“Matter or Spirit”

“We believe the Father is the Source of all that exists, whether of matter or spirit.”

This is the only part of the Wesleyan Articles of Religion that even hints at the reality of angels and demons.  So, even though the emphasis of this sentence is that the Father is the Source of all that exists, I’m going to take a small but important rabbit trail to unpack the “or spirit” part of this sentence.  In the future, I may come pack to explore the first part but, for now, get ready, we’re jumping into the theology of the (mostly) unseen realm.

The Spiritual World Exists

For the ancient writer and reader (and for many people around the world today) saying that the spiritual world existed was as obvious as saying, “the sky is blue,” or “water is wet.” People in Bible times were keenly aware that the spiritual world existed and that it affected the material world and that the material world affected the spiritual world.  What they didn’t always know was exactly how the worlds interacted with each other.  This partial knowledge provided the fertile soil in which religions are born and grow.  People would experiences that they understood (or misunderstood) and then attributed (correctly or incorrectly) to the spiritual world.  Then, as they sought to understand and to respond to these experiences, religions developed around what seemed to cause changes, what seemed to make sense, and what seemed to be true.

The primary focus of the Bible is the physical realm where the divine-human drama unfolds but it constantly gives glimpses into the spiritual realm so we can see how it is affecting the physical realm and vice versa. For example, we see that God (spirit) would visit Adam and Even in their physical setting in the cool of the evening.  In Genesis 16 we see the Angel of the Lord visiting Hagar (one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible).  In Daniel we learn that angels are warring in the spiritual realm and act as messengers from God to his people. Job tells the story of how God and Satan exist outside of, but interact with, the physical world.  In Matthew 8 we see one of many stories where a demon (or demons) affect humans. Ephesians 6 teaches us exactly how to prepare for and fight the spiritual battle that affects our physical reality. 

But before we get too far, let’s begin by defining some terms:

Material World/Physical Realm: Things that are made out of matter (things we can touch) or the things that derive from things made out of matter (sound, smell, etc.). This includes any physical thing: the earth, our bodies, food, homes, pets, televisions, radios, books, etc.

Spiritual World/Spiritual Realm: Things that are (at least normally) non-corporeal. Things that exist but seemingly have no matter or physical substance.  Basically, spirits: angels, demons, God and the realm they inhabit.

Here are some basic truths about the spiritual realm:

1. God is the Source of Spiritual Beings

Judaism (and so Christianity) begins with an assumption of two overlapping realms, the spiritual and the physical worlds.  Genesis 1:1-2 reads,  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  We see a physical realm (the surface of the deep…whatever that means) where a spirit (the Spirit of God) is hovering.  We see that everything that is created, both what is seen (physical) and what is unseen (spiritual) is created by God.  

2. The spiritual world affects the material world

Several of the biblical examples above illustrate this quite well.

3. Some people seem to be more aware of the impact of the spiritual world than others

Not everyone in the Bible had the same kinds of experiences.  God did not speak to everyone through angels, not everyone was demonized.  People in the Bible experienced the spiritual realm and engaged with spiritual beings to differing degrees.

I often say that, for some people, the barrier between the physical and spiritual realm is just thinner than it is for the rest of us. I know people who can walk by someone, or walk into a room, or fly into a city and feel an oppressive presence.  I know people who dream dreams and are given visions.  I know people who know things about others that they couldn’t have known without direct revelation.  I know people who have seen or felt ominous clouds, ghosts, and demons. I have very minimally experienced these things.  But my lack of experience is no reason to doubt their experiences. Some people simply have more direct interaