God’s Good News

There’s a lot of bad news in our world. Poverty, disease, violence, injustice, cruelty, war, famine, fire, flood—each day the news seems to be filled with these things. It’s easy to be discouraged by all this, even to despair for our future. It can also be easy to blame God for it all—after all, God’s in charge, right?

But this is not who God is, and this is not what God wants for the world. In fact, God has some very good news for us.


God loves the whole world and has a beautiful vision for our future.

God our Creator loves all creation—you, me, every person, all living things. Because of this, God wants true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all people together, where every person has their deepest needs met, no exceptions. God wants the earth and the water and the sky to be healthy and whole, so that all living things can thrive. This vision for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” come down to earth. It’s what the Bible also calls “salvation” and “eternal life.”

“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

“I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16)

“The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy.” (Romans 14:17)


We are under the sway of powerful forces that keep us from fully realizing God’s vision for the world.

The Bible talks about “sin”—it’s what we need “salvation” from. Sin is the harmful  things  we think  and say and do, but it is also harmful patterns of thought or behaviour, deep ruts of dysfunction we fall into and can’t seem to escape from.

These harmful patterns of thought or behaviour also show up in groups of people, even whole societies. A group can do terrible things that none of those people would do individually. Sometimes these harmful patterns become a part of the very structures and systems of a society—in unjust laws, for example.

The result of all this is what the Bible often calls “death”: not just physically dying, but also living in guilt, shame, fear, hostility, violence, oppression, and more. The Bible talks about all these manifestations of “sin” and “death” as “powers” that control us, that we seem to have no control over. They keep us from experiencing the life God wants for us.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

“All people are under the power of sin.” (Romans 3:9)

“Sin pays us death as wages, but God gives us eternal life through Jesus.” (Romans 6:23)


Jesus came to liberate us from these powerful forces and to bring about God’s vision for the world.

Jesus of Nazareth showed us God’s vision for the world. He taught God’s way of love for all and of peace through nonviolence. He freely healed and forgave people. He shared meals with those considered “sinners” and denounced those who oppressed the vulnerable. He was killed by the powers-that-be for living out God’s vision, but God raised him from the dead to a new life untouched by sin and death. In doing so God declared Jesus to be “Lord” over all powerful forces.

“Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Messiah Jesus—he is Lord of all…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…” (Acts 10:34-43)


If we resist these forces at work in us and in our world, and we commit ourselves to Jesus’ way of love, God’s vision for the world will become a reality.

Jesus calls us to “repent”: to resist our own sin, all those ways we harm others, and to resist the evil we see in the world through love, without violence. Jesus calls us to “believe in God’s good news”: to trust in God’s love for us and to commit to Jesus’ way of love in solidarity with others. When we do this, God’s presence is with us to make real God’s vision for the world: true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all. We will share in Jesus’ new life—even his life beyond death.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-34)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

“We know that we have passed from death to life when we love one another.” (1 John 3:14)


“The kingdom of God is like the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Will you allow God’s vision for the world to be planted in your own life, in your own small corner of the world? Will you trust in the God who loves you far beyond what you can even imagine? Will you commit to living out Jesus’ way of love?

If you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him in his way of love, here are some suggested first steps in the journey:

  • Join a faith community that is committed to following Jesus. In North America check out home.mennonitechurch.ca/churches or mennoniteusa.org/find-a-church.
  • Read the Bible to learn more about Jesus, his teaching, and his way of life. Try starting with the Gospel of Mark, and then read the other Gospels. Read online at biblegateway.com.
  • Pray regularly—being aware of God’s presence, communicating with God—in a way that works for you. Check out the “Take Our Moments and Our Days” (Android, Apple) and “Common Prayer” (Android, Apple) apps for your smart phone.

Here is this tract as a PDF. Here are instructions for printing and assembling it. Feel free to use, just use responsibly! For some background on how this tract came to be developed please see here.

Tracting the Gospel

A couple of years ago I took a local church to task for the “gospel tracts” they were handing out and which we received. Here’s what I said then about such “gospel tracts”:

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

I went on to declare, rather strongly, that this is in fact not the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s because it isn’t. And in the post I detailed why.

I ended the post with these words:

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

Not the gospel.

Now, there are good reasons to be suspicious of “tract theology” generally. Like its close kin, “bumper sticker theology,” tract theology assumes that the gospel can be sufficiently summarized in just a few words: a pithy phrase for a bumper sticker, four spiritual laws and a thousand words for a tract. Also, these pop theology media assume that the gospel can be divorced from any context: any extended biblical context, any deep context of Jesus’ life, any context of relationship between messenger and hearer.

As I say, these are good reasons to be suspicious of the whole gospel tract enterprise. That’s why the genre is dominated by truncated, even unbiblical “gospels”: Christians who have a more nuanced, contextual understanding of the gospel tend to be allergic to attempts at communicating the gospel in a pithy, slickly marketed way, devoid of context.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to make the attempt. One is that, for some people, these “gospel tracts” do work. And I don’t just mean that they convince some people. I mean that, out of all the people they convince, there are some who actually go deeper and become authentic Jesus-followers. This utilitarian reason is not enough; by itself, I loathe it, because I’m not sure that the ends (a few Jesus-followers) justify the means (many receiving and believing a distorted gospel). But it’s not the only reason.

There is also a history of tract- and slogan-making within Christianity, going back to earliest Christianity. Many of the Reformers and Radical Reformers wrote tracts: brief (by 16th century standards, which meant titles a mile long), general treatises on a subject, intended for wide circulation, to be read without any relationship with the author or any context other than the readers’ own. Slogans—pithy phrases to summarize larger ideas—were also part of this Reformation era (think sola gratia and sola fide).

