Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dazed and Confused: What about the Women in Ministry Question?

I have been wanting to get my thoughts down in writing for some time on this 'women in ministry' issue. This paper will not likely come to very strong conclusions but let's see where writing this down takes us.

First, Some presuppositions need to get stated. I strongly believe that all women who love Jesus should be in ministry. Everyone who has the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in them should be about the work of loving others well. Loving others well is my own definition of ministry. Christian women must be in 'ministry'. Most people don't say it this way and I realize that the way I have said this is not very controversial. There is controversy to come, I promise you. Second, I believe that God's Holy Spirit has protected the Scriptures and they are trustworthy. I may not understand everything the Bible says and Lord knows I disagree with what some people have said the Bible says but I believe that the Bible is inerrant even if, and perhaps especially when we are not. Some people approach the scriptures with a view that says everything I don't agree with must be wrong. I don't think that. I am also not a big fan of assuming we have mistranslated lots of stuff. We may have, but I don't like to fall back on that excuse for our not understanding what God is trying to tell us. If we assume that only people who know the original languages can rightly understand scripture then we set ourselves up for our own enslavement to worldly scholars and we minimize the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

My own journey has been vast in this area of theology. I was baptized in a very conservative Southern Baptist Church. The pastor always wore a tie and we believed lots of things to be true just because we believed them. As a teenager I never questioned that women should never be pastors and I was pretty suspicious as to whether in some circumstances they could be deacons. I had never heard a contrary opinion to this kind of thinking. There were many strong women around me. My mother and my sister are both very strong women. I respect and like strong women but in my early years I accepted without question that women, even strong ones, could never hold any kind of authoritative position in the Church. When I was 18 our youth group visited a church that had an 'Assistant Pastor' who was a woman. I questioned this and our youth group leader suggested that this was a great thing. I was baffled. Someone who I had not only knew but respected thought a woman could hold an authoritative position. Crazy. So, for the first time I began looking to see what the Word actually said. I was immediately impressed by two things. A couple passages of scripture seemed to very clearly say that women could not serve in any capacity in the church and second women in the New Testament clearly did serve in many capacities in the New Testament. Where was the disconnect? At that time I decided to abandon any idea that there were any artificial limits on women in ministry. I believed then that women were full equals and if what is grace and mercy in us is the Holy Spirit then women have as much capacity for ministry as men and therefore as much responsibility to minister as men. I assumed then that the passages that spoke against women ministering- and specifically speaking and teaching- must have a good explanation and I just don't understand them yet. In 1987 I went to Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I came into contact with big words that tried to describe the positions of those who believed one thing or another. I learned the original languages and I studied the Word a lot. At the end of the day I could not undo the passages of scripture that prohibited women teaching men or holding authoritative positions in the Church. I worked on it, prayed about it and in the end I had to make a decision. Either the Bible was mistaken and women could hold such positions or it was not mistaken and I was. I decided that the Bible was right even if I didn't understand it.

At that point in my journey I was an unhappy complementarian. There are two categories used to describe the positions on this issue; Complementarianism and Egalitarianism. The simple definitions for these terms are:
Complementarianism- God has created male and female with distinct and complementary differences. Since men and women are different they obviously have different roles and ministries within the Church. The most important of these distinctions is that women should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5) and men are to be leaders and teachers in the Church (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, and the fact that all of Jesus' disciples were men).
Egalitarianism- Men and women are created equal and each can do whatever God asks them to do. There are no role or functions that are out of bounds for either to do (Galatians 5 and the many passages that list what women have actually done- like Deborah, Phoebe the deaconess, Philip's four daughters who prophesied, Lydia who helped Paul start the Church in Philippi, Prisca who helped teach Apollos, etc).

It should be duly noted that these two 'camps' are not uniform. There are many different expressions of these two groups. The extreme positions of these two are pretty horrific in my opinion. Radical egalitarians include women who hate men altogether. This radical element takes credit for getting women the right to vote and equal pay for equal work. These are worthy accomplishments but there are lots of women who were not radical feminists who also helped bring these things about. I would like to think there are egalitarians who love Jesus- even though he was a man, love the Word, and don't think all men are oppressive zealots. At the same time there are lots of levels of complementarians. The average Southern Baptist for instance, just believes that men and women are largely equal but that woman can't be pastor's of churches. There are radical complementarians who are pushing this issue much farther. They would like women to submit to men in all things and there is even a growing group promoting 'patriarchy' who believe that men are the rightful leaders in every aspect of society and that a woman's only role is to have babies and cook for their husbands. The 'quiverfull' group is particularly troubling in that they take this idea a step further and contend that since women are 'saved' through childbirth they should have as many children as possible.
What has made the whole discussion all but impossible is that each side attributes to the other all the extreme characteristics and accusations of being either 'women-haters' or 'Bible rejectors' get thrown around until the shouting gets quite overwhelming.

