Friday, October 31, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 17)

Despite what could be viewed as the short-sightedness of the disciples with their statements about the ministry of the word of God and praying, and their setting that against their own taking up of the role of slaves at the church’s meal tables, the church prospered.  Luke writes that “The proposal pleased the entire group” (Acts 6:5a).  Seven men were chosen as deacons (diakonous in the Greek, which means “servants”).  “They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands upon them” (6:6).

Not surprisingly then, with service at the root of the church’s witness, and men chosen specifically to serve food to widows (and all who came to the table, with no distinctions or divisions), “The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7).  With this success in mind, and this success much owing to the counter-cultural witness of servanthood by the ambassadors of the kingdom of the Creator God, it is possible to step back and wonder if it is possible to imagine Jesus creating this division of labor.  While believers stand in the stream of that Spirit-led success, can they dream about the church that may have developed had the very men that were looked to as the pillars and foundation of the church, been the ones that had served all, in full equality, at the church’s meal table?  What divisions may have been avoided had the church of the Christ had this example from which to draw?

Luke moves directly from the ordination of the group that came to be referred to as deacons, to the particular story of one of those men---a man by the name of Stephen.  Stephen, who is said to be “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5b), which was one of the requirements as suggested by the disciples, served admirably.  One goes on to read that “Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (6:8).

As this performance of wonders and signs was undoubtedly linked to the fact of his service at the church’s meal table, and as it was owing to the covenant God’s special attention to widows as revealed by the Hebrew Scriptures, his service to widows must figure prominently in the Spirit’s growing presence in his ministry.  Might it also be presumed that the people wondered at what they were seeing from Stephen, which was his willful service to the least, eschewing both honor and shame?

While many are transfixed on signs and wonders, looking to such things as the evidence of the Spirit’s working, the working of the Spirit is just as present and just as powerful when a widow is served.  When that widow is served in a way that stands in sharp distinction from the way that she would normally be treated by her culture, with somebody sacrificing their own honor and prestige in order to see to it that she is served, then that is just as great a wonder and sign of the in-breaking kingdom of the Creator God as would be someone being raised from the dead.

However, rather than receiving honor and praise, Stephen would come to be accused of blasphemy, of speaking against the Temple and Moses, and was ultimately sentenced to death, experiencing the pain and shame of stoning.  This was the honor that one could come to expect from being a deacon---a servant of the church’s table.  This is the example that Paul, if indeed he is the author of this letter, would have in mind when writing to Timothy concerning deacons.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 16)

So this study has gone to Acts six, talked about widows (clarifying some unhelpful mental misconceptions in the process), mentioned divisions, made its way to Galatians, back to Timothy, and then on to Corinthians, all related to the mention of “deacons.”  This process has been necessary, and it has all been connected to food, thus allowing an observer to firmly link talk of deacons in the letter to Timothy with the church’s meal table, which also allows for the placing of talk of “overseers” within a meal table context as well.  Frankly, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the meal for the church, as it is a vital component of the Jesus tradition, a defining aspect of culture, and combined with talk of food in the letters of the New Testament, a repetitive element in the conversation related to the life of the body of Christ.

Returning then to Acts, what is the response to the complaint about the way that food is being distributed at the church’s gathering?  “The twelve called the whole group of disciples together and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2).  Now this could be a point of contention.  With the centrality of the meal assembly for the church, and the value placed on service by Jesus Himself, can the disciples rightly insist that this is the case? 

Would it not be most appropriate, in following the example of their Lord, who came not to be served but to serve, for these disciples to do this very thing?  Could having a hand in the distribution of the food, which would mean their being the ones that served the food to the assembled church, possibly be conceived of as neglecting the word of the Creator God?  One might very well lament this response of the twelve, as its enshrinement in Scripture handily created what very well may have been a dichotomy between preaching and service that Jesus never intended, thus furthering the construction of hierarchies within the church. 

Luke opens his account in Acts by stating that “I wrote the former account,” referring to the Gospel of Luke, “Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1).  Here, Jesus’ own disciples have opened up a disconnect between doing and teaching.  That divide becomes evident in what has become the standard, contemporary reading of the letter to Timothy.  It is not evident because overseers and deacons, and the qualifications for such are discussed.  Rather, it is evident because one reads “overseer” and think of an authority figure, doing the same with “deacon,” though obviously to a lesser extent.  Regardless, it is obvious that, owing to the proclamation and example of the disciples of Jesus, that the church quickly fell into these practical and hierarchical divisions, and these divisions immediately began to have honor assigned to them.  This is more than comprehensible, as humanity is certainly prone to such things.