This use of tracts and slogans actually goes back all the way to the New Testament itself. The gospel was in fact summarized in pithy ways by the Apostles and their followers: “Jesus is the Messiah,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Christ died for our sins according the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” and more. And as for tracts, many scholars view Ephesians as a general letter intended for multiple audiences. 1 John shows some of those same features, a kind of “sermon-letter” for a few different congregations.

If these tracts and slogans are not viewed as “the totality of the gospel” or a replacement for sharing the good news of Jesus within relationship in both deeds and words, then these can have their place. They can summarize for Christians what it is we profess and proclaim. They can be an introduction to the Christian message and an invitation to the way of Jesus for those who are curious or seeking.

I’ve summarized “the gospel” in various places on this blog, including that post about “gospel tracts.” Each time I do this it’s is a little different (that whole nuance and context thing). Nevertheless, in making a gospel tract these are the things I’d want to see:

  • A gospel that is based on the biblical descriptions of “the gospel” (euangel– language) and the “evangelistic speeches” of Acts, as well as informed by the New Testament descriptions of the “word of God/the Lord/salvation/truth/life/etc.” which are synonymous with “gospel.”
  • This means, then, a gospel that is about “God,” about “Jesus,” about “God’s kingdom,” and about “salvation,” as these are the most common “big-picture” content descriptions of the gospel in the Bible.
  • It means a gospel that includes the whole good news story of Jesus: Jesus in his person and character and way of life, and Jesus’ life from his baptism through his kingdom teachings and healings, his death “for our sins” at the hands of the “rulers and powers,” his resurrection by God “on the third day,” and his exaltation by God as Lord over all powers.
  • It means a gospel that is “good news for the poor.” This means the literal poor, yes—the economically disadvantaged and destitute. But in Scripture “the poor” is also often a cipher for all kinds of powerlessness: the widow, the orphan, the alien and stranger, the lowly, the last, the least, the lost, the “sinner.”
  • It means a gospel that calls forth “repentance” and “faith” that leads to “love,” as these are properly understood in biblical context. (For instance, “faith” doesn’t merely mean “agreeing that certain claims are true,” but it is more akin to “fidelity” or even “allegiance.”)

If someone presents a gospel that does not square with all these things, they are not proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. There may be a million different ways of presenting the gospel—as there must be, because human contexts differ and change—but these should be some guiding principles. At least, they are for me.

In the next post you’ll find my Michael Pahl Certified™ gospel tract: “God’s Good News.” If you need to attach further labels to it, you’ll find it to be Anabaptist-friendly and Christus Victor-leaning—not because that’s what I am, but because I am those things after thirty years of studying and teaching the Bible. (You might also notice my nod to “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself. 😊)

An Anabaptist Ecclesiology for a Global Pandemic

I’m convinced that the church is the gathered people of God.

In the New Testament, even when the word ekklēsia points beyond local gatherings to the universal church, it still has the idea of “the church that gathers”: followers of Jesus who live together in the world as Christ’s body, God’s family, a new humanity formed by the Spirit. This gathered people of God is together “a holy priesthood”: while some are called to spiritual leadership as “pastors” or “shepherd-teachers,” there are no human mediators between God and individual believers and each one is distinctly gifted by the Spirit of Christ so that together we can be the body of Christ in the world.

This understanding of “church” is part of what makes me “Anabaptist” in my Christian convictions. And this Anabaptist ecclesiology has some direct implications for how we “do church,” to use a modern phrase.

This ecclesiology means worship services are not performances. Worship services are the gathered people of God, gathered to worship God collectively, with everyone contributing in worship.

We don’t speak of a “stage” and an “audience”; we are a “congregation” gathered together in a “sanctuary,” or even, deep in our tradition, simply a “meeting house.” We don’t dim the “audience lights” and throw spotlights on the people “on stage.”

“Worship leaders” are neither priests nor performers. They are not even the “song leaders.” Worship leaders are exactly that: those in any given service (often lay people) who guide the congregation in our collective worship, all aspects of it (not just the music).

The building is closed. The church is still open.

Sermons are neither more nor less important than any other part of the service. Congregational singing, congregational sharing and prayer, sharing our creative gifts, sharing our financial resources, reading Scripture together, intentionally listening together for God’s voice to us as a congregation—these are just as important as, and some weeks more important than, what the preacher shares.

This ecclesiology also means worship services are not all that “church” is. We don’t simply “do church” on Sunday mornings; we “do church”—or better, we are the church—all throughout the week.

Yes, this means we live out our individual and family lives as Christians through the week, striving in the Spirit to follow Jesus in the ordinary everyday. But it also means we continue to be the church, gathering together throughout the week in various ways: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes.

Sometimes this way of thinking about “church” is considered “low church,” in contrast to “high church” ecclesiologies that include liturgy, sacraments, vestments, icons, candles, bells, and incense. I appreciate the distinction, and I myself love liturgy and worship that engages the senses. But I have to confess I bristle a bit at the idea that an Anabaptist view of church is “low”: we take church as seriously as any other group of Christians, and more seriously than many.

But what happens when “the gathered people of God” can no longer gather? How can we be the church in a pandemic?

In some ways the answer to this is simple: we continue to find creative ways to love our neighbours as ourselves, loving all others (and especially the most vulnerable) in the way of Jesus. There is never any shortage of people who need to be loved.

But this is really an individual Christian response to a pandemic. How do we do this specifically as the church, the gathered people of God? And how do we do all the things that nurture and support the faith and hope that form the root of this love? How do we worship together, pray together, learn together, hear God’s voice to us together, serve together?

How do we sing together? How do we break bread together?

When we dig a little deeper into this question—how can we be the church in a pandemic?—we find the answers aren’t simple and easy at all.

