Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Book Review: Derek Flood's "Disarming Scripture"

Today on my blog I am reviewing a great new book by author and theologian Derek Flood: Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives, and why we need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. 

General Impressions

Flood’s latest offering is addressing a deep problem in the way Christians have (mis)read our Scripture. The problem of violence is not just an anachronistic oddity of interpretation of Scripture. As Flood comments, “genocide narrative is a central theme of the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, and constitutes a major component of the defining story of the Israelites as they came into the promise land.”[1] Sadly t
he Bible has a long history of being used to justify, and legitimate violence throughout history. Texts like the conquest narrative of the book of Joshua have been rallying points for crusades, manifest destiny, and genocide. The problem of the violence of the Bible is a problem for Christian precisely because we claim these Scriptures as our sacred text. Flood in his latest book, gives us the vocabulary and hermeneutic to address these problem passages head on.

What Derek Flood does exceptionally in this book is to challenge both liberal and conservative readings of Scripture. A liberal reading, according to Flood, is “to point to the good parts… deny the problem and simply whitewash over the evidence.”[2] The conservative reading of the violent texts is to “advocate for things we know are profoundly wrong in an attempt to defend the Bible and our faith.” [3] In so far as Flood has done this, you should expect to be challenged by this book. 

I personally grew up in a tradition that has more or less ignored the troubling passages of Scripture. This book has given me a renewed encouragement to re-engage those troubling passaging with a "faithful questioning" that asks tough questions of the text in light of how Jesus read his bible.

A good challenge that Derek Flood brings to those of us from traditions (like Anabaptist) who have a practice of Jesus-lensed interpretation on the violent passages, is to not base our understanding of Scripture purely on authority.  As Flood comments, "As long as we are basing something on authority, we are not understanding it. This is the way of unquestioning obedience which inevitably leads to hurtful interpretations because it has no means to differentiate between what is hurtful and what is loving." Instead, we need to take the next step to imitate the way Jesus reads and engages Scripture. Why is this important? Well, without giving away too much in the book, because ultimately Jesus did not speak out on all the issues that we may find morally problematic today. (e.g. slavery, discipline of children) 

Something I also appreciate about Flood in this book is his thorough engagement with some of the best academic minds and information in the field. Authors and theologians such as N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, James Dunn, Peter Enns, John Yoder, Susan Niditch and many more are being engaged and cited throughout this book. Flood does a great service in summing up arguments, critically engaging scholarship, and providing helpful footnotes all throughout this book. I honestly feel as if Flood is intentionally empowering his readership to engage his book as a launching point to further study. For this reason, I would encourage everyone who is interested in the topic of violence in Scripture to check out Flood's latest book.

Exceptional Particulars 

Chapter Three: Paul’s Conversion From Violence 

I think I share Brian Zahnd’s sentiments in that we both think this was an amazing chapter in the book. Basically put, Flood makes the convincing case that Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road is one away from violent zealotry of religious fanaticism and into an interpretation of his Scriptures in light of the non-violent Messiah. As Flood brilliantly comments, 
“Paul’s conversion to Christ was not one of a “sinner” who finds religion. Paul already had religion, and describes himself in fact as a religious zealot who could boast that his observance of the Torah was faultless… Paul’s conversion was one away from religious fanaticism. In other words, Paul did not see himself as rejecting his former violent interpretation of Israel’s scriptures, but rather as rejecting his former violent interpretation of them. Paul’s great sin - as he came to understand it- had been participation in what he understood as religiously justified acts of violence, motivated by religious zeal.” [4]

Flood then spends a good chunk of chapter three showing how Paul’s citation of Torah in his writings deliberately edits the original context to strip it of violence. One such example Flood provides is Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 32:43 found in Romans 15.
“Rejoice with his people, you Gentiles, and let all the angels be strengthened in him.For he will avenge the blood of his children; he will take revenge against his enemies.He will repay those who hate him and cleanse his people’s land.”-Deuteronomy 32:43

Paul, Flood argues, is not just being a sloppy exegete but, “artfully and deliberately reshaping [scripture] from the original cry for divine violence into a confession of universal culpability, highlighting that all of us need mercy.”[5]

A Trajectory Reading of Scripture

Flood has divided the book into two parts: (1)Violence in the Old Testament & (2)Violence in the New Testament. In the later half of the book, Flood invests considerable time introducing his readership to the concept of a trajectory reading of scripture. This I believe is an important point to consider in relation to how we formulate our ethics in the New Testament. Many Christians understand that Scripture is a progressive narrative from the story of Israel being fulfilled in the story of Jesus. We get that something new has arrived on the scene with the new covenant. What may be a surprise to many Christians is that the New Testament is not a static monolith of arrived ethical perfection. As Flood explains,
“If we read the New Testament as a storehouse of eternal principals, representing a “frozen in time” ethic, where we can simply flip open a page and find what the timeless “biblical” view on any particular issue is- as so many people read the Bible today- then we would need to conclude that the institution of slavery has God’s approval and maintain it today. This is in fact exactly how many American slave-owning Christians did read the Bible in the past. Yet all of us would agree today that slavery is immoral.” [6]

I often feel this unresolved tension and partial fulfillment in the writings of Paul. For instance, Paul in Galatians boldly proclaims, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [7] Yet in other instances we see the tension of Paul commending a slave Philemon to return to his Master, which is further exemplified by Paul’s multiple exhortations that slaves should, “obey your earthly masters in everything”.[8] How do we resolve this tension? Flood encourages us to read the direction and trajectory of the New Testament authors (e.g. Gal 3.28) and try to progress on that journey ourselves. 

From Unquestioning Obedience to Faithful Questioning

The problem we face our readings of Scripture is one of unquestioning obedience. Or in other words, our practices can sometimes be reduced to turning to any page of the Bible and yelling “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This, Flood suggests, is not a faithful representation of how Jesus or Paul would read their Scriptures.