Let me be clear about where I am on this journey. I will not accept a position that indicates that a woman has value based on what she does. She is not more blessed if she has more children. She is not more loved if she pastors a church. She is not of more value to the Kingdom based on her contribution. Neither the woman nor the man is capable of screwing up God's plan for creation, redemption, or eternity. God loves women and men because it is His nature to love. Out of our understanding of His tremendous love for us we are ourselves set free to love. Our position on the position of women must not be based on a woman's value but our understanding of what God in His Word is asking of us.

In my next post I will identify the relevant scriptures and attempt to see what they say on this subject. Which scriptures we choose to evaluate and which we leave out have a big bearing on our conclusions here. Then we need to apply and let me just say it is in the application that both sides run into serious trouble.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Loving Your Enemies

I didn't have a blog back in the days of the civil war here in Gondor. I didn't even have an internet connection. It is a shame because there were so many great stories that I have lost over the years. Yesterday I was talking to some friends and they reminded me of one of those 'lost' stories.

In 1997 the Government of Gondor signed a peace agreement with the Opposition whom they had fought with for five years. What this meant practically for us was that while previously all the fighting had been up in the mountains now all the factions could come down into the Capitol city and fight every night for a seat at the table of power. It was a very ugly time. Just outside of Minas Tirith there was a small town where three Opposition commanders and their troops settled down. Some friends of mine were living in this town trying to reach people there for Christ. Unknown to them at the time there was one believing family who lived there. They were holding meetings with their neighbors and one night three armed and masked men came into their meeting and said they would come back in one week's time. If any of these people were still here they would kill them. These guys were hard core Islamic Fundamentalists and no one doubted that they would do what they said. One week later the neighbors were gone but the one believing guy stayed there with his family. That night the three masked men came in with guns and told him he was going with them. He called into the next room and told his wife that he was going out with friends and would see her in the morning. The took him out to a trash dump that was a famous place for executions at the time. He knelt down and they told him he had one last chance to pray. He prayed. He prayed for his captors,for their forgiveness and for their salvation. They stopped him and said, 'What are you doing!? You can't pray like that!' He told them that as a follower of Jesus this is how he was taught to pray. They let him go and he went home.

A week later two of the three masked men were back and this time there were thirty men with them. They asked him how he knew what to do and he told them he didn't know what they were talking about. They said that a few days ago the Government forces had them pinned down against the river. They were sheltering behind a low wall and it was raining bullets down on them. They were being taken out one by one and knew they were finished. Then they saw the believing man walk right through the hail of bullets and up to the wall. He told them that the only way to be saved was to jump in the river. Two of them jumped and the rest perished. For the record, the river really rages through that point and I am sure I would not want to jump into it anytime much less at night.

The believer told them that he was not there but clearly an angel of God was. They asked him to share about God and he told them the Gospel. As far as we know just one man made a commitment to Jesus that night. Where the others are I have never heard. But I have two things to say about this story. One, it is interesting that God sent an angel in the likeness of this believing man. Apparently, he was the only one these guys knew that they could trust. So, praise God for his godly character and we must pray that we would face adversity with grace as well so the next time the Lord wants to use someone as an example of love He has someone to show them. Second, it never ceases to amaze me what God will do in order to reach us. Of course, it similarly amazes me what God must do in order to reach us. I mean, come on all that pain and death and sorrow just for one guy? And what was keeping the others bound? Strong delusion has a grip on the world. Pray it does not have a grip on you so that you will be free to act whenever God calls.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why You Should Support the IMB

I posted this the other day over at SBC Impact.

