Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 2 (Rev 4:8-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

If the seven letters of Rev 2–3 are any indication, it’s hard for most of the congregations of Christ’s church to resist the world’s offers of influence and affluence, especially when the alternatives are life at the margins, in the shadows, and worse. So, what exactly should churches do to resist the world’s allure? As we saw in a previous post, we resist by keeping before us the vision that King Jesus has given to us in Rev 4:1-7: a revelation of the Lord our God in the splendor of holiness, the grandeur of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace surrounded by His court. Yet Christ gives us even more to see and hear in heaven above, more to make us bold on the battlefield of this world. Christ presents to us the never-ending worship of the attendants of the Lord God Almighty. What started in 4:1-7 as a heavenly montage unfolding before John’s eyes now becomes a scene of adoration and acclamation in Rev 4:8-11.[i]

John begins by telling us about the worship of the four living creatures (4:8). With six wings they are shielded before the brilliance of God’s holy presence; they are equipped to do His bidding with alacrity. Full of eyes they are attentive and perceptive. Day and night, they never cease to praise. They break out in choral song, extolling the Creator God for His perfections. First, they honor Him, the God of heaven and earth, as Holy, holy, holy. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably superior to and separate from all His creatures, even the sinless ones. But especially when compared with His sinful creatures, there is not a trace of evil desire, of impure motive, or of unholy inclination in Him. Second, they pointedly hail the God of heaven and earth as the Lord God Almighty. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably all-powerful, omnipotent. Here is the one Being who does whatever He wills, however and whenever He wills it. Only He can do, and does do, all His holy will. Third, they also adore the God of heaven and earth as the One who was and is and is to come. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably beyond time and history. He has always existed; He will always exist. He never began; He will never end. He does not grow; He does not age. He sees and knows each event and all events of history as one. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the four living creatures in heaven? Surely, the world’s siren song pales by comparison.

John’s focus shifts from the four living creatures to the twenty-four elders, who are also worshiping (4:9-11). Perhaps these who represent the redeemed of both Testaments are singing antiphonally with the four living creatures; perhaps they are singing harmony. In any case, these angelic officers of the heavenly court fall down (4:9), throwing themselves to the ground as an act of devotion and humility before the ever-living Lord God Almighty. They cast their crowns before His throne, paying Him homage, submitting to His supremacy. They ascribe all worthiness, the highest worthiness, to Him as Creator. He exerts His sovereign power and will in creating and sustaining all things, and His sovereignty in creation and preservation guarantees the fulfillment of His purposes in re-creation. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the twenty-four elders in heaven? For those with ears to hear it, the heavenly anthem drowns out all music but its own, including the world’s siren song.

So, what do we do when the congregations of Christ’s church seem indifferent to the boundaries between the world and the church? When the world presents us a choice between economic security and influence, on the one hand, and society’s margins and shadows, on the other, how exactly will we resist the world’s siren song? King Jesus gives us a better song to sing: the chorus sung by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. We’ll join that everlasting song because the issue at stake for us is not merely a first amendment issue; it is a first and greatest commandment issue. So we’ll praise the Lord God Almighty for His perfections. We’ll rejoice in our eternal God and His unceasing rule in and over history. No matter the time or place, no matter the trial, our holy, eternal God is enthroned in heaven. He alone is the Creator and Preserver of all things, so we’ll resist the world’s allure and sing of Him in the splendor of holiness, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.[ii]

[i] J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, vol. 20, IVPNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Rev 4:1.
[ii] M. Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, 2471.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 1 (Rev 4:1-7)

Posted by R. Fowler White

The messages dictated by King Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Rev 2–3 are meant to prepare us readers to follow Him onto the battlefield of this world, with the mission to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom. From those messages, we learn that the battle is hard for most churches. The difficulties for the seven churches came not because they were universally poor, or totally alienated from their culture, or even subject to government-sponsored persecution. No, for the most part, those churches—five of seven, to be exact—were weak or self-satisfied, compromising with the majority culture, blurring the boundary between the historic faith and practice of Christ’s church and the beliefs and behaviors of the world, all to secure their “place at the table” and, with it, their viability. The issue at stake, in other words, was not a first amendment issue; it was a first (and greatest) commandment issue. Squeezed into the world’s mold, they were jeopardizing their Christian identity. Sound familiar?

Well, what’s the remedy when congregations are blurring the lines with the world’s beliefs and behaviors, when they’re feeble or complacent and compromising their Christian identity? Christ Jesus, the Lord and Head of His church, gives His answer in Rev 4. He gives John a fresh vision of the Divine Palace in heaven where the Sovereign Divine Ruler sits enthroned, surrounded by His court of attendants (4:2b-7). It’s a marvel of sight and sound unlike anything on earth.

John describes what his eyes can see of the invisible God Himself (4:3). God makes Himself visible to John in a splendor like that of precious light-diffusing stones that intensify the radiance emanating from His throne, the unapproachable brightness surrounding the Deity Himself.[i] Displayed in this portrait is God’s magnificent grandeur, His dazzling glory and, from the rainbow, His abundant mercy. Ineffably sublime, here is the One who is the Majesty enthroned on high!