Since there are no simple and easy answers to this, I won’t stand in judgment on any other church or pastor and how they work through this question. (Unless you’ve been given specific guidelines, even orders, by your local health authorities not to gather in large groups, but you still do—then may God have mercy on your souls, and on the bodies of the rest of us who might end up paying for your foolish hubris disguised as “faith.”)

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts roiling around in my brain, circling around this conviction:

The church hasn’t changed. We are still the gathered people of God.

Because of this conviction, I’ll confess I have no appetite for recording or livestreaming a “worship service” of people performing in front of empty pews. I do understand the impulse behind these efforts, and I sympathize with those who have decided to do this. But that’s never been what our worship services are—they’ve never been about the people “on stage” doing something which the people “in the audience” observe.

Since our worship services are more participatory than that, I’m working at finding ways to include as many people as possible in the “virtual worship services” we as a church are providing, and I’m working at finding ways to encourage people to participate in those online worship services. We’re recording various church folks praying and singing and playing music to accompany our hymns, for example, so those gifts can be shared on a Sunday morning.

Also, because of this conviction that the church is still the gathered people of God, I am encouraging our church to lean into the idea that our worship services are not all that “church” is. We may not be able to gather in person, but we are committed to finding ways to “gather” throughout each week for all the reasons we’ve always gathered: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes. Some of this “breaking bread together” might have to happen as households host one another for a meal via Zoom, but we’ll find a way.

The goal of all this faith- and hope-formation, the fruit we’re hoping to see among us, is still the same: love. Loving each other, loving all others, and especially loving the most vulnerable, in the way of Jesus.

For many of us, for now at least, this “love in the way of Jesus” means being physically separated from others, especially the most vulnerable. That’s counter-intuitive for all of us, but especially Mennonites, who like a hands-on kind of Jesus-love.

Social distancing, Dirk!

For all of us, this “love in the way of Jesus” means finding creative ways to walk in solidarity with those most at-risk and those most affected and afflicted. Following social distancing requirements to the letter, but doing so to help stock the local food bank. Checking in with our elderly and immune compromised church folks, making sure they have the things they need. And more.

All churches are having to find creative ways to “do church” and “be the church” in these days. But for those with strong Anabaptist convictions about church? We’ve got some unique challenges—and opportunities—ahead of us.

How is your church “doing” and “being” the church during COVID-19?

If your church is a Mennonite or other Anabaptist church, how is your church trying to maintain the conviction that the church is “the gathered people of God?”

Most pressing for Mennonites, how in the world are you singing together and breaking bread together? 🙂

I’d love to hear constructive responses!

Note: This post has been edited slightly since its original publication.

Am I “Satanic” or Just “Unbiblical”? A Guide for My Christian Critics

Dear Christian critic,

I occasionally say things that you find disconcerting, even disturbing. Sometimes you accuse me of being “unbiblical,” or of “not preaching the gospel,” or of “heresy,” even of being “antichrist” or (my personal favourite) “satanic.”

Those are strong words. However, you do not seem to be using them correctly. So, I’ve put together this helpful guide for you to use those terms more accurately in the future.

Rest assured, I will continue to say disconcerting things.

Respectfully,
Michael

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“Unbiblical.”

This means “not biblical.” (We’re off to a good start here.)

Now, I certainly say and do plenty of things that are “not biblical.” Just the other day I texted my wife (texting is not in the Bible) and let her know that we already had two big bottles of ketchup in the fridge, both half full (ketchup is also not in the Bible, and hoarding resources is not an acceptable biblical practice).

More to the point, like most people I do occasionally lie, I sometimes have anger issues, and I participate in an economic system that exploits poor labourers to enrich the wealthy. These things and more are profoundly “unbiblical.” I’m trying to become “more biblical” in both my personal morals and my social ethics.

But I suspect this is still not what you mean by “unbiblical.” I suspect what you really mean when you call something I say “unbiblical” is “Michael’s teaching is not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.”

After all, I read and study my Bible every day. In fact, I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life studying the Bible in order to help other people understand the Bible better. I preach on biblical passages every time I preach. I teach Bible studies, and topical studies on the Bible and about the Bible. So, when you say I’m saying or doing something “unbiblical” you can’t mean “Michael doesn’t take the Bible seriously.”

I can only conclude, then, that by “unbiblical” you mean, “not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.” It might be more helpful, then, if you said that. Then we could have a conversation about how we interpret the Bible differently and why we prioritize various biblical teachings differently.

“Not preaching the gospel.”

Now this strikes near to my heart.

You see, I’ve not only spent the last 30 years studying and teaching the Bible, I’ve also become convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what the Bible points us toward. The gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). It is the truth we are to live out in our individual lives and as churches, and it is the truth we are to teach within our churches and proclaim to the world. It is the truth the world desperately needs.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of Jesus, from his baptism to his resurrection, including all his words and works and ways (Mark 1:1). It is the good news that God has arrived in Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus is the anticipated “Messiah” of Israel who brings about the “kingdom of God,” God’s vision for justice and peace and life for the world (Mark 1:14-15). It is the good news that Jesus has done this—that he has brought near God’s reign—through his life, his teachings, his execution on a Roman cross, and his resurrection from the dead by God (Acts 10:36-43; 1 Cor 15:3-5). It is the good news that this risen and exalted Jesus is now “Lord” over all powers of this age, including all evil powers (Rom 1:1-6; 10:9-10).

