By Tim Etherington | August 20, 2014
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. – Ecclesiastes 3:1,7-8
I read the following discussion on Twitter about the unrest in Ferguson, MO.
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) August 20, 2014
— Thabiti Anyabwile (@ThabitiAnyabwil) August 20, 2014
Thabiti Anyabwile wrote a blog post about evangelicals exercising theological and practical leadership on this. The twitter thread is a bit of a rebuke of evangelicals who’ve remained silent. I’m one of them and so it prompted me to ask myself why I have chosen to remain quite. Here are some of my reasons:
1) Privilege. I am a white, middle-class male in my 50s. The only reason employees in a store watch me closely when I walk in is because they are working on commission and want to make a sale. When/if I ever get pulled over it by the police they worst they will suspect me of is drunk driving. I cannot imagine what the situation on the ground is in Ferguson because of my privileged position in American society. This leads to:
2) Ignorance. I have never been to Ferguson, MO so I don’t know what the conditions are there. I don’t understand all that transpired between a white, well-armed cop and a large, unarmed black teenager and so I am profoundly unqualified to comment upon it. The only thing I can say that would be acceptable due to my privilege would be to condemn the shooting of yet another black man. I condemn that since every human life is precious. But which reason for the shooting shall I condemn? Systemic racism in the police force? Unyielding economic oppression of blacks in America? Generational un/underemployment and an American society that perpetuates huge obstacles to changing that situation? The militarization of local police forces? Yes, all of these but I have no idea what the mix of these factors and others are at play in Ferguson.
3) Room. Because of the above two factors, I believe it is best for me to keep my mouth shut and allow the protestors and the Missouri government to surface the real issues at play there. My voice, privileged and ignorant as it is, will not contribute to that process. My social-media-fueled opinions, if they were even to matter or be heard, cannot help. The protestors need to keep the pressure on the government and the police need to be allowed to complete their investigation. Twitter and Facebook will not help and may actually hurt. It would be good if Ferguson were not in the 24-hour news cycle but were only reported on when something important happens. The media need to be there to add pressure to what the protestors are already applying but the rampant speculation and knee-jerk commentary that fuel the news cycle won’t help. My feeble contribution won’t help either.
4) Prayer. Since I am ignorant and my opinion is slanted by my place in society, I am uniquely unable to help. But I know someone who knows the intimate details of what happened down to the thoughts and intentions of every heart involved. He is sovereign over the Ferguson police and mayor, even over the Justice Department and president. He holds sway even over the crowds of protesters and scandal-hungry media. And he commands me to pray to him, to ask him to grant us peace, and for him to give our elected officials, his ministers in all of this, wisdom. Prayer is not not doing anything. It is appealing to the greatest, wisest, most benevolent power in the universe to move in human affairs. My best course of action to do something that can actually help, is to pray that God will bring justice to our divided, conflicted, drifting nation. Including and especially Ferguson, Missouri. And so I am doing the best thing I can do.
All of this does not mean that I am not interested in racial justice in America. I am sorely aware of the twisted justice system and racist economic system in this nation. The problems confound me and the solutions elude me but I do long for justice and peace and freedom to come to this place. I long for the day when slavery and its ugly shadow will be lifted from out nation. I want everyone in this nation to be able to improve their lot in life by hard work and by enjoying the fruit of the labor of their hands. I want the police to once again “serve and protect” and not be a revenue stream for municipalities. Where I can see clearly, I will speak when I believe I have something to add. Wisdom in this case seems to be for me to hold my tongue and pray.
By Tim Etherington | August 11, 2014
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain. – William Cowper
By Tim Etherington | July 24, 2014
On earth, we get a total solar eclipse because our sun and moon are just the right size and they and the earth just the right distances apart. These eclipses give us a great wealth of information and allow us to research the cosmos.
We’re also just the right distance from the sun so that we don’t bake or freeze. And our moon is just the right size and distance so that it induces tides and it keeps our planet tilted at the right angle to allow seasons. This video explains it well:
For reference, consider what a lunar eclipse recently looked like on Mars:
The only intelligent life in the solar system is on the planet with a transparent atmosphere and a moon that perfectly eclipses the sun. If humanity is the result of random chance alignment of atoms, then not only is it astounding that those atoms should give rise to humanity, but it is also astounding that they should give rise to humanity that would become intelligent enough to figure out science and that those atoms should happen to be on a planet where observation of the universe would be pretty much optimal. It is almost like the universe wants to be understood by us. Or perhaps God wants us to see and understand the universe so we can understand something bigger than ourselves.
