating the source for the information that the author didn’t necessarily intend to share. I hunt for the author’s biases, assumptions, motivations and blind-spots. Especially, I think about the ways in which she might by trying to manipulate her readers (everyone writes with an agenda – myself included). That is how I spend my week.

Then, after work, I come to reading the Old Testament, and can’t quite take my historian cap off. I’m not even sure I should take it off: these are historical documents after all.

Suddenly the Old Testament reads like very human literature. I find documents that appear to serve the ruling elite, the priests, the nobility, the Yahweh cult. My beloved Psalms read like nationalist propaganda. I used to be concerned by the genocides in Joshua, now I’m not even sure they really happened (but I can see how the stories would be great for legitimising land claims and tribal boundaries). Likewise, Judges would serve very well for asserting the interests of the ruling family (just look how bad it was when there was no king). I my instinct is to deconstruct the text.

Having talked to others (especially those trained in social sciences and humanities), I am not alone in being unable to shake my suspicion of texts. Moreover, I think with generational change, it will become increasingly common for people to be thinking this way – to intuitively read the text against the grain.

Putting issues of motive and bias aside, there are still questions about historicity. What actually happened? You only have to go to Wikipedia on the Old Testament to learn that the Torah was written down after the Exile (by people whose political and religious interests it secured). That is, it was recorded centuries after the events described. A few more google searches point out how similar Genesis is to earlier foreign literature; how there may be multiple authors for a number of books; how there are internal contradictions etc. etc.

My real question is what does all this mean for divine inspiration?

The authors are human. But In what sense are we dealing with human documents? The authors are shaped by their context, we all acknowledge that. But does ‘context’ also mean that their writings reflect their sinful biases, ambitions, prejudices and presuppositions? Did these parts of their lives make it in? Or did God edit those bits out? (things which can’t be answered by appeals to progressive revelation) Does acknowledging ‘context’ mean accepting that authors may have held different understandings of what constitutes an historical fact? Should we accept all parts of the Old Testament equally (including the offensive bits), or assess them in light of the overall thrust of the Bible, particularly Jesus’ teaching? Am I even allowed to question a Biblical author?

We need to talk about this, not just at Bible colleges, but in our churches.

In years of attending evangelical churches I’ve never heard anything about historicity of the Old Testament (other than Jesus believed it so it’s good enough for me) or how to read it (other than ‘it’s all about Jesus’) in a way that acknowledges these criticisms. Perhaps pastors don’t feel qualified to train us on these issues. Perhaps they don’t want to scare us or confuse us. Perhaps it’s easier to pretend that the Bible fell from heaven. Whatever it is, I’m not sure why we’re not talking about these issues.

The problem is that while we’re not getting leadership and teaching on these issues from Christian leaders, Christians are going to come across it from other places. Most of my knowledge of debates surrounding the Old Testament originally came from atheists – atheists friends on facebook wanting to pick a fight. The thing is, we’ve all got internet. Christians in the pews are getting more and more exposure to critiques that previously just touched the academy. Moreover, as long as leaders aren’t willing to raise issues of source criticism, it will remain a taboo issue. A lonely question you can’t ask and a doubt that festers.

The Evolution of AdamFinally, I will just mention that Peter Enns is one evangelical who is willing to talk about this stuff with a popular audience. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but at least he’s opening a conversation. He is author of The Evolution of Adam and Inspiration and Incarnation (which argues that we must consider the Bible to be both human and divine) and blogs here.

How do you approach the Old Testament? Do you know people who are talking about these issues? Where would you go to discuss them?

cheapening submission

‘the buck stops with him’

‘he makes the call’

‘he takes responsibility’

Sometimes headship and submission get reduced down to a trump-card: the husband wins any argument.

Headship sometimes involves tie-breaking authority. I would say maybe more than sometimes—it’s rarely—involves tie-breaking authority. But it does. In a marriage, you only have two votes; so the occasions do arise when there’s like an impasse, “Yes; no.” Okay, how do you break the stalemate? It can only be broken if one party has the authority to overrule; but there can’t be a misuse of that so that it’s done so that, “I can get my way.” The only time that a husband can use his authority to overrule is with knowing he has the responsibility and the accountability to God to only be doing it in order to serve and to take care of his wife and his family. Tim Keller

Now I haven’t resolved my thinking on headship and submission in marriage. But since submission  is a virtue for all Christians (as is sacrificial love), women and men, I feel pretty comfortable saying it’s something wives should care about, regardless of whether their marriages are complimentarian or egalitarian (see who cares what paul meant there, I’ll submit anyway).