To enhance our grasp of God’s cosmic supremacy, John’s eyes pan around to His attendants. Around the throne (4:4) are twenty-four elders seated on thrones. Reminiscent of both the twenty-four divisions of old covenant priests and also of the twelve tribal fathers of old Israel with the twelve apostles of the new Israel, these angelic officers of the heavenly court represent the entire community of the redeemed of both Testaments.[ii] Dressed in white garments and wearing golden crowns, they are upright and holy, having a majesty all their own. From the throne (4:5) come flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, evoking the sights and sounds of Mt Sinai. God appears here in His holy power, ready to reveal His judgment and His salvation. Before the throne (4:5-6) are burning seven lamps of fire, which are the seven Spirits of God. Present with God on the throne is God the Spirit in His sevenfold fullness, just as Isaiah described Him in Isa 11:2. Before the throne was also something akin to a sea of glass like crystal, waters quieted by God’s power, like those at creation, after the flood, after the Red Sea and Jordan crossings, in the bronze basin of the tabernacle and temple courtyard. Together with the precious stones, this sea of crystalline glass suggests just how resplendent God’s throne is. Also around the throne (4:6b-7) are four living creatures. Guarding and supporting God’s throne like the seraphim that Isaiah saw (Isa ch. 6) and like the cherubim that Ezekiel saw (Ezek chs. 1 and 10), this rank of angels embodies all the highest attributes of living creation, projecting the likenesses of a lion (the greatest and fiercest undomesticated animal), an ox (the strongest domesticated animal), a man (the ruler of all animals), and an eagle (the noblest bird).[iii]

The contrast between the grandeur of the Divine Palace in heaven and the allure of the world’s blandishments could hardly be more stark. Offers of influence and affluence from the world are hard to resist for churches, particularly the weak or complacent, when their earthly alternatives are a place at the margins, in the shadows, or worse. So, how exactly do churches resist the world’s siren song? By remembering what King Jesus gave all seven churches in Asia Minor. Along with His open letters to them, He gave them a revelation of the Lord God in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. That is the vision He gives us too. Captivated by that vision, we won’t do what most churches in Asia Minor did, even if we’re pushed to the margins and the shadows. We won’t blur the boundary between the world and the church. We won’t jeopardize our Christian identity to ensure financial peace and influence. Instead, we’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to join, in Spirit and truth, the creatures in heaven around God’s throne. We’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to engage in the single most important activity of all time and space: the worship of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace, surrounded by His court of attendants. Then, as heavenly-minded strangers and pilgrims in this world, we’ll “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” and we’ll carry out the mission our King has given us, speaking the truth in love to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 321.
[ii] Beale, 323.
[iii] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, and D. M. Doriani, REC (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 171.

Why John Didn’t Go Quietly Into Exile (Rev 1:12-20)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In a recent post on Rev 1:9-11, we said that the Apostle John did not go quietly into exile, and neither should we. He fulfilled his prophetic commission from Christ and wrote Revelation, inspiring our courage by highlighting not only the condition of Christ’s churches but also the position of Christ Himself. Having looked at the condition of Christ’s churches in Rev 1:9-11, John looks also at the position of Christ in Rev 1:12-20. In brief, the Apostle John bears witness that the resurrected and ascended Christ is in the glory of heaven, ruling and tending the congregations of His church. You need courage, church? Look no further than to Christ in glory.

John bears witness in Rev 1:12-16 to the glorious Christ he had heard and seen. The Apostle had heard a loud voice like a trumpet, as Moses did at Mt Sinai, and he had seen seven golden lampstands and one like a Son of Man among them. The lampstands show us the churches positioned in the heavenly temple as bearers of light, but John wants our attention drawn to Christ Jesus, as his was. Even as one like a Son of Man, the Christ John had seen is more than a mere human. He is the Messianic King with all authority in heaven and on earth, in this world and in the world to come, and He is the Head over all things to His church. Clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest, He is dressed as the High Priest of heaven in holiness, beauty, and majesty. With the hairs of His head … white, like white wool, like snow, Christ is one with the Ancient of Days in Daniel’s prophecy, crowned with purity and wisdom. With His eyes … like a flame of fire, He is the Judge who dispenses rewards and penalties with all holy justice. With His feet … like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, Christ glorified possesses incorruptible, unchanging moral spotlessness and splendor. With His voice … like the roar of many waters, He speaks with awe-inspiring power and majesty. In His right hand Christ holds seven stars, exercising complete control over even the heavenly host of angels. From His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, declaring His invincible word of judgment. With a countenance of radiant majesty, His face was like the sun shining in full strength. This is the glorious Christ whom John had heard and seen.

No wonder, like the OT prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, John was literally laid out on the floor, overwhelmed with reverence and awe (Rev 1:17a). And how did Christ respond to him (Rev 1:17b-20)? He comforted John with a touch of His hand, with words of comfort, with words about Himself, reminding John of who He is. He declared, “I am the first and the last, transcendent over time, God Eternal who governs history from beginning to end and brings world affairs to their climax in salvation and judgment.[1] And I am the Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore. Not even death can frustrate My purposes. I’ve even made My own death the way to new life for My believing people. On top of that, though Death did hold Me in its grip for a short time, I now have the keys of Death and Hades. You see, not only could Death not hold Me forever, I now exercise power and control over Death and Hades, over body and soul, for joy or for anguish.”

Now we know why John didn’t go quietly into exile: he knew Jesus Christ glorified. Do we? We have to ask because the Jesus John had seen and heard was not the Jesus of so many self-identified evangelicals today. He was not the first and greatest being created by God. He was not merely a great teacher. No, the Jesus John had come to know was and is God Incarnate, resurrected and ascended, the One in whom all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form. This God-man is now in glory, ruling and tending the congregations of His church as He commends and corrects them, as He exhorts and warns them. Such is His ministry to ensure that His people are fit to serve as light bearers in this dark world.[2] It was none other than this Jesus who inspired John with the courage to fulfill his prophetic commission. And it is none other than this Jesus who will inspire us with the courage to fulfill our evangelistic commission.