This good news calls forth a response of “repentance”: turning from our collusion with the evil powers of this age, even actively resisting these powers, including both our own personal sins and the wider injustices of our world. This good news calls forth a response of “faith”: committing ourselves to the loving and faithful God who calls us to walk in Jesus’ way of suffering love in solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed, in the presence and power of God’s Spirit. When we do these things, we will experience the reign of the God who is love: forgiveness and joy, true justice and lasting peace, flourishing life for ourselves and for the world—God’s “salvation,” in other words.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ according to his Apostles, and this is the gospel I preach. So, when you say I am “not preaching the gospel,” what you must mean is, “Michael is not preaching the ‘gospel’ I’ve been taught to believe.” If the gospel you believe lines up with the gospel I preach, hey, we good! If not, let’s get together and explore what the New Testament says about “the gospel.”

(Though if you publicly preach or disseminate a gospel reduced to a private transaction offering fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, or a gospel that is not actually “good news for the poor,” I’m likely to call you out on it. Fair warning.)

“Heresy.”

Ah, yes. The favourite power-play of self-styled theologians.

I say that because, for most trained theologians, “heresy” has a fairly well-defined meaning. It is the opposite of “orthodoxy,” which also has a fairly well-defined meaning.

“Orthodoxy” in this broad sense (not referring to “Eastern Orthodox churches”) means adhering to the universal creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and often also the Athanasian Creed. It means confessing such historic Christian doctrines as the Trinity, God as Creator of all things, the incarnation, the true humanity and true deity of Christ, Jesus’ virginal conception, Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ exaltation to God, Jesus as judge of humanity, the person and activity of the Holy Spirit, the universal Church, the forgiveness of sins, a future bodily resurrection, and life in the age to come.

“Heresy,” then, is denying these things.

Since I believe these things, and have never denied them, when you accuse me of “heresy” you must mean, “Michael is teaching things which I think are wrong.” Sorry, but you don’t get to decide what “heresy” is, and neither do I.

(Which is why I won’t call you a heretic, even though I probably think you’re wrong. Unless you really are a heretic, in which case I might use that term. But don’t worry: as an Anabaptist “heretic” just doesn’t carry the same weight for me as it does for others. Too many Anabaptists were drowned or burned for so-called “heresy,” I suppose, and there’s not enough interest among us in authoritative creeds beyond the life and teaching of Jesus.)

“Antichrist.”

I do admire this one—it’s got a certain panache.

Allow me a little deep-dive into 1 and 2 John, though, the only places in the Bible where “antichrist” is used.

These letters were written for a specific situation. Some people were teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was not really the “Christ.” They apparently taught that the “Christ” was a spirit which came upon Jesus and then left Jesus before he died. These teachers made a sharp distinction between the “spiritual,” which we are to embrace, and the “physical” or “material,” which we are to cast aside. These theological acrobatics allowed them to treat actual flesh-and-blood people in uncompassionate, even cruel ways—not providing food for the hungry, for example.

This is what the author of 1 and 2 John calls “antichrist” and “the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). You could summarize “antichrist” this way: “denying that Jesus is who the gospel proclaims he is, both fully human and fully God; denying that salvation is what the gospel says it is, the full redemption of creation and humanity in both body and spirit; and denying that the gospel calls us to love one another in very direct and practical ways.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always love others in the way of Jesus. But I strive to, and I certainly affirm all these things. Sorry to burst your bubble, then, but I’m no antichrist, and neither is my gospel or my teaching “of the spirit of antichrist.”

“Satanic.”

This is my favourite. (Narrator: “That is a lie. Michael does not like being called ‘satanic.’”)

This is getting long, so quick summary. “Satan” (or really “the satan”) in the Bible simply means “the adversary.” It often means “the adversary of God” or “the adversary of God’s people.”

So, I get it. If you think I’m teaching or acting against God’s ways, then I might well seem “satanic” to you.

But it’s worth thinking about the way the Gospels describe what is truly “satanic.” Jesus is tempted by “the devil” in the wilderness, tempted to use his power selfishly, tempted to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus cries (Matt 4:10). Later, Peter tries to deter Jesus from going through the suffering of the cross; it’s another call for Jesus to instead bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus again cries (Matt 16:23).

The way of “the satan” is the way of worldly power—gaining power and privilege, even through accumulating wealth and the use of violence, and using these means to achieve our own ends, even potentially good ends. But this is not the way of God. This is not the way of Jesus. And, although I’m as prone to love power as the next person, it’s not the way I’m striving to live.

Sorry, I’m really not satanic. I’m pretty boring, really.

Here’s the bottom line in all this: you think I’m wrong about something. Fine. I probably think you’re wrong about a few things, too. I might even think you’re actually the heretic or the one not preaching the true gospel.

But maybe we could get together and talk about these things, you know, with a little gentleness and respect (2 Tim 2:24-26; 1 Pet 3:15-16). I’ll try and cut the sarcasm if you try and cut the name-calling. Deal?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Or, another way to put it: Who are the commandments for? Who is being expected to obey these commandments?

For most Christians, the assumption is that these are universal moral laws: they are for everyone. The “you” in the Ten Commandments is “every person.”

This can make a lot of sense—with some of these commands. We read, “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” or “You shall not steal,” and it can make perfect sense to hear these as “You—every person—must not do these things.”

But other commandments complicate this assumption.

Take the commandment to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Exod 20:8-10).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? If you still think it’s “every person,” go back and read that last bit again.

Or, take the commandment not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? Or, more appropriately, who’s the “neighbour”?

The “you,” and the “neighbour,” in these commandments is not “every person.” It’s not a universal “you.” The “you” does not include wives, sons or daughters, male or female slaves, or resident foreigners. The “you” here has a wife, sons and daughters, and male and female slaves.

The “you” in these commandments is a man, not a woman or a child. The “you” is a free man, not a slave. The “you” is a property-owning free man, a free man with a “household,” not someone landless and without wealth.

I’ve pointed this out in different teaching contexts, and responses range from bemusement to confusion to shock to denial. Even with the text staring them in the face, some insist that the “you” in the Ten Commandments must be “every person.”