But submission isn’t particularly inspiring. It’s normally defined in terms of what not to do. It sounds so passive. I’ve wondered, what do I actually do while I’m waiting around for this marriage stalemate to arrive? Then if it does, apparently I just roll over, and that’s it. Really? So while my husband is busy being a ‘head’ my contribution to our marriage is merely not to get in his way. Hardly something to get excited about.

I suspect we women (and men too actually) have been short-changed on submission.

I want to restore submission – making yourself low – to the high calling that it is.

Firstly, when submission is defined in terms of  ‘tie-breaking’, ‘over-ruling’ or who takes the blame we’re conceiving of marriage as essentially a power-struggle, a competition between spouses rather than collaboration. This is deeply problematic. It assumes division within the ‘one flesh’ that God has made. Yes we are sinful and do argue, but installing the office of ‘tie-breaker’ in marriage assumes that disunity and use of force are good and normal in the relationship. When we talk about marriage this way, assuming a power-struggle, I worry we’ve already lost the plot!

Secondly, the idea that submission means letting the husband make the final tie-breaking call on big decisions or that ‘the buck stops with him’ simply isn’t supported by Biblical evidence as far as I can see (reading it into the ‘head’ metaphor goes beyond the text). Where does it come from? Who knows.

Thirdly, reducing submission to a tie-breaking trump card strips submission of its relational value and turns it into a transaction, a contract. The relationship is reduced to a set of obligations, like a job description for an employer/employee relationship, where a wife has certain duties to the husband, but they’re a function of her position as wife, not of her relationship to her husband. It cheapens submission.

Most complimentarians say that submission is something the wife gives voluntarily, rather than something a husband can demand. Yet by then going on to define submission in definite terms such as the buck stopper or the tie-breaker, women are effectively told how they are to submit (and normally by a man). This robs her of her ability to freely and creatively submit to her husband, expressing her submission in ways which are rich, meaningful, even exciting, for her and her husband.

The irony is, that in these passages in Ephesians and Colossians, Paul is making a radical move of addressing women as moral agents. Yoder explains it in The Politics of Jesus.

The admonition of the Haustafeln is addressed first to the subject: to the slave before the master, to the children before the parents, to the wives before the husbands. Here begins the revolutionary innovation in the early Christian style of ethical thinking…The subordinate person in the social order is addressed as a moral agent. She is called upon to take responsibility for the acceptance of her position in society as meaningful before God. It is not assumed, as it was in both Jewish and Hellenistic thought, that the wife will have the faith of her husband, or that the slave will be part of the religious unity of the master’s household. Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes them decision makers. It gives them responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simple meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, as an issue about which they can make a moral choice. 

When submission is reduced to ‘tie-breaker’, women are stripped of the full revolutionary agency Paul attributes to them. They are no longer allowed to work out in relationship with their husband how they will best submit, how they can best honour and serve him. They are told ‘submission is x’.

The thing is, however, it’s much simpler to resolve to be the loser in any argument, thus ‘fulfilling’ your ‘submissive’ obligations, without actually honouring your husband. It’s something you can tick off. You could let the man make the big decisions while continually manipulating, undermining and dismissing him (see Why you should stop treating your husband like a toddler and actually respect him). Cheap submission is easy. What’s harder is thinking of ways to honour someone, to put yourself beneath them, to serve them above yourself. That kind of submission is never finished.

Instead of a contractual obligation, I imagine a vision of submission based in relationship with the other person, a rich submission which is thoughtful about how best to serve them, to honour them, how to put oneself beneath the other, how to lower oneself. This is a beautiful thing. It will look different for every couple, for every relationship, because it’s submission to a person, nor an office. Morgan Guyton describes submission well, distinguishing it from ‘service’ (which can be ticked off like cheap ‘submission’).

When Jesus says to be a slave of all, he is talking about the radical self-abasement that he models in washing his disciple’s feet. In our era of volunteerism, we have learned how to engage in service towards needy people without submitting ourselves to them as servants. Service without servanthood is almost more oppressive than not serving at all; it creates shame and dependency rather than empowerment.The person “serving” can leave feeling good about themselves for putting in their quota of compassion for the month, but nothing about the underlying power structures in the world has changed as a result.

