Tuesday, July 9, 2013

5 Things You Can Do For God that He Can't Do for Himself: Psalm 50

One of the passages listed in today's at-my-own-pace Bible-reading plans was Psalm 50. To my surprise, the psalm led me to consider the possibility that God somehow has needs or desires that only His people can fulfill, or, put another way, He needs us to give him something that He cannot give Himself. In the end, I do think that there are some things that only we can give to Him, and if He doesn't need them, he so ardently wants them that, if we felt that ardor, we would say we needed them. And if He wants them that much, it must be that it would give Him pleasure to receive them. So in the spirit of giving you a chance to consider how you can give God a pleasure that only you can give to Him, I give you my thoughts on the subject here.

At the outset (vv. 1-6), the psalmist portrays God as "the Mighty One, God, the Lord" who "shines forth," who "comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages," and who "summons the heavens above and the earth, that he may judge his people...who made a covenant with [Him] by sacrifice." In verse 7, God says, "Listen my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you, Israel: I am God, your God." It sounds as if this is going to be a judgment psalm, full of recriminations and sins. If I were one of the people He was speaking to, I would figure that I was in for a lot of fire and tempest for what I'd done wrong!

But God begins his testimony with what appears to be good news for all of His people (v. 8): "I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me." If I'm one of the Israelites listening, I'm thinking, "Phew! He knows we're obeying the Law! So what else could be wrong?" Rather than listing their shortcomings, however, God then turns their attention to Himself and His relation to their sacrifices (vv. 9-13): "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens," He says (v.9), because every animal, bird, and insect on the earth are His (vv. 10-11). The implication is that if He needed the sacrificed animals, He could get them in an instant.  Moreover, he says, and in a tone bordering on contemptuous (v. 12), "If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it." Besides, he says (v. 13), "Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?" The answer, of course, is, "No."

In other words, then, God seems to be saying that their obedience to the Law in terms of sacrifices and burnt offerings is good, but... it's not good enough; it's not the best; in fact, it's almost as though God is dismissing those sacrifices as worthless to Him. Perhaps He is saying, "Yes, you do the sacrifices, but you're really not sacrificing anything, since I made everything on earth and it all belongs to me anyway. So, don't think that that's good enough." Or, perhaps God is accusing the people of thinking that, in their sacrifices and burnt offerings, they're supplying Him with things He needs from them; but He has emphatically told them that they're not doing that, since He could get those things all by Himself, if he actually needed them, which he doesn't. In any case, if their sacrifices aren't good enough, what does He want? If He's talking about what He doesn't need, what does He need? If He wants something that's not His to begin with, what is it? What should they do?

God answers (v. 14-15): "Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me." In fact, it is so important to God that His people do these things that, after he goes on to address and arraign "the wicked person" in Israel (vv. 16-21), His remedy for their sin is the same: The wicked person must "Consider this...: Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me, and to the blameless I will show my salvation" (vv. 22-23); if s/he doesn't consider it (and, one presumes, do it), God "will tear [her/him] to pieces"!

What is it about this command to sacrifice thank offerings and so forth that seems to make its fulfillment more pleasing to God than all of the atoning sacrifices and burnt offerings?  God says that he wants us to give Him:
  1. Our thanks in response to every blessing He has given us; 
  2. Our obedience to His commands and will;
  3. Our integrity to fulfill the statements, promises, and vows we make to Him; 
  4. Our embrace of our dependence on Him in good times and in days of trouble; and
  5. Our trust in Him to save us today, tomorrow, and for eternity.
In short, God says, He wants us to give Him our honor. I believe that what makes obedience to this command more pleasing -- and Israel's apparent failure to do it prior to this lecture from God an affront -- to God is this: God wants from His people what we alone possess, what is ours alone to give, what we alone can give to Him, and what He alone cannot give to Himself. In other words, He wants each of us to sacrifice something of ourselves to give to Him, and He wants the pleasure and honor that accompany only such a sacrifice.

