Friday, April 18, 2014

You Are Beloved: An Open Letter to Women Who Minister

My wife isn't a preacher, but I enjoy this picture of her on our honeymoon. This is an old church on Maui.
Dear Sister,

I've been vocal (sometimes to the point of screaming, so I apologize for that) in support of your gifts and callings. However, this time, I want to say something a bit different. While I have my opinions regarding Scripture and its proper interpretation, these opinions aren't always the most helpful.

You are Beloved.

When I first heard your sermon and listened to your story, I was initially uncomfortable. As someone who never heard a woman preach a sermon until age 24, I recall an experience of divine love. When God spoke through you, something touched me. Scales fell. My heart opened. You were strong like Deborah, proclaiming the goodness of resurrection, of love. You stood against the ropes, facing your calling and you preached with power and the authority of the Spirit.

You are Beloved.

I can only imagine your experiences in Seminary and church, where you underwent both encouragement and disillusionment. Sometimes from people who didn't know any better, and sometimes from people who did. This is tragedy, and it breaks my heart to witness this. However, you stood the tide like Paul, proclaiming the gospel of God as he did to the Roman church. You are an example of strength, of courage, of honor. It takes more than strength of mind and body to follow God's calling.

You are Beloved.

I have never had the desire to preach, and I almost passed out the last time I appeared before a group of people giving a speech. I cannot imagine the tension in your being when you stand to give a sermon. Just know that you have advocates in the crowd, praying for you. On this resurrection weekend, I thank God that there were still human beings who went the extra mile to honor the body of our fallen Lord. Count yourselves among them, and be blessed this day.

Your fellow worker,


Friday, March 28, 2014

NOAH, A Review

Contrary to some reviewers, I am putting a SPOILER warning here. As someone who never read the script or reviews prior to screening, I want to insist that upon seeing the trailer, you haven’t seen much of anything. So, please, don’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the flick.

As I sit down to write this, I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding a certain popular pastor’s book. In some sense, it’s funny that we haven’t changed much. In another sense, it is sad that, well, we haven’t changed much.

You know the story well enough. You heard it in Sunday school, or if you were like me, you heard it in high school from a teacher who skipped the nasty bits. If you were like me, those parts were far more interesting than the following material. Set in an unknown frame of time, NOAH is about a dying world that has been given a count down, and there is one man who is called to survive. In the midst of chaos, terror and moral ambiguity, the questions that arrive on screen for us are not easy nor are they something to be dismissed.

Is humanity worth saving?

What does it mean to be chosen by God?

What does it mean to be righteous?

What is mercy and justice?

What’s the big deal?


Having sat through Aronofsky’s The Fountain, I was pretty giddy about sitting through a big budget piece (especially since he was tapped early on to do Batman—something I still dream about!). While I couldn’t sit through The Fountain again, Aronosky is the undisputed master of the artful and the weird. The backdrop of NOAH is both parabolic and dystopic; people scavenge about, plants die, and violence against the Creator’s creation (both animal and human). The world is unforgiving, devoid of mercy, love and life. 

The imagery is astounding, with the opening credit sequence a midrash of brutal imagery and theological nuance. No detail is left untouched. The Nephilim are fascinating, able to convey several distinct expressions through light and solid rock.

I could go on, but you didn’t come for the appetizer.


NOAH consists of a few short chapters in Genesis, so its difficult to imagine how one could gleam a 2 hour story from such material. Purely on the basis of pragmatism, creative license is required. That said, the film is uneven but never dull. It can roughly divided into four sections, which I will cover.


From the beginning, the first section prides itself on establishing Noah and his family with minimal dialogue. This is commendable for a blockbuster, and the writing prides itself on maintaining silence when necessary. The move from low to high upon the mountain involves the climax of two visions. Noah’s calling is clear. This sequence involves slow but methodical pacing, complete inspired by the interesting characters and back story of a crumbling world.


From the building of the ark to the judgment, Noah continues, providing a tense family atmosphere with lust, envy and mystery. The sequence is aided by the scenery-chomping Winstone, who adds the necessary external villain. With more characters involved, the stakes rise and everything sets off with an incredible deluge of rain, bodies and death. 


Isolation in the midst of unseen terror becomes a palpable element of this sequence, with Noah and his family upon the ark. The pacing slows down, running on steam from the previous section, family members fracturing, introducing a truly complex moral dilemma (one that was spoiled for me) that threatens everything. The emotional intensity was so strong that I had to look away at several scenes. To hear people screaming and banging against the outside of the ark certainly adds a dimension that eluded the storytelling technique of my high school bible teacher.


At the end, mercy is glimpsed and the waters of terror pass. We’re given a new hope, but one that is seen only in the light of suffering, sin and a spiral that may or may not have ceased here. The ending is ambiguous, quiet and significantly underplayed. Which is nice and a great change from the blockbuster elements of the first two sequences.

