Love and Truth: Do We Sacrifice One for the Other? (2 John)

posted by R. Fowler White

In Scripture, Christians are called to devote themselves both to truth and to love. But can we pursue one without sacrificing the other? To get the bottom of this question, it helps us to reflect on John’s second letter. For our purposes here, we’ll understand the sender, the Elder, to be the Apostle John and the recipients, the elect lady and her children, to be a congregation and its members (as a whole and in its parts) or perhaps a mother church and the congregations born (planted) out of it.

The letter’s opening (2Jn 1-3) stands out for the way John describes the recipients’ relationship to himself and to others. First, he indicates how the recipients are related to him: whom I love in [the] truth. John most probably means that his love for them is not merely sincere, but is consistent with and required by God’s revealed truth. It is a love based in the truth they share. In fact, he will confirm this in 2Jn 7, 9. Second, he describes in a most striking way how the recipients are related to others: all who know the truth love the elect lady and her children in [the] truth. And why is this the case? He tells us: because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever (2Jn 2). In other words, they were bound in love because they were bound in truth. The love they shared was based in the truth they shared. After expressing his gratitude that these believers were living according to the truth despite opposition (2Jn 4), John takes up his exhortation in 2Jn 5-11.

John is careful to start off his appeal by establishing the link between truth and love. Basically, he says, “live your lives in keeping with love, just as y’all are living your lives in keeping with truth” (2Jn 5). Commitment to truth will bear fruit in commitment to love, and devotion to love will bear fruit in devotion to truth. Before moving on, John emphasizes, as he does elsewhere, that this duty to love is not new, novel, innovative, or even original with the Apostle himself. It’s the same obligation we’ve heard from the beginning. Whether we’re talking about the teaching of Jesus during His earthly ministry (Jn 13:34), the code of Moses at Sinai (Lev 19:18), or a duty binding even on Adam and his children (1Jn 3:11-12), our duty to love is a longstanding responsibility.

After John briefly reminds us of our duty to love, he states his reason for recalling that duty: For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist  (2Jn 7). Adding to his portrait of the deceivers, he says in 2Jn 9 that every heretic goes too far, goes beyond the bounds of truth—the teaching of Christ—documented by His Apostles. False teachers are often heard quoting some new word from the Holy Spirit to take us beyond the Apostles’ eyewitness teaching. The Holy Spirit, however, does not take us beyond the teaching of the Apostles. He gives us light to accept and abide in the revelation He has given. It is for this reason that we’re to devote ourselves continually to the Apostles’ doctrine. It is also for this reason that serious Christians will learn from the history of doctrine: that dimension of church history is the locus of the Spirit’s work of illumination, telling us where the boundaries of orthodoxy have been historically. Certainly, only Scripture is the rule of Christian faith and practice, but the church’s historic confessions and creeds are a help to us. They guide us as we strive not to progress beyond the Apostles’ doctrine but to progress in it.

Notice then that to lay the groundwork for the believers’ proper attitude toward heretics and their heresy, the Elder has deftly linked love and truth. He insists that genuine Christian love will discriminate against those who oppose the truth. Indeed, authentic Christian love means protecting ourselves and others against deception by false teachers. John reminds us that just as adherents to Christian truth know that love matters, so devotees to Christian love know that truth matters. Therefore, the Elder tells the elect lady and her children—congregations of Christ’s church—to watch themselves (2Jn 8), maintaining their composure as they work firmly but patiently with those who oppose God’s revealed will (cf. 2Tim 2:24-26). Such vigilance, John says, is particularly necessary for a congregation because to allow heretics or heresies to go unopposed puts the fruitfulness of that congregation’s own ministry in jeopardy. In fact, John says more: he highlights what a congregation should never do in response to a false teacher: do not receive him into your house (i.e., your house church) or give him any greeting (2Jn 10). To get John’s point here, we need to bear in mind a few critical features of hospitality in the biblical world: it wasn’t about inviting someone into our home for coffee or even a meal.

One feature of ancient hospitality is that it was commanded by God (e.g., Heb 13:2) and was directed toward traveling strangers (e.g., Gen 18:1-8). Remarkably, our hospitality, particularly toward itinerants such as the Apostles, will be one criterion of our judgment by the Son of Man, the King (Matt 25:31-46). Second, hospitality sent a message to those who saw it practiced: it announced that Christians who hosted itinerants were sponsoring them and affirming their standing as Christians to outsiders. In fact, part of hospitality was to welcome itinerants, a greeting that amounted to recognizing their good standing as Christians (cf. 2Jn 11). In short, Christians showing hospitality to itinerants was an act of shared Christian love.