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1 ESV)
ADDED: The very existence of this sized moon around this sized planet with this type of atmosphere is incredibly improbable. “Current theories on the formation of the Moon owe too much to cosmic coincidences.“
By Tim Etherington | July 7, 2014
This is a moving telling of the experience Muhammad when he first received the revelation of the Koran. He didn’t feel triumphant or exulted but he feared that he’d been possessed by a demon (a ‘djinn’ or ‘genie’) and considered throwing himself off the mountain to end it all. Hazelton says that Muhammad experienced doubt and this authenticates his experience even though she doubts that it was an experience with God.
Consider a similar experience that Peter, James, and John had with Jesus:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. (Mark 9:2-6 ESV)
What a difference! They were “sore afraid” as the King James translates it but at the same time they didn’t want it to end. “Let us make three tents!” An authentic encounter with God does and should involve fear. We are fallen, sinful creatures and God remains utterly holy. But with Jesus present, the experience is different. We’re afraid because of the vastness, the holiness of God. The closest I have come to that is standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. I was drawn to the edge and terrified at the same time.
Did the disciples doubt? Sure, but not at the revelation of Jesus as God. They doubted at the execution of the man Jesus. This experience with the divine was a point of surety for them.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18 ESV)
Hazelton goes on to praise doubt and condemn fundamentalism in her talk. This is because she is an agnostic herself and therefore believes that doubt is the best we can achieve. Anyone who is sure of what they believe does not have faith, according to her. St. Peter would disagree.
And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. (2 Peter 1:19-20 ESV)
What did Mohammad experience on that mountain top? I don’t know for sure, but I am convinced that it was not a genuine revelation from God. His experience, according to Hazelton, was fear and doubt. The angel visited him again and again and wrestled the revelation into and out of him.
Again, Peter says the revelation that is more sure than the transfiguration is different. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21 ESV) Men were carried along, not forced and wrestled.
Doubt can be a friend to faith but not when it is embraced and coddled. At that point it becomes a replacement for faith.
By Tim Etherington | June 27, 2014
For as long as we are pleased with ourselves, and are inflated with the false notion that we are alive, the law is dead to us, because we blunt its point by our hardness; but when it pierces us more sharply, we are driven into new terror. – John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, 162
My former hopes are fled
My terror now begins
I feel, alas, that I am dead
In trespasses and sins
Ah, whither shall I fly?
I hear the thunder roar
The Law proclaims Destruction nigh,
And Vengeance at the door
Vengeance at the door,
Vengeance at the door
When I review my ways
I dread impending doom
But sure a friendly whisper says
“Flee from the wrath to come.”
I see, or think I see,
A glimmering from afar
A beam of day that shines for me
To save me from despair
Save me from despair,
Save me from despair
Forerunner of the sun
It marks the pilgrim’s way
I’ll gaze upon it while I run
And watch the rising day
Forerunner of the sun
It marks the pilgrim’s way
I’ll gaze upon it while I run,
And watch the rising day
Watch the rising day,
Watch the rising day – Watch The Rising Day, Written by Matthew S. Smith, based in part on a hymn text by William Cowper
By Tim Etherington | May 20, 2014
The other day I stumbled into a Twitter discussion about God and gender. My point was that God, though neither male nor female but spirit, nevertheless reveals himself as male. The other side of the discussion, who stress God’s genderlessness, asked me to back up what I was saying. A very fair request!
The point I raised was that God self-identifies as male by only employing masculine pronouns for himself. When he uses feminine imagery it is always in the form of metaphor “as a…” That is, God never refers to himself as female but rather uses feminine metaphors to describe some of his attributes.
Since the dialogue took place on Twitter, there were limitations and I wasn’t able to address every point my interlocutor raised. There were a few items that I felt I needed to get back to in a longer format because they either came up from more than one source or others following the discussion favorited his points.
First, an observer asserted that Jesus overthrew the patriarchal structures of society of his day. I asked the commentator to explain when he did that and she cited Galatians 3:28 and John 4:24. I’ll leave the Galatians passage alone since John 4 came up again later in the discussion with someone else using it to show that language describing God as spirit is always other than masculine.
I believe that both of the people who offered the verse may misunderstand the nature of gendered nouns. It can be hard for English speakers to get the idea that a noun can be masculine, feminine, or neuter and that has nothing to do with the sex of the thing. It is just the form of the noun. So the fact that “spirit” in John 4:24 is neuter does not overthrow a patriarchal anything. Nor does it mean that we are free to refer to God now as a he, she, or it. It simply means that God is spirit.