Each of the five actions contained in the command derives from one of our faculties as persons. In our human person-hood, we want to take all the credit for what we receive that is good (and we want to keep all we receive!), do what we want to do, be relieved of commitments we don't want to fulfill, be independent, and rely only on ourselves.  But when, in our freedom of will, we stop making ourselves the object of our obedience, thanks, integrity, dependence, and trust, and we transfer those faculties to Him, we are giving away parts of "our selves." We are, indeed, sacrificing parts of our selves, and we are the only ones who both have the faculties to be sacrificed and can make the decision to sacrifice them. Thus, when God receives those sacrifices of our selves, He is receiving something that He didn't have the moment before we gave it to Him. Each of us can say in truth, "He didn't have this sacrifice of thanks before, because I hadn't given it to Him yet!" And because God didn't have it, when He does receive it, He experiences something "anew." I believe He has a new -- or, at least, a distinct -- experience of pleasure, because He has received my necessarily unique sacrifice from one of His unique creatures -- me. So, in a very real sense (and I hope you'll pardon the expression), I've given a unique gift and a pleasing experience to "The Man who has everything"!

Some philosophers and theologians tell us that God is completely self-sufficient and doesn't need anything in heaven or earth. They also say that God doesn't change, which would call into question whether He experiences distinct episodes of pleasure.  Whether or not he needs our honor to be as fulfilled as He possibly can be, I will leave to them. But this psalm suggests that God so ardently wants us to give him the honor that we possess -- and could place elsewhere -- that He has chosen to contrast the sacrifices of thanks and those of animals in terms of His needs. Either way, the fact remains that He at least wants us to give Him what He cannot give Himself, and it must be that when He receives any aspect of our honor, it gives Him a specific episode of pleasure that He otherwise would not have experienced.

There are many other themes in this Psalm that could be developed, but what I've written is all for now. So, dear reader, go be very bright light and very salty salt in this world, and give God a new gift while you're at it!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Discerning a pastor's beliefs on women in pastoral leadership

                I subscribe to a Facebook page called “God’s Word to Women.” Recently, another subscriber asked whether there were any egalitarian churches in Austin, Texas.  One responder suggested locating an  Evangelical Covenant Church, since the denomination has declared itself “egalitarian” with regard to women in pastoral leadership. This is the denomination with which I was affiliated from the time I entered its seminary in 2002 until I initiated the resignation of my ordination in 2010. Given my experience with the ECC, I commented that although the denomination does publicize its egalitarian view, not all of the member churches hold that position, and not all of the pastors who the denomination has ordained in even the past two years have been egalitarian.  Thus, I recommended that readers should observe and talk with the local ECC pastor regarding his personal position on the issue.

                A few days later, another reader recommended Foursquare churches as egalitarian. My first call to pastoral ministry came through a Foursquare church, and it is the denomination that I hope to return to in my next pastoral assignment. Foursquare does, indeed, hold an egalitarian view, but, again, not all of the churches (pastors and/or members) do. To its credit, the denomination’s General Supervisor (the pastor of all of the pastors, so to speak) is a woman, Rev. Tammy Dunahoo; to my knowledge, Foursquare is the only evangelical or Pentecostal denomination to  have placed a woman in that sort of position, and Rev. Dunahoo’s placement is certainly an indication that the denomination walks its talk on women in ministry! Even so, it was necessary to repeat my suggestion that the initial questioner determine whether a specific Foursquare church is or is not “egalitarian.”

                But how does one determine if a specific male lead or senior pastor is or is not egalitarian? It would be a wonderful thing if all we had to do was ask him and accept his answer at face value. Unfortunately, when a pastor’s denomination officially takes the egalitarian position with regard to women in ministry, the individual pastor may or may not feel free (or, in some cases, obliged) to answer truthfully. Therefore, having had experience with pastors who purported in some settings to be egalitarian but either gave evidence of being complementarian, or stated they weren’t sure of their egalitarianism, in other settings, I offer the following suggestions to men and women who want to determine the personal views of a pastor on the egalitarian question. (It may be necessary to ask even a female pastor who is not the lead or senior pastor of the church these questions to determine her views on the extent of God’s egalitarianism, but I will use the masculine pronouns in what follows, since a female lead or senior pastor will certainly be egalitarian.)