With that background in mind, John is quick and emphatic to add here that hospitality to itinerant strangers is never to be indifferent to truth. His point to the elect lady and her children, then, is clear enough: “Don’t show hospitality to known false teachers or their disciples. To do so would be to give them a platform to promote their heresies and thus to become complicit in their evil deeds.”

So, says the Elder, let those entrusted with the ‘ministry of the keys’  in Christ’s church (cf. Matt 16:19) be careful to protect those in their charge. Just as they examine prospective members and officers of a congregation, so let them also examine itinerants such as missionaries and guest speakers. Let them also carefully counsel individual families on their response to itinerant heretics lest their homes become a snare of the devil. Why do this? Because Christians are devoted both to love and to truth. In other words, authentic Christian love means always protecting ourselves and others against false teachers and their teachings.

Are We Genteel or Maśkîlîm (Dan 12:3, 10)?

posted by R. Fowler White

“In an age enamored by soft words that lead to deception, we still have a duty to speak ‘truth’ to the deceived.”—Philip G. Bowersox, Smooth Words: Daniel’s Perspective on the Great Commission

The quote above from Philip G. Bowersox, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Oklahoma City, OK, is nothing if not a sobering call to duty for pastors and teachers. It’s a call to discern and to confront the reality of deception—no, the danger of deception—a threat that often goes undetected and unchecked as it creeps into our lives. This call to duty is made the more earnest when we ponder the unrelenting menace to which the Apostle John alerts us in his first letter. “Children,” he writes, “it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18 NASB95). Let those words sink in. They bring us up short, don’t they? John would have us understand that, living as we do after Christ’s ascension (as even his first readers did), we’re living in the last phase of history. Talk about a “wake up and smell the coffee” moment for us in God’s church.

As if the gist of John’s words is not arresting enough, we realize that he describes this final stage of history as an age in which antichrists and false prophets flourish (1 John 4:1). They, with their followers, promote beliefs and behaviors that are contrary to the faith handed down once for all to the saints (Jude 3). The details John provides demand our attention: the number of these deceivers is many (1 John 4:1), and they are already here (1 John 4:3). More than that, they are not just out there, in the world. No, John tells us that they went out from us after being with us in the church. In fact, it is not just that deceivers were once in the church: it is that they can be presently in the church just as it was the case at Thyatira (Rev 2:18-28). All told, the call to duty that Pastor Bowersox gives us echoes the context that John describes: because deceivers are present both outside and inside the church, we must speak truth to those who might be enamored with soft wordssmooth words—and led astray wherever deceivers appear.

Skeptical as we are, you and I might ask, how seriously should we take these threats? Despite warnings from Christ and His Apostles, there seem always to be some in Christ’s church who simply deny reality. You probably know some of these folks. They prefer the pablum of therapeutic to-do lists that (allegedly) get them personal peace, influence, or affluence instead of the solid food of instruction necessary for them to develop discernment and endurance. The result? In their willfully childish rejection of nourishing food for their growth in holiness, they leave their souls defenseless against the waves and winds brought in the smooth, soft words of deceivers who would lead them to apostasy.

Whether, then, we look within the church or outside of it, we in Christ’s church find good reason to prepare ourselves to speak truth. The Apostle Paul tells us how to prepare in Eph 4:12-16. Through the ministry of the word, we grow up into Christ; we attain the faith of an adult Christian (cf. 2 Tim 3:14-17). Why? The reasons are straightforward. Only those who stay true to the Scriptures and mature in the faith are able to speak truth to others (Eph 4:15). Only those who learn to distinguish truth from error, good from evil, right from wrong are able, in turn, to speak truth to the deceived.

Knowing these things, we’ll devote ourselves to discipleship in community to learn from and with others the historic doctrines and practices by which Christ has built His church (Rom 6:17-18; Eph 4:20-23). We’ll place ourselves in the care of the shepherds and teachers whom Christ gives us through his Spirit, those who are committed and gifted to train us in what to believe and how to behave according to the faith handed down to the saints. We’ll do these things because the discipleship we need to counter the smooth, soft words of deceivers won’t become ours by just any means. It is the church’s unique purpose to gather and grow the saints. So, we’ll covenant with others of like mind to learn the historic truths of the faith—not least, those of justification and sanctification as highlighted by Bowersox.