Russell Crowe was not my first choice as Noah, but he fills the shoes of a man that we all claim to know. Noah is said to be a righteous man, and this is both a gift and a curse. He is, however, outdone by Jennifer Connelly, whose sobering performance anchors the film, adding to the grit and terror of human nature that looms across the firelight. The sons are passable, not given much to do. Emma Watson is lovely and fiery, exhibiting a single-minded passion for life and honor. Ray Winstone is oily and unrefined, a perfect antagonist to the stoic Noah.

Anthony Hopkins is Anthony Hopkins. Creative, sly, and winsome. Always awesome.

But you didn’t come for this part. Onto the meat.


Let me get this out of the way now. If you are a committed young earth creationist, biblical literalist, anti-environmentalist, then you will probably hate NOAH. If your stomach lining thins when you hear talk that you associate with liberals and hippies, then you will not like this movie.

As someone who is an open evangelical (that means I pour a drink and listen before I hit you with a Bible verse), I couldn’t wait to see where NOAH took me. The story in the text is so vague and general that I was hoping Aronofsky aimed more for the spirit of the text rather than the law.

I won’t be commenting on the negative reactions from many Christians, mostly because I don’t feel like linking their comments here. Besides, you probably know the complaints and could google them yourselves. I’m going to speak positively about the film.

Noah’s character arc is coherent. He goes to the people outside of the camp to fulfill the desires of his son, and witnesses the extreme wickedness of humanity. The misogyny, violence and excess of the camp is an excellent witness to the current first world culture. Like Gibson’s Apocalypto, Aronofsky simply holds up a mirror and asks us to look at ourselves.

The environmental factor is certainly present, but that is because the material is already present in Genesis. When I mentioned this to someone (who hadn’t seen the film), he nodded and confirmed that the topic was there. Gen 6:11-12 states “In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.” (CEB). The ESV/ NRSV/ NIV reflects this; the earth was corrupt because of human atrocities and wickedness. Human activity upon the earth, as given by YHWH, is culpable in the corruption. The punishment of humans is linked to their treatment of God’s earth. NOAH reflects this perfectly. So not only is the film a timely story on the dangers of over consumption and excess, it holds up Noah as a righteous man who doesn’t live outside his means. Josephus, a first century Jew says, “When Noah had made these supplications, God, who loved the man for his righteousness, granted entire success to his prayers, and said that it was not he who brought the destruction on a polluted world, but that they underwent that vengeance on account of their own wickedness.” Antiquities of the Jews, 1.3.99.

The world is good because the Creator gave it to him. Because of human sin, we gained death. NOAH has a high view of sin, sovereignty and human freedom. The capacity for choice in the heat of a watery apocalypse comes to a full head in the finale.

Simply, the final 35 minutes involving the planned murder of a woman’s baby is consistent with everything the film has done thus far. Noah has seen wickedness and is fighting to end such evil, yet has become evil. The revelation of the pregnancy is combined with a subjective event (the ceasing of rain) and is interpreted by two characters (Lla and Noah) very differently. Human life is precious, a whole being of sacred material made by God. Noah, having seen absolute sin, acts to end such sin. Noah speaks for some of the audience, who is repulsed by evil. Yet, he undoes himself as he believes “justice” must be carried out. It’s a powerful example of how a righteous man can twist himself to the point of becoming inhuman. 

And that is what Aronofsky was going for. He says, 
"Within our tradition, being Jews—a long tradition of thousands of years of people writing commentary on the biblical story—there isn't anything we're doing that's out of line or out of sync, but within that, you don't want to contradict what's there. In all the midrash tradition, the text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and the word and the final authority. But how you decide to interpret it, you can open up your imagination to be inspired by it."
Aronofsky also specifically mentioned "justice" and mercy" in the same article,
That was a big part of the movie for us. When Ari and I started working on the project and started reading the Bible over and over, there's this term where they call Noah "righteous," so what does that word mean? There are a lot of ways to define it. So we started talking to a lot of people, a lot of the different theologians and scholars, and looking it up and trying to understand it. We came upon this idea that "righteous" is a perfect balance of justice and mercy. Ari [co-writer] put it a good way by defining it—since we're both parents—as this: If you're a parent with too much justice, you destroy your child with strictness. And if you're a parent with too much mercy, you destroy them with leniency. So being a really good parent is about finding that balance, which I think is in the story of Noah. Actually, it's similar to the story that God goes through. At the beginning of the story of Noah, he wants justice, and by the end he [offers] mercy through the rainbow, and grace. It was that balance that interested us.
Joel Green notes, “In broader biblical terms, this is simply the way of sin. Sin begets sin, one sin after the other. Sin in Genesis 3 is like a contagion, transmuting from shame and vulnerability to heightened alienation, even to the point where Yahweh’s own voice is no longer invitation but threat. Cain’s murderous act results in his exile (4:1-16); a restless, godless society emerges (4:17-24; 5:28-29); global violence leads to global destruction (6:1-9:18); sin within Noah’s family leads to the enslavement of one people by another (9:17-27); and, finally, the imperialism of conquest leads to the confusion of languages (ch11).” Body, Soul, and Human Life, 89.

