Humanness: A Unique View

Most Christians, when asked what makes their religion unique among all the others, would probably reply, “Jesus.” Or, perhaps, with the classic cliché, “It’s not religion, it’s relationship.” (Spend any time around Christianity, and it’s clear that it’s both.) The problem with both of these replies is that there are many conceptions of Jesus. Islam views Him one way, Hinduism another; both are quite capable of integrating Jesus into their frameworks. Christianity itself is infamous for its confusion of sects and church styles, thanks to its ethics on the preservation of life, or in other words, its ethics on not killing others for disagreeing about really important matters.

If we dig a little deeper, most Middle Eastern and Eastern religions — and as a mythography and history buff, I’d also argue this for pre-Christian European paganism — involve a concept of honour and cleanness that seems utterly opposed to that of Christianity. The idea of God lowering Himself to die for sinners is repugnant, when sinners should serve and sacrifice to god(s). The idea of a god taking on uncleanness is perhaps even more repugnant. If one maintains one’s prayers and good works, then uncleanness becomes a matter applicable only to the poor or otherwise downcast. Upstanding society doesn’t need to trouble Jesus and dishonour Him so, does it? In fact, the Christian Scripture quite agrees with this:

“For one will hardly die for a righteous person; though perhaps for the good person someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Romans 5:7-8

That Christianity asks upstanding society to view itself as unclean compared to the glories of God is in some way understandable, though it might need some tweaking to fit one’s pre-existing beliefs. Shouldn’t we revere God above our earthly state? Of course, if God is God. Humility and willingness to apologize and defer to what’s higher and more powerful than us are good values. But, again, that’s not unique to any one religion. Even non-religious people act that way because it’s practical.

When it comes to liberty, Christianity has some respectable qualities. It’s because of its emphasis on God-given rights, and the liberties that flow from the way God created us, that Christianity is forcibly suppressed in control states such as the former USSR, China, Saudi Arabia, and various other political or religious dictatorships. However, when that liberty becomes so individualistic as to be harmful to others or the fabric of society, and Christianity apparently does nothing — not being a statist religion — one may wonder whether it has any real-world value. It seems to forgive without considering the consequences, or moralize without requiring actual good. That pesky inclination to live and let live seems to interfere greatly here.

There is one way to describe Christianity that resolves all these issues from the root up: The Christian treatment of the body and soul. Unlike every other religion I’ve ever studied or encountered, the Christian Scripture doesn’t treat body and soul as two separate entities coexisting in the same space. Although it speaks of what comes after death, the Christian Scripture is astoundingly vague. No reincarnation, no clear promises of what paradise offers in reward for good works and good morals.

Many Christians actually differ from their own holy books on this. The pop-spirituality phrase, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” makes perennial rounds. (How convenient that it fits in the space allotted by Twitter.) However, this is not the Christian teaching on body and soul, as if one were more alive than the other, or one higher and the other merely earthen.

Christianity, instead, speaks of body and soul not as two entities coexisting temporarily, or a meat machine driven by a magical mind, but as inseparable parts of an individual. Christianity says “body and soul” the same way that it says “arm and leg.” Parts of the whole. And, just as the body can’t be drained of its blood and still be whole and alive, neither can the soul be deprived of the body’s necessary functions and continue on whole within that body. Our existence beyond death doesn’t mean we shuck off physicality like it’s clothing and keep going. It means we have been taken apart by death, brutally dismembered by the fatal sting of sin and uncleanness.

Where does the idea of body/soul duality, rather than individuality, come from in Christianity? Is it borrowed from Eastern religions? Is it some older pagan artifact that Christianity adopted? Actually, the idea is dealt with from the oldest books of the Scriptures to the newest. This idea of separate states of body and soul has a clear and specific definition: Death.