Are our congregations prepared to speak wise words of truth to any who might be led astray (cf. Dan 12:3, 10)? Bowersox’s book is a fine resource to help get us ready. Take it up and read it. Then, like Daniel, in this last hour of smooth, soft, deceptive words, you’ll have wise words to speak, and you’ll stand with others, 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 ESV).

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Change for the Good

Posted by R. Fowler White

Overall, the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church after the exile was change, change for the good. Change in direction from self and sin to God and His will as revealed in Scripture. Change in attitudes and affections, priorities and choices. Decreasing likeness to the world and increasing likeness to God. To as many of us as enter into solemn covenant with God and His church, we give testimony that He has begun a work of change in us and our household. So, as we read the story of Nehemiah, we examine ourselves and ask, do we, as members of God’s church, see the continuing fruit of reformation in ourselves, in our households, and in our congregations? When was the last time I noticed increasing holiness in my thoughts, words, or deeds? In Neh 12:44–13:3, reformation produced three observable changes in God’s people.

In Nehemiah’s day the people were joyfully supporting the temple ministers in their work (12:44, 47). They were joyfully fulfilling the vows they had taken (Nehemiah 10). They were giving contributions of the fruit of every tree, the wine, and the oil to the priests. They were giving their firstfruits and firstborn, year by year, to the house of the LORD. They were giving tithes in keeping with their vow that they would not neglect the house of their God. All these gifts were owed and given as required by God’s revealed will in His law. The people had vowed to support the OT church in its worship and work, and so they gave their tithes and offerings in keeping with their vow.

In Nehemiah’s day the temple ministers were faithfully performing their work (12:45-46). The priests, Levites, storeroom stewards, singers, and instrumentalists were all faithfully performing the service of their God and the ministry of purification. They were doing their work in keeping with God’s commands as implemented by King David and King Solomon. Why look back to the reigns of David and Solomon? Because they were largely the glory days of Israel: David had organized Israel’s worship; Solomon had built the temple. Their worship was driven and their faithfulness was defined by God’s word, not by the preferences of the postexilic generation or even previous generations. The postexilic temple ministers, then, organized and administered worship according God’s command as exemplified in David and Solomon.

In Nehemiah’s day the people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church (13:1-3). Let’s bear in mind this OT “ministry of the keys” was a necessity not based merely on ethnic terms, but on covenantal, moral, and spiritual terms. According to Moses, God had sworn to bless those who, in faith, blessed Abraham and his seed and to curse those who, in unbelief, cursed Abraham and his seed. So, certain Gentiles, like Rahab, Ruth, and Naomi, had been admitted with their households because they confessed saving faith as Abraham did. On the other hand, certain Israelites, even some generations of Israel, had proven to be spiritually and morally Gentiles and had been broken off from the patriarchal tree for their unbelief. The standard for admission and exclusion was response to God’s oath to Abraham and his seed. In that light, the people were reading what was written about that standard and were promptly obeying it.

When reformation came to the OT church after the exile, it produced change in God’s people. Cheerful givers fulfilled their vow to support the church’s worship and work. Are you and I cheerful givers fulfilling our vow to support the church’s worship and work? God’s ministers faithfully administered temple worship and work according to His word. What is it that drives our worship choices and defines our faithfulness: what God wants or what we want? The people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church. Do we acknowledge that Christ has established officers in His church to grant or refuse fellowship as His word requires? In Nehemiah’s day the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church produced change for the good in God’s people. May it be so in our day too.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Family Heads and Officers

Posted by R. Fowler White

Since we’ve just completed our 2020 remembrance of Reformation Day, it’s timely to reflect on what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. Having looked at reformation’s effect on the people as a whole in Nehemiah 8, we should also consider its effect on family heads and church officers. Here we’re focused on those who were husbands and fathers, chief stewards of households (including stewards of God’s church), required to be holy as He is holy and to expend themselves for the good of those in their charge and care. So, when reformation came to the OT church, what was the evidence and fruit of its impact on family heads and officers?