Servanthood on the other hand means submitting yourself to another person for the sake of lifting him or her up. When Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, He is not just helping or serving them; He is putting Himself beneath them. So Christian leadership is not service in the sense of making decisions for other people or doing what they don’t know how to do for themselves; it is putting ourselves beneath others for the sake of their empowerment. True Christian leadership, as described in Mark 10:42-44, is submission.

This is a rich submission I can get excited about.


Dickson on why 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t prohibit women giving sermons

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

Could there be anything else to say about 1 Timothy 2:12? According to John Dickson, yes. He’s just come out with a new e-book: Hearing her Voice; A Case for Women Giving Sermons. He says something I haven’t heard before. Not everyone in Sydney thinks alike.

‘Hearing her voice’ is a bit of an odd title because it’s not really about ‘her voice’. He doesn’t give much space to discussing why ‘her voice’ might be worth hearing or why we’re missing out by not hearing it (i.e. that she might offer a different perspective to men).

The second half of the title – women giving sermons – is the point. This book is almost exclusively about women giving sermons. Dickson doesn’t stuff around with warming examples or analogies, he doesn’t pursue other ideas to see where they might lead us. The book gets straight to the point. I like that. You can read it in one session. His argument is simply that 1 Timothy 2:12 does not prohibit women from giving sermons.

These are his key points:

  1. ‘Sermon’ and ‘teaching’ have become virtually synonymous for evangelicals. ‘Teaching’ in the New Testament, however, meant something very different to the expository preaching of today’s sermons.
  2. Teaching, exhorting, evangelising and prophesying were all distinct types of speech in the New Testament. ‘Exhorting’ was likely the closest to our present day sermon. Only one of these types of speech (teaching) is restricted in 1 Timothy 2.
  3. Before the New Testament was written and circulated widely, ‘teaching’ was ‘preserving and laying down for the congregation the traditions handed on by the Apostles’. Teaching had more to do with memorising an oral tradition so as to speak authoritatively to the congregation, than explaining or applying it. It was transmission of the ‘deposit’, not exposition of scripture.
  4. Now that we have the New Testament recorded in writing (and audio, youtube, iphone apps etc.) the role of teaching has transformed. Dickson says that ‘no human being preserves and lays down the teaching of Jesus and the apostles anymore.’

Since giving a sermon is not equivalent to ‘teaching’ in the New Testament sense (moreover, ‘teaching’ is rare these days) and since women are encouraged to prophesy, evangelise and exhort, there is no reason to restrict women from the pulpit.

Moreover, Dickson urges those who reject his argument about teaching to consider the other types of speech open to women and to find practical ways of allowing women to share their voice at church – women clearly spoke publicly in the early church.

Read the footnotes. There are hidden gems.

I was disappointed that he didn’t discuss the rest of 1 Timothy 2 (though, this was simply a book on women giving sermons, he did not promise anything more). In a footnote, Dickson reluctantly put himself in the ‘complimentarian’ camp, though he, like me, dislikes the labels ‘complimentarian’ and ‘egalitarian.’ He reads 1 Timothy 2 as applying to all women (rather than wives in relation to their husbands, Ephesian women or undereducated noisy women).

He doesn’t explain why teaching – even in the sense of transmitting the oral tradition – is limited to women. We only get ‘because Adam was formed first…’ and so ‘was the original custodian of God’s revelation’. It seems arbitrary to me – what has timing to do with teaching? (though I can’t really blame Dickson for this, I’ll have to take it up with Paul). But then this was just a book on women giving sermons.

I found I needed to do a bit of just ‘trusting the expert’ in the book. I don’t know Greek nor am I an ancient historian, so I’m glad to learn from people like Dickson. I’m not in a position to critique the finer points of his argument, but I look forward to reading a response.

I exhort you (I’m allowed to do that) all to download this book for a summer afternoon. It’s only $4.22. It’s refreshing to read someone who’s trying to promote a dialogue between two increasingly entrenched camps. It’ll make you think and it might change your mind.

Meet Jesus at Uni also has a good review of it here.

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I know God loves me…but does he actually like me?

I’ve always known that God loves me – ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’

But I used to worry, does he actually like me?

I’ve offended God… but he still loved me in Jesus

I’ve saddened God… but he still loved me in Jesus

I’ve angered God… but he still loved me in Jesus

I’ve ignored God… but he still loved me in Jesus

Sounds like God’s pretty loving and like I’m pretty annoying.