Facebook is a funny thing. Not only do you get to get back in touch with old friends that you had hoped to leave behind but you also get to see the weird conversations they are having with their other old friends. The other day a conversation popped up on my screen from a friend of mine who pastors a church. He is also a trustee for our International Mission Board and had requested prayer for the meeting he was about to go to. One guy (obviously not a Christian) commented that the very idea of a ‘mission’ agency was deceptive and evil and we should ‘help’ ‘those’ people instead of cramming religion down their throats. Ok, well I expect this from those outside the Kingdom. But then a person who was apparently a church member commented that we should not spend any money overseas and that all of our money should be spent right here on the poor at ‘home’. Wow. I forget the battles you guys face at home. I am sorry that I forget and so, to make amends I am posting the ammunition you need to face such battles as these as we approach our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering- or is that the Lottie Moon ‘Holiday’ Offering? I am so behind the times.

First of all, let me say that your response to non-Christian guy should be the Gospel. In the context of what he was saying about being ‘deceptive’ and ‘cramming’ religion down other people’s throats I plead not guilty. I understand where he is coming from and I know the guys he is talking about but we is not them. Back in the early 1990′s we escalated greatly the accessing of what was called ‘closed’ countries. I know facts and figures are boring but to be blunt we used to work in around 90 countries and now we work in them all. No, I am not speaking in hyperbole. We are now accessing all the countries of the world with the Gospel in one way or another. Your money is paying for some pretty darn creative, brave, and obedient people to get the Gospel everywhere the Lord has commanded us to go- which is everywhere. We have done this in many ways. One way has been to do what I do; set up a humanitarian aid agency in order to get a visa. Fifteen years ago that sometimes meant that guys would go out, say they were helping poor people and then just pass out tracts. Some of us (me included) thought that was deceptive and wrong. Today the situation is very different. Many of you are thinking that perhaps if you fund a secular agency, or a christian agency that just focuses on relief and not church planting then your money will be more effective in relieving poverty. You would be wrong.

Major concept to get your head around: People are not poor because they don’t have money. People are poor because they have broken relationships and people have broken relationships because they have a broken relationship with God. (That is a slight paraphrase from Brent Meyers’ excellent book, ‘Walking with the Poor’). For 15 years I have been learning about indigenous church planting, avoiding dependency issues, being culturally appropriate and relevant, doing things in a reproducible way, letting the locals have ownership, etc etc. A couple of years ago I went to a big humanitarian aid meeting sponsored by the UN. All these secular guys got together and started talking about all the same concepts for their humanitarian work. The upshot of the downside was that they all agreed these concepts were essential but they couldn’t implement half of them. Why? Because they have to impress the donors. Look guys, you don’t hear alot from me about all the great work that I have done and now the funds for my work are drying up. I am sorry for the lack of communication here but it is essential. I can’t take credit for the work I do because we are giving the credit to everyone else. So here is the deal for Mister Athiest who thinks we should be doing good. We are. People are being fed, getting fresh drinking water and even getting housing. I have built seven villages since I have been out here- except, I haven’t. They built their own villages and even provided much of the materials. I taught them to work together, to trust each other. I gave them a few things they didn’t have but mostly they did it themselves and I am proud of that. They didn’t need money as much as they needed forgiveness and a right understanding of who God is. The Gospel makes all the difference.

Secondly, for Mister Atheist who thinks we shouldn’t be shoving religion down people’s throats, tell him I agree. I have no interest in going to a Muslim people and telling them that my set of rules is better than their set of rules. I never criticize Mohamed or Islam. There is no point and no need. The people we work with are fed up with the status quo which keeps them in bondage and brokenness and are looking for something else. They are excited to find out that God is not some powerful vindictive spirit who is out to get them. We present Jesus and that is always received well even by those who do not ultimately accept Christ. Persecution comes and it is vicious. It comes to the new believers who are persecuted by a community that does not understand. I have more to say on this but that is for another post.

Now, for Miss Shouldn’t We Just Stay Here I have this to say. No we should not. First of all, and most of you reading this blog are up on this, Christ commanded us to go so, we should go. End of story. But more than that can you not see how inconsistent that is? Most of our Church members are Republicans who think that our going to Iraq was a great thing. They think that going out and interacting with the world directly benefits us at home. Well? Does it not make sense then to send me? Who is more effective at changing society and relieving poverty the Gospel or a gun? All right, I had better answer the question because in recent years some of you have gotten confused. The Gospel! I have a friend who when he speaks at churches back home apologizes to our military for them having to shed their blood in Afghanistan and Iraq because we were too lazy to go there fifty years ago. I have not decided if he is right but he goes on to point out that all of our places of greatest conflict today are places we have failed to take the Gospel. He says we should have gone fifty years ago and lost a couple hundred martyrs so that today thousands would not be dying. Again, I don’t know if I agree completely or not but you see his point.