More and more in today’s world, we who confess the historic Christian faith and moral vision are being made to look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. If we would stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by our opponents (Phil 1:27-28), we must take courage from knowing the Jesus John saw and heard: Christ in the glory of heaven, ruling and tending the congregations of His church.

[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 213.
[2] Beale, 211.

John Did Not Go Quietly Into Exile (Rev 1:9-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands … we proclaim also to you (1 John 1:1-3). All that and more is why the Apostle John wrote as he did in Revelation 1. He wrote out of his own up-close-and-personal experience of the resurrected and ascended Jesus, out of his own transformed life, and out of his participation in the early church’s phenomenal growth. In truth, he also wrote as he did because he saw in his day, as we see in ours, Christians being shoved to the margins of societal life or sent off into cultural exile. John, however, did not go quietly, and neither should we. In Revelation he speaks to us still, having written to inspire our courage by spotlighting not only the condition of Christ’s churches but also the position of Christ Himself. Consider first the condition of Christ’s churches in this world, according to Rev 1:9-11. In sum, says John, the churches are in tribulation (conflict), as he was. Transformed, however, as we are by the resurrection and ascension of Christ Jesus, John underlines crucial facts of the life that he, as our brother and partner, shares with us who are in the congregations of Christ’s church (Rev 1:9).

We share in the tribulation that is ours in Christ. Like it or not, the church of Christ Jesus is at odds and in conflict with the world. The world, at its origin and at its worst, criminalizes the church, persecutes the church. Why? Because, among other things, when we’re faithful, we don’t make the same choices that our society does, in belief or behavior. When we’re faithful, we’re different; we’re foreigners with no intention of assimilating, because we’re not, first, citizens of this world. We’re exiles in this world, at odds with it. We also share in the kingdom that is ours in Christ. We believers are not only subjects in the kingdom of King Jesus. He has freed us from our sins by His blood and has–already–made us His kingdom of priests together under Him. Our victorious reign in history is not only in the future. No, the kingdom is ours now in King Jesus. We also share in the patient endurance that is ours in Christ. The church of Christ perseveres in faith with good works despite conflict from the world. When we’re faithful, we do not compromise our witness in the face of trials; we resist the forces of evil, seen or unseen. When we’re faithful, we defeat sin in our lives, and we defy death and Satan.

Through the faith that we Christians share in the resurrected and ascended Jesus, we share a common identity, a transformed identity given to us by God. We’re siblings and partners in the conflict, kingdom, perseverance that are ours in King Jesus. Oh, yes, from time to time, the world allows us to lead peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim 2:2). But our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom does not shield us from suffering at the world’s hands. In its gut, the world scoffs at our identity. Taking the form of any branch of any government from any party, the world will seek, overtly or covertly, to interfere with the practice of the Christian faith or even to run Christ’s church. Yet this remains true: the resurrected and ascended Jesus has transformed us into siblings and partners in tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance.

Though we share a transformed identity with the Apostle John, he also underlines how he differs from us. King Jesus, John tells us, had transformed him into a prophet with a special commission to write a book to us his siblings and partners. John rehearsed the particulars of his transformation for us (Rev 1:10-11).

He had been exiled to Patmos for his testimony and ministry. He had been deemed an enemy of the state. Government officials had exiled him to Patmos, a small island in the Aegean Sea where Rome relocated those deemed a danger to its political and religious order. Barred from leaving the island, possibly sentenced to hard labor in the quarries on Patmos, this was John’s part in the tribulation, kingdom, and endurance that are ours in King Jesus. Despite his exile, however, John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, on the true Emperor’s day–Sunday–the day of the resurrection and ascension of Christ. There in the state of worship and revelation, he received a special commission from King Jesus to write a book–that is, a scroll–to the seven churches of Asia Minor. That commission made John different from others in the church.

Will we be careful to heed John’s word and example? You see, despite his exile, poverty, and affliction, John had continued to worship and serve Christ Jesus and to bear witness to the gospel of salvation. John did not go quietly into exile. Those of us who share in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in King Jesus will not do so either.[1]

[1] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 61.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#5: Removing Wallpaper)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Discussions of biblical topics and texts like those in Aimee Byrd’s new book are inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding. Efforts to identify and address those controlling factors are a challenging but necessary and profitable way to sort out differences and to work toward consensus. With this in mind, we return to the place where we began our interaction with Byrd’s book, namely, to the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” No doubt Byrd, like many others, is happy to affirm that this adage is the framework from which she argues for the reciprocal coactivity of laywomen and laymen in the same capacities.

By contrast, without ignoring the aforementioned adage, our engagement with Byrd has taken up selected issues that she raises about the relationship and service of women and men within God’s household, and we have applied to those points the added framework provided by the general and special offices, the elements of worship, and the family/church analogy. So, what happens when we apply that additional background to the issues that Byrd raises? Perhaps this is best summarized in a set of affirmations. From the points we’ve studied in Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, we would believe and teach:

1. that all believers, men and women, should pursue discipleship, with Christlikeness as its goal, the church’s historic doctrines and practices as its focus, and the local church and the home as its two primary, yet distinct settings mentioned in Scripture;

2. that, when believers come together in church, laymen and laywomen may be coactive in all elements of public worship except those elements, such as the ministry of God’s word to His household,[1] that are reserved to those men who serve in the special teaching office;[2]

3. that, when believers come together at home, laymen and laywomen should find there a setting where they may be coactive in teaching and learning according to their ability and maturity; and

4. that, whether believers come together in church or at home, they should seek to become examples of maturity; men to be respected as “fathers” in God’s household, among whom are some whose calling is to teach and govern God’s household in the special office of elder, and women to be honored as “mothers” in God’s household whose calling is to teach the younger women.