So a few basic points that Flood makes in favour of a faithful questioning:

1. The Hebrew Scriptures are multi-vocal documents of  sometimes opposing views- testimony and counter testimony. 
“In the Hebrew Bible, we do not hear only a single unified voice, rather we encounter multiple competing voices - each claiming to be the correct view, each claiming authority.” [9]

2. When Jesus & Paul read their Scriptures they did not affirm every voice and every assumption in the Hebrew text.

“Jesus, while embracing the prophets’ priority of compassion over ritual, rejects their common tactic of blaming the victim, and instead acts to heal those who are sick, effectively undoing God’s supposed “judgement” on them. Jesus, in fact, does not associate sickness with God’s judgement at all, but with the kingdom of satan, and thus acts to liberate people from its bondage, rather than upholding it as right and calling for repentance as the prophets do.”[10]

3. Faithful questioning requires us to enter into the discussion with humility, knowing that the function of Scripture, as summed up by Jesus, is to love God, and our neighbour as ourselves. 

“Because of the multiple conflicting narratives we simply must choose, we must take sides in the debate, we are forced to embrace some narratives, while rejecting others.” [11] 
“Jesus is calling us as his disciples, to a mature, intelligent, responsible and empowered reading of Scripture that is rooted in life and our shared human experience together. Our hermeneutical key then is that our interpretation needs to be evaluated on its merit - we need to look at the fruits. If we see that it results in love then this is the aim of Scripture.” [12]

Possible Points of Improvement

Is Judgement inherently violent? 

In the nine chapter, “Undoing Judgement”, Flood enters into a discussion on Matthew’s use of violent language. Flood highlights that the Gospel according to Matthew adds phrases that appear to highlight divine retribution. As Flood comments, “We read of the unfaithful being “tortured” (Mt 18:34), “tied hand and foot”(Mt 22:13), “cut into pieces” (Mt 24:51, par Lk 12:46), “thrown into darkness” (Mt 8:12; 22:13;25:30), and “thrown into the blazing furnace” (Mt 13:42 & 50).” [13]

Flood’s proposal is that, “Matthew has added apocalyptic language to the parable of Jesus with the intent of tapping into the hopes of the Jewish people for liberation from bondage.” [14] To this I say amen! I agree wholeheartedly. 

My “possible point of improvement”, alongside Flood's points would be to also suggest a partial preterist reading of some of the violent passages in Matthew. (This will not bring an easy resolution to all of Matthew’s texts) This is to say that if Matthew’s community is primarily Jewish, then we are to read much of Matthew’s judgement passages as warnings of God’s coming judgment upon Israel. As Fredrick Dale Bruner comments on the Olivet discourse, "Jesus saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world as being almost contemporaneous.” This is of course does not immediately resolve any tension without clarification to how God is judging Israel. Is it a matter of God being retributive or violent? Or is it a matter God surrendering us to this ontological realities of sin? I would like to suggest that God’s judgments are a matter of punitive withdrawal, which is God “giving us over” to consequences of our choices. This is not violence in any sense of the term but rather the very fulfillment of our free will choices. God’s judgement is not the position of an active tormentor, but of the Prodigal Father that willingly lets us divide our inheritance and go the other way. (Luke 15) This is the reason, I believe, why Matthew is being so vivid and apocalyptic is partly because this fate of the nation of Israel could have been avoided, and he is likely warning his faith community over danger of the rejection of the good news. [15] This perhaps would explain Matthew’s striking prediction of judgement to be fulfilled within “this generation”. (Mt 23:36; 24:34)

I think Luke helps us grasp God’s heart toward judgement on Israel, and subsequently a picture of God’s attitude to all judgement. Luke tells us that when Jesus was making his final journey to Jerusalem, 
He wept over [Jerusalem] and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”[16] 
 God in Christ arrives at the City that has rejected his way of peace which leads to them ultimately putting him upon the Cross of his execution and weeps over the state of affairs. It is striking picture of the God allowing us to rebel. To go our own way."If they had believed in Jesus as the messianic Prince of Peace instead of a messianic Lord of War, Jerusalem could have actually become the City of Peace. Instead, they chose the path that led to a hellish nightmare of siege, famine, cannibalism, destruction, and death."[17] I would suggest that this is God’s attitude in all  judgements. As N.T. Wright comments on the above passage:
“When you reflect on Jesus’ words and deeds of judgement, don’t forget the tears. And remember, with awe, … that those tears are not just the human reaction to a frustrating situation. They are the tears of the God of love.” [18]

What is violence?

I thought a helpful addition to Disarming Scripture might have been a focused discussion around the nature of violence.   I should note that I do not think for a moment that Flood has limited violence to the physical realm in his book as evidenced by many of the examples he provides. It is merely a "possible point of improvement" that I suggest a concentration on the nature of violence. Often the assumption is to limit the defining parameters of violence to the physical realm. This is certainly fits into the provided  examples of slavery and child discipline in the sixth chapter on "Reading on a Trajectory".  I believe that if we expand our understanding of violence beyond the physical and into other realms- such as cultural or sexual violence- we might be able to bring further understanding on just how necessary a trajectory reading of Scripture is to the responsible reader. 

An example that comes to mind of non-physical violence in the text is Paul's trajectory reading on the role of women. Certainly their can be no doubt that a first century cultural view of a woman was inherently violent and oppressive under a host of categories of violence.  "It was the view of Ancient Greeks that a woman was a 'failed man.' Women essentially existed on the same level with slaves. Wives always lived under the authority, control, and protection of their husbands. Women, especially wives, led lives of seclusion. Men confined their spouses to the household in order to make certain the legitimacy of their children.” [19]To many modern readers, violence is being perpetuated by Paul in his passages dealing with gender roles. Paul has often been labeled as a misogynist. But if we see the direction Paul was heading and the reasons as to why he gave the prohibiting passages, we might reconsider Paul, and hopefully reconsider that way that women are oppressed today. (You can read more about Paul and issue of women here.)

Thanks for reading! 