Look first at two observations about family heads. The text tells us that they took the initiative to seek out the teaching ministry available to them. According to 8:13, these chief stewards came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. Public worship in congregation had reemerged as a non-negotiable (8:1-12). Yet public worship was only the beginning of their stewardship of their families’ discipleship. We’re told here that these family heads sought opportunities to be taught in addition to public gatherings for worship. The family heads were also obedient to what they were taught. As narrated in 8:14-18, they did what they had found written in the Law that the LORD had commanded. Note that, when they were directed to celebrate the Festival of Booths, they went out and built those booths and lived in them, each on their roofs and in their courts (8:16). We underestimate the significance of this activity unless we recognize that these family heads took the knowledge of Scripture that they had gained and spread it throughout the families in their clans. We may even say that Neh 8:14-18 is a picture of Deut 6:6-8 being lived out as a key means to and fruit of reformation among them: whether sitting, walking, lying down, or getting up, families rehearsed among themselves what God required of them.[i]

Consider also what church officers did when reformation came to the OT church. We remind ourselves that the priests and the Levites, along with Ezra and Nehemiah, were models of what the people should become, namely, a holy nation of priests. So, what happened among OT church officers when reformation took place? In general, the officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching. We read how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the 13 Levites who stood on the podium with Ezra helped the people to understand the Law. In addition, those officers kept watch over the congregation’s response to the teaching ministry. Notice two details in Nehemiah 8. First, the officers discipled the congregation to do what God required. In 8:9, we read of how Nehemiah … and Ezra … and the Levites [spoke] to all the people. In 8:13, we’re told that the priests and the Levites were with the family heads, and together they all came to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. In other words, the officers came alongside the family heads for Bible study. Second, the officers consoled the people in their repentance. When reformation came to the people, they trembled at God’s warnings, suffered deep sorrow for their sins, and determined to turn away from their sins—and the officers knew all this. Seeing the people’s repentance, the officers spoke “words of assurance of pardon” to them (8:10-11): Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. And so the Levites calmed all the people (8:11). They reminded the people of the truth expressed in Neh 9:17, You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.

When reformation came to the OT church, family heads took the lead to seek out teaching, and they were obedient to what they were taught. Church officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching, discipling them to do what God required and keeping watch over their response to that teaching. In this light, we have to ask ourselves, has reformation come to our congregations? We who have entered publicly into solemn covenant with God and His church have testified that God has begun a good work of reformation in us. As we read the story of Nehemiah and Ezra, we’re again constrained to ask if we, as officers, family heads, and members of God’s church, see evidence and fruit of His reforming work in us and among us. In the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, the OT church saw that evidence and fruit. Do we?

[i][i] D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale OT Commentaries, 1979), 108.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: The People as a Whole

Posted by R. Fowler White

When reformation comes to the congregations of God’s church, what does that reformation look like? To put it differently, when God renews and revives His church, what does that renewal and revival look like? Would we recognize it if it happened in our congregations? Would you recognize it if it happened in your family? In you personally? Historically, we think of the Reformation in the 16th century. We think of an extraordinary sovereign work of God through His King according to His Word to His own glory, manifested in increased holiness and decreased worldliness in thought, word, and deed among God’s church and usually in increased civic righteousness (restraint of evil) among non-Christians through increased fear of God in their hearts. So, what will reformation look like if and when God brings it to us today? As a framework for answering that question, let’s consider what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. We can analyze what happened from various valid angles, so consider first what the people as a whole did when reformation came to the OT church.

They took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Strikingly, we are not told that Ezra summoned the people. Instead we’re told (8:1) that on the 1st day of the 7th month, all the people (almost 50,000) gathered as one man. We’re told (8:4) that the people made the wood platform from which Ezra read Scripture, the Book of the Law of Moses. We’re told (8:13) that on the 2nd day of the 7th month, the family heads came together to Ezra. The people took the initiative. And then what? They submitted themselves to be discipled under their leaders. The people told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book (8:1). The people remained in their places as the Levites helped them to understand (8:7), and the family heads came together to Ezra to study and to find out what God required of them (8:13-14).