Whatever else the preceding affirmations may say, it seems clear that we must reevaluate the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” Certainly, the adage rightly reminds us that all believers serve in the general teaching office and may take part in all elements of worship not reserved for those men who serve in the office of elder. Yet our considerations have exposed the adage for what it is: it is itself a yellow wallpaper that hides an important truth. We need to peel back even this covering to reveal the truth of the family-church analogy.

That truth is that the relationship and service of women and men are not just about shared capacities; they are also about distinctive callings. Nor are they just about our shared siblingship; they are also about our different stewardships. Let’s put it another way. Both men and women may become exemplary teachers (Titus 2:3-4; 1 Tim 3:2; Heb 5:12) and exemplary household managers (1 Tim 5:14; 1 Tim 3:4-5). It remains, however, that, in a human family, a woman, as gifted and mature as she may be, can never become a father; a man, as gifted and mature as he may be, can never become a mother. Just as the callings of women and men are not interchangeable in the human family, so they are not in the church family. The adage, then, does not express and should not be allowed to eclipse Paul’s family/church analogy with its bearing on relationships and service in God’s household. In fact, the adage, well intentioned though it may be, is really not much more than another expression of extrabiblical suppositions that stereotype church members, in this case as interchangeable siblings to be treated the same and slotted to serve in the same capacities. The analogy, on the other hand, presents church members as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, to be appreciated for their differences, not least in calling.

Following the analogy, then, we will affirm that men and women may do anything in church that is in keeping with their callings. Moreover, we will press ourselves to work more carefully at honoring women who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “mothers” in God’s household, along with men who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “fathers” in God’s household. We will also press ourselves to work more carefully to comply with those rules in God’s word that are always to be observed, those principles that should govern the full assimilation and deployment of men and women in our churches as required by the family/church analogy, the elements of worship, and the general and special offices.

[1] The public ministry of God’s word would include both its reading and its preaching (as in 1 Tim 4:13).

[2] To be sure, in a more complete discussion, we would explain that, just as men and women should not be coactive in the ministry of God’s word, so they should not be coactive in the ministry of the sacraments.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#4: Family/Church Analogy)

Posted by R. Fowler White

From our discussion of selected points in Aimee Byrd’s recent book in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our review, we are hopefully clarifying the points on which we can agree and disagree about the results that she sees coming from an equal investment in the discipleship of women and men. We have urged that Byrd’s book is strongest when she calls for a reemphasis on Christlikeness and the church’s historic doctrines and practices as the proper goal and focus of discipleship. We do differ with her, however, when she contends that discipleship will produce laywomen and laymen who serve God’s household in the same capacities. Alternatively, we see discipleship producing laywomen and laymen who are indeed coactive and reciprocal in some capacities that are the same, but in others that are different. In other words, we see discipleship producing women and men whose capacities to serve are correlated with the general and special offices and with the elements of worship. Of course, this correlation is precisely the point at which our visions of discipleship and its results may clash. It is also the point at which it was vital for Paul to elaborate on love of others (1 Cor 12:31–14:1) as the standard that should shape relationships and service in God’s household. To his elaboration of this standard we want to call attention in this post.

As we said in Part 3, according to 1 Cor 14:26-40, love of others requires that during the public ministry of God’s word in its various forms (14:26), those who give and receive that ministry must do all things in a fitting and orderly way, following “the Lord’s command” through the Apostle (14:36-38; 11:16). To get readers to feel the weight of those directives, Paul attaches them to two anchors. One of those anchors is the practices taught and instituted in all the churches (14:33b; 11:2, 16). This connection tells us that, beyond what Byrd and her sources suppose, there is more at stake here than a special rule for a special situation in a specific local church, namely, a rule to stop the disruptive chatting of distracted women during the public ministry of God’s word. No, what is at stake is a standing rule (cf. 7:17b) in all the churches (14:33b), a rule that, during the public ministry of God’s word to His household, the women should not speak but should subject themselves (like the laymen) to those men who aspire to and qualify for service in that special public ministry (14:34; cf. 14:37-38). This is not to say that discipleship between women and men should never be coactive and mutual; it is to say that the appropriate venue for that reciprocal coactivity is the home, not the church’s public meetings (14:35; cf. Acts 18:24-26). The point at stake, then, is that the love of others should constrain a local church not to put its men and women at odds (11:16) with the traditions delivered to all the churches (11:2) when it comes to the public ministry of God’s word.[1]

In addition to those universally binding practices, Paul also appeals in 1 Cor 14:34 to the Law as one of the anchors of his directions. To understand what he means by the Law, it is most helpful to use “the proper hermeneutical lens” through which Byrd, following her sources, wants us to view 1 Corinthians 11–14. With that lens, we see that those four chapters are an essay in which Paul addresses disorders that were occurring when the church came together. Therein, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-40 are bookends that mirror one another, with the intervening sections also mirroring one another in reverse order as they lead to and from the essay’s center point in chapter 13.[2] For our purposes, it is most important to notice that if those bookends do indeed mirror each other, then it is more than reasonable to conclude that the Law in 1 Cor 14:34 is Paul’s shorthand for Genesis 1-3 to which he refers in 1 Cor 11:7-9, 11-12. Seeing, then, this connection between Genesis 1-3 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, the chain-link logic in his reasoning comes into view. And, of course, the significance of Genesis 1-3 is that there Paul finds not just the beginnings of man and woman and the family dynamics of their relationship, but also the analogy that those beginnings provide for the relationship between women and men in the church. Thus, we see that, like the apostolic traditions, the Law also forms an anchor for Paul’s explanation of how men and women are to relate and serve in love in God’s household.