God’s mercy is evidenced (in survival) by everyone except Noah. The balance of justice and mercy is shown, and Noah cannot see it. Blinded by his own sin (the sin he sought to eradicate in others and himself), he cannot make sense of it all. His journey into the heart of darkness is compelling, terrifying and appropriate.

Plus, let’s not forget that even righteous people act like jerks when their feet are to the fire. Or when we’re late for church.


Much could be said, and I’ve said too much already. Should you see NOAH? Yes. Will you like NOAH? Who knows. Only God knows. That said, I found NOAH to be spiritually captivating, theologically rich and cinematically enjoyable. You will not agree with the creative choices (there are parts I disagree with), but the choices will stimulate your spirit.

3.5 out of 4 stars.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Paul & Slavery (Part IV)

Note. I am less convinced of my arguments regarding Colossians and Ephesians, so take them with a grain of salt and the knowledge that I'm not settled on my opinions. When Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy come up, this will be abundantly clear.

PAUL: Colossians 3:22-4:1

2Slaves, obey your earthly masters[a] in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.[b] 23 Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters,[c] 24 since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve[d] the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

While some manuscripts[1] omit ‘in everything’ (kata panta) in v22, the verse orders slaves to obey their ‘earthly’ masters. The reasons given are “in order to please them” and because they “fear the Lord.” Given that slaves are addressed first,[2] the first four verses are written directly to slaves, with the one verses dedicated to masters appears more as an exception clause. V23 confirms that slaves are to “put themselves into [their task]” but for the Lord and not their masters. In honoring Christ, slaves were honoring their secondary masters.[3] Here, Paul is less interested in manumission—though I doubt he would oppose the idea—and more with regulating an existing social norm. The adage of “turning the other cheek” comes to mind. The fact that there appears to be a mutual respect throughout Col. 3 would temper this apparently one-sided submission, and a call to look forward to the future for rewards.[4] God will simply and impartially repay whatever wrong has been done to the slave.[5] This is more likely a reminder to the slaves (“since you know…” v4) who are beneath their masters to endure suffering because of reverence for Christ. For (explanatory/giving reasons “gar”) there is no partiality with God; this segues nicely into the one verse on masters. Any master would hear these injunctions given to slaves, and then be granted a general directive: to “treat [their] slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven”(4:1). This is a subclause of 3:25, with the theme of no partiality in view.
There is a clear distinction in view here, with Christ over the master, and the master over the slave. The alternative reading of 1 Cor. 7:21 (instead of taking freedom, stay a slave) seems to be the main theological thrust of this passage. There is no call for manumission, or even a reference to liberation or freedom. Because you have reverence for Christ, be a slave of him. Because you are a master over man, you are to treat them justly and fairly. While this is certainly preferable to encouraging abuse or even the status quo, this does seem to be a recognition in Paul’s mind of the social norm of slavery. However, a description of circumstances doesn’t endear itself to equality with the institution of slavery; nor does it necessitate that slaves couldn’t be preachers or “in Christ.” Given the use of “no partiality” and “no…slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”(3:11). At best, Paul’s words can be seen as an awareness of the culture of his time.
Paul hardly affirmed the institution of slavery.[6] Christians today should recognize the times of the ancient world; remember what was sacrificed, and where we’ve come. While not in the same vein as 1 Cor. 7:21-22 and Philemon, Colossians 3:22-4:1 does indicate a less one-sided view of master/slave relations that many assume.[7] Paul had to bring New Creation to an old world, and sometimes compromises (unfortunately) have to happen when an unstoppable force meets a very slow moving object.[8]