Since, unfortunately, they were not going to be waiting on tables, as they would later make clear that their plan was to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4), the disciples went on to say “But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task” (6:3).  One could say that here things went from bad to worse, as the disciples, prone to affectation by a culture that was almost completely dismissive of women (even though women had been charged with the initial proclamations concerning the Resurrection of Jesus), limited that which would become a hierarchical position in the church to men only. 

One could say that, or one could look at it another way, realizing that they were not intent upon creating a spiritual hierarchy, but that this was an unintended by-product brought about by a lack of faithfulness to the mission and vision of Jesus, and chose men specifically to serve at the church’s tables, giving them the responsibility of being sure that all shared equally in the food and drink on offer because this is a job that would normally have fallen to women and to slaves.  Perhaps this is the genius of the disciples, but with so many set at such a distance from the culture of the day, it is quite easy to miss what is going on here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 15)

Now, when one considers a daily distribution of food to widows, there is probably an idea of people going house to house, delivering meals to those that are shut-in and who are too old and frail to serve themselves.  Though this may have been part of what was occurring, it is best to keep oneself culturally and historically grounded, while also keeping the regular assembly around the meal table front and center. 

One must also bear in mind that, due to much shorter life expectancies, these widows could have been relatively young.  Though this study will later be dealing with this in greater detail, it is possible to get a glimpse of the treatment of widows in the letter to Timothy (thus causing the reference to widows in Acts to have an even greater bearing on a study of Timothy), when Timothy is instructed that “no widow is to be put on the list unless she is at least sixty years old” (1 Timothy 5:9a). 

As it relates to the physical capabilities of widows and to being sure that they are being viewed through an appropriate lens, Paul writes that there is a bit of a problem in widows “going around from house to house” (5:13a).  In response then, Paul’s directive is “I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us” (5:14).  More on this anon, but in that statement, widows are the “young women” and therefore the subject.  

So again, one must put the idea of the frail, sickly, shut-in widow, who can barely lift her head or feed herself (though there were certainly some of these attached to the church), out of mind and see these widows referenced here and in Acts as capable and perhaps vibrant members of the community, who are able to participate in the regular table gatherings of the church. 

That said, it is probable that it was at the coming together of the church around a common meal that these widows were being neglected in the distribution of food.  If so, this sounds terribly like the situation that Paul addresses in Corinth, where he writes “when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it…  Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper.  For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper.  One is hungry and another becomes drunk.  Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink?  Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:18,20-22a) 

It becomes clear that the honor-based arrangements around the meal tables to which Jesus was regularly invited, and which He regularly criticized, were alive and well and being used at the meal tables of the church in Jerusalem.  Widows, as would have been quite common owing to a lack of a living husband and therefore a lack of honor or even the ability to accrue honor (a wife’s honor was dependent on that of her husband), were being neglected---relegated to the positions in which they were served last.   

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 14)

Observers can be assured that hierarchical structures, which, in that day, were thoroughly wrapped up in the very competition for honor that is rejected by the church of the crucified Messiah, is nowhere in sight in this treatment of the qualifications for those that aspire to the position of overseer.    

Lest it be presumed that an unwarranted step is being here taken by linking “overseer” with the meal assembly that was the regular setting of the gathering of the church in its earliest days, and lest it be deemed that too much weight is being put on actions centered upon the meal as an effective counter-cultural witness, it is possible to bolster this position by acknowledging the letter’s movement directly from “overseer” to “deacon.” 

In verse eight of the third chapter Paul writes “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not two-faced, not given to excessive drinking, not greedy for gain” (1 Timothy 3:8).  This allusion to drinking cannot be looked upon as a general principle, plucked out of mid-air as an ideal.  Rather, it must be understood to be concretely connected to the eating and drinking of the church at its meal table.  That meal table, to be sure, in its arrangement and in the way it was conducted, as it was rooted in the meal culture that was foundational for society in general, and as it held to the witness of the meal tables of Jesus and the way in which He conducted Himself and spoke at those tables, was a powerful image of the kingdom that the Christians proclaimed, and of the God that was being honored and worshiped at the gatherings of their association.