Bringing the preceding points together, we see that in 1 Corinthians Paul gets readers to feel the weight of his directives about the public ministry of God’s word from two anchors: the universally binding apostolic traditions and the family-church analogy in Genesis 1-3. But 1 Corinthians is not the only place where the Apostle links his logic to the family-church analogy: we find it again in 1 Timothy. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11–14 and 1 Timothy 2–5, we have the earliest and latest uses of this reasoning (thus providing us an indication that Paul’s directions for the churches were consistent over the entire course of his ministry). In those chapters, it is really interesting to notice Paul’s recurring interests in the same issues: in gender-appropriate apparel for public worship (1 Cor 11:4-7; 1 Tim 2:9-10), in the elements of public worship (1 Cor 11:4-5; 11:23-26; 14:15-19, 26; 1 Tim 2:1–3:7; 4:13), and in the standards that define and govern relationships between women and men (1 Cor 11:8-9, 11-12, 16; 14:34-38; 1 Tim 2:13-15; 3:4-5, 15; 5:1-2). That Paul repeats himself in these chapters ought to make his reasoning all the more valuable to people struggling to sort out relationships between men and women.

Pointedly, in Paul’s presentation, church standards of relationship and service are a carryover from family standards. As a result, he would have church members, out of love for one another, take into account whether their fellow members are male or female, younger or older (1 Tim 5:1-2). In addition, lest we think that the analogy is only a matter of age and sex, Paul takes it beyond those criteria and applies it to spiritual growth and calling (cf. Eph 4:12-16; Rom 12:2; Eph 5:8-10; Col 1:9-10; see also 2 Pet 3:18; Heb 5:12-14). Thus, he would have men become examples of maturity (cf. 1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7), respected as “fathers” in God’s household (cf. 1 Cor 4:15; 11:1; Phlm 10), among whom are some whose calling is to teach and govern God’s household in the special office of elder (Jas 3:1; 1 Tim 3:1-7; cf. 1 Cor 4:15; 11:1; Phlm 10; cf. 1 Pet 5:3). Similarly, he would have women too become examples of maturity, honored as “mothers” in God’s household whose calling is to teach the younger women in God’s household as their “daughters” (Titus 2:3-5; 1 Tim 5:9-10, 14 [with 3:11?]; see also 1 Pet 3:6b; cf. 2 Tim 1:5 with 3:14-15). All things considered, the bottom line of Paul’s family-church analogy is that love of others requires us to oppose any suppositions that a local church is a homogeneous assemblage of interchangeable persons (even siblings) who are to be treated the same and to serve in the same capacities. Instead, Paul bids us to look in love on a local church as a heterogeneous household of fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who are to be treated with the honor due to them on account of their differences in sex, age, maturity, and calling.[3]

To draw to a close this series of posts on selected points of Aimee Byrd’s new book, we will look in Part 5 at the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do” in the light of Paul’s family-church analogy.

[1] Cf. A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1155.

[2] The structure of 1 Cor 11:2–14:40 would look approximately like this: A: gender-appropriate apparel in worship, 11:2-16; B: disorder in the ministry of the Lord’s Supper, 11:17-34; C: gifts and the unity of the body, 12:1-30; X: the standard of conduct (love), 12:31-13:13; C´: gifts and the priorities of the body, 14:1-25; B´: disorder in the ministry of God’s word, 14:26-33a; A´: gender-appropriate speech in worship, 14:33b-40.

[3] The content of this paragraph paraphrases and reapplies observations found in V. S. Poythress, The Church as Family (1990) and in the report submitted by the Committee on Women in Church Office to the Fifty-fifth (1988) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#3: Prophesying)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Part 1 and Part 2 of our interaction with selected themes in Aimee Byrd’s new book, we reviewed 1 Tim 2:12 and Acts 18:24-28 and Col 3:16 (with others) as representative passages related to teaching in the special and general offices. From those texts we gleaned that laymen and laywomen were exhorted to be coactive in the general teaching office, but that the special teaching office was limited to qualified men. From our interaction with Byrd to this point, then, we gather that, since reciprocal coactivity in teaching was not a mark of the special office or of the public meetings of the church, the coactive teaching of those in the general office need not diminish or undermine those in the special office.

Along with texts related to teaching, however, there are also texts related to prophesying, and from them Byrd and many others (including denominational study committees) have argued that women were permitted to prophesy in the church’s public assemblies. As plausible and as widely accepted as this view is, it is pertinent to ask this question: how is it that, when the NT churches gathered in their public meetings, only men were teaching but both women and men were prophesying? To answer this question, it is worth asking if the premise of the question was true: were men and women in fact coactive in prophesying in church? Or was it the case that the same standards regulated teaching and prophesying? Before we comment further on the question of standards, let’s examine the observation that both women and men prophesied when the churches came together.

First, to the extent that Scripture speaks of the prophethood of all believers, we should grant that men and women both did prophesy in church. For instance, in Acts 2:17-18 Peter declares that, insofar as Christ pours out His Spirit on all believers, they all share the prophetic anointing and thus all “prophesy.” That being the case, they all occupy the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 12:13; 1 John 2:20-27). In this light, the focus of our attention has to shift. Now we must ask, what did the activity of the general prophetic office look like? With Peter’s citation of Joel as an interpretive backdrop for his readers, Luke portrays general prophesying throughout his narrative in Acts as a coactivity of household members, regardless of their sex, age, class, or race. But his narrative pushes us to be more specific. Indeed, Luke describes that activity almost exactly as the Chronicler describes the liturgical prophesying of selected male and female Levites under David (e.g., 1 Chron 25:1-7). That is, those Levitical liturgists are said to have “prophesied” according to their assignments in certain (not all) elements of public worship,[1] namely, as they offered intercession, thanks, or praise (1 Chron 6:31-48; 16:4-7). Interestingly, in Acts we see that under David’s greater Son, male and female believers are said to have “prophesied” as they offered prayer, thanks, or praise. Specifically, as we follow Luke’s narrative, we are struck by the fact that, wherever Christ poured out His Spirit (in Jerusalem [Acts 1:14; 2:11], in Caesarea [Acts 10:44-46], in Ephesus [Acts 19:6], in Corinth [1 Cor 12:13], and beyond), the coactivity of men and women in many acts of public worship bore witness to their fellowship in the prophethood of all believers that the Spirit of Christ was forming.