PAUL: Ephesians 6:5-9

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

Ephesians most probably used Colossians as its primary source.[9] The amount of attention given to marriage is dissimilar, but the amount directed towards slaves and masters is roughly the same. This is a pivotal text used by Southern church leaders who supported slavery.[10] To them, slavery was an “institution of God.”[11] The fact that slaves are mentioned (as well as in Col. 3:22-4:1) could indicate a mixed congregation between slave and free.[12] What is most important to recognize is that marriage is shown to ‘set in place’ in creation, whereas slavery is institutionalized only after the collapse of Eden. Authority of humans over other humans, it seems, is a product of the Fall, and should be interpreted accordingly.
Again, we have the majority of data addressed to slaves, echoing Colossians 3:22-4:1. Slaves are called to “obey their earthly masters…as they would obey Christ” (5), with the heart of a servant, doing the will of God (v6), as they work for the Lord, and not humans (7), and that their reward is given by God, no matter their socio-economic status (8). Paul’s comment doesn’t stress the authority of the master, but instead focuses on Christ, and the servant’s love for him. Again, Paul has little ‘legal’ authority over his congregations.[13]
However, in specific instances (Philemon), Paul did put stress on the slave owner to free Onesimus. In contrast to Greco-Roman standards where slave owners were kind generally out of self-interest or out of a concern for status, Paul usurps this understanding. “In this same way” indicates a sense of reciprocity, as does the Colossians parallel in 4:1, though it is more pronounced here. Paul is concerned with correct action, and his sense of personal liberation is at work. Uniquely, he urges them to stop ‘threatening their slaves’ and suggests that both “have the same Master in heaven.” While v21’s call to mutual submission is grammatically connected to v22[14] and it doesn’t necessarily apply to the following sections (fathers/children, slaves/masters), there is a sense of reciprocity within the larger confines of the texts.[15] Several writers did exhibit a sense of compassion towards slaves, but by and large Paul was within this minority.[16]
If Christ is the Master, and both slave owner and slave are beneath him, then in some sense there is now a shared sense of identity. While social status is not completely abolished, the character of both figures is renewed towards the image of Christ. As F.F. Bruce states so well, “there is no word of abolishing the institution of slavery, but where masters and slaves are fellow-members of a Christian household their relationship should be mutually helpful.”[17] I would only add that if Paul were given the final say over such matters, maybe slavery as an institution would cease to exist.[18] 

[1] P46 81.
[2] Mentioned already that the subordinate parties weren’t addressed first.
[3] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 168-9.
[4] For slaves, future eschatology hasn’t been fully realized. Yet Christ has already reconciled us all to God (1:20), and one wonders to what extent the stanza to Christ in 1:15-20 exerts any influence on these admonitions.
[5] “It is uncertain why the emphasis here should be on requital for the wrongdoer.” Pace Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 169.
[6] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 443-449, 448.
[7] To assume a social norm doesn’t necessarily imply an acceptance of said norm. Instead, it simply recognizes that society has a grand investment in certain systemic injustices, and by transforming the relationship; perhaps Paul hopes to render the slave system as irreconcilable.
[8] If you notice any conflicting emotions in the writing of this section, then you are observant.
[9] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 231. Bruce notes that 1 Corinthians and Romans have marked similarities to this ‘Paulinist’ epistle. Also of note is that much of what will be discussed has been mentioned in the Colossians section.
[10] Image in Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith, 35. The Southern leaders advocated that since, “…women are called to play a subordinate role (Eph. 5:22; 1 Tim. 2:11-15), so slaves are stationed by God in their place.” Therefore, the analogy between slaves and women drawn by egalitarians is valid, as it is consistent with the complaints of patriarchalists in the 50s.
[11] Ibid, 35. I find this completely in contradiction to Paul’s clear unease with slavery in 1 Cor. 7:21-22 and Philemon, and to a less extent in the later epistles. Their misuse of Philemon indicates an astonishingly simplistic reading of Paul’s most rhetorically persuasive epistle. As mentioned above, such a reading merits no serious attention.
[12] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 205.
[13] Especially if Ephesians is a general circulated epistle. If this is true, then it would make the most sense that Paul wouldn’t have the same type of authority in a general letter. However, in a specific instance (Philemon), it makes sense that he would wield his authority with a heavier hand.
[14] V21 supplying the verb “submit” to v22’s “wives submit to your husbands.”
[15] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 206 states, “Although much of the rest of what [Paul] says is within the conceptual bounds of the other progressive writers in antiquity, the principle of mutuality on which he bases this exhortation calls for more than a measured application of authority.”
[16] Pliny the Younger’s Ep. 9.21 and 9.24 are considered monumental.
[17] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 402.
[18] Craig S. Keener agrees, arguing that Paul would’ve been an abolitionist had he been alive in the 18th and 19th centuries. Paul, Women & Wives, 205-6.
[19] Some complementarians (George Knight III as a good example; see the brief discussion in Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 208. I arrived at a similar – independent – conclusion) chafe at this, arguing that God didn’t ordain slavery, but he ordained marriage. This begs a special question: was marriage inherently subordinationist before the destruction of Eden? Genesis 1-2 gives no evidence for this.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Publishing, Mark Driscoll & Evangelical Responses

I've been following this loosely for a while. The story broke on World Magazine (a surprising source), and since then everyone has been weighing in. Instead of writing my own response (something I don't have the energy to do), I figured I'd find varying ideas and responses. So, enjoy if you can.