Along with this, it is incumbent to add to an investigation of the letter a perusal of the introduction of the “deacon” to the church.  To do so it is necessary to look to the book of Acts.  Now, it is highly unlikely that Timothy had access to the book of Acts as the church has it today, but it is certainly plausible that Timothy would have been familiar with the story that described the advent of the position.  Since deacons are referenced, it is a given that the recipient of the letter did not need to have the position explained to him, being well aware of the “how” and the “why” of their function within the church.  

So what was that function?  Why was the position in existence?  In the sixth chapter of Acts Luke writes that “in those days,” which were some of the very earliest days of the church, “when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews” (6:1a).  Here, one encounters the all-too-familiar divide between Jew and Gentile within the church, though it is somewhat masked by the fact that both sides of this divide were said to be Jews. 

What was the source of this particular division?  Division between the Gentiles that were Jews by conversion and those that were ethnic and national Jews came about “because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1b).  This food-related divide is probably best illustrated by the experience that Paul recounts from his time in Antioch.  This record is found in Galatians, where Paul writes “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he has clearly done wrong.  Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (Galatians 2:11-12).  What Paul describes in Antioch, which is from a time period after the events recorded here in chapter six of Acts, first played itself out within the church at an intra-Jew level before playing itself out at an intra-church (between Jew and Gentile, and between Gentile and Gentile) level.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 13)

Paul writes that “The overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money.  He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity” (1 Timothy 3:2-4).  Putting flesh and blood on these words and remembering that this is a letter to a real person in a real church full of real people in a real community that would have functioned according to the ideals of honor and shame, then this list of “requirements” appear to be a way to screen out those that would, according to accepted customs and practices of the wider community, normally be expected to preside over the meal assemblies of the church. 

Indeed, Paul may very well have specific people in mind that are subtly addressed and ruled out as overseers by what is here insisted upon.  One may think this harsh, but the primary concern is the strengthening of the church body, and those who are possessive of honor and standing outside the church are those that most need to understand the humility and the embracing of shame demanded by the way of the cross and the kingdom of the Creator God.  One way for such people to experience shame is for their honor to mean nothing inside the assembled church. 

Conversely, it might very well be the case that Paul is less concerned with making sure that the most holy or least sinful person (by the popular and not overly helpful way of thinking) is overseeing the church’s gathering (again, this is not about an overseer in the way so many are programmed to think), and more concerned that those that would normally be considered less honorable are the ones that take up this function, thus making the point that those that society considers to be more honorable are to be subject, at least inside the assembly that is supposed to represent the kingdom of Israel’s God to those that are considered less honorable by that same society.  This subjection is not one of a heavy hand, but it is a subjection rooted in the counter-cultural egalitarianism of the church.  It is by these instructions that the culture is countered, and through which Timothy and the church are forced to broaden their scope and manner of thinking. 

The directive is expounded upon, and one can be further convinced that there are, in fact, specific individuals in mind when going on to read “But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God?  He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact.  And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap” (3:5-7). 

It is helpful to look at these as being person-specific---directed towards an individuals or small group of individuals, rather than as ideals left up to subjective analysis.  Since it has been established that Paul is not writing about pastors or church leaders in the traditional sense of the term or of those that meet specific qualifications as determined by a council of elders, but rather, those that are overseeing the meal-based gathering of the church in the home of one of the believers, functioning as the host of the meal (with this rotating regularly so that one person does not accrue undue honor or prestige), it is possible to glean the principle and make the application that is so very prevalent in the Pauline corpus, which is that of equality amongst believers and the need for the church to be strengthened, with self-sacrificial love and the preferring of one another (eschewing honor and embracing shame, as demanded by the cross) the transcendent ideal to be embodied in the assembly.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 12)

To this way of thinking, Paul insists that “there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at His appointed time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).  Therefore, it is faith in Jesus (fides/pistis/loyalty) that makes He and He alone the intermediary between the Creator God and man, rather than the works of the law (those previously mentioned covenant markers that then served to set God’s covenant people apart from all other peoples). 

Just in case there may be a thought that this ongoing disputation between Jew and Gentile is a component of Paul’s address here when he makes mention of “all people,” one can look to what follows the sixth verse, which is “For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle---I am telling the truth; I am not lying---and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  So I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute” (2:7-8).     