Beginning in Genesis 2:16-17, the story about the tree, the fruit, and the really questionable reptile, death is associated with separating and breaking down. In the day that Adam chooses to separate himself from God’s design, the warning says, “You shall surely die.” From the moment Adam eats the fruit, knowing full well he’s separating himself from God, things begin to break down. Ultimately, Adam himself falls apart — as predicted in Gen. 3 — and returns to the dust when soul and body are separated.

Why do Christians think this is what happened, and how literally do they take it? Well, the Bible reasons in multiple directions and asks the reader to check and see whether it corresponds with reality. The Hindu is familiar with the wisdom of observing the natural realm; the Muslim with the wisdom of careful reasoning. The Christian is commanded to submit both to the interpretive guidance of the Bible while critiquing for herself whether all is in alignment. The Apostle John relates that Jesus said, “If I told you earthly things, and you don’t believe me, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:11-13) Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen.” The fact that people believe things is proof of something. But in order to provide any useful certainty or proof, there first has to be something certain and provable to believe. There’s no point believing in gravity if nothing holds your feet to the ground.

Because there’s an overabundance of historical, sociological, mathematical and scientific evidence to allow a fair-minded investigator to rationally accept what the Bible says about the observable universe, world history, and the life of Jesus, we then place faith in statements such as, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) We accept that the soul doesn’t just cease. We accept that it doesn’t simply move on because of biblical passages like Hebrews 9:27-28:

And just as it is destined for people to die once, and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.

The Christian also accepts that death isn’t just the breakdown of our holistic selves, it’s also the inherited breakdown of our spiritual lives:

“And when you were dead in your wrongdoings and the uncircumcision of your flesh [a symbol of being an outsider], He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our wrongdoings, having canceled the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

Colossians 3:13-14

The Apostle Paul wrote much the same thing to the Roman church as the church at Colossae: “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the violation committed by Adam.” (Romans 5:14) He also taught it firmly to the church at Ephesus: “And you were dead in your offenses and sins, in which you previously walked according to the course of this world…” (Ephesians 2:1-2)

We immediately feel this doesn’t seem fair, but the Bible points us back to the Scriptural view of the holistic human. There’s a weird little Judaic aside in Hebrews 7:9-10, where the argument is made that Christ is of a higher and more enduring priesthood than the order of priests who served in ancient Israel, known as the Levites. It says, “And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, has paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his forefather when Melchizedek met him.”

This genetic, blood connection is never described as distinguishable from spiritual connection. In the Bible, the human race is one race. We really are all connected, but it’s in death, due to the reality of evil in the world, in humanity, and in ourselves, the reality of wanting to adhere to our own definitions of good and evil and God. This is one of those inarguable realities that we can and do use to question — over and over again, throughout our lives — if and how the Bible is certain and provable.

And so the Christian has no motive to oppress others — certainly not to attack or kill them for disagreement. The work of the Christian in society is life-saving work, not life-oppressing work. Christians will tell you that sin causes harm, and they will defend others. But beyond that, the mandate is to tell you the story of life.

There is a hope in this view of humanity that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Here we come back around to how the answer can be Jesus, freedom can be inherent, honour can be sin and shame, and the divinely beautiful God can die in shame to provide cleanness to sinners. This hope is summed up in a phrase that resonates throughout all the various books of the Bible: “The life is in the blood.” Our spiritual life is as much physical as mental and emotional.

Back to that letter to the church at Colossae: The apostle Paul wrote, “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14)

This concept of domains is a bit like ogres and onions, with their layers. Definitely not like a parfait, though. We can picture being “in Adam” (that is, existing as a human) as a circle, and each person born as a circle within that circle, and their descendants as circles within circles. At some point, we trip over Abraham, offering tithes to Melchizedek, and further down within his family circle we see Levi, father of the family of priests in ancient Israel. We keep going, and within the circles that are within the family circle of King David, we see Mary and Joseph, each via their own different family circles.

Then, from Mary, we see Jesus and a really bizarre story about actually being conceived from God. A whole different family circle is introduced.