Tony Jones:
Bestseller lists are important, even today. I once had a book contract that had a $10,000 incentive if my book made the NY Times or Publsihers Weekly list. (It didn’t.) Those lists are meant to gauge how many real, individual readers are buying books. Now comes word that Mark Driscoll and his church hired a firm that used a thousand different credit cards and thousands of individual names — the names were supplied by the church — to drive Driscoll’s marriage book onto the bestseller lists. As a reward, the firm was paid $210,000 by Mars Hill Church:
The comments are worth reading. Rachel Held Evans and Tony engage with various complaints and criticisms. Very interesting, though if you like Mark, you may cringe several times.

World Magazine
Seattle’s Mars Hill Church paid a California-based marketing company at least $210,000 in 2011 and 2012 to ensure that Real Marriage, a book written by Mark Driscoll, the church’s founding pastor, and his wife Grace, made the New York Times best-seller list. According to a document obtained by WORLD, ResultSource Inc. (RSI) contracted with Mars Hill “to conduct a bestseller campaign for your book, Real Marriage on the week of January 2, 2012. The bestseller campaign is intended to place Real Marriage on The New York Times bestseller list for the Advice How-To list.” The marketing company also promised to help place Real Marriage on the Wall Street Journal Business, USA Today Money, (Barnes & Noble), and best-seller lists. Mat Miller of ResultSource and John Sutton Turner of Mars Hill signed the letter of agreement, dated Oct. 13, 2011. Turner was then and remains today the church’s executive pastor and an executive elder.
Matthew Paul Turner:
Driscoll isn’t the only pastor to do this. For years, the rumors surrounding pastors buying their bestseller placement have gone around the Christian publishing world. The confidentiality agreements that happen around this practice are pretty insane. Most pastors don’t want to discuss. The way I heard about RSI was through a friend. He said to me, “So, Matthew, you wanna know how Pastor ****** got on the NYT best-sellers list?” “Sure,” I said. “He knows a guy in California who makes it happen. He just pays him a couple hundred grand and he gets you on the list.” “Does this man have name or a website?” “I don’t know. He wouldn’t give me any names. But said he’d hook me up if I was interested.” Well, a couple weeks ago, an anonymous source sent me the following, a generic contract that authors and pastors sign with RSI. I will maybe add some more responses as they appear. As of now, I'm not surprised by Mars Hill, and I'm not particularly bothered. As my friend (and best man) David mused, "corporations be corporations."

Paul & Slavery (Part III)

For the epistle to Philemon, enjoy it here. I don't post everything here simply because its a post that is already too long.

PAUL: The Epistle to Philemon[1]

Written to a house church (v2), this epistle is thought provoking and unique.[2] Beginning with Philemon, Paul recalls his prayers for this man (v4), his “sharing of faith”(v6) and his joy and encouragement from him (v7). This enforces that Paul has a close relationship with Philemon,[3] and is uniquely aware of his spiritual life; he also gives a hint of his own spiritual life, indicating his relationship with “my God.”[4] This reinforces Paul’s equalizing factor. Just as he has shown that Philemon[5] is ‘spiritual,’ he has indicated that he is as well.[6]
From v8-14,[7] we have a shift in focus, though not out of the blue.[8] Paul explains how “bold” he is ‘in Christ,’ enough to command Philemon to do his ‘duty,’ but would prefer to “appeal to [Philemon] on the basis of love”(v8).[9] Paul is free to command Philemon, and he presents himself as an “old man.”[10] What makes this remarkable is that Paul appears so confident that he can dispense with his ‘command.’ Orders are most likely to breed resentment,[11] so this reinforces the nature of “love” as Paul makes clear from the beginning. Paul is confident, yet aware of the nature of his request. The use of “child” with Onesimus as the subject (v10) now reveals why Paul has bothered writing such a letter; on behalf of his child,[12] Onesimus. Now Philemon is fully aware of this purpose.[13] Playing off Onesimus’ name[14] (useful, helpful), Paul appears to show that he finds Onesimus as ‘beneficial/useful’ to him, as well as Philemon. He affirms his own desire to have Onesimus with him, but doesn’t do so by denigrating his character. V12 shows that Paul has sent him Onesimus back, with his own heart.[15] While the Stoics argued that slaves have souls, Paul seems to indicate that Onesimus is his soul.[16] Paul has now identified with the slave much more than he has with the slave owner; in essence, he has shown that he loves Onesimus, and for Philemon to not return his slave to Paul would break Paul’s heart. V13 continues this, putting the emphasis back on Philemon, who would have to give consent to an imprisoned Paul, who views Onesimus’ return as ‘service.’[17] The Apostle is making it difficult for the slave owner.[18] Paul confirms the nature of this legal request by preferring that Philemon’s good deed would indeed be voluntary.[19] V15-16 appear to imply that Onesimus became a Christian while with Paul, indicating the inherent tension of slaves and slave owners in the New Creation. The parallel use of “in the flesh” and “in the Lord” exemplify life in this world, and in the church. F.F Bruce states, “if Philemon set Onesimus free as the spontaneous expression of the grace of God working in his heart, he would derive real joy from the act, and the joy would be shared by Onesimus [and Paul].”[20] Paul promises to repay any debt Onesimus may have gained. Paul puts himself in Onesimus’ shoes so Philemon sees Paul as well as his slave.
Short of forcing Philemon at gunpoint to manumit Onesimus, Paul goes as far to imply a potential breach in the friendship if Philemon doesn’t act appropriately.
Paul strips away the dichotomy [of slavery being of social value] in the same sentence by stating that Onesimus is a beloved brother of Philemon both in the material and the spiritual realm.[21] The entire letter is quite awkward to think about: since Paul intends to come and stay with Philemon in v22, Philemon can hardly be expected to have his slave greet Paul at the door. Talk about social faux pas. Instead, Paul recognizes the practical implications of his words in Galatians and works through the conventional means of his day to free a slave. Not only is he risking capital[22] but also his reputation. He is not insensitive to the needs of others, and it is likely that Onesimus gained his freedom and served in the church (Col 4:9).[23] Several factors make this very likely that Paul was able to secure Onesimus’ freedom:
1) Owing Paul a favor, likely due to his conversion at the hands of the Apostle, it makes considerable sense that Philemon acquiesced to Paul’s request and freed his slave.
2) The reference to “The Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus to whom Ignatius wrote four or five decades later was the same man.”[24]
3) The letter was preserved and canonized seemingly without dispute, maybe even by Onesimus as his ‘charter of freedom.’[25] This lends power to the second point.
The parallel passage in Galatians 4:7 indicates that "no longer a slave" should carry more than just "spiritual" equality. If a slave is equalized with his master, then any subordination is not only awkward but also seemingly contradictory. This is coming off the heels of Galatians 3:28. Paul also commands slaves to free themselves if possible (1 Cor 7:21), acting consistently with the presentation of Gamaliel in regards to slavery. YHWH’s ideal social order includes women’s equality as well as slaves, and by claiming that slaves and masters are equal before God, God seems to state that slavery is not part of YHWH’s purpose.[26] Allen Bevere states, “The manumission of slaves threatened the unity and very fabric of the empire. Thus, Paul’s implicit way of asking Philemon for Onesimus’s freedom was a way of avoiding trouble for Paul and Philemon with the imperial authorities precisely because his request was politically subversive.”[27]