Secondly, for Miss Shouldn’t We Just Stay Here we also need to address her further concerns- and these many of you might also have. Are we not wasting our time? The Muslims are hard soil, should we not put our resources into the harvest fields and wait till later for these difficult places? We need so much here at home should we not spend more at home and get ‘over there’ later when we have more? I consider these questions a slap in the face to the Spirit of God. God is not poor. His resources are not limited and neither are ours. I know, I can hear you “But, But but, but, but…’ But nothing. Is the soil hard? Yes it is. It has hurt my family for us to stay here for 15 years and the vast majority don’t last nearly that long. Is hard soil of any consequence to Almighty God? Not one bit.

When we first came out we had to learn about security. We had to learn that there were groups, organizations, and whole countries who wanted to stop what we were doing so we had to be secretive. Our media folks back at the home office threw a fit. How could we not tell the most exciting story to happen in the last 2000 years of mission work? Well, we haven’t. Even I don’t know everything that has happened over the last 20 years. I have thought long and hard about just telling you what I know and name the countries and all in this post but I can’t do it. As far as you are concerned I am Strider in Middle Earth and it has to stay that way. So, let me be as general as I can and still be helpful. Here where I live there were two known Muslim Backround Believers (MBB’s). We use MBB’s to differentiate majority population people from the local minority traditional Christians that you find so many places. For instance, the Coptic Church is there in Egypt and Ethiopia and such places but when we are looking to reach Egyptians and Ethiopians with the Gospel we are trying to do something new and we use MBB to differentiate this new work from those Churches that have been there for centuries. So, as I was saying there were two known MBB’s in Gondor in 1990. By the year 2000 there were over 2500. In a couple of Countries to the north of me they went from two to over 12,000 and two to 30,000. Rohan, a brutal Christian persecuting dictatorship next to me has seen the church go from zero to untold thousands. But this is not the whole story- not even a small part of the story. I wish we would stop counting baptisms and count numbers of alcoholics who have stopped drinking, numbers of wife beaters and child abusers who are now loving fathers and husbands. I wish we could count on our forms the number of fearful and oppressed who now stand up bravely in the face of certain persecution. I wish I could tell you about the martyrs who have given their lives willingly for the cause of Christ. There are many and you don’t know about them. I am truly sorry about that. But the story of what God is doing goes on and on. To the south and east of me are some of the most hostile areas to the Gospel in the world and you know what? Not thousands but millions are coming to faith in Christ. I am just talking about the Muslim world here!

But some of you might say, ‘Hang on Strider we didn’t do all that! There were lots of different agencies involved.’ Yes, but what is your point? Lots of different agencies have not done any of this. God has done it all and what I am telling you is that in every case there has been an IMB worker who has been faithful and has pulled together with lots of people from all over the world. We have been the primary catalyst to see all of this happen and I don’t think you will find many who will disagree with me on this. When you start talking about defunding the IMB and sending your own teams you are- in my opinion- talking about leaving behind the most important organization for unified mission on the planet. I know the word cooperation terrifies some of you but believe me, we have led the way in many places around the world and the Kingdom of God has been greatly expanded by this.

Finally, there is one last criticism to be dealt with. Is not our IMB a huge and expensive organization? Are we not wasting thousands of dollars on this dinosaur? With respect, no. Our recent reorganizion has been an unmitigated disaster. We have 17 vice-presidents. Nuff said. But even with all of that we are more efficient than any agency I know about. The Trustees just voted on next year’s budget, 308 million dollars. If you divide that out by 5000 missionaries on the field (we have more still but by the end of 2011 that is where we are meant to be) that comes to around 62 thousand dollars per missionary. My salary and benefits comes to about 42 thousand dollars. So, that not so much per missionary to cover medical expenses, pay home office salaries and expenses, do actual ministry like print Bibles and such, and a host of travel, not mention the ever increasing platform budgets to pay for humanitarian and business offices all over the world. For all our faults we are doing pretty well.