When the Christian says “body and soul,” we say it the way we say “arm and leg.” When we say “fully God and fully human,” we also say it the way we say “arm and leg.” Christianity does not view Jesus as an avatar within an incarnation. It doesn’t skate around the humiliation and shame of the cross by claiming Jesus’ god-soul went to heaven while some lowly substitute or empty shell hung on the cross. Christianity doesn’t see divine spirit in tension with human flesh, because God said, let Us make humanity in Our image; male and female He created them, in the image of God He created them. Jesus, son of God and son of man, gave His blood — because the life is in the blood — to cleanse our sins.

Funny thing about being God: You don’t fall apart when the whole universe does. And thus we have the resurrection.

Another separation has happened, and history witnesses it. Writers antagonistic to early Christianity nevertheless independently recorded its events. Down through 2,000 years of failing and falling as human beings, Christians who take the Bible seriously have still managed to die for, rather than to kill, those who hated them, leaving another record for our examination. Death no longer is master over me, Paul wrote. Or, as one sassy 20th century preacher said under threat of violence, “Really? You’re threatening me with eternal life?”

For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for the one who has died is freed from sin.

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all time; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. So you too, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:5-11

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words.

1 Thessalonian 4:16-18

What makes Christianity unique? Jesus. Also, relationship, not religion.

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Stepping Into New Ministry Methods

This week, the widespread news of the arrest of Pastor James Coates of Edmonton, Alberta, for continuing to hold full church services against public health regulations, has had us all sitting up and thinking.

At the same point in time, like vectors intersecting, my own pastor found himself arrived at 1 Peter 2:13-17.

It made me ask this: What are we doing?

In an interview with Justin Peters, Erin Coates (wife of James Coates) said that the spiralling needs around them during shutdown caused them to re-evaluate what the nature of life-preserving and life-saving ministry has to be. I wholeheartedly agree, both with her concerns and with my own pastor’s teaching. The question of how to save lives is serious and immediate. At the same time, we can’t do lifesaving work by appointing ourselves as above and beyond the people around us. The Christian calling is consistently one of servant-leadership.

As I put it all together in my mind, I wondered: What opportunities have we missed? How can we provide lifesaving measures while also providing the example of being willing to live alongside a messed-up world and show love and respect to the people in it? What if we’d started constantly, actively collaborating through our democracy’s mechanisms of communication a year ago?

The year is gone, but it seems this will be ongoing, and we might be wise to settle into a ministry pattern of innovation. Permissions have been obtained through interacting both positively and negatively with authorities; at the time of this writing, one wonders whether those interactions have been vigourous enough, since worship services are currently constrained to 10% capacity while other gathering places with higher risk factors (gyms, yoga studios) are at 25%. (Link)

With all of this in mind, I’d like to encourage the churches to get noisy. Not necessarily in a public way, but in the old-fashioned way. I was raised by a social activist. She taught me that a handwritten letter carries more weight than any other communication form, back in the day, because it takes the most time and care. If you can put pen to paper legibly, please do so. Express your concerns and convictions. Express your doubts. So many of us are only talking to each other, only posting memes on social media to vent frustration.

What goes in a letter to a government official?

  • Their correct title (always show the respect of knowing to whom you’re writing)
  • A greeting which gives thanks for something about the way they’re fulfilling their role (show honour to the official, whether or not you personally like them or their job or its results)
  • A clear statement of the concern about which you’re writing. The more specific — not detailed, but specific and data-oriented — the better
  • A suggestion for remedying the concern that uses concrete data (example: “In Christian worship services, singing is generally limited to three songs of no more than 4 minutes in length; gym users are also engaging in deeper breathing, generally for longer than 12 minutes in total, and yet gym capacities are currently higher than places of worship. Please consider allowing religious singing to have an equivalency to gym use, as it provides physiological and psychological benefits to those who may not be able to exercise more vigourously”)
  • A statement of support or conviction about our mandate to work with authorities in whatever ways we can, according to conscience

We can also “get noisy” about community care by using the existing channels for volunteering. Below is a screenshot of Help Next Door MB. This is an online service where people can post simple needs for help (i.e., one said “truck to move a dresser”) and others can sign up to connect and fill that need.