So how do you determine the gender of a thing with you’re dealing with verbal and noun genders? You look for other clues such as the pronouns. So let’s look again at John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him…” It does not say, “God is neuter, and those who worship he/she/it…” There are landmines to avoid on both sides of this discussion here. “God” and “worship” are both masculine. That doesn’t prove that God is a man. The noun ???? (“theos”, God) is a masculine noun and the verb that modifies it, in this case “worship”, must agree in gender. However, the pronoun is masculine and that does mean something. If John was seeking to stress that God is beyond gender here, he could have used a neuter or feminine pronoun but he didn’t. God consistently uses masculine pronouns to refer to himself.
When God wants to stress his care and concern for his people, he sometimes uses feminine metaphors. For example, in Isaiah 66:13, God says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” There are other verses as well but this is a good example. And still, it makes my point that it is imagery and metaphor, not an equality. For example, no one is arguing that Moses is a female but Numbers 11:11-12 says,
Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers?”
Similarly, when God uses feminine metaphors for himself we have to understand them correctly. We wouldn’t take Moses’ statement here to mean that we can refer to him as “Moses herself” and so we should not take that kind of liberty with God.
The second thing that I wanted to expand on is a warning I received that always taking scriptural language literally risks producing an unscriptural view of God. I think the concern was that my insistence that we refer to God as he has revealed himself could lead to thinking he, is in fact, masculine. I certainly don’t want to make that mistake and so I took the warning seriously. After reflecting on it, I don’t think I’m making that mistake. What he was getting at was warning us away from the mistake of saying, for example, that God has wings because it says so in the Psalms.
This is where I got very frustrated with Twitter as a conversational medium. It would be impossible for me to communicate how I was careful to make that distinction in only 140 characters. So I’m taking to my blog. It will cross-post a link to my Twitter account but I don’t expect anyone from that thread to see it. Still, just to clear my conscience, here goes.
When God uses terms about himself like “Father” and “groom”, at one level he is speaking metaphorically even if he doesn’t say “as a…” Why? Because we know that God’s essential nature is spirit. Also, we can fairly infer that he is beyond human genders because when he created human beings, it says,
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
He didn’t create Adam in his image and then tacked Eve on. Adam and Eve together constitute his image therefore there are masculine and feminine attributes in God. We don’t want to push the masculine language too far and distort who God is.
At the same time, if we are careful to stick to all the Biblical language about God, we’ll avoid that error all together. When we incorporate all of what the Bible says about God, it really, truly places him beyond gender. He just is. We’re divided into two genders, he isn’t.
At the same time though, these metaphors do mean something! God is a Father and a groom and male in some sense. There are things about those roles that illustrate, more than other societal roles, who he is. God wrote those words on purpose and he chose them carefully because that’s the kind of person God is.
To really know who God is, we need to know his Son (John 14:8-9), we need to be filled with his Spirit (1 Cor 2:10), and we need to seek him in his word (1 John 5:11-13). And in these revelations of himself, God chose to show himself using masculine terms and the occasional feminine metaphor. To refer to God as feminine is unbiblical, to refer to him as masculine is following his lead, but to claim he is male or female is an error. He is ultimately neither and both. We worship a really big God.
By Tim Etherington | February 11, 2014
We’re live. My church decided to change its name from Lancaster Evangelical Free Church to Trinity Community Church. The process will take a while to complete, but the new website is live. Click the image above and take a look. We’re still an Evangelical Free Church but we’ve updated the name.
By Tim Etherington | January 17, 2014
Sure, the Bible is a sharp blade that cuts bone in two but what happens when certain passages turn into bombs? Wouldn’t it be great to find a way to defuse those verse-bombs that we drop on each other? They get lobbed all the time, especially on the internet. Well, here’s an attempt to disarm one.