I wondered, does he just ‘put up’ with me because he’s so loving. If he’s seeking to be ‘most glorified’ by demonstrating his love and saving me, does he actually care about me as a person? Does God just patiently bare with me – like a charity case – but would he actually be friends with me? Did he just save me by default, because he’d made a promise, but not actually care about me, Laura?

I know he loves me, but does he actually like me in an emotional, personal sense?

Then I’d worry I was being narcissistic again and annoying God even more. You really can’t win at this game.

What would it mean if God didn’t merely ‘show love’ to us, but if he actually liked us too?

It would mean that we’re not simply objects of his love or wrath – mechanisms for him to display his glory in some cosmic scheme. It would mean that we’re intrinsically valuable to him, instead of only functionally valuable for our capacity to glorify him.

So are we intrinsically valuable to God and does he like us?

Instrumental ‘love’ – loving people for functional reasons only – is not the love of the Bible. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 13 of a person who ‘gives everything they possess to the poor’ but lacks love; sacrificing for someone does not constitute love. The older brother worked for the father for years, but when the prodigal younger son comes home it’s clear the older son never loved his father. Love doesn’t use people.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (a must read for all evangelical feminists – here’s a free legal audiobook), orphaned Jane is cared for by her cold Aunt, Mrs Reed. Mrs Reed provided for Jane, made sacrifices for Jane, but deep down she disliked Jane. Mrs Reed loved to reminded Jane how indebted Jane was to her, how she should be more grateful for her ‘love’. All the while Mrs Reed grew in her self-righteousness.

But God does not love us like some self-righteous charity worker. He actually loves us, he likes us, he’s emotionally involved. He calls himself a mother, a father, a husband to us. ‘He cares for you’ says Peter (1 Peter 5:7).

If God really loves us and actually likes us too, what would this mean?

Firstly, we need to be careful when we talk about grace.

I know a kid’s song with the line:

I don’t deserve his mercy, I don’t deserve his love and yet he died to save me, died upon the cross!’

I understand that it’s trying to get unmerited grace across to small children, but I could not think of anything more devastating. ‘I don’t deserve God’s love’. I’m of no intrinsic value to God. He feels no obligation to care for me. He probably doesn’t particularly like me.

If my dad told me ‘you don’t deserve my love, I only love you because I’m a good person’ I’d be devastated. ‘Does our relationship mean nothing?’ I’d ask.

This is because the whole paradigm of deserving or underserving is out of place in a loving relationship. It’s contrived to speak of deserving or not deserving love from my parents. It makes it sound like our relationship is a transaction or contract.

But the love is part of a right relationship between parents and children. It’s how it’s meant to be. When the prodigal son comes home claiming he is ‘no longer worthy’ to be loved as a son, the good father will have none of it. Nor will God.

Christian or non-Christian, we’re all related to God because we are made in his image. We love and are loved; that’s how he made us. He made us intrinsically valuable. He called us ‘very good.’ He even likes us! James argues that being made in God’s likeness as reason to show love to all people (James 3:9) – our relatedness to God gives us intrinsic value and likeability.

God’s mercy is unmerited, that is, it’s not earned by our good deeds or mad skills. But I’m not sure that ‘deserving’ is a helpful paradigm in a relationship.

So instead of telling kids they don’t deserve love, tell them they’re special, they’re valuable to God – not because they’ve impressed him – but because he made them in his likeness.

Secondly, I’d say beware of sermons which preach guilt and doom and only skate over God’s love in the last thirty seconds: ‘and luckily God sent Jesus to deal with us,’ as if he got so grumpy he had to send in Jesus. Or those sermons which preach the cross as part of a grand plan (which it is) but omit that it had something to do with God’s genuine heartfelt love for us; it’s ‘for god so loved the world he sent his son.’

I won’t get too sentimental, but will just remind you that God actually likes you! You’re not just a means to an end for him. He likes the sound of your voice; the way you smile; your sense of humour. His love for you is because of how he made you – to love him and be loved by him – and he wants to be closer to you. He cares about you in particular. He likes you.

Have you ever worried that God doesn’t particularly like you?

How do you think we can talk about sin and unmerited grace without implying we’re worthless or unlikeable to God?

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runaway metaphors

I’m fluent in Christianese. That means I know to pepper my speech with holy metaphors. You know – vines, growing, planting, salt & light, fruitfulness.