Besides volunteering, we can help people discover and use the service in the first place. I noticed very little on the site for my region, which suggests to me that it’s being underutilized. I suspect that most people are simply taking care of these needs for each other, but this is intended to fill gaps for those who don’t already have that support.

Currently, seven Manitoba churches are challenging the level of power granted to the Public Health Office in court. Although at least one of them has created a tainted reputation through civil disobedience, we can carefully consider and plan how to use the correct mechanisms, such as the courts, in order to defend our ability to offer the spiritual care for which so many people are starving.

Above all, we can express honour towards other human beings who are hopelessly fallible and limited, struggling under cumulative burdens of bureaucracy, politics and layers of law and regulation. We Christians have a saying: “The Law kills, but God’s Spirit gives life.”

There’s another, too, more Judaic in nature: “Gird up your loins like a man.” Where we see barriers, we have no business chickening out of using the blessings of our democratic system to work at them. As laypeople, chirping and clucking away online is the farthest thing from girding up to support our pastors, elders and communities.

What are we doing?

I encourage you to forget social media. Forget all the mainstream media versus alt-media noise and confusion. That is dealing in hypotheticals. It’s a rabbit trail that keeps us from our true Christian work. Real needs are here and now, and we’re called to wade into what’s before us.

Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted himAnd if someone likewise competes as an athlete, he is not crowned as victor unless he competes according to the rules.

2 Timothy 2:3-5

I encourage you: Clear your head. Aim your communication time where it will hit the right target. Leave the noise behind; write a letter and help a neighbour. Consider the laws and remember that Paul “appealed to Caesar” in a much harsher regime. This, too, can be lifesaving work as we consider the social cost and the mental health cost of current methodologies.

We can only find out what happens next by moving forward under the biblical principles which form our ultimate law and citizenship, as outlined by the biblical writers. As Pastor Dan said, these are for all times and places.

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 

15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 

16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 

20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 

22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 

24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 

25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:13-25

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Should Women Think?

“Should Women Think?” is the title of a chapter in Nellie McClung’s 1915 suffragist treatise, In Times Like These.[1] Writing in response to drastic social inequities which fostered abuse of women and children, and driven by the political helplessness of women to respond to the atrocities of World War I, McClung used her Judeo-Christian background as a Methodist minister’s daughter to lay out a Christian case for dismantling the pre-Christian, Greek-style upper-class male supremacy of the Victorian era.[2]

Victorianism Versus Christianity

Given the penchant for that brand of Victorian ideals within modern protestant fundamentalism (one can hardly call a separatist mindset “evangelical”), it seems pertinent to hark back to what Christians were saying in Victorian times. Since I have McClung’s volume here on my desk, it’s not at all inconvenient.

In the vein of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes musings, McClung wrote:

So we ask, in all seriousness, and in no spirit of flippancy: “Should women think?” They gain in power perhaps, but do they not lose in happiness by thinking? If women must always labor under unjust economic conditions, receiving less pay for the same work than men, if women must always submit to the unjust social laws…if women must always see their sons degraded by man-made legislation and man-protected evils–then I ask, Is it not a great mistake for women to think?[3]

This is our dilemma: If we think too much on the evils of the world, perhaps the pain will only overwhelm us. Or will it? After all, we give birth. And yet, too often, we give up our minds to the idolatry of worldly male authority.

Do Women Have the Right to Oppose False Teaching?