A friend recently linked to an article from The Junia Project 1) Junia is mentioned in Romans 16:7 along with Andronicus as being “outstanding amongst the apostles” in the NIV. This is intended to prove that there were female apostles but ultimately it fails. The verse is translated “well known to the apostles” in the ESV which would not put Junia or Andronicus among the Apostles. Also, the way “apostle” is used in the New Testament is complex. There are the Twelve Apostles but then others are apostles. It may be that the way “apostle” is used in Romans 16 is more analogous to what we mean by “missionary.” written by Dr. Gail Wallace, an adjunct professor of Adult and Professional Studies at Azuza Pacific University. She has a PhD in education and seems like a very nice person overall. The blog post Gail wrote is titled “Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb.” Gail is correct when she says in it that 1 Timothy 2 is often treated as a conversation stopper when discussing women’s roles in the church and that shouldn’t be so. Complementarian or egalitarian, if we are evangelicals we should be able to come to a text and discuss it and seek to understand and obey it. We should be able to do that without rancor and divisiveness so I am grateful for her efforts.
In good faith Gail opens that conversation by offering to “defuse” this explosive verse for us. She used what I consider to be a very clever metaphor for making her point: she shows us the “three wires” we need to cut in order to defuse the bomb; the “Translation Wire”, the “Context Wire”, and the “Interpretation Wire.” In all, I thought it was a very helpful way to present her material. And even in this short blog post she provided a kind of bibliography at the end. Nicely done!
In the end though, I don’t think she would last very long in a bomb squad. The wires she chose to cut didn’t defuse the bomb but merely confused the issue with some poor arguments against the complimentarian understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12. The problem that Gail seems to have missed is that we can get so entrenched in our positions on issues that we cannot actually hear the other side of the discussion. In this post I take a look at each wire she sought to cut and show how attempting to cut them fails. In the end, I point to three wires we need to cut, not to defuse arguments against our commitments but in order to engage in real dialog on them.
By Tim Etherington | January 14, 2014
I’ve been preaching through Hebrews and though we’re only up to the third chapter, I have been repeatedly impressed with how the author treats the scriptures he quotes. Right off the bat the author says “God spoke…by the prophets.” Now, you could read that and think that, sure, he believed that God spoke by certain people but that, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily say anything about the Bible. But the way that he introduces scripture quotes from there on out shows that he didn’t have only the prophets’ verbal pronouncements in mind but their written communication even more so. For example, in the rest of chapter 1 he quotes various passages, mostly from the Psalms, to support his contention that Jesus is greater than the angels. He doesn’t quote a Psalm and say “As David said” but rather “God said.”
In chapter 2 he does something even more interesting. In verse 11 he attributes the words of Psalm 22 to Jesus when he says, “This is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying…” Now really this makes a lot of sense because the way Psalm 22 begins is with Jesus’ dying words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The church has seen Psalm 22 as messianic for a very long time so she has long heard that Psalm as Jesus’ words.
Then in chapter 3 the author involves the third member of the Trinity in authoring the scriptures by explicitly bringing in the Holy Spirit. In verse 7 he quotes Psalm 95 and introduces it by saying “as the Holy Spirit says…” When he cites the beginning of that quote again in chapter 4 verse 7 he introduces it with “saying through David…” That’s pretty interesting but how is it Trinitarian? Because of what the author says right after that, “If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day.” So who authored Psalm 95? God spoke it, the Holy Spirit said it through David. Ah, so God spoke by the prophets just like our author said!
So where do evangelicals get such a high view of scripture? From the Reformers? Sure. From the Church Fathers? You bet. But ultimately we get it from the scriptures themselves. We need to learn how to read the Bible from the Apostles since they learned how to read it from Jesus. Though we don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, we do know that he learned from those who listened to Jesus (Heb. 2:3) and so he is a faithful example of how to understand the Bible. The author of Hebrews was, essentially, evangelical.
By Tim Etherington | November 21, 2013
We can open our Bibles for all sorts of odd reasons–as a religious duty, an attempt to earn God’s favor, or thinking that it serves as a moral self-help guide, a manual of handy tips for effective religious lives. That idea is actually one main reason so many feel discouraged in their Bible-reading. Hoping to find quick lessons for how they should spend today, people find instead a genealogy, or a list of various sacrifices. And how could page after page of histories, descriptions of the temple, instructions to priests, affect how I rest, work and pray today?
But when you see that Christ is the subject of all the Scriptures, that he is the Word, the Lord, the Son who reveals his Father, the promised Hope, the true Temple, the true Sacrifice, the great High Priest, the ultimate King, then you read, not so much asking, “What does this mean for me, right now?” but “What do I learn here of Christ?” Knowing that the Bible is about him and not me means that, instead of reading the Bible obsessing about me, I can gaze on him. And as through the pages you get caught up in the wonder of his story, you find your heart strangely pounding for him in a way you never would have if you treated the Bible as a book about you. – Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, 82-83