Second, in addition to the general prophetic anointing of all believers, Scripture describes the special prophetic ministry of some believers (1 Cor 12:28-30; Eph 4:11). Upon closer examination of the prophetic activity in 1 Corinthians 11–14, it becomes clearer that, as they prophesied, men and women were coactive in certain elements of public worship, but not in all. For example, remembering that the Chronicler and Luke tell us that men and women “prophesied” as they were offering intercession, thanks, or praise, we need not be surprised when Paul tells us in 1 Cor 11:4-5 and 14:15-19 that men and women “prophesied” in those very same acts of worship. Other elements of worship, however, come into view in 1 Cor 11:2–14:26 (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 2:1-15; 3:14-15; 4:13). From this wider context, we realize that Paul’s overriding concern is to see all elements of public worship regulated by love of others (1 Cor 12:31–14:1). Strikingly, according to 1 Cor 14:26-40, love requires that during the public ministry of God’s word (14:26), anyone contributing to that ministry must follow the Apostle’s directives (14:36-38) on when to speak and when to be silent (14:27-35). In fact, in light of the question of whether prophesying was regulated by the same standards as teaching, it is critical to notice that the Apostle’s directives applied whether God’s word was brought in the form of “a psalm, … a teaching, … a revelation, … a tongue, … [or] an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26b NASU). Clearly, insofar as teaching and prophesying contributed to the public ministry of God’s word, Paul regulated them both by the same standards. Thus, 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an awfully close parallel to 1 Tim 2:11-15 (we will have more to say about this parallel in Part 4). In that light, it is remarkable to notice that, consistent with the distinction we saw between the general and special teaching offices, we also see a distinction between the general prophetic anointing and the special prophetic ministry. By all appearances, when God’s household came together (1 Cor 14:26a), men and women were expected to be coactive in the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 11:4-5; 14:15-19), but the special prophetic ministry of God’s word, like the special teaching ministry of God’s word, was limited to men (1 Cor 14:34-35). In other words, contrary to what Byrd and many others have argued, the Apostle’s policy on prophesying was, in “all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33b), coordinated with the general prophetic anointing of all and the special prophetic ministry of some: that is, Paul limited that element of worship devoted to the special prophetic ministry of God’s word to men; and, consistent with the general prophetic anointing of all, he approved of women and men being coactive in prophesying during those other elements of worship not devoted the ministry of God’s word. In short, in all the congregations of Christ’s church, the principles that regulated teaching and prophesying were the same.

In what has preceded, we have sought to show how Paul correlates the coactivity of women and men in prophesying and in teaching with the general and special offices. We have also sought to highlight that the Apostle cites love as the standard that shapes his directives for participation in the elements of public worship. We can understand even better, however, where Paul anchors his policy on women and men in teaching by taking one more step. We’ll take that step in Part 4.

[1] By “elements of worship” we mean reading and preaching God’s word, singing psalms and hymns, offering prayer, presenting offerings, confessing the faith, and administering Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#2: Acts 18:24-28; Col 3:16)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (Part 1), we urged that in 1 Tim 2:12 the Apostle Paul sets out a policy for the churches that limits the public teaching (and governing) of God’s household to men who aspire to and qualify for eldership. Apart from that conclusion, we readily acknowledge with Byrd that there are certainly other NT texts where laywomen and laymen are coactive in teaching one another. Acts 18:24-28 and Col 3:16 are two of those texts. In this installment of our interaction with Byrd, we’ll look more carefully at these passages.

When we turn to Acts 18:24-28, we find Luke’s review of an episode in which a married Jewish couple, coworkers with Paul in his Gentile mission (Rom 16:3), teach a well-spoken, well-versed Jewish preacher of the OT Scriptures. Intent on highlighting the discretion of Priscilla and Aquila as they approached Apollos to instruct him, Luke draws the reader’s attention, with some evident care, to the contrast between his actions in the public eye and their actions out of it. After Apollos is said to have spoken boldly “in the synagogue” (18:26; cf. “in public,” 18:28), Priscilla and Aquila are reported to have “invited him to their home” for a private tutorial (18:26, NIV; cf. “took him aside,” ESV, NASU, CSB, and NKJV). In addition, Luke describes the explanation that Priscilla and Aquila gave to Apollos, not as an individual effort of either spouse, but as a joint effort of both spouses. Given the particulars of this episode, we might wonder if or how Luke’s narrative harmonizes with Paul’s directive in 1 Tim 2:12. Noticeably, Luke’s account depicts a woman, alongside her husband, instructing a man while they all met in a private location, perhaps the couple’s residence. This coactivity of Priscilla and Aquila was not a function of the special teaching office and did not occur in a public meeting of the church (or synagogue), but it did yield a great harvest of gospel grace when Apollos emerged from his lesson with Priscilla and Aquila and went on to “water” where Paul had “planted” among those in Achaia (Acts 18:27-28 with 1 Cor 3:6). Luke’s description in Acts 18, then, harmonizes with Paul’s prescription in 1 Timothy 2 in that Luke portrays a laywoman and a layman, not in the public teaching of God’s household or in the special teaching office, but in the general teaching office, coactively teaching another man as the couple worked with Paul in his apostolic mission to the Gentiles.