Chapter three opens with “This saying is trustworthy: ‘If someone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work.’” (3:1)  What is this “office of overseer”?  The Greek word that is translated as “overseer” is “episcopes,” which is transliterated into “episcopate” and therefore “Episcopal,” which is likely to cause a reader to consider the hierarchical church structures and the hierarchically structured church with which we are all quite familiar in our own day. 

Though many that are reading this study may not be a part of a traditional, denominational church, it must be said that even non-traditional and non-denominational churches have authoritarian structures, whether implicit or explicit.  Thus one must be careful to avoid the importation of anachronistic thinking, in which the position of “overseer” in question here in the letter to Timothy becomes equated with the person that oversees a church in the modern sense, whether that be a pastor, a bishop, an area supervisor, or any such similar idea.  This type of relatively rigid church structuring would not be a settled feature or widespread component of the first century church that gathered in private homes as a meal association that saw themselves as the ambassadors and harbingers of the kingdom of the covenant God, and as a renewed humanity defined by their hope of resurrection, with worship of Jesus as the embodiment of the Creator God as the focus of their meal-based assembly. 

A ready awareness that the church assembled around a common meal forces one to understand that this “overseer” was, more than likely, the person that presided over the meal.  This meal presidency, which was a familiar feature of Hellenistic meal practices, would rotate among a number of people.  Ideally, it would rotate amongst the entirety of the assembly, with each member of the body taking their turn to perform the role; but naturally, not everybody would feel comfortable in such a role. 

Understandably then, those that undertook to serve in this capacity would be those that were comfortable presiding over meals, which would generally be those of higher social status and who would be viewed as having more honor.  Understanding this, the last thing that Paul would want is for the socially accepted systems of honor to determine the functioning of the body of the Christ, so certain expectations are set for those that will enter into this role. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Timothy & Countering The Culture (part 11)

Not only would the Roman governors look upon Christians with suspicious eyes, it would be difficult to doubt that Christians would happily return the favor.  While there is certainly an element of Christianity that rightly and responsibly challenges the power of governments, calls the world’s rulers to account, challenges arrogant actions and arrogations of power, and regularly holds up restraining hands that tell governments that “you go here and no further,” there is, of course, a legitimate role for governments.  For balance and a response, those same hands that are held up in attempts to restrain governments, insisting that they not go beyond their rightful place as the church says “we’ll take it from here,” are then to be turned outwards, with arms extended wide to embrace and deal with the issues to which the church of Christ must address itself.   

Naturally, Paul recognizes the potential for unhelpful and unhealthy conflict between the members of the church and temporal powers.  Concordantly, he urges that ‘requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quite life in all godliness and dignity.  Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, since He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1a-4).  Though at one level this may appear to be an acquiescence, is it not an effective counter-cultural witness?  Christians, of course, are to be the greatest of earthly citizens because they are also citizens of the kingdom of heaven that looks to the renewal of the whole of creation (not an escape to heaven). 

Now, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Christians, who, owing to their “atheism” (because they did not worship the Roman gods or Caesar), their “cannibalism” (for the words that accompanied their communal meals), and their lack of participation at the temples (which were also the markets and the center of public activity) that was taken to portend a destruction of social cohesiveness, experienced persecution at the hands of governing authorities, would look upon those persecutors as their enemies.  Therefore, this prayer for all people, including kings and governing authorities, was a strict following of the teachings of Jesus, who demanded His disciples to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45a – realizing that Matthew was probably not in circulation and may not yet have taken the shape in which it is now to be found at the time of the composition of the letter, and therefore, the passing along of the words of Jesus would have been based upon Paul’s knowledge of the Jesus tradition). 

These words reach a second level in the face of the Jew and Gentile divisions in Ephesus (and other cities whose churches may have been recipients of the letter now called Ephesians), with these divisions addressed in the second chapter of Ephesians.  The insistence that the Creator God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” speaks to the lingering hesitation on the part of ethnic Israel to grant Gentiles status as full and legitimate members of the covenant people of the Creator God. 

So while praying for those that may potentially be perceived or actually be enemies is counter-cultural, so too is Paul’s insistence that Israel’s God wants all people groups to be saved (come under the provisions of His covenant), with this running counter to the Jewish culture that wanted to continue to reserve their God’s blessings to Israel alone, and who attempted to enforce this restriction by insisting that Gentiles needed to adopt the covenant markers of Judaism (primarily circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath-keeping) to indicate their participation under their God’s covenant.