Having taken this initiative, the congregation’s discipleship produced certain fruit. They were united. Notice how many times throughout this passage we’re told that “all the people” or words to that effect did this or that. No fewer than 10 times, the solidarity of the people is highlighted (8:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 17). They were also zealous, eager, passionate, hungry, thirsty for God and His will as revealed in Scripture (8:2, 3, 7, 12, 13, 16). They were worshipful too (8:6, 17-18). We read more about this in Neh 9, where the people confess their own sins and also the iniquities of their fathers. But notice in Neh 8 that they wept over their sins as they heard the words of the Law read and taught (8:9). The people were so exercised by the conviction of their sins that the leaders, especially the Levites, had to calm all the people down (8:10, 11). Having turned from their sins, the people also celebrated their God (8:6). They were instructed to celebrate, and they did it (8:10, 12). And how did they celebrate? Just as God had prescribed: they kept the Festival of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, signifying their identity as pilgrims living in temporary housing with God their Provider but anticipating their permanent home with Him in the Garden Land (8:13-17). Representing faithful pilgrims from all nations, this Festival testified to the congregation of God’s presence with them on the way to the beauty and bounty of a restored Eden, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence.

When reformation came to the OT church, the congregation took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture; they submitted to discipleship under their leaders’ stewardship; they were united, zealous, and worshipful disciples of their Lord; they wept over their sins; they celebrated their God. Having just celebrated another Reformation Day, let’s ask: are we seeing congregations taking the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture? Have we and our fellow members submitted ourselves to be discipled under the stewardship of our leaders? Are we united, zealous, and worshipful as Christ’s disciples? Do we weep over our sins? Do we worship our God as He prescribes? This is what reformation looked like in the OT church when God brought it to the congregation as a whole. Next, God willing, we’ll consider what family heads and officers did.

What Makes the Great Commission So Great: The Agenda Christ Has Set

Posted by R. Fowler White

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

According to Matthew 28, the second of three truths that make the Great Commission so great is the agenda Christ has set, the program He has undertaken. Notice 28:19-20a, Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. The point here is to tell us that Christ the King, as He executes His office, has a mission of outreach for ingathering. He is going to build His church. He is going to call out a people from the world to Himself. He will give them His laws, by which He will govern them, reward their obedience, and correct them for their sins. This mission, set by Christ our King, is a disciple-making agenda for all nations, and it has two parts.

The first part of Christ’s agenda is to make disciples by baptizing. Through baptism, those among the nations who repent and believe the gospel are admitted into Christ’s visible church, together with their children. Uniting us with His church under the name of the triune God, baptism marks the end of our life outside His assembly of disciples and the beginning of our life inside of it. The second part of Christ’s agenda is to make disciples by teaching. Every congregation of Christ’s church is supposed to be an extension campus of His ministry of education. Assembled as His disciples, we learn and teach all that Jesus taught about His own person and work and about the privileges and duties of discipleship. In the ministry of His word, we hear His gospel of grace and His law of love, His promises of salvation and His warnings of judgment. All this because Christ is not only the King on the mountain of the Great Commission; He is also the true Prophet who brings the word of the Lord from the mountain of God above.

As we said, this two-part program that Christ has undertaken is for all nations. His universal kingship means worldwide mission. Through Jesus the Son of Abraham, blessing goes to all the families of the earth from the Lord God. Through Jesus the Son of David, obedience comes from all the peoples of the earth to the Lord God. It was this transnational, transgeographical, transgenerational agenda that united and motivated the apostles of Christ in the years immediately after His resurrection and ascension. His Commission was an agenda so grand that the apostles could pursue it only by the power of His Spirit and according to His Word through prayer and preaching. So it is now, until the end of the age.

What is it that makes the Great Commission so great? In addition to the authority Christ exercises, it’s the agenda Christ has set for His church. There are no substitutes, no alternatives. The apostles, from Peter to Paul, took the agenda that He had set, the program that He had understaken, as their own. Those who would be His church today will do the same.

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,[i] that are reserved to those men who serve in the special teaching office;[ii]

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.

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

[ii] 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.

[i] 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.

[ii] 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.

[iii] 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?[1] 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 (but not all) elements of public worship,[2] 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 elements. 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 NAS95). 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 the 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 where Paul anchors his policy on women and men in teaching, however, by taking one more step. We’ll take that step in Part 4.

[1] The trajectory of the following comments was first suggested to me by Dr. R. Laird Harris. Recently, essentially the same trajectory has been suggested independently by Iain M. Duguid, “What Kind of Prophecy Continues? Defining the Differences between Continuationism and Cessationism,” in Redeeming the Life of the Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress, ed. John Frame, Wayne Grudem, and John Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 112–28.

[2] By “elements of worship” I 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, NASB95, 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 in private 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).

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