Onesimus returns, carrying the letter from Paul. Philemon sees him, and orders his men to watch him. Philemon unfurls the scroll, written in large letters and begins to read. Onesimus, trembling, sees his wife and children behind his master. Philemon chuckles a bit, getting through v4-7. Onesimus has spoken highly of him to Paul? Doubtful, but he enjoys the kind words. Then he gets to v8. Paul’s boldness strikes him between the eyes and his brow furrows. Nostrils flare. Hands grip the papyrus tightly. Onesimus stares at his wife, wishing to hold her once before his master gives an order.
When Philemon reads v12, he pauses. Paul, as a token of good will, has sent Onesimus back with the letter, with Onesimus like Paul’s own heart. Philemon takes a few steps to the left, sandals resting on cobbled stone. The guards shift, watching as intently as Onesimus, who doesn’t bother wiping the cold sweat forming on his neck. He shivers when he hears Philemon chuckle, almost lightly. Philemon looks up at Onesimus, meeting him eye to eye. “My voluntary consent…” Philemon murmurs, turning to a slave boy who offers him a goblet of wine. He takes a sip and nods at the boy, who leaves quickly. Turning back, Philemon stares at Onesimus, his jaw loosening.
“No longer as a slave…”
Onesimus avoids eye contact with his master, staring at the tops of his bare feet. The torn toe nails, the scabs, the pain that is rushing back as his body wishes to collapse. A guard steps up, eyes going cold, grabbing Onesimus by the collar. Philemon holds up a hand, and the guard steps back. Slowly, deliberately, Philemon approaches his trembling slave, swishing the wine around in his goblet. Takes a second sip, running his tongue over his teeth.
“Are you thirsty?”

SUMMATION: 1 Cor. 7:21-22 & the Epistle to Philemon

Robert Gagnon provides three reasons to understand both texts as preferring freedom over slavery:[29] first, for Paul, the status of slave was incompatible with the status of brother. Second, the status of slave was in tension with the liberating redemptive event of Christ’s death. Third, freedom gave believers greater latitude of unhinged devotion to Christ. Thus, there appears to be a distinct tension between 1 Cor. 7:21-22, Philemon and the ‘slave’ texts in Colossians, Ephesians, Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy.[30] To them we now turn.