1.     Raise the issue with the pastor in a “private” setting, i.e., not in a class at the church, a church meeting, or even, perhaps, in front of a group of other church members. Why in private?  You’re more likely to get the pastor’s personal views (which will shape his pastoral behaviour)  in private. For example, in the Covenant denomination, pastors desiring licensure or ordination must agree not to preach from the pulpit or teach in a church classroom or meeting against a woman’s ability or call to assume pastoral leadership of a church or denominational position. However, they are free to hold a different position and to express that position “in private,” which includes anywhere that is not a pulpit or the church’s classrooms, such as the pastor’s office or home, over lunch or dinner tables, and so forth.

2.       Word your questions carefully.  I suggest that you begin your investigation with these words: “Do you, personally, believe that God calls some women to be the ‘senior’ or ‘lead’ pastor of a local church?” There are two reasons I recommend that you use this question, worded this way:
First, some men and women believe that God calls women to pastoral ministry, but not to pastoral ministry as the Senior or the Lead Pastor, which are reserved for male pastors. The wording of my question doesn’t provide an opportunity for a semi-egalitarian pastor to say he does support “women in ministry” and leave out the restriction he places around the senior leadership positions.

The second reason to ask the question using the words I’ve suggested is that this particular question demands a simple “Yes” or “No” question. If the pastor says, “No,” it’s clear. Thank him for his candor and move on. However, if the pastor does not say, ”No,” but does not say, “Yes,” either, then it is most likely the case that he does not believe that God calls women to senior-pastoral position, no matter what else he says. Put another way, any response that is not a simple “Yes” (without a “but”!) or a simple “No” is an attempt to avoid saying “Yes” without saying “No.” In such a case, you may want to help the pastor be clear by pointing out that he hasn’t said yes or no, and asking him to choose one of the two responses.

3.       Ask follow-up questions. If the pastor says that yes, he does hold the fully egalitarian view, I suggest you follow up with a question like, “Have you preached or taught about your egalitarian understanding of the Bible in this church?” If he says he has not, it can be fruitful to ask him why not; if he says that he has, it can be fruitful to ask, “How was your message received?” These questions will give you a sense of whether the pastor is willing to use Scripture and his positional influence “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [so] that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17) prior to or when issues of women’s ministry arise in the life of the congregation. It will also open the door to the next set of questions, if you would like to go further.

4.       Ask about the existing lay leadership. You might also want to inquire about the views of the members of the local church’s governing body (the Elders or Council or Board), as well as whether a candidate for such a position is questioned or screened in any way prior to her/his selection, election, or appointment. In my view, it can be difficult to be an egalitarian woman in a church that is led by complementarian lay leaders, even when the lead pastor is egalitarian.

5.       Finally, take your time, and watch and listen carefully.  Assuming that the pastor has told you that he is fully egalitarian, you will begin to consider committing yourself to the congregation he leads. Take a few months to explore how the pastor and the congregation live out their egalitarian beliefs. Specifically, keep an eye and an ear out about what the pastor and lay leaders say about their wives, mothers, sisters, and “women” as they go about their business in the church.  Doing so will alert you to any hidden “disconnect” between professed and actual beliefs. For example, my husband and I began to attend a church whose pastor had said that he was an egalitarian during the denomination’s “vetting” period. We began to suspect that our publicly “egalitarian” pastor might not actually hold that position personally when he recounted from the pulpit that, a year or two before, he had told his physician wife that he thought she should give up her professional career to support him in ministry. Shortly thereafter, the same pastor shared with me (in private) that he really wasn’t sure that the Bible supported women in pastoral leadership in the church. A denominational staff person later told me that the pastor had, at best, purposely misled the committee that had made the decision to fund the pastor’s new ministry, because, as a member of that committee, the staffer had heard the pastor say he was fully egalitarian and, the staffer said, the pastor “never would have been funded if he had said to us what he said to you.”

So, those are my suggestions about how to find out if a local pastor and/or congregation is, in fact, egalitarian. Do you have any others?