Turning to Col 3:16, it’s apparent that Paul is exhorting church members to teach and admonish one another, but we can elaborate on the words there. Granted the teaching envisioned in this text relates especially (though not exclusively) to the doctrinal content of the songs we sing, the expression “teaching and admonishing” recalls the Apostle’s description of his own ministry in Col 1:28 and effectively reminds readers that “everyone when fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40; cf. Eph 4:12). The phrase in Col 3:16 also mimics Paul’s description in Rom 15:14 of the reciprocal instruction of which members of the church in Rome were capable. More remarkable still is the expectation expressed by the writer of Hebrews about his readers in 5:12: by this time you ought to be teachers. To be sure, through the discipleship process, some in God’s household would distinguish themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5:14), and certain of those examples would be men who aspired to and qualified for eldership (Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Pet 5:3). Yet we are not to think that in 5:12 the writer of Hebrews presents the special teaching office as the only fruit of discipleship ministry. No, as Byrd might remind us, while texts like Col 3:16, Rom 15:14, and Heb 5:12-14 are general enough to include what qualified men do in the special teaching office, they also provide the basis for laywomen and laymen to do what Priscilla and Aquila did in the general teaching office. That is, because every believer has Spirit-given ability to understand and communicate truth (1 Cor 2:6-16; 1 John 2:20-27) and so occupies the general teaching office, we take it that in Col 3:16 and similar passages Paul is exhorting church members to teach each another, even as they allow for differences of ability and maturity (Heb 5:12-14). In other words, such texts should cause us to see that reciprocal coactivity in the general teaching office is also the fruit of discipleship properly embraced. In this light, we can see how Paul’s exhortation in Col 3:16 and in comparable texts squares with his regulation in 1 Tim 2:12.

To this point in our interaction with Byrd’s book, we’ve pulled together representative passages related to teaching the church in its public meetings, and we’ve found that the fruit of discipleship is seen in both the general and the special teaching offices. Though the task of teaching the church in its public meetings is fulfilled only by men aspiring to and qualified for the special teaching office, Scripture clearly expects laywomen and laymen to be coactive in the general teaching office according to their ability and maturity. As Byrd points out, however, good and relevant questions about these conclusions do understandably arise when we compare Paul’s regulations for teaching with his regulations for prophesying. His statements oblige us to deal with the question, was it the case or not that, when the church came together, women and men were both prophesying and only men were teaching? We plan to take up that topic in our next post (Part 3).

The Wrong Enemy

I’m sure many readers have had the same experience I have had. This experience is to see a well-known doctrine in a new light. Yesterday, I was reading through Deuteronomy, and saw the command to annihilate the inhabitants of the promised land (which, of course, needs to have a post all its own as to why this doesn’t make God into a homicidal, genocidal maniac). The application to the Christian life is through spiritual warfare. It strikes me that the majority of Christians today can’t recognize the true enemy. We think our enemy is the person who wronged us, or called us names. We think the enemy is a political group. We think the enemy is human. We have our sights set on the wrong target, the wrong enemy.

Paul told us who the real enemy is in Ephesians 6. It is the realm of Satan and the demons. None of this should be new to Christians, though it sadly is to many. The thing that hit me, however, was this: we pray against the wrong enemy a lot of the time. Why aren’t we praying against Satan and the demons? Just because we can’t see it, and we don’t know much about it, therefore, we think that the battle is entirely in the visual spectrum. But the real battle is a spiritual one. When we see events happening today that we would rather not see, how are we praying? Are we praying for the simple reversal of Roe V. Wade? How about praying against the demonic influence that made that decision possible, and that continually seeks to deceive people into perpetuating the carnage? We see our freedoms being eroded. We tend to blame only humans. Humans are involved. Of course they are. Most of the time, however, that’s all we see. We are, all too often, more concerned with our eroded freedoms than we are with our eroded faith. The things that erode it are legion in America. And we let it happen.

In the Psalms, David prayed against human enemies as well as spiritual enemies. So it isn’t completely an either/or. However, in focusing too much on “THEM,” defined as human enemies, we have distorted the picture to the point that the real and full enemy is almost invisible. Why isn’t evangelism “working” like it should? We know we ought to pray about it so that God does the heavy lifting, but what about the demonic obstacles to evangelism? Why don’t we pray about that?

One practical result of this proposed shift in thinking is that we will have a great deal more compassion for the real, live human in front of us. That person may not be our enemy at all. They may be deceived and blinded. They need light and healing from God the Holy Spirit.

Another practical result is the increase of prayer warriors in the Christian church. We desperately need people to take up the thankless (read “unglamorous,” or “not puffing our own name up”) task of praying against Satan and his kingdom. While this won’t make the entire church in America vertebrate, it might grow one or two vertebrae in our midst. That would be a start.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#1: 1 Tim 2:12)

Posted by R. Fowler White

As Lane acknowledged in his first post on Aimee Byrd’s new book, certain statements in a book stand out to some reviewers as controlling or recurring factors in its argumentation. To other reviewers, more incidental statements get their attention because to their eyes those assertions are as conspicuous as missed paint strokes on the dining room wall. Despite our differences in approach to Byrd’s work, however, Lane and I have a common interest in giving it a respectful, rigorous, and vigorous hearing. For my part, I take it that Aimee Byrd is a serious-minded disciple of Christ, a member-in-good-standing of a Reformed congregation of Christ’s church. In my view, she has posed fair and important questions to which pastors and teachers should give thoughtful answers, and she has made serious pleas to which careful responses are required. From all I can see, she desires and anticipates that her research, interpretations, and theological reasoning will be seriously weighed. For what my thoughts may be worth, I’ll focus on selected points in her presentation.