[1] We are never told why Onesimus came to Paul. Most seem to understand Onesimus as a runaway slave. This is possible, and Onesimus could be seeking a mediator in Paul (as some priests functioned this way), but we are simply never told. My own theory is that Onesimus separated himself from Philemon (v15), indicating that the initiative was taken by Onesimus. The reason being possibly that, since Onesimus was ‘useless’ to Philemon, maybe Onesimus was going to be sold. While nothing proves this, perhaps Onesimus had a family. That could inspire a husband/father to act rashly. Perhaps he stole from Philemon and was planning on running away with his family, but was caught and ran off on his own. Only God knows.
[2] For instance, he mentions Apphia and it is implied that she is involved high up in the church.
[3] Possibly due to him converting Philemon, or additionally the stories that Onesimus has told Paul.
[4] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 268.
[5] From this verse (4) on, Paul appears to be speaking only to Philemon. The use of the singular indicates this.
[6] Most profoundly, Paul has already begun to set up Philemon; not in a malicious way, but in that those “in Christ” relate to each other on the basis of being “in Christ.” Right now, its one to one, a most intimate conversation.
[7] One long sentence in the Greek.
[8] Paul has already presented Philemon’s character and reputation, establishing him as a “co-worker” and one who encourages Paul. Rhetorically, this is absolutely powerful. 
[9] Barth and Blanke note that Paul has “renounced a specific use of freedom of speech, [but] not his authority.” The Letter to Philemon, 309.
[10] Age is noted as having maturity and authority, and Paul’s use of this is indeed a socio-cultural move to present himself as having the acceptable power to demand something of Philemon. Since Philemon has already been told that he has “faith toward the Lord Jesus”(5), how much more is Paul’s faithfulness to Jesus? Murphy-O’Connor points out, “any male in his late fifties or early sixties would have been considered ‘elderly.’” Paul: A Critical Life, 4.
[11] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians, 211.
[12] This isn’t the first time Paul calls his readers ‘children’: Titus 1:4; 1 Cor. 4:17.
[13] One wonders if Onesimus was the one to hand Philemon Paul’s letter. Imagine the tension in the room. See “Narrative Reconstruction.”
[14] See the discussion in Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 338-342.
[15] Paul doesn’t cite any OT or social law. Legally, Philemon was under no obligation to manumit Onesimus. However, since Paul identifies Onesimus as “his own heart,” this strongly implies that Paul cannot function without his child. Thus Paul seemingly transfers the (heavy!) burden of action to Philemon.
[16] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 360.
[17] This ‘service’ is less likely domestic and more likely as ‘service in the gospel.’
[18] Paul has no legal right to retain Onesimus and he knows it. Priest and mediators could sell the slave elsewhere, but they most likely returned the slave, albeit with the understanding that the owner’s anger/honor was assuaged. Paul’s comment that he could “command Philemon” to free Onesimus must mean that he knows the process by which Onesimus would be freed.
[19] Paul’s view of Philemon’s free will is certainly compatible with Paul’s libertarianism.
[20] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 217.
[21] Philip B. Payne, Paul Applies the Maximal Social Pressure to Free Onesimus, 1-2.
[22] Ibid. 3.
[23] It isn’t entirely certain that this is the same Onesimus, but Onesimus is a common slave name. If anything, this suggests that slaves served in leadership.
[24] Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, The Writings of St. Paul, 96.
[25] F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 406.
[26] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives, 205.
[27] Allen R. Bevere, “Colossians and the Rhetoric of Empire,” Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, ed. Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, 194. In an otherwise marvelous essay, Bevere does unfortunately qualify his argument in that he casts doubt on whether or not Paul was indeed asking Philemon to free Onesimus. However, based on Paul’s inherent request to free Onesimus and the amount of social/theological pressure placed upon Philemon, Bevere’s doubts seem unnecessary.
[28] There are liberties taken here, but I see this as a consistent rendering of the epistle as a whole.
[29] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 448.
[30] Many scholars chalk this up to the “real” Paul versus “deutero” Paul. While I don’t accept non-Pauline authorship for the disputed epistles, I can certainly understand why scholars argue thusly. See Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 448; Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians 2nd Edition, 106. Meeks assumes a hierarchy in these texts.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Paul & Slavery (Part II)

PAUL: 1 Corinthians 7:21-22.