1. Flood, Derek. Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives, and why we need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did, (San Francisco: Metania Books, 2014) pg. 4
2. 18
3. ibid. 
4. 48. emphasis original 
6. 123.emphasis original 
7. Galatians 3:28
8. Colossians 3:22 also see: Eph 6:6; 
9. 33.
10. 38. 
11. 41. 
12. 139. 
13. 210. 
14. 218
15. My proposal is of course dependant on an early dating of Matthew that is pre 70 a.d. 
16. Luke 19:41-44 NIV emphasis mine.
17. http://brianzahnd.com/2014/06/armageddon-left-behind/ 
18. Wright, Tom. Luke For Everybody,( Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2002) 233.
19. Gritz, Sharon Hodgin. Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus. Lanham,(University Press of America Inc, 1991) 32. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

N.T. Wright: "Our Politics Are Too Small"

N.T. Wright in his latest book, Surprised By Scripture, is offering direct commentary on a myriad of issues. I say, 'direct' because anyone who is familiar with Wright's style will know that he has a tendency towards the grandiose epic themes of Scripture. Wright, in this latest offering, has narrowed down to a singular concentrated topic. The book is laid out not as a single exposition but as a collection of essays that are meant to stand on their own. Surprised By Scripture is largely the result of Tom being asked to lecture on specific issues and topics, thus forcing an engagement and reflection into a presentable material. The result of years of speaking engagements has produced this book. 

Surprised By Scripture is not a collection of position papers. Wright remarks in the preface that he has published these collections of essays, "not as dogmatic pronouncements but as explorations into vast and exciting topics." I think that is an important preface to our engagement with the following  chapter, "Our Politics Are Too Small".

"Our Politics Are Too Small" 

Wright opens this chapter by musing that in the 1980s he never would have suspected that he would be so interested about "the question of God in public."[1] It was the work that Tom was doing on Jesus in the historical context that forced him to mature his thoughts on politics and God. This growth and maturity eventually led to Wright voicing his objections to political policies and practices. Tom writes,
"I have been used to getting plaintive emails saying, 'We like what you write about Jesus and the resurrection; we are fascinated what you say on Paul; but why are you so critical of our President?' And my answer is, " If you actually read what I say about Jesus and the Kingdom, and you understand what Paul was really about, you'll have to take the questions of God in public seriously in a whole new way. To say that I was confusing spiritual issues with political issues is simply to restate the old Enlightenment dichotomy at a moment when it is disastrously inappropriate as well as misleading." [2]

It is at this point that I want to highlight a major point that N.T. Wright is making. We have a tendency vis-à-vis the Post-Modern//Post-Enlightenment to dichotomize spirituality and politics. We incorrectly believe that spirituality is for the afterlife, whereas politics are a separate realm for this life. This assumption, according to Wright, is inherently Epicurean. Epicureanism, which stems from the third century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus, who declared that the gods, if they existed at all, were totally removed from the world and never intervened in its affairs. This is not the vision of Scripture. God is concerned about the state of this world. God is concerned about the treatment of the widow and the orphan. "[Jesus'] agenda of dealing with sin and its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world."[3, emphasis original]

Wright believes we can find a way forward through a fresh reading of Scripture, namely the four Gospels. The "fresh reading" will start by taking seriously the teaching of Jesus. He comments, "I have been increasingly concerned that much of evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the Epistles rather than the Gospels, though often misunderstanding the Epistles themselves."[4] The Western church has not wrestled seriously enough with the radical implications of the Gospels. "The four Gospels will not be able to say what they want to say but [because of Western lens] will be patronized, muzzled, dismembered, and eventually eliminated altogether as a force to be reckoned with."[5] 

So how do we read the Gospels afresh? 

1. We need to read the Gospels as an integrated whole. 

  • "Attention has been divided, focusing either on Jesus's announcement of the Kingdom and the powerful deeds- healings, feastings, and so on- through which it is insinuated or on his death and resurrection. The Gospels have thus been seen as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental, and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions." [6] 

2. The Gospels as wholes demand to be read in deep and radical integration with the Old Testament. 

  • "We do the Gospels no service by screening out the fact that each in its own way (as opposed to the Gospel of Thomas and the rest) affirms the God-givenness and God-directedness of the Jewish narrative of creation, fall, Abraham, Moses, David, and so on, seen as the narrative of the creator God's rescue of creation from its otherwise inevitable fate. The Gospels claim that it was this project that was brought to successful completion in and through Jesus."[7]

3. The Gospels demonstrate close integration with the genuine early Christian hope.

  • "This is precisely not the hope for heaven in the sense of a blissful disembodied life after death in which creation is abandoned to its fate, but rather the hope, expressed in Ephesians 1, Romans 8, and Revelation 21, for the renewal and final coming together of heaven and earth, the final consummation precisely of God's project to be present, as Saviour, in an ultimate public world. And the point of the Gospels is that with the public career of Jesus and his death and resurrection, this whole project was decisively inaugurated, never to be abandoned." [8]

It is with these three integrations that Wright invites us to see the political nature of the four Gospel's; albeit a political meaning that is deeply integrated with the theological. It would appear that much of Christian theology has wrongly concluded that we must derive our ethical guidance for life in the real world from other sources: common sense, calculation of what will work in a fallen world, non-Christian philosophical sources. N.T.Wright is pushing us to ask an essential question: Should we not begin with an assumption that God’s revelation in Jesus’ life and teaching might well offer clear guidance for our social ethics? Should we not consider the Gospels as the launching of a whole new world?  According to Wright, we can no longer justifiably bi-partisan our approach to politics and theology. "This means would-be theological interpretations that ignore the political dimension, as well as would-be political interpretations that ignore the theological dimension, are simply ruled out as naive and anachronistic."[9]

Wisdom for the Rulers- and the Church

Having now established a framework for thinking about theology and politics, Wright now begins to reflect on the nature of the church and secular rulers. Does the Lordship of Jesus negate our following of state rulers? Is the church meant to practice a separatist monasticism? N.T. Wright comments in this brilliant lengthy section:

"It is noteworthy that the early church, aware of the prevailing tyrannies both Jewish and Pagan, and insisting on exalting Jesus as Lord over all, did not reject the God-given rule even of pagans. This is a horrible disappointment to post-Enlightenment liberals, who would have much preferred the early Christians to have embraced a some kind of holy anarchy with no place for rulers at all. But it is part of creational view of the world that God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic, and that human power structures are the God-given means by which that end is to be accomplished- otherwise those with muscle and money will always win, and the poor and the widows will be trampled on afresh. This is the point at which Colossians 1 makes its decisive contribution over and against dualisms which imagine that earthly rulers are a priori a bad thing (the same dualisms, as I have been suggesting, that have dominated both the method and the content of much biblical scholarship). This is the point at which the notion of the common good, advanced afresh by the Roman Catholic bishops in the 1990s and now reemphasized (though I think without full clarity) by Jim Wallis, has its contribution to make.
The New Testament does not encourage the idea of a complete disjunction between the political good to be pursued by the church and the political good to be pursued by the world outside the church, precisely for the reason that the church is to be seen as the body through which God addresses and reclaims the world. Here, I think, the essentially anabaptist vision of Wallis and others may need to be nuanced with a more firmly creational theology. (I know there are many varieties of anabaptism, and I hope it's clear that I am in considerable sympathy with many of their emphases, but there comes a point when anabaptism holds back from the dangerous task of working with the world, which I believe is just as Christian an obligation as working against the world.) "[10, Emphasis mine]
I was challenged by the above quoted section in two ways: (1)My own tendency to apathy around political involvement (2)My self identified Anabaptism. It can be very tempting as an Anabaptist (I speak personally) to lapse into an against the world mentality. I think of the history of separatism, displayed through various Anabaptist sects, as a prime example of my own tradition's inclination to be against the world. I believe N.T. Wright's challenge to the Anabaptist community is one we must examine. How are we simultaneously working against and with the world? Failure to live in the tension of this question validates Wright assertion that, "We in the contemporary Western world have all but lost the ability, conceptually as well as practically, to affirm simultaneously that rulers are corrupt and must be confronted and that they are God-given and must be obeyed." [11] 

Thankfully for my own sanity, Wright clarifies what he means by obedience to the powers. Tom draws on Colossians 1:18-20 to emphasize that Scripture teaches that the rulers will be reconciled. The rulers of the age, while ultimately failing to bring new creation, (only Christ can do that) can still be used by God to bring order to the world. This, according to Wright, is the point of Romans 13. "Not as the validation of every program that every ruler dreams up... but as the strictly limited proposal, in line wither Isaiah's recognition of Cyrus, that the creator God even uses those rulers who do not know him personally to bring fresh order and even rescue to the world."[12] 

Wright is not advocating for a blind allegiance to the rulers and governments. Tom's insistence on God's calling of rulers is yoked to a deep conviction of the prophetic role of the church. He writes, "God working through earthly rulers only makes sense if the church embraces the vocation to remind the rulers of their task, to speak truth to power, and to call authorities to account."[13] "You can have as high a theology of the God given calling of rulers as you like, as long as your theology of the church's witness and martyrdom matches it stride for stride."[14] 

Concluding Thoughts

I am deeply aware that N.T. Wright has maintained the tension in this essay. I find myself being a bit uncomfortable at the lack of an easy resolution and simple answers. That, as I mentioned in the intro to this blog, was Tom's goal in this essay, to approach the issues "as explorations into vast and exciting topics." I think he accomplished his goal. Here are some questions I am wrestling with as a result of this essay:
  • How does the church collaborate with governments without the compromise of our prophetic voice?
  • How can we simultaneously work against and with the rulers? 
  • Is corrupt order and leadership better than chaos? 
  • Might our lack of cross-bearing witnessing weaken the church's prophetic witness? Are we willing to suffer for our witness? 
  • Why have we tended to ignore the political implications of the Gospels? What steps could I take towards integration?
  • How can participating in the flourishing of one specific nation be representative of the transnational Kingdom of God? Should Christians not work for the good of all, regardless of nationalism?

Thanks for reading.... Some of the questions I have asked are engaged in the following chapter(s) of the book. Notably the following passage from the essay, "How to engage tomorrows world":

"Jesus's way of life is the path of self-giving love, that mission and service can never be about imposing a would-be Christian policy or ethic on an unwilling or unready public, but rather allowing Jesus's way of bringing his kingdom to work through us and in us. The Church at its best has always sought to transform society from within."[15]

 Works Cited
1. Wright, N.T., Surprised By Scripture, New York: Harper Collins,  p. 163
2. p. 166
3. p. 170
4. p. 167
5. p. 168
6. p. 169
7. p. 172
8. p. 172
9. p. 174
10. p. 175-176
11. p. 176
12. p. 177
13. p. 178
14. ibid.
15. p. 183

Friday, 23 May 2014

I'm An Anabaptist... (Okay, let me explain)

My name is Paul Walker and I am an Anabaptist. 

An Ana-what? 

Anabaptist. Okay, let me explain… 

A History Lesson

In the 16th century, the Western Church as a whole was undergoing a “Re-formation”. There was a sense of unrest and discontent around the practice of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and others sought to “re-form” and “re-shape” the Western church away from a dominate Catholic view. These Reformers began to spread their ideas for change through a fascinating new invention: the printing press. The printing press enabled information to be communicated rapidly and on mass. For example, Luther’s sermons were often circulated throughout Germany. The most important change in Sixteenth century that I believe partly led to Anabaptism was the mass production printing of the Bible in the common language of the people. 

The various groups of people who would become the Anabaptists,  began to read Scripture for the first time and discover the radical teachings of Jesus and his Kingdom. The Anabaptists are sometimes called the 'Radical Reformers’. This “radical-ness” was due to their commitment to put into practice the teachings of Jesus. The Radical Reformers were not content to stop at Luther or Calvin's reformation. They wanted to continue radicalizing the church back to the early church revealed in Scripture. Soon they began to baptize by full immersion and as a result received the title 'Ana-baptist', meaning 'again' and 'baptize'. 