One may wonder how this is even a question. An interesting dynamic plays out between conservative evangelical women and fundamentalist false teachers, a good many of whom are also women. In the first place, a cultural tradition of rigid segregation of the genders tends to drive a wedge between husbands and wives, effectively dividing and conquering. Separated from their husbands’ friendship and community of thought, women are exposed to a lot of teaching that their husbands don’t hear about, or hear about too late – after their wives have absorbed and accepted unbiblical, manmade “doctrines of the home” or “doctrines of femininity.”

Once women open the door to these false teachers of a pagan persuasion, those teachers insist that their spiritual hostesses must be silent, submissive. To speak up is to be a “Jezebel.” Yet these false teachers infringe upon the very areas of life which they supposedly assign exclusively to women – home and child-raising/education – and they infringe upon the very areas of life which they assign exclusively to husbands: to be the leader and spiritual teacher in the home. And so their falseness is immediately obvious, should a woman think about it for even a second.

…That is, if these things must always be, if we must always beat upon the bars of the cage–we are foolish to beat; it is hard on the hands! Far better for us to stop looking out and sit down and say: “Good old cage–I always did like a cage anyway!”

But the question of whether or not women should think was settled long ago. We must think because we were given something to think with, ages ago, at the time of our creation. If God had not intended us to think, he would not have given us our intelligence. It would be a shabby trick, too, to give women brains to think, with no hope of results, for thinking is just an aggravation if nothing comes of it.[4]

In that light, those who oppress the intellectual freedom of women become the accusers of God, a small Satan, their doctrines promoting the idea that God has indeed engaged in quite a shabby trick by how He designed womankind.

Perhaps instead we women should ask ourselves, “Am I willing to subscribe to the false idol of a ‘God’ whose ‘holy and righteous’ character is demonstrated by shabby tricks?”

Do Women Have a Responsibility to Oppose False Teachers?

Again, one wonders how this is even a question. Given that false teachers make their entrance into many Christian families through materials picked up by married women – the primary educators and spiritual nurturers of the family – we have at least a responsibility to discern those materials using the Bible in its full context, without relying only on proof-texts. Any genuine commitment to Titus 2 can’t possibly be overridden by any inversion of biblical priorities: God first. If applicable, marriage second. If applicable, children a close third. The rest of the world, including church, older women’s advice, and society at large, comes last after caregiving commitments.

How Then Should Women Think?

That means that when a church leader is telling a woman to be silent, to cease being “contentious,” “usurping,” or whatever label is applied – the hierarchy of Godly priorities should put such admonitions in their proper place: Last among considerations.

Let all things be done decently and in order, including our commitment to doctrinal fidelity. Is silence the will of God? Is silence a true service to my husband? My children?

Or is “Silence, woman!” merely the pseudo-rebuttal of a spiritual charlatan clinging to heretical love of power and esteem?

Even in order to consent to silence, we must think.

Let’s be clear, though, that I don’t say much in public. I talk freely among friends only, because it’s my nature. It doesn’t matter whether a person talks a lot or almost never, only whether they speak what’s necessary when it’s most necessary. The thing is, I do know my place, and my place looks like this:

If it’s not the will of God as revealed in the unity of Scripture and nature, then it doesn’t serve the people I serve. In which case, the purveyors of it, whatever idea it is, may go and find themselves a handbasket. Even a small Satan should be appropriately prepared for the future.

That’s what I think.

[1] The title of McClung’s book references the hymn, In Times Like These, We Need a Savior.

[2] In Political Thought from Plato to NATO, contributor Christopher Rowe writes of Socrates’s era that “‘anyone and everyone’ here read ‘any adult male citizen’. Even at its most generous, Athenian democracy was extremely restricted in its extent, excluding women, slaves and other groups which together must have accounted for three-quarters of the adult population.” The definition of “citizen” was further restricted among adult males by class considerations. [Source: Political Thought from Plato to NATO, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company (Pacific Grove, California), 1988; p 20.]

[3] Nellie McClung, In Times Like These, McLeod and Allen (Toronto, Ontario), 1915; p 38.

[4] Ibid. p 39.