Friday, January 18, 2013

Questioning I Corinthians

Samson Destroys the Temple (1890), Holman Bible (Wikipedia)
Samson Destroys the Temple (1890)
from the Holman Bible (Wikipedia)
It’s fairly common for certain teachings presented in the Bible to lend themselves to an enormous amount of controversy. Often Christians (and non-Christians) are so wrapped up in arguing over these teachings that statements within the same passages that really should be examined are brushed over.

Take, for example, Paul’s infamous passage about women’s head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Some question whether Paul tells women to cover their heads (v. 10) or if he says that Christians have no such custom (v. 16). Many insist it’s a matter of choice (v. 13). Some claim that this passage says that women can preach and pray in worship services if they’re veiled (vv. 4-5), while others say that women are to remain silent regardless (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Some say a hairnet or hat is appropriate, while others advocate the burqa. There even arguments about whether “short hair” and “long hair” are to be considered in relative terms (“shorter than” and “longer than”) or absolute terms (such-and-such exact length). And the opinions about Paul are as polarized as the opinions about the passage. Many conclude that he was a saint, a champion of virtue and protector of female modesty, while others dismiss him as a misogynist, bent on keeping women imprisoned in patriarchal slavery despite their equality in Christ.

Much figurative blood has been shed over this passage, but possibly never over what might really be the most controversial thing Paul says. In 1 Corinthians 11:13-15, he makes this claim (ESV):

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

This appeal to nature is often the last say in a discussion on this topic. It usually comes in the form of “Even the pagans know…,” echoing much of what’s said in the Bible. Yet on what grounds can Paul even make that claim? For example, what does it suggest about the Nazirite vow?

Numbers 6:1-21 gives the requirements for those “set apart”: abstaining from any grape products, especially wine; separating oneself from the dead; and, of course, not cutting one’s hair. This vow was generally kept for a specified length of time, but lifelong Naziritism is associated with the judge Samson (Judges 13:5 & 7, 16:17), the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11), and John the Baptist (Matthew 11:18; Luke 1:13-15, 7:33). References to practicing Nazirites can be found in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and in Early Church writings. It is believed that Paul took the vow himself (Acts 18:18) and was later ordered by the Church’s leaders to accompany Christian Nazirites, who needed to make their sacrifices before shaving their heads (Acts 21:23-24, 26).

Some men’s hair grows rather quickly, and any lifelong Nazirite would likely end up with quite a head full of hair. If men having long hair is against nature, then why is it sanctioned in the Mosaic Law? Why are its practitioners ranked with the prophets (Amos 2:11-12)? And why would Paul allow himself to be associated with the practice if it were sinful (especially if his supposed rival, James the Just, is rumored to have been one)?

There’s more: Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 (ESV):

For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.

So where does this leave female Nazirites? Are they to be shamed for participating in this ritual designed to include them? Numbers 6:1-21 doesn’t give separate instructions for men and women on how to carry out the vow, while such attention is paid to the act of making the vow. (Numbers 30 makes it clear that married women must have the permission of their husbands and unmarried women of their fathers.) If God wanted women not to shave their heads, He could’ve easily given Moses alternative instructions for them. He doesn’t.

And if this weren’t controversial enough: Deuteronomy 21:10-14 lays down rules for dealing with captive wives. Removing her clothes, shaving her hair, and cutting her fingernails were part of the process of severing connections with her old pagan culture and adopting her into the Israelite one. Yes, the text says that the captive bride has been humiliated (v. 14), but that is obviously in reference to the degrading experience of being kidnapped and raped, not particularly for having a bald head. The concern is that a wife taken by force is not made to suffer further humiliation by being sold or treated as a mere slave in the household. The shaved head of the captured pagan wife seems to have more in common with the consecrated head of the former male or female Nazarite or the clean head of the healed leper (Leviticus 13:33, 14:8-9). It’s all tied in with the idea of ritual purity and cleanliness in the Mosaic Law.