The Anabaptists would be greatly persecuted for their beliefs by both Catholics and Protestants who killed, burned, and slaughtered the Anabaptists. The preferred way of execution was by 'third baptism', in which the unrepentant victim would be drown to death. How did this odd sixteenth century movement respond to persecution? Well, in true radical Jesus like fashion, Anabaptists overwhelming chose to follow the teaching and example of Jesus and lay down their lives rather than take up the sword. 

So… What are some of the distinctive traits of Anabaptists?

It can be difficult to generalize across a movement- that being said- there are some who have made considerable progress in defining the distinctiveness of Anabaptism. Scot McKnight provides a helpful summation of Harold S. Bender’s three features of the Anabaptist Vision:

1. The essence of Christianity, or the Christian life, is discipleship — a committed following of Christ in all areas of life. The word on the street in the 16th Century, and this word repeated often enough by bitter enemies of the Anabaptists, was that they were consistent and devout Christians. If Luther’s word was “faith,” the word for the Anabaptists was “follow.” The inner conversion was to lead to external transformation.
2. A new conception of the church as a brotherhood of fellowship. The ruling image of a church among the Catholics and Reformers was more national and institutional and sacramental, while the ruling image for the Anabaptists was fellowship or family. Joining was voluntary; the requirement was conversion; the commitment was to holy living and fellowship with one another. Thus, the Anabaptist separated from the “world” to form a society of the faithful. This view of the church led to economic availability and liability for one another.
3. A new ethic of love and peaceful nonresistance. Apart from rare exceptions like Balthasar Hubmaier and the nutcases around Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptists lived a life shaped by love and nonviolence. They refused to coerce anyone. [1]
The MennoNerd Network via Tyler Tully has provided the following similar framing of Anabaptism:

1. Jesus Centred
2. Free Church of Confessing, Baptized Disciples 
3. Agents of God’s Shalom

I am going to add one more distinctive to the list. 

4. Simplicity. 

Okay here we go: 

Jesus Centred.  

What does it mean to be Jesus centred? Well for starters, it is the confession that Jesus is the fullest revelation, the Final Word, and the precedence of understanding the nature of God. Anabaptists believe that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.  Jesus is the true nature and character (homoousios) of God. I love the way Brian Zahnd explains this:

God is like Jesus.

God has always been like Jesus.

There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.

We have not always known what God is like
But now we do.

To be Jesus-centred is to follow Jesus’ teachings even above the Bible. We do not try to synthesize contrasting differences. I know that might sound shocking. But it’s not like I am trying to divorce Jesus from the Scriptures. I am not saying that Scripture does not matter, OR that Scripture is not inspired. All Scripture is inspired! (2 Tim 3:16) But Scripture is inspired insofar that it points to Jesus. Jesus says as much to the Pharisees,  “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”(John 5:39-40) Jesus' own address to the Pharisees is a sober reminder to us all that it is possible to be a person of Scripture and yet miss out on Jesus, the Word made flesh. Christian Smith summarizes:
“For many believers the Bible [not Jesus] is actually the most real and holy authority there is. They would never say this, but how things really function is not always how they are admitted and professed. I suspect that for many Christians despite what they say, God actually seems far off, Christ is a great idea and person and saviour, but what seems most real, most accessible, most reliable and, unfortunately, most controllable is the Bible.”[2]

The Old Testament may allow for certificates of divorce. 
Jesus does not. 
The Old Testament may allow for retributive violence. 
Jesus does not.
The Old Testament may stone adulterers to death. 
Jesus does not.
The Old Testament may command capital punishment. Jesus does not.
The Old Testament may execute Sabbath breakers. 
Jesus does not. 

Am I am Marcionite? -that is: someone who rejects the Old Testament scriptures of Israel believing that they portrayed a God other than that known in Jesus Christ. NO! Never!  I do not reject the Old Testament! BUT… I am inclined to follow Jesus as the fulfillment and culmination of what the Old Testament has hoped for and pointed too! 

From what I can see... 

Jesus is deliberately viewing the Old Testament as "an incomplete revelation". Jesus said of his own revelation, “"I have testimony weightier than that of John the Baptist” (John 5:36). John the Baptist was the foremost of the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Jesus weighs more than the greatest revelation of the Old Testament! When Jesus declares that "no one knows the Father except the Son” OR “ “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”... should that not at least challenge a flat reading of Scripture? I think so. 

2. Free Church of Confessing, Baptized Disciples 

“Free Church: Separation of Church & State.” 

Christians are called to no other Kingdom primary allegiance except the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus makes this claim when he declares "My Kingdom is not of this world, if it were my servants would fight."(Jn 18:36) Paul asserts this in his teaching of a Christian’s citizenship being in heaven (Phil 3:20) as well as his bold declaration that we are Ambassadors in this world. (2 Cor 5:20) The ultimate modus operandi of a follower of Christ is not found in functioning as citizens of the kingdoms of this word but as living as strangers in a strange land. The kingdom of the world is in essence a “power over” kingdom. There have been democratic, socialist, communist, fascist, and totalitarian versions of the kingdom of the world, but they all share this distinctive characteristic: they exercise power over people.  Where did followers of Jesus ever get the idea that we need to take our nations back for God? Where did we ever get the idea that any version of the kingdoms of this world could be representative of the Kingdom of God? Where did we get the idea that the way to establish the Kingdom of heaven was to pass laws and force everyone to think and act the way we do? It's worth noting that Jesus and the early church's approach to establishing the Kingdom of Heaven was never "let's pass a bunch of laws in Rome". It may seem attractive to impose Christian morality on national level, but ultimately it is an act of using the State as a "power over" people. Jesus never came to establish a Christian nation, but the Kingdom within all the nations of the world.  Followers of Jesus must realize that the hope of the world lies not in any particular version of the kingdom of the world. We do not put our hope in Democrats or the Republicans. The hope of the world lies in a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that operates with a completely different understanding of power. It is the kingdom of God. This is a Kingdom that grows slowly, organically, and even serves enemies (Luke 13:18-19; John 12:24-26) a Kingdom is that is peace making and peace-living. (John 18:36; 1 Peter 2:9), a Kingdom is non-institutional and non-territorial the Kingdom is within us. (Luke 17:20-21), a kingdom in which serving others is foundational (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27; John 13:12-17).