Holy as they sound, I think we need to watch our metaphors in case they run away.

(speaking of Christianese, please don’t use fellowship as a verb – ‘we fellowshipped together’ – unless you also enjoy ‘friendshipping’ and ‘membershipping’. Sorry. rant.)

turtlesOf course it’s metaphors all the way down. All language – text or sound – is a representation or symbol for something else. The word ‘dog’ actually has nothing to do with those four-legged friends apart from our consensus to use it as a symbol. It’s only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can understand anything of God through human language. Communication really is a miracle.

I’m talking about metaphors in the more naive sense – just a figure of speech or word or phrase which is not literally applicable: ‘love is a rose’, ‘I am an island’, ‘my heart will go on.’

There are Biblical ones that we know are obviously metaphors – ‘stiff-necked’, ‘circumcised hearts’. They haven’t made it into Christianese and we know they’re metaphors.

But some have become so entrenched that they’ve lost their status as metaphors and become our only word for the concept; we forget they ever were metaphors (words such as ‘pastor’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘hell/gehenna’). This means the words can escape and take on whole new meanings other than what they had in their Biblical context. We lose the explanatory power which the metaphor was supposed to bring in the first place and get left with a fuzzy idea.

Here’s a list:

pastor/shepherd, deacon/servant, flock, body, head (of the wife or the ‘body’), lamb, hell, the prize, the crown, the good fight, salt and light, double edged sword, God’s hands, God’s heart, hypocrite/actor, living sacrifice, spot or blemish, filthy rags, dead works, weaker brother, tongues, rock, (sinking) sand, God’s instrument, God’s vessel,

to spur on, wash in the blood, finish the race, fall away, stumble, open one’s heart, soften one’s heart, harden one’s heart, backslide, be on fire, pay the price, pay the debt, count the cost, draw near, enter the throne room, abide, sow a seed, plant a church, grow disciples, feed on the Word, live in harmony, come to Christ, turn back, come home, put out a fleece, carry a cross, bear one another’s burdens

redeemed, born again, anointed, called, fruitful, lost, found, knit together, lukewarm…

Most of these I’m pretty comfortable with. But for many, I’m not exactly sure what they mean. And I’m not  sure that when we use them in our Bible-speak Christianese (make that NIV 1984-speak? Newspeak anyone?) that we use them in the same way they’re used in the Bible. Do we fill them with our own meanings?

Here’s some holy-sounding mixed metaphors for you to ponder:

Merciful Lord we come here to your table…Even though we are not worthy to eat the crumbs from under your table…

Was the Canaanite woman really saying she was too sinful to share the Lord’s Supper in Matt 15? Does it matter if we’ve taken the metaphor out of context?

When we were still far off, you met us in your Son and brought us home…

Far from what or who? Here the prodigal son meets the Jew/Gentile unity of Ephesians 2. It kind of works, but it’s out of context. Is that ok? Is it clear what it’s about?

It’s so easy to sound Biblical, but actually to be unclear on our meaning when we use metaphors out of context. Not to mention when non-Christians share with us they’ve got no way of understanding an out-of-context metaphor (‘will they not say that you are out of your minds?’). Or am I being pedantic? Perhaps a metaphor is best if we want to imply multiple valid meanings.

vine

There were others phrases I wasn’t sure whether to put on the list of metaphors or not.

Living and active. Jesus (the Word of God) really is literally living and active. But the Bible isn’t literally living. Do you think it’s a metaphor or not?

Dying to sin and being alive in Christ. Jesus did literally die and was made alive. Are we literally dead to sin and now alive, or is that a metaphor?

There were a few which I thought were metaphors at first, but then on greater reflection, I decided that they’re the reality and previous experience has been a metaphor.

Bride of Christ. When Paul says that ‘one flesh’ is actually about Christ and the Church, perhaps he’s saying that marriage is a metaphor, a symbol and the Church’s union with Christ is the real deal.

Children of God. When we call Christians ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and God our ‘Father’ are we using metaphors? I don’t think so. Instead, the earthly family is the metaphor which points to the reality of our heavenly family.

Jesus’ death as a sacrifice of atonement. Jesus wasn’t literally sacrificed on an altar. But perhaps it’s better to think of the sacrificial system as a metaphor pointing to the real sacrifice

What do you think? Any metaphors I missed? Do you think any metaphors on my list are actually literal? Got any good examples of mixed Biblical metaphors or Christianese?

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