Before getting to those points, let me orient the reader to my stance by summarizing what I understand to be the overall strength and weakness of Byrd’s three-part book. From where I sit, the book is strongest when, in part 2, she points out errors in certain complementarian teaching and calls for a reemphasis on the proper goal (i.e., Christlikeness) and focus (i.e., the church’s historic confessions) of discipleship, a reemphasis marked by an equal investment in the discipleship of women and men with that goal and focus in mind. On the other hand, however, the book is weakest when, in parts 1 and 3, she identifies the fruit of that discipleship as laywomen and laymen serving in the same capacities in God’s household. In the end, I believe the book’s weakness has made and will make it harder for its strength to be appreciated in certain circles.

With that orientation, let’s begin this interaction with Byrd’s book by noticing that the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do” is now commonplace in discussions (including Byrd’s) of women and speaking gifts in Reformed circles and elsewhere. This is especially the case when the adage is set over against the concept of “authoritative teaching” in conversations about church ministry. Meanwhile, denominational study committee reports (like those in the OPC and PCA) and new books (like Byrd’s) continue to be published on women and men in church ministry. It seems appropriate, then, to focus again on the activity of men and women in the ministry of teaching in God’s household as it is represented in Scripture. Admittedly, in this series of posts,[1] we will not be able to cover all facets of this topic. We will offer, instead, a succession of posts on selected points as key components for any broader consideration.

Given our focus on teaching, it would be a good preliminary step to clarify what is meant by authoritative and non-authoritative teaching. Basically, the difference is this: “authoritative teaching” is “official teaching,” teaching done while holding the office of elder; “non-authoritative teaching” is “non-official teaching,” teaching done while not holding the office of elder but having the approval of elders. In large measure, the description overlaps with the historic Reformed distinction between teaching in the special office (held by elders ordained to it) and in the general office (granted to all believers). We’ll make use of the special/general distinction later. For now, without disputing the official/non-official distinction, let’s ask, what is its exegetical basis in Scripture? Granted that the verb “teach” and its cognates, used without qualification, mean “instruct according to the apostolic traditions” (e.g., Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 1:3; 4:11; 6:2b-5; 2 Tim 2:2; Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 4:17; Col 1:28; 2:7; 2 Thess 2:15), the exegetical basis of the official/non-official distinction in recent discussion has most frequently involved the claim that in 1 Tim 2:12 Paul refers not to teaching, on the one hand, and exercising authority, on the other; rather, he refers to “teaching from a position or an office of authority” and thus to “teaching authoritatively, teaching officially.” What can we say about this interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12?

First, a brief word about context. The immediate context of 1 Tim 2:12 (i.e., 2:1–3:15) is devoted to regulations for the public activity of men and women as it relates to prayer, apparel, discipleship, and officers in God’s household. Thus, it is clear enough that the activity in view here takes place in the church’s public meetings. Second, as for limiting the instruction in 1 Tim 2:12 to the concept of “authoritative teaching,” there is scant evidence to support the claim that in fact that text refers only to “teaching authoritatively or officially.” That is, the syntactical construction does not tell us that the two infinitives conjoined in 1 Tim 2:12—“to teach or to exercise authority”—express one idea (such that the second infinitive modifies the first, thus expressing the one idea “teach authoritatively”). Instead, the two infinitives are conjoined to express two related but distinct ideas. The point is, the syntax of 1 Tim 2:12 strongly favors the view that Paul has two activities in mind, not one.[2] Well, so what? What’s the payoff of the “two-activities” interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12 for the coactivity of men and women in teaching the church?

The “two-activities” interpretation constrains us to conclude, in contrast to Byrd’s argument that the reciprocal coactivity of men and women in God’s household is the fruit of discipleship, that the Apostle does not permit men and women to be coactive in teaching the church in its public meetings. In fact, Paul’s references to teaching and governing in 1 Tim 2:12 reappear in the qualifications of men who aspire to the church’s eldership (see 1 Tim 3:1; teaching, 1 Tim 3:2 and 5:17b; governing, 1 Tim 3:5 and 5:17a). Seeing, then, that Paul addresses restrictions on two public activities of women and men in 1 Tim 2:12, there is sufficiently explicit biblical basis to conclude that the Apostle limits the public teaching and governing of God’s household to men who aspire to and qualify for eldership (the bases of this policy in the creation and fall of the first man and woman have been discussed elsewhere). That being the case, this text makes a decisive, even controlling contribution to the discussion that Byrd rightly wants us to have. Believing, however, that her affirmations of male-only ordination are enough to satisfy us on this text or its implications, she chooses not to discuss it. This choice, in my judgment, is a major miscalculation, since it raises doubts about the advisability of publishing a book that does not address the texts that pose, at least ostensibly, the most obvious and serious challenges to her proposals. Even so, she is right to put forward other biblical texts on men and women in teaching for us to consider. We’ll turn to some of those passages in subsequent posts.

[1] This series of posts represents the content of a complete rewriting of an article of mine that appeared in Ordained Servant, a publication of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January 2001), pp. 10-13.
[2] For more on this point, see A. J. Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence Structure in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in A. J. Köstenberger and T. R. Schreiner, eds., Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (3rd. ed.; Baker, 2016), pp. 117-162.

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