Although immersed in this world, the church by her way of being represents the promise of another world, which is not somewhere else but which is to come here. - John H Yoder ( The Politics of Jesus) 

Baptized & Confessing

Baptism literally means ‘to immerse’ or plunge people into the water. The practice originated in the wider Jewish tradition of ritual washings and bathings. When people went to the Temple to receive forgiveness for their sin, they not only sacrificed animals, but also cleansed themselves ritually with water. They would baptize themselves in basins of water designed to help them wash away any spiritual impurities they had come in contact with during their daily lives. John the Baptist undertook a vocation of baptizing people in the Jordan, not as one ritual among others but as a unique moment of repentance, preparing them for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus himself was baptized by John, identifying himself with this renewal movement and developing it in his own way. Jesus adopts the symbol of baptism as a once and for all symbol of God’s acceptance, repentance, and welcome into God’s family. 

Jesus commands his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...” Notice that baptism is a response to discipleship, which is the decision to pattern our lives after our Teacher (Rabbi) Jesus. Baptism is a physical response to the faith decisions we make. It is a response of obedience to the Lord Jesus. Baptism, in Scripture follows immediately after conversion. Every baptism in the Acts of the Apostles is preceded by repentance of sin and faith in Jesus. (Acts 2:38–41; 8:12; 9:18–19; 10:44–48; 16:14–15, 29–36; 18:8; 19:1–7; 22:16) Once a person has responded in faith (pistis) to confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour they are admonished by our Lord to follow him into the waters of baptism. 

The New Testament reflects on baptism in the following ways: 
I) Symbol of cleansing from sin – Acts 22:16
II) Symbol of identification with Christ’s death and resurrection – Col. 2:12
III) Symbolic of our death to sin—Romans 6:4
IV) Symbol of our obedience to Christ - Matthew 28:19

Baptism is the biblical way in which we show that by the power of the Spirit, we died to our old way of life through the death of Jesus, and live a new life through the resurrection of Jesus, cleansed from our sin in the same way that water cleanses us from filth and dirt.


A disciple, in the Christian context, is someone who is: With Jesus, To learn from Jesus, How to be like Jesus. The call of discipleship is to live according to the new age, even while the old age is yet languishing but sure to be defeated. To rightly make sense of the New Testament, we must continually hold before ourselves the fundamental claim of the New Testament: namely that the new aeon had broken in. Aeon is the Greek word often translated into English as either “age” or “world,” and the New Testament speaks often of this “present aeon.” But the Good News is that the new aeon, the Kingdom of God, has broken into the midst of human history. The “present aeon” has not yet passed away, and it is as if the two are now overlapping. Jesus in his death set us “free from the present evil aeon” (Gal 1:4). Holiness then is call to live a Jesus centred life, as Christ is the first-fruits of the new creation. Jesus is the embodiment of Christian ethics and the new humanity/age. Jesus is our telos; our end destination for living. As 1 John 2.6 says, “ Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” Disciples should seek to re-present the risen Lord in everything we do! Our entire lives bear witness (martureo) to the truth of the Gospel. (A sobering thought) Insofar that we remain faithful to imitation of Christ, is the exact measure we participate in this present age. 

3. Agents of God’s Shalom

A theology of peace, or shalom, is fundamental to the Anabaptist distinctive. We believe that God in Christ has called us to the ministry of reconciliation that is fully revealed in Christ’s teaching and example. To be agent of shalom is to bring healing to the wounds of this world. 

For more on Peace Theology you can check out my Ten Part series on “Loving Your Enemy” here


This is to say that spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, Anabaptists are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice. 

Simplicity is about not being driven by our egos or consumer culture, and instead caring for and loving our families, communities, and other people above all else. We live simply in order to give more of our time, energy, and resources to the establishment of the Kingdom. Jesus directs us not to worry about or pursue the accumulation of money and stuff, because pursuing it distracts us from our real reason for existence – caring for others and for what God has given us.

Anabaptists, from the beginning of the movement, have long been people of simplicity and humility. Johannes Kessler, a reformer and chronicler of the early Switzerland Anabaptist’s wrote of the movement,  “They shun costly clothing, they shun expensive food and drink, clothe themselves with coarse cloth, cover their heads with broad felt hats. Their entire manner of life is completely humble.” [3]  In the same vein, Menno Simons wrote, ”We acknowledge, teach and seek no other kingdom than that of Christ, which shall endure forever, in which there is no pomp, splendour, gold, silver." [4] There are even some within the stream of Anabaptism, such as the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites and Amish, that expressed a simplicity as a form of isolationism or anti-urbanism. Not all Anabaptists believed that anti-urbanism was the only option for expressing simplicity. There were many Anabaptists who lived in the urban context and built places of worship. As Bender comments, “The traditional simplicity of Mennonite meetinghouse architecture in Europe and America has been due in part to sincere insistence upon a modest, functional, and economical character of the meetinghouse.”[5] 

In living out simplicity we must ask an important question: how do we live this principle out in our time and our space? Simplicity, I believe, is something that must be worked out individually through prayer, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the challenge of community. My version of simplicity may differ dramatically from my neighbours. We should refrain from passing judgement on others (Rom 14.4) on how they put into practice living simply. Simplicity can easily become a new legalism if we try legislate specific practices in to a monochromatic vision of community. This is all to say that we should call others to the principal of simplicity and not demand a strict set of precepts. 

Creative Examples of Simplicity:

I believe that we cannot follow Jesus without being creative people. Am I telling you that you need to do the following things?... NOPE! It's just food for thought. Something to think about... Enjoy.