20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. 21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.[c] 22 For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ.  
S. Scott Bartchy outlines[1] the varying interpretations of this text, using two ‘readings’ of the text: scholars, translations and theologians[2] who favor “take freedom” and those who favor “use [or stay in] slavery.” For those who accepted the first category “take freedom,” we have Origen of Alexandria,[3] Ephraem and Syrus,[4] Jerome,[5] the opponents of Chrysostom,[6] Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, C. Hodge, Lightfoot, C.H. Dodd, the RSV, C.F.D. Moule, NEB and TEV. Modern commentators include Gordon D. Fee,[7] Philip Payne,[8] Robert A. J. Gagnon[9] and Alan F. Johnson.[10]
For those who prefer the “use [stay in] slavery” opinion, we have Chrysostom,[11] Ambrosiaster, Cyril of Alexandria, Pelagius, John of Damascus, Sedulius Scotus,[12] Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Bengal, Jonathan Edwards, Von Harnack, Goodspeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Kummel, Kasemann and Barrett.
So, the question comes to this: did Paul call for slaves to attain freedom, or to stay as a slave? The bigger historical question is could a slave refuse manumission (freedom)? Most plausibly, he/she couldn’t. Reasons for manumission are complex,[13] but usually derived from the generosity or personal interest of the owner. Social “generosity” included egoism and narcissism,[14] but one doubts that a freed slave would care much for the reasons of manumission. In regards to the slave’s options regarding their freedom, “Under both Greek and Roman law, a person in slavery could seek to bring nearer the day of his manumission by working hard and by conducting himself in a manner which pleased his owner.”[15] Financially, one could buy their manumission, as a slave once bragged “he paid 50,000 sesterces for his freedom.”[16] Most probably, since slaves were within the poverty line, hard labor and the good nature of their owner was their most likely method of freedom. The nature of Mark 10:45 “ransom for many” evocates the language not only of liberation from slavery (physical) but also that this is something that the Messiah sought to fulfill. To fulfill this, to some early Christians, was to be “in Christ.”
In short, it is historically implausible that a slave (still beneath his master) could refuse his manumission from the owner that still owns him. Since there is no evidence for this, the nature of “but if you are actually able to be free, take advantage of the opportunity” (CEB) is clear: do not be bothered if you are ‘called into Christ’ when you are in slavery. But since you cannot remain a slave when manumitted, ‘do not become [or stay] as a slave to people.’ Paul’s awareness of the historical nature of manumission (as well as his Judaism) supports the reading of “take freedom” since a slave simply didn’t have any alternative.
Bartchy notes that “as a first century Jew from Tarsus who had spent much time in Jerusalem, Paul was well-acquainted with the enslavement of both Jews and Gentiles…”[17] Paul was most likely not unsurprised by the institution of slavery, but was aware of the tension displayed in Galatians 3:28 as well as the fundamental equality for every human being.[18] Since the shift of the eschatological age, Paul was clearly not comfortable with slavery. As Gagnon suggests, “…1 Cor. 7:21 should be read as Paul’s attempts to support freedom from slavery as at least penultimate good.”[19] Slavery was a given in the ancient world, and it must be said that Paul wasn’t on a campaign to end the institution. However, since manumission was not an isolated occurrence in the first century, many slaves ‘in Christ’ could attain their freedom and be brought out of slavery [both physical and spiritual] to serve Christ; and Paul most certainly wouldn’t prevent them from fulfilling their “status of being the Lord’s free person” (CEB).

[1] S. Scott Bartchy, MALLON CHRESAI: First Century Slavery & 1 Corinthians 7:21, 6-7.
[2] The list apparently surprised Gordon D. Fee who calls the findings “impressive!” 1 Corinthians, 316 n41. In the following list, Bartchy’s opinion is of course the former reading.
[3] Who twisted the text to mean, “Go free from marriage.”
[4] Both who took it to mean, “go free to preach.” While arguably as convincing as Origen’s reading, this does display some hope that slaves could indeed be ‘preachers.’
[5] He read it as free “from marriage.”
[6] Unnamed as Chrysostom doesn’t give them (and us) the benefit of any recognition.
[7] Gordon D. Fee, 1 Corinthians, 317-320.
[8] Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 91.
[9] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 446-47. See especially n171.
[10] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, 121-123.
[11] Who argues against the unnamed opponents in n359.
[12] Who took it as “stay in marriage,” a reading that suggests matrimony was anything but a picnic in those days.
[13] As opposed to Civil War slavery, the system wasn’t entirely predicated upon the skin color of the slave.
[14] “An owner usually based good treatment of slaves on the desire to gain a reputation for generosity rather than on insight into a slave’s inherent equality as a human being.” S. Scott Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World,” The World of the New Testament, 176.
[15] S. Scott Bartchy, MALLON CHRESAI: First Century Slavery & 1 Corinthians 7:21, 97.
[16] Marleen B. Flory, “Family and Familia’: A Study of Social Relations in Slavery” Ph.D dissertation 1975, Yale. 112.
[17] S. Scott Bartchy, MALLON CHRESAI: First Century Slavery & 1 Corinthians 7:21, 116.
[18] Paul’s consistent use of ‘slave language’ to describe himself and others attests to this point. We were once “slaves of sin” (Rom 6:16-20); Paul has “made himself a slave to all…” (1 Cor. 9:19); “slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 11:20); “no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal. 4:7); “become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13) and ultimately, Paul says this of Christ who “took the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7).
[19] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 444. While he disagrees with some of Bartchy’s translational work, he supports the overall thesis.