So we’re back to where we began: How can something be against nature if it is sanctioned and praised by God? It seems rather clear that no Jew (Christian or otherwise) in Paul’s day would’ve agreed with his statements about hair. How are we Christians today going to deal with this contradiction? I recommend, first, that all further discussions about women’s head coverings cease until this issue can be satisfactorily resolved.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Devotional: John 1:19-51

It was about ten years ago in the music department at a community college I had attended a few years prior. A former classmate of mine had just given his final semester guitar recital, and he’d been a smashing success. I recall overhearing his instructor talking to his parents. Something like, “There’s nothing left for me to teach him. He needs to transfer to a university to progress any further.”

I raised my eyebrows. This guitar instructor was an accomplished performer and experienced educator. Not only that, I’d always passed him off as being rather arrogant. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear him admit that a student had progressed beyond his capabilities as a teacher.

There are other examples of school teachers, college professors, and instructors in the fine and performing arts I’ve known over the years, who were vocal about their desire to see their students go as far as possible, even if it meant handing them over to others more capable. They push their students to meet, if not study, with the best in the discipline. They’d rather send off their best undergraduate students to the best graduate programs than hold them back by keeping them for themselves.

On the other hand, I’ve also known those with the opposite intentions. There was one piano teacher who had stars in her eyes. She saw a promising concert pianist in one of her teen students and dreamed about being the one to get her to the stage. She stubbornly refused to admit that she was incapable of getting her student to that level. There was also a double bass teacher who practically sabotaged his student’s chances to enter a better program at another school. I’ve seen envy pit professors against each other, fighting over students who don’t even want to be in their field. They’d rather tear up their colleagues’ reputations than admit that they don’t have the same skills or prestige.

When I read John 1:19-51, I see how admirable John “the Baptist” was. A number of passages in the New Testament, along with much of the historical record, indicate that the Sadducees and Pharisees had all of the knowledge and understanding of prophecy and tradition needed to verify that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but they stubbornly refused to acknowledge Him because they prided themselves in being the respected religious authorities of the day.

John “the Baptist,” on the other hand, knew his place and limitations. He heeded the sign given to him from God (vv. 32-33). He didn’t complain when two of his disciples (Andrew and possibly John) left to follow Jesus (vv. 35-40). He didn’t complain when Jesus’ baptism became more popular than his, and instead gave his wholehearted approval, recognizing Jesus as the superior teacher (John 3:22-30).

Humility is not an easy virtue to acquire or maintain. No one likes being put in his place. Why then do it yourself? Yet, John “the Baptist” serves as a great example of how to act humbly. His actions prove what a great teacher he really was.

This devotional was written as an assignment for Robert T. Davis’ course on “Johannine Literature,” which I am currently auditing at the Southern California School of Evangelism at Buena Park Church of Christ.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Devotional: John 1:1-18

I vaguely remember Sunday School teachers talking about the Greek concept of logos (λόγος) and trying to explain ideas of divine wisdom and the rational order of the universe to us bored children, who pretended to understand. We got the general idea that, rather than merely meaning “word,” logos meant something broader, but twenty-five years or so later, I’m not sure I understand it any better.

Christian tradition says that the apostle John traveled to Ephesus, a coastal city in Asia Minor, and there preached and wrote his gospel and three epistles. It’s no surprise then that he’d open his gospel (John 1:1-18) with a reference to the ideas of its ancient philosopher, Heraclitus “the obscure.” I thought it would be interesting to see what he said on the subject, so here’s a portion of the first passage provided in William Harris’ “Heraclitus: The Complete Fragments: Translation and Commentary and the Greek Text”:

Although this Logos is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it -- not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time. That is to say, although all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos, men seem to be quite without any experience of it.

A few parallels between the Greek philosopher and the disciple of Christ stood out to me. Heraclitus says that logos is eternal. John says that logos existed from the beginning (v. 1). Heraclitus says that through logos “all things come to pass.” (I’d interpret this as saying everything originates from logos.) John says that logos created all things (v. 3). Heraclitus says that people remain ignorant even after hearing logos. John essentially says that people were ignorant and rejected logos (vv. 10-11).