Creative Space Utilization:

This is a great example of a person who has taken a 420ft apartment and transformed it into a multi-use space. I really admire the effort and planning taken to make the most of the space available. I wonder if "transforming-rooms" could help some to live comfortably, yet affordably? Or what if re-structuring our homes could allow us provide shelter and accommodation to the less fortunate? Certainly, the number one contributing factor to household debt is carrying expensive mortgages over thirty plus years. What if we could cut back on that? 

Creative Housing Options.

They build a whole home with appliances for $33,089.72 ! That is simply amazing. Imagine owning a house that is worth roughly the average yearly income. Now compare that price to the average home cost in the U.S.A. which as of 2010 was: $272,900 [6] How would not paying an extra $239,081 (not including interest) change your lifestyle? Would you be able to give more to church & charities? Could you take more time off work? Would you be able to re-prioritize your life?

A Minimalist Wardrobe 

Britney Taylor shares her thoughts on only owning the clothes you will wear in week. She is able to travel more, save money, and only buy what she will wear. 

How to become a Minimalist

Danny Dover shares his thoughts on only owning around a 150 items total in his life. He talks about steps he has taken to live as a minimalist and why someone might consider this course of action. 

Sell Your Crap: Pay Your Debt
A Ted Talk on Minimalism. In 2008, after the birth of his first child, Baker and his wife decided to sell everything they owned, pay off their consumer debt, and spend a year traveling abroad as a family. They began sharing their journey in early 2009 on the blog Man vs. Debt, now 15000 subscribers strong. In sharing their ups and downs in the areas of personal finance, consumerism, clutter, travel, minimalism, and passionate entrepreneurship, they realized they aren't alone in a desire to explore and grow.

Thanks for reading...

Works Cited

1. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/02/29/anabaptists-what-who-what/
2. Christian Smith. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a truly evangelical reading of scripture. (Grand Rapids:Brazo Publishing, 2011) 42.
3. Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Cornelius Krahn. "Simplicity (1958)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1958. Web. 14 Jan 2014.
6. http://www.census.gov/const/uspriceann.pdf

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The PAOC & the #Boozetalk

This past week I tuned into the live stream of the 2014 PAOC General Conference. It is a Bi-Annual conference for credential holders of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. The intention of conference is to connect credential holders across the nation of Canada for time of rejuvenation, connection, and among other things, to hold a national business meeting to pass denominational or "fellowship" wide legislation. The conference this year was hosted in the beautiful city of Saskatoon, which until about nine months ago was the city I called home. I do not currently hold credentials with the PAOC, as I live in England, and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of the AOG-Great Britain. [1] 

This brings me to one of the reasons I was keen to tune in for this year's General Conference. There was a particularly controversial piece of legislation being brought to the table around the issue of alcohol. The PAOC has a long history of abstinence that I believe is partially due to the movement being founded during the time of prohibition. The current reading of the legislation simply stated that “the non-medical use of mood altering substances” was listed under a moral failure. I know as someone who grew up in the PAOC that the wording “mood altering substances” created much confusion to what exactly that entailed. To get an answer to the vagueness of the term “mood altering substances” one had to dig back through the archives to see what exactly the term implied. It should be no surprise then that the confusion generated diverse opinion on what the PAOC believed on the issue of alcohol. This was also demonstrated by the lengthy discussions that took place on fellow blogger Jeremy Postal’s website.

The General Executive attempted to clarify those areas that are moral absolutes and those that are corporate convictions. The placement of “the non-medical use of mood altering substances” in the category of “moral failure” as it currently reads was not viewed as helpful to the fellowship. It was with this background that the following resolution was presented under the category of disciplinary action: The use of tobacco and the non medical use of alcohol or other mood altering substances.

The resolution sought to indicate that it is drunkenness that infringes on the biblical absolute whereas drinking alcohol as a credential holder infringes on our historic corporate conviction of abstinence. What I am sure surprised many within the PAOC family is that corporate conviction is not unanimous on the issue of alcohol. The heated discussion around proves that even the historic corporate conviction of abstinence has shifted. It is certainly apparent that there is a significant percentage of PAOC credential holders that would advocate for moderation on the issue of alcohol. The rest of this blog will seek to summarize the discussion that took place at the 2014 PAOC General Conference.

To the best of my knowledge, I believe the house was in agreement on the following two points:[2]

Point #1 The consumption of alcohol is not a sin.

 Point #2 There are times when it is appropriate to limit our freedoms. 

For our purposes I will divide the discussion under the headings of PRO & CON. Those advocating for a moderate responsible use of alcohol will be represented by ‘pro’ heading. Those against any use of alcohol for the credential holder will be separated into the ‘con’ category. Here is a chart of what I believe represents a summation of the various positions represented during the discussions at the 2014 General Conference. 

I am now going to elaborate on each of the five positions represented in the chart.

#1. CON- The belief is that, while it may be allowable for non-credential holders to partake in alcohol, there is a different set of rules for those in leadership. “Higher standard” is interpreted in this view as ‘different standard’. Pastors and leaders are fundamentally different than their congregants because they have a higher standard to follow than lay members. The lay member of a congregation might be encouraged to follow their leader's example, but would not be reprimanded if they chose to exercise their freedom to partake in the use of alcohol. Those who represent the ‘con’ view would see the function and demands of leadership as exclusive, hierarchical, and set apart from the laity. Dave Wells summarizes the 'exclusive to leadership' approach,

“The context for By-Law 10 is our credential holders. It is not intended to legislate morality for all believers globally but to address what is wise for Pentecostal leaders in Canada and in our global ministries”

#1. PRO- The pro moderation view would argue that the New Testament does not call leadership to exclusive practices and behaviours apart from the rest of the church body. The call to be ‘above reproach’ [3] is interpreted as setting an example that others in the church should seek to imitate.[4] Leaders are viewed as servants who are themselves members of the body. There is no separation of the ‘professional holy person’ in this view, rather there is a plea that we are all baptized into one body. Whatever practices and behaviours are acceptable to the Body are therefore acceptable to the leader in the appropriate context. In this view the function and demands of leadership are always invitational, imitational, and inclusive to the whole Body.