If you kept reading this far you deserve something special. All I have to offer you is what you should already know. God is on the move in this world. He is opening doors that have been closed for centuries. He is bringing people to faith in places that even if I named them you would not know where they were. I have gone places with nothing but a New Testament where are US Military are not willing to go even with air support and many of my colleagues have gone to really dangerous places and what we find when we get there is that God has already been and is bringing a people to himself. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to be a part of that.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Story We are Telling

When I first started this blog in 2006 I was keen to get my stories written down. Tales from Middle Earth was to be a place where anyone could go and find out the story that God was telling in the world around me. I had a lot of romantic notions about that. I thought that my life would be so fascinating that thousands of people would log on every week to find out the amazing things God was doing here in Middle Earth. I told myself that I was being 'brutally honest' because I would share the good and the bad. The great days with the wonderful miracles along with the depressing days and the rotten setbacks. I think I have accomplished much of what I set out to do in that regard (except of course, that about 20 people read this blog instead of thousands but I don't mind).

But the stories are fake in one important aspect. Each blog post comes to an end but real life doesn't. Shoot, even when when one of the subjects in my blogpost dies it is not really the end of their story. Take the young woman who was murdered a few years ago. She sought the truth, we tried to share with her whole family but they wouldn't listen and then one day she was murdered. End of story right? Wrong. She left behind several books that were picked up by a cousin who shared them with an Aunt who sought out Bible study with some others and now there is a small church. The story goes on even when we don't. I remember writing a brutal post about one of this lady's relatives and how he had rejected the Gospel and chose @#!*% . But today he is a follower of Jesus. The story goes on well past the publishing date of my blog post.

This is a really hard thing to live with actually. You see, while we can take comfort in the fact that no defeat is final it also means that no victory is sure. I have written much about Frodo. A man of great faith who led my national team of Church Planters for six years. Frodo was prophetic in his nature, he called others to account and turned many to the Lord. I have seen him stand in the midst of a village that was tearing itself apart in greed, and mistrust, and who knows what all, and call for peace. He got others to work together to accomplish what they never thought they could accomplish. After we showed the Jesus film in a village once he went to do marriage counseling at 12:30 at night. Everyone else was exhausted and surely we had done enough for one day but he kept going and was largely responsible for saving that couple's marriage and possibly the woman's life. He has preached to many, seen many miracles including the raising from the dead of his own Aunt. I would very much like to leave all those stories just as I wrote them. But his story goes on. Early this summer he left his wife for another woman. He lives with this young woman now and his own wife and three children are shattered. I don't understand how that can happen. I don't know where his story is going but it seems a long ways away from 'happily ever after.'

Donald Miller says that a good story is a guy who wants something and has to overcome adversity to get it. In the story we are telling there are guys. There seems to be plenty of adversity. I really believe there is something worth having in Jesus Christ. So, I guess the missing element seems to be the overcoming. I will keep writing stories as they happen but you have to understand that we are a long way away from the end. Before the end a whole lot of overcoming is going to have to happen- and keep happening.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

On the Church

I was invited to speak to a small church yesterday. It was a good day as we spent about 7 hours together discussing all kinds of things. I was supposed to talk about Church Planting and we did some, but much of the day was spent with their questions. They asked about everything from, 'who are those Sons of God things that come and breed with women in Genesis 6?' to 'If a guy becomes a believer but he has several wives what do we do?' It was some good discussion but the best part was definitely in talking about the true nature of the Church. They,like so many here, have been established by foreigners who built a building, registered an organization,and then declared it 'church'. It was great to see their faces light up when they found out that the Church is actually a community of the redeemed, that their love for one another is the very truest praise for our Father, and that Jesus Kingdom is not a meeting or a meeting place but the reign of God in our lives right now. Buildings and meetings are not good or bad, they are irrelevant to the love relationship we are to have with one another. It is remarkable to me how many people there are out here who have come to plant churches but have never really thought through- much less prayed through and did biblical study on- what a church is. Our working definition of a church is as follows:

A Church is a group of baptized believers who meet regularly together, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and worship together, and are obedient to fulfilling the great commandment and the great commission together.

I like this because it uses the word 'together' several times. The Kingdom is all about relationships. When the lawyer came to Jesus and asked him what the greatest commandment was Jesus could not give just one answer. He told him that the greatest commandment was to love God but then he threw in a second which was to love our neighbor. I am convinced that Jesus gave just one answer. In the heart and mind of God these two things are the same thing. We are to love God and we are to love each other. In God's mind this is one and when we do this well I think we have achieved what He meant us to have all along: Church.

My challenge is to not grow weary of proclaiming this, to never take this for granted, and to be faithful to see churches planted and grow that never forget this.