It does look like the two are saying the same things. Yet for all their similarities, John seems more optimistic, proclaiming that there are those who recognize what logos is and accept it (vv. 12-13). And through that recognition, those enlightened (v. 9) can thus receive the grace of God (vv. 14 & 16). It is not clear to me that Heraclitus saw the future with the same hope (although that might be blamed on his works being preserved in quotes and fragments). Perhaps we can say that John took Heraclitus’ concept of logos but added hope and salvation where there was previously just knowledge.

This devotional was written as an assignment for Robert T. Davis’ course on “Johannine Literature,” which I am currently auditing at the Southern California School of Evangelism at Buena Park Church of Christ.

Monday, January 14, 2013

More Thoughts on I Corinthians

Ever hear about unity on “matters of faith” and liberty on “matters of opinion”? It’s a principle followed by a decided majority of members of Restoration Movement churches. The intent is to encourage steadfastness on the fundamental beliefs of Christianity (e.g., Christ’s resurrection) while not getting caught up in the kinds of trivial arguments that have divided denominations over the centuries. “Matters of faith” are universal, and people must convert their beliefs and behavior to them. “Matters of opinion” are personal, to be believed or practiced in private and not forced on others.

Unfortunately, no one agrees what’s “essential” and what’s “non-essential.” The result has been a history of division among the Restoration Movement’s offspring (e.g., independent Christian Churches, the Churches of Christ) in the form of heated arguments, “defellowshipping” (i.e., excommunication), church splits, and the creation of sub-movements. In short, one man’s universal “matter of faith” is another man’s personal “matter of opinion.”

Nearly every day, I hear or read something related to this issue, and while ago I realized that something important is strangely absent from the discussion. Who says that Christians aren’t to express their opinions or seek to convert others to them? Revisiting 1 Corinthians 7 (ESV), we can see that Paul had no problem giving instruction to Christians that, by his own admission, wasn’t from the Holy Spirit:

“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.” (v. 6)

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (v. 7)

“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” (v. 8)

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband…” (v. 10)

“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” (v. 12)

“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” (v. 17)

“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy.” (v. 25)

I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” (v. 26)

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” (v. 32)

I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” (v. 35)

“Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (v. 40)

In other words, Paul gave orders on “non-essentials”! From a Stone-Campbellite perspective, this is enough to throw suspicion on the soundness of the entire passage (not to mention the entire book). If we obey what he says, then we are clearly following “man’s personal opinion.”

Now, let’s assume that Paul wasn’t sinning by giving these instructions to the Corinthians, and that his Corinthian readers weren’t sinning if they obeyed him. Why, then, should there be one rule for Paul and another for members of the contemporary Church when it comes to spreading personal views? This passage suggests that the New Testament Church might have thought it perfectly acceptable for one Christian to present to others well-thought out, well-reasoned arguments about issues of personal concern.

If Paul was allowed to express his own opinions, maybe we should rethink forcing others to be silent. Of course, their conclusions would be non-binding. But their godly reputations may warrant at least a fair hearing and thoughtful consideration.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Queen Esther’s Extreme Makeover

Esther (1878) by Edwin Long (Wikipedia)
Most little girls at some point in their lives want to be royalty. They love being called “princess,” dream about being rescued by “Prince Charming,” and look forward to living a life chore-free in a grand palace. It’s no wonder that the Book of Esther continues to be popular among the female sex. Hadassah the diasporic Jewish girl becomes Esther, Queen of the Medo-Persian Empire and heroine of her people. It’s a “beauty isn’t all bad after all” relief for Christians combined with the rags-to-riches and “do your own thing” type of stories Americans love.

Because of her popularity, there’s quite a bit on interest in what sort of beautifying treatments turned Esther into such a temptation for King Ahasuerus that he favored her over all the other beautiful virgins in the empire. We get a few clues from the Bible (Esther 2:12-13) and from recorded history.