#2. CON- You might summarize this objection as “we’ve have always done it this way.” This view believes that as a fellowship we should stay as close to original intension of the founding movement. Pentecostals have a long history of promoting prohibition, and as such, it should be the duty of credential holders to remain faithful to founding history of the movement. As Dave Wells expressed in an email to credential holders, “Drunkenness infringes on the biblical absolute whereas drinking alcohol as a credential holder infringes on our historic corporate conviction of abstinence.” 

#2. PRO- This view recognizes that each generation of our fellowship will pass unique guidelines on ‘grey areas’ that will help serve that generation in that specific period of time. It is, however, the duty of each generation to adapt to shifting cultural contexts. This view may question the validity of being beholden to historical frameworks, however there is also an appeal to a wider historical framing of issues. On the specific issue of alcohol consumption, this view might call our tradition to submit to the historic Christian approach to the topic; which is to say: Total prohibition is a new concept in church history. 

 #3. CON- “Alcohol is only destructive.” There is no possibility for responsible use of alcohol in this view. Despite any precautions taken, the use of alcohol will eventually result in poor decisions by the credential holder; OR those who imitate the credential holder. The use of alcohol is only a slippery slope to destructive decisions and behaviours. The only approach to alcohol should be abstinence. 

#3. PRO-“There are positive examples of the uses of alcohol.” This view believes that alcohol can be consumed within the context moderation and wisdom. While there are examples of those who abuse alcohol, there are also plenty of examples of believers who have demonstrated healthy attitudes towards alcohol consumption. This view believes that while abstaining from alcohol may be helpful in certain situations, it is not the only approach available to leaders. 

#4. CON- “There is never an allowable context for the consumption of alcohol by leaders.” This view cannot imagine a situation where a credential holder might be allowed to drink. This view could not imagine a segment of Canadian society where the consumption of alcohol would be deemed a ‘non-issue’ by the local church. This view also extends to PAOC Global Workers who serve across the globe in various international contexts. Simply put: the context should never inform the practice of credential holders on alcohol consumption. Even though this view may not officially label alcohol consumption in the category of ‘sin’, by practice this view would always see any consumption on the part of the credential holder to be cause for disciplinary action, regardless of the context.

#4. PRO- “We need to allow for diversity and differing cultural contexts.” This position is perhaps best summed up in a comment from Pastor Billy Richards, “Paul says that he becomes like the Jews. Well the Jews I become like in Toronto … they all drink!!” This view believes that context should inform practice on the issue of alcohol consumption. This view is culturally sensitive, adaptable, and contextual on disputable matters, whether nationally, or internationally. 

#5.CON- “Tradition is over and above Scripture.” I realize that this is quite the claim I am presenting here. But I do believe it to be a fair assessment of those who were opposed to alcohol consumption for credential holders. Let me explain: 

It was during the conference that two New Testament scholars from our own tradition took to the microphones to challenge the house. A professor from Masters Seminary was quick to remind the house that there is no Scriptural basis for 10.6.2. The Professor proposed a resolution to delete the inclusion of Scripture in 10.6.2 due to the passages being taken out of context. The amendment was voted down, despite the testimony of two theologians to the mis-reading of the passage(s). This proves, I believe, the tendency to neglect the wider Scriptural witness in favour of what our tradition historically believes is correct. If the PAOC was primarily concerned about following the direction of Scripture on this matter, we would have heeded the advice of the scholars among us. 

I don't think I am saying anything new by highlighting this distinction. 
After all the context of this resolution, according to Wells,  is a “historic corporate conviction of abstinence”[5]. This is to say that the corporate body of Canadian Pentecostals are convicted of the current position of abstinence due to the historical precedence. There is no official claim that the position of (forced) abstinence is the teaching of Scripture.

Therefore, I believe, we could accurately say of the ‘con’ position:  “PAOC is the absolutely supreme and sufficient in authority in all matters of faith and practice for credential holders.” 

#5. PRO- “Scripture above all else.” This view seeks to emphasize the place of Scripture above a denominational or fellowship precedent. The "pro" camp would be skeptical of legislating practices beyond the scope of Scripture. There is an inclination to not go beyond the text. Scripture is said to have the final word on matters of faith and practice. The 'pro' camp is quick to note that while the Bible is explicit on the command to avoid drunkenness, there is no prohibition against moderate and responsible drinking. 

Those representing this position seek to confront the full range of the canonical texts. The 'pro' moderation view is not content to read one set of texts to the exclusion of another set of texts. For every text that declares, "Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler" (Proverbs 20:1) there is counter text of, "wine that gladdens the heart of man…” (Psalm 104:14-15) OR “spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deut 14:26). Dr. Richard Hays summarizes the approach to Scripture taken by this position:

"When we begin to seek the unity of New Testament witnesses- whether in general or on a particular issue- all of the relevant texts must be gathered and considered. Selective appeals to favourite proof texts are illegitimate without full consideration of texts that stand on the opposite side of a particular issue. The more comprehensive the attention to the full range of New Testament witness, the more adequate a normative ethical proposal is likely to be. Beware of the interpreter who always quotes only the Haustafeln (e.g. Col 3.22: "Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything') and never wrestles with Galatians 5.1 ("For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery")- Or vice versa." [6]

Concluding Questions

1.What say you? Which category do you find yourself most geared towards? Pro or Con?

2.Is there another category of distinction I could add to this list?

3. Which of the five points of disagreement, presented above, do you find the most compelling? 

Thanks for reading! 
  1. As a side note, theologically I self identify under the category of Anabaptist- although I don’t think Anabaptism & Pentecostalism are mutually exclusive. You could call me a “Meno-costal”, or “Ana-costal”.  
  2. I am generalizing. There is likely some exception to the points I have presented. 
  3. 1 Timothy 3.2
  4. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” - 1 Corinthians 11.1 
  5. Email sent to credential holders. 
  6. The Moral Vision of the New Testament.