“That’s your interpretation,” they say.

“Read it again,” I say. “That’s the text.”

Now, my point in raising this in teaching contexts is not to deny that the Ten Commandments have any ongoing moral relevance. I believe they do.

Rather, my point is that there is no straight line between the text of Scripture and what it means for us today. We do need to interpret the text—we all do anyway, actually, whether we realize it or not—and if we want to interpret the text well we must grapple with the reality of Scripture’s ancient cultural contexts.

And a big part of this is grappling with the various forms of patriarchy that underlie every single book in our Bibles.

This is disconcerting for us, even disturbing. And it should be.

The Ten Commandments assume—and even support—a patriarchy centred on free men with households, including wives, children, slaves, and other property. This is a slaveholding society, a society which allowed not only bonded servitude to pay a debt but also chattel slavery of conquered foreigners (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). It’s a society in which women are, at least in some sense, the “property” of a man: their father, then their husband (Exod 20:17; Numbers 30; Deut 22:13-21).

This should be disturbing for us.

And it’s not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes—and often supports—a similar form of patriarchy centred on free men with households, including subject wives and owned slaves. “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, like Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’” (1 Pet 3:1-6). “Slaves, obey your masters in everything” (Col 3:22).

This should be disturbing for us.

But running right through the Bible, from Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a parallel thread highlighting God’s concern for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Actually, it’s even stronger than that: there is a thread running through the Bible that emphasizes God’s solidarity with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Even the Ten Commandments, which assume and support a slave-owning, patriarchal society, open with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The God of Israel is the God of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Any other “god” is not the true and living God, the Creator-of-All, the Redeemer-from-Slavery, the Sustainer-of-the-Oppressed.

Here’s a good way to see this biblical thread represented in a single passage. According to Luke’s Gospel, these are the words of Jesus in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

I say these are the words of Jesus through the Evangelist Luke (Luke 4:18-19), but this is Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2), and referencing the Year of Jubilee in the Law of Moses (Lev 25). From Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a thread through the Bible that highlights God’s concern for, even God’s solidarity with, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The poor in a world of shocking economic disparity. The incarcerated in a world of authoritarian violence against minorities. The disabled in an ableist world. The indigenous in a colonized world. The queer in a heteronormative world.

And women in a patriarchal world.

The “you” in the Ten Commandments is not “every person”; it is people with power, especially men with power, people who need a law to restrain the abuse of their power.

But God is decidedly on the side of the powerless. The God who is enthroned in the heavens comes down to the lowest of the lowly, and dwells with them, and takes up their cause, and overthrows the powerful who violate the powerless.

This is how God is revealed in the Law and the Prophets. And this is how God is revealed in Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to use to his advantage,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even execution on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

#JesusEconomics

Imagine Jesus as a financial advisor, or maybe as an economic consultant to presidents and prime ministers…

“Okay, here’s my plan (endorsed by God): I’ve come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim a ‘year of God’s favour’ – a Jubilee where all debts are forgiven.” (Luke 4:18-19) #JesusEconomics

“You who are poor, you who are hungry, *you* are the ones blessed by God. God’s political agenda favours *you*. The wealthy? You’re on the wrong side of history. Nothing but woe for you.” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25) #JesusEconomics

“Give to everyone who begs from you. Yes, everyone. If someone in need steals something from you, let them keep it.” (Luke 6:30-31) #JesusEconomics

“Don’t lend only to those who can repay you. Lend, expecting nothing in return. Yes, nothing.” (Luke 6:34-36) #JesusEconomics

“If you simply want to preserve your life you’re going to lose it. There’s no profit in gaining the whole world if you lose your soul in the process!” (Luke 9:23-25) #JesusEconomics

“It’s true: a labourer deserves a fair wage. So share peaceful hospitality and enjoy food and drink together. Oh, and heal the sick among you, freely. This is God’s political agenda.” (Luke 10:5-9) #JesusEconomics

“That ‘heal the sick freely’ thing? I meant it. Even when it’s a foreigner, an enemy, someone you despise. They are your neighbour, and loving our neighbour is right up there with loving God.” (Luke 10:25-37) #JesusEconomics

“We need to yearn for God’s political agenda to be implemented. This means ‘daily bread’ for all of us. This means forgiving debts others owe us. Amen.” (Luke 11:2-4) #JesusEconomics

“We need to guard ourselves against every form of greed, always wanting more and bigger and better. True life is not about possessing things.” (Luke 12:15-21) #JesusEconomics

“We need to strive for God’s political agenda, and all our basic needs will be met.” (Luke 12:22-31) #JesusEconomics

“Sell your possessions before they possess you. Give to the poor and needy. Make these your treasure, for these are what is treasured by God.” (Luke 12:33-34) #JesusEconomics

“Don’t throw a party – or a state dinner – for those who can repay you. Lay out a feast for those who *can’t* repay you, especially those society most ignores – after all, they’re the ones who most need it.” (Luke 14:12-14) #JesusEconomics

“If you’re going to do a project you make sure you’ve got enough to pay for it. You might think this means you should save up every penny for yourself. Nope! It means you need to give up the whole idea of possessing anything yourself.” (Luke 14:25-33) #JesusEconomics

“Just to be clear: wealth is a god who will enslave you. Instead, become slaves of God who gives you freedom. Make your choice: you cannot serve both God and money. You cannot serve both God and The Economy.” (Luke 16:13) #JesusEconomics

“Here’s a story: Rich man ignores poor man right next door. Rich man dies. Poor man dies. Poor man goes to heaven. Rich man goes to hell. He should have listened to Moses and the prophets!” (Luke 16:19-31) #JesusEconomics

“If the wealthy refuse to distribute their wealth equitably, they’re not participating in God’s political agenda. They’re not ‘saved,’ no matter what they say. But God can work miracles!” (Luke 18:18-27) #JesusEconomics

“Here’s a better story: Rich man got rich by robbing from the poor. Rich man repents, gives half his wealth to the poor and pays back four times what he defrauded others. This is a billionaire who got ‘saved’!” (Luke 19:1-10) #JesusEconomics

“Yes, pay your taxes. Give to human rulers what they think they need: it’s only money. But make sure you give to God what belongs to God: ‘The earth is God’s and everything in it.'” (Luke 20:21-25) #JesusEconomics

“A poor woman who gives her entire widow’s pension for a good cause has given more than a multi-billionaire donating a hundred million dollars for a university with his name on it.” (Luke 21:1-4) #JesusEconomics

The Gospel of the Lord. #TheGospelAccordingToLuke #JesusEconomics

From #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas!

Although many people think of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as the days leading up to Christmas, in fact they are the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany. So, this year I started a #12DaysOfAdvent thread on Twitter and Facebook, marking the days leading up to Christmas with twelve Scripture texts traditionally associated with Advent, anticipating Israel’s Messiah and God’s coming reign on earth bringing justice and peace and joy for all peoples.

Here they are, from #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas! Links take you to the full Scripture texts.

Dec. 13: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established… they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” –Isa 2:1-5 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 14: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” –Isa 9:1-7 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 15: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him… with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” –Isa 11:1-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 16: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.” –Isa 35:1-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 17: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…’ Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” –Isa 40:1-11 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 18: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” –Isa 52:7-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 19: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me… he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” –Isa 61:1-4 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 20: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…and he shall be the one of peace.” –Mic 5:2-5a #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 21: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” –Jer 33:14-16 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 22: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! …I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” –Zeph 3:14-20 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 23: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” –Luke 1:46-55 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 24: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” –Luke 1:67-79 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 25: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” –Luke 2:1-20 From #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas!

Navigating the Waters around Supersessionism

There has been a good deal of online chatter recently about “supersessionism.”

Supersessionism is the idea that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity (as “the true religion”), or that Israel has been superseded by the Church (as “the people of God”). In this way of thinking, Christianity is superior to Judaism and the Church has replaced Israel.

It’s no surprise that supersessionism has been part of the mix in a lot of Christian anti-Semitism through history. Christians and Jews both, then, are right to condemn supersessionism.

However, it turns out it’s not all that easy to spot this anti-Semitic supersessionism in the wild. A Rabbi might condemn something they think reflects an aberrant, “supersessionist” version of Christianity only to find out it’s an essential part of historically orthodox Christianity. A Christian pastor might criticize other Christians for the latent “supersessionism” of their Christ-centred interpretation of the Old Testament, only to find themselves labeled “supersessionist” because of their Trinitarian reading of the Old Testament.

Contrary to some online exhortations (“C’mon Christians, it’s not so hard! Just don’t be supersessionist!”) this really is a rather knotty problem for Christians. And it won’t go away any time soon, because the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself.

Here are a few historical realities that need to be considered by anyone—Christian or Jew—who wants to talk about Christianity and supersessionism. While there is debate about many of the details of these things among historians of Christian origins and early Judaism (a.k.a. late Second Temple Judaism), the basic points are not all that controversial.

1) Jesus of Nazareth was a devout Jew. As far as we can tell historically, he remained so to the end (Jesus was executed under Roman jurisdiction in or around 30 CE). Keep in mind, though, Jews (or perhaps better, “Judeans”) in the first century disputed vigorously among themselves as to what God-approved, Torah-faithful religious devotion should look like.

2) Paul of Tarsus was a devout Jew. His revelatory Jesus-experience near Damascus (within a few years of Jesus’ death) was not a “conversion” from one religion to another; he describes it rather as a prophetic “call” by the God of his ancestors to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord among the Gentiles (non-Jews, “the nations”; e.g. Gal 1). As far as we know, Paul considered himself to be a devout Jew to the end of his life. This claim was sharply disputed by other Jews of his day.

3) The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews, and most of the authors of the writings that make up the New Testament were Jews. The scriptures of early Judaism were their scriptures, because they were Jews. They claimed Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, their Messiah. They viewed what had happened to Jesus and what was happening among them as the beginning of the fulfillment of Jewish expectations for God’s “last days” salvation.

So far this sounds like Christianity should be simply a sect of Judaism. In fact, that’s essentially what it was, to start with: a branch of early Judaism on the “apocalyptic” side of the family tree. So what happened? A few more historical realities to keep in mind:

4) Early in the development of this Jesus movement these Jesus-followers began to understand Jesus in rather exalted, even exclusive, terms. Jesus was viewed not only as Davidic Messiah bringing about God’s promised reign on earth, but as Lord over all powers of this age, even as the fullest revelation of God to humanity—even as God-in-human-flesh. Exactly how early this “high Christology” developed and how widespread it was are matters of debate among historians, but these ideas are evident in one form or another throughout the New Testament writings, even in the earliest of them (Paul’s letters, written 15-30 years after Jesus, ca. 45-60 CE).

5) Within a decade or so after Jesus, Gentiles had begun to join this Jewish Jesus movement. This created a contentious problem for the movement: do we accept Gentiles as Gentiles, or do we expect Gentiles to become Jews? Within another decade, a formal decision was made accepting Gentiles as “righteous Gentiles,” no conversion necessary (Acts 15; ca. 49 CE); however, the controversy continued for many years after. That decision, though, along with the active evangelization of Gentiles by people like Paul, meant that it wasn’t long before Gentiles outnumbered Jews within the Jesus movement (e.g. this seems to have been the case in the Roman churches Paul wrote to in the late 50s CE).

6) By the end of the first century, “the parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism was well on its way; by the middle of the second century this parting was effectively complete. The “Gentilization” of the Jesus movement, along with the desire of these Christians to distinguish themselves from Jews in the aftermath of two failed Jewish revolts against Rome (66-73 and 132-136 CE), paved the way for this parting (which was not often as amicable as the word “parting” implies). Christianity emerged as a predominantly Gentile religion, and Judaism evolved into its current form (Pharisaic-Rabbinic).

These historical realities are part of the DNA of Christianity. They can’t simply be brushed aside. Nor does it work to blame supersessionism on a later Hellenization/Romanization of an early Jewish Jesus-movement (no “Thanks, Constantine!” allowed here). An exalted, even exclusive view of Jesus in relation to all other powers of this age and all other claims of divine revelation was already present in the earliest, “most Jewish” versions of Christianity.

In other words, again, the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself. We might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s organic connection to early Judaism, as if Christianity and Judaism are completely distinct religions. Or, we might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s strong claims about Jesus even related to the Torah and key aspects of Jewish belief and practice, as if there is nothing distinctive about Christianity related to Judaism. Either way, we end up with something that is not Christianity.

So, what should we do?

Well, we need to be honest about the origins of Christianity and the nature of Christianity’s claims about Jesus. This should be part of any religious instruction about Christianity and Judaism, and part of any Jewish-Christian dialogue. It doesn’t help to gloss over these realities in order to resolve any problems that might arise from them.

We also need to be honest about the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and the ways in which Christian teachings about “Christianity as the true religion” and “the Church as God’s true people” have helped to fuel that anti-Semitism (not to mention European colonization and similar evils). This, too, should be part of religious instruction for Christians about Christianity and Judaism, and confessed by Christians in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

We Christians must also do the hard work of thinking carefully about Christianity’s origins and claims related to Judaism.

What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism—and any other religion, for that matter—that Jesus did not found Christianity as a religion, let alone a religion distinct from Judaism?

What does it mean for Gentile Christians and our religious practices that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does this mean for our relationship to the scriptures, symbols, and practices of Judaism, including reading Torah, keeping Sabbath, performing ritual washings, and eating sacred meals?

What is the significance of the fact that the Jewish scriptures (the Tanakh) say nothing directly about Jesus, yet they make up most of the Christian scriptures (as the Old Testament)? What does it mean to claim that the Jewish scriptures bear witness to Jesus? What does it mean to claim that Jesus (not any scripture) provides us with the fullest revelation of God and God’s will?

What does it mean for “Israel” to be the people of God, yet for “the Church” also to be the people of God? What exactly is the relationship between the two? What, in fact, does it mean for any specific group of people to claim they are “the people of God,” or “the children/family of God”? How does this relate to biblical ideas that all people are created “in God’s image” and are “God’s children”?

How do we understand the repeated New Testament claim that the new Messianic community forming around Jesus (“the Church”) is in some way an extension of the ancient people of “Israel” in fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures? That in Jesus the Messiah (“in Christ”) Gentiles have been “grafted in” to Israel, included in Israel’s promised inheritance?

What does it mean to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by Rome and resurrected by God, is Israel’s Messiah? That this Messiah Jesus is Lord over all powers of this world, including religious powers? That this Messiah Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, even God incarnate? How do these claims relate to modern Judaism? to other religions? to other claims of divine revelation and authority?

These and similar questions are more complicated and difficult than they might appear on the surface. Yet we must grapple with these questions in order to navigate the waters around supersessionism. Let’s strive to do so with historical and theological integrity as Christians, with a deep sensitivity and love for our Jewish neighbours, and with grace for one another—because we will make mistakes along the way.

“The Bible is Clear”: No, It’s Not—But That’s Okay

“The Bible clearly says…”

I’ve heard this many, many times over the years, always spoken with great fervour. I’ve even been known to say something like this myself a time or two.

So I get it, I really do.

You read a passage in the Bible, and it just makes sense. It fits with what you already know to be true. It might add to your knowledge, it might explain or expand your knowledge, but still it fits well with what you already know. It’s what anyone with an ounce of common sense would understand the passage to mean. It’s plain. It’s clear.

But there are at least two problems with this. And they’re rather large problems.

First, you’re likely reading the Bible in English. Or maybe German, or Korean, or some other reading language that’s comfortable for you. But the Bible wasn’t originally written in English or any other modern language. The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, first written in ancient languages: the Old Testament in Hebrew and smatterings of Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. These writings—or “books” of the Bible, as they are conventionally called—were written over many centuries and from within several ancient cultures. And they were each written—and then often edited, sometimes repeatedly—within very specific historical communities, for very specific historical purposes.

In other words, unless you’re reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, say, in Koine Greek, and you’re fluent in the language, and you’re familiar with the particular circumstances surrounding the letter, and you’ve got a good grasp of Paul’s and the Roman Christians’ specific cultural settings, you can’t really claim that anything in the book of Romans is “clear” to you. You’re reading someone else’s translation of an ancient text, with all of that depth of nuance flattened into a modern English version that makes some superficial “sense” to you in your setting today.

That’s one problem with claiming that “the Bible is clear” in this or that passage. Here’s another: someone else can read that very same passage with the same depth of devotion and the same careful, prayerful attention—the same ounce of common sense, even—and come to a very different reading of the passage that is just as obvious to them, just as plain, just as clear.

Exhibit A: the many churches and denominations that have been created out of divisions because what was so very clear to one group about this biblical passage or that biblical idea was not at all clear to another group (*cough* Mennonite history *cough*).

Exhibit B: the many times the vast majority of Christians have been convinced this or that was the clear teaching of the Bible, only to conveniently forget within a few generations that Christians had actually believed such foolishness (Gentile conversion to Judaism, a geocentric universe, the Crusades, the Inquisition, White superiority, Indigenous genocide, African slavery, women’s subordination…).

There have been, and still are, many competing claims of what “the Bible clearly says.” This is what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” and it is the death knell of any claim to possess “the clear teaching of the Bible.”

No, the Bible is not “clear.” And if you’re one of those people who needs to have a prooftext, here’s a clip from 2 Peter 3:15-16:

…ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἡμῶν ἀδελφὸς Παῦλος κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν αὐτῷ σοφίαν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν, ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων, ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα…

So, what do we do?

Well, I suppose you could close your browser, turn off your computer, pretend you never read this post, and go back to your comfortable Christian life. Or, you could go all in and start splitting churches and burning heretics until you’re the only one left who believes The Truth about The Things. Or, you could chuck out your entire faith because it’s built on a “Bible” that doesn’t exist.

Needless to say (which means “I feel I must say”), these are not my recommended options. Here are a few things I would recommend.

First, read the Bible with humility. Recognize that you are reading the Bible without a full grasp of the linguistic nuances and historical details and cultural subtleties. Acknowledge that other people might be just as sincere as you in their desire to hear and obey God’s voice. Admit that you might even be wrong about this or that biblical passage.

Second, read the Bible in multiple translations. I’m assuming (perhaps naively) that most people are not going to become experts in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Find a good modern translation that you feel comfortable reading and use that for your regular Bible reading. God can use that reading to shape you in the way of Jesus.

But if you’re going to go beyond devotional reading into teaching or preaching, helping a community of faith to discern God’s will together, then at least read from multiple versions. This will give you some sense of the nuances (and difficulties in translation) of the ancient texts. If you really want to get serious, then do some work also in trying to understand the cultural setting and historical circumstances of the specific biblical writing you are reading. Good commentaries and Bible reference works are the tools you need here.

Third, read the Bible in community. This is really, really important. It exposes our own blind spots in reading the Bible. It opens up ways of reading the Bible that we would never have discovered on our own. It helps keep us humble. It helps us better discern truth.

This reading the Bible in community can—and probably should—be done in a few different ways. The most important is reading the Bible within a real, flesh-and-blood community of people. Read the Bible together, think about it together, talk about it together, wrestle with it together. But there are other ways of reading the Bible in community, other kinds of “community” that are important: authors who write on the Bible, speakers who speak on the Bible, from a variety of faith (or non-faith) traditions, from a diversity of social backgrounds, from around the globe and throughout history.

Finally, read the Bible charitably. I mean this in at least two ways. We should read the Bible with charity toward the biblical authors. They were writing for a different time, in a different world. Yet we hold much in common with them, not least the desire to know and be known by our common Creator. Be charitable toward the biblical authors, then, working hard to understand the spirit/Spirit that has motivated and animated their writing.

Even more importantly, though, we should read the Bible with charity toward others. The Bible has been used in a lot of harmful ways throughout Christian history. Splitting hairs over Bible verses has led to splitting churches. Self-righteously claiming The Truth about The Things in the Bible—and combining this with brute power—has led to burning heretics. Christians have a long history of excluding whole classes of people, enslaving whole groups of people, justifying the destruction of whole societies of people, based on the “clear teaching” of the Bible.

Instead, Jesus models for us a hermeneutic of love: reading the Scriptures to bring liberation, reconciliation, justice, and human flourishing. In our Bible reading we need to heed Jesus’ call to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” and this sometimes means saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.”

Then, if nothing else, we can at least become clear about this: that the entire message of the Bible is summed up in one word, “love.”

Preserving Faith for Future Generations

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 25, 2018, based on 1 Timothy 6:11-21.

First Timothy concludes with this exhortation: “Guard what has been entrusted to your care.” This is very similar to another exhortation in the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Timothy 1:13-14: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” These echo Paul’s plea to “hold fast to the teachings” or “traditions” he had passed on (2 Thess 2:15; cf. Rom 6:17; 1 Cor 11:2), and they are right in line with perhaps the best known of these New Testament appeals, Jude 3: “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

Yet what precisely is this “deposit,” this “faith,” these “traditions”? And how exactly do we “hold fast to” these traditions, or “guard” this deposit, or “contend for” this faith?

For many Christians today, the “deposit” of “faith” is a fairly comprehensive set of beliefs and practices. It might include everything from specific convictions about the nature of the Bible and how to read it, to particular ideas about the timing of creation, what counts as “sin,” the meaning of Jesus’ death, the mode of baptism, worship style, and much, much more. It’s “the way we’ve always done things,” it’s the “faith of our fathers,” it’s that “old time religion”—even when, in reality, the generations before us went through significant adaptations to their way of faith and life.

However, Kathleen Kern is almost certainly correct in her suggestion that the entrusted gift in view here is the gospel (Adult Bible Study student guide, 78). The “deposit” we are to “guard,” the “faith” for which we are to “contend,” the “traditions” to which we are to “hold fast”—these are all describing some aspect of the good news story of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, who brings about God’s saving kingdom on earth through his life, death, and resurrection.

How can we preserve this gospel for future generations? Our passage points to an answer: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness,” it says, and so “fight the good fight of the faith” (6:11-12). In other words, we preserve the gospel for future generations by living out the gospel in our own—in authentic faith and love, in genuine godliness and gracious gentleness, with patient perseverance, always seeking first God’s kingdom and justice.

What non-essential beliefs or practices have we added to the simple gospel of Jesus? Which of these might we be wrongly expecting that the next generation keep? Are we striving to live out the good news of Jesus with authenticity and integrity? Are we willing to allow the next generation to live out the gospel in their own way, for their own time?