For six months, she was treated with oil of myrrh to improve her skin. Then for another six months she was treated with spices, ointments, or perfumes (depending on which translation you use), such as rose and saffron.   It’s also likely that she used the hair removal techniques for which Persians, both ancient and modern, are so well-known. Threading, ripping out the hair follicle, gave her well-defined eyebrows and fuzz-less cheeks and chin. Sugaring, or Persian waxing, left her entire body hairless, dirt-free, and soft. There was probably a special diet and exercise program designed to keep her body healthy, strong, and curvy. I suppose some sort of ancient manicure and pedicure existed too. When the special day arrived, the hair on her head would’ve been styled into tight curls worn by the upper-classes and decorated with pins, gems, or whatever was the fashion at the time. Esther’s face would’ve been decked out in the finest cosmetics, making her eyes and lips irresistible. Then dressed in the beautiful robes and jewelry, she’d be prepared to appear before the king.

And don’t think it ended with her coronation. One thing definite about beauty: there must be upkeep. Unwanted hair grows back, itchy and clogging the pores with dirt, puss, and oil. A beautiful hairstyle becomes a flaky, tangled mess. Soft skin becomes callused, chapped, and rough. Luckily Queen Esther had her own personal staff in the harem to see that she stuck to the beauty regimen. Whether entirely by choice or not, she had to be dedicated to looking her best. No try-it-once fads from beauty magazines. No short-term skin care programs. No dieting or exercising “tomorrow.” No half-hearted attempts to look acceptable for a big event. She had to be physically gorgeous all the time, with the possible exceptions when sick or on her period. Talk about a fulltime job. And probably the strangest thing about it: She could look back and say it was well worth her time and effort.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Thoughts on Acts

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626) by Rembrandt (Wikipedia)
If there’s one debate that will send a number of Christians into hysterics, it’s anything questioning the “priesthood of all believers.” We like the idea of all individuals standing equal before God, regardless of earthly rank or position. Therefore, we rely on the belief that each one has the ability to understand and interpret the Word of God for himself or herself, without the condescension or mediation of ordained clergy. Now I’m not denouncing this idea in general (or I certainly wouldn’t be working on this blog series). However, I’ve noticed that this doctrine tends to sour into something extreme:

On the grounds of egalitarianism, many Christians will deny that they have any need to learn from or defer to the opinions of those who are more learned then they are. They will deny any advantage others might have in understanding the Gospel that might come from knowing ancient languages, understanding Jewish culture, or reading the Old Testament and the “Early Church Fathers.” On the grounds of sola scriptura, many Christians will avoid lexicons, commentaries, and Bible versions with interpretive footnotes. They truly believe that everything they need to fully understand and correctly interpret the Bible is in their vigorous rereading of their favorite books in the New Testament. And they truly dislike any implication that their best just might not be good enough…hence the hysterics.

I’m really in no position to directly challenge this, as it lies beyond my scope of knowledge. However, I’d like to contrast the attitude of the kinds of Christians mentioned above with that of the Ethiopian eunuch, whom the apostle Philip met on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26-40). When Philip asked this obviously godly, educated, and powerful man if he understood Isaiah 53:7-8, he honestly said no. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31, ESV). He accepted the fact that he wasn’t omniscient. He needed help. He needed the input of someone else…someone who was in a position to know far more about the context of the passage. And he was fortunate that God sent him one of the foremost experts on the topic.

It would be simple to say that Christians need to have more humility when it comes to considering others’ interpretations against their own, but I’m beginning to wonder if the real need is a radical paradigm adjustment. It’s as if most of us begin reading having already accepted the idea that we’ll come to the right conclusions about the passage. I’m not suggesting that we do the opposite, assuming that we can’t understand any part of God’s Word (and wash our hands of any responsibility regarding it). But we can and, I’d argue, need to be our own worst critics and seek the help of others who might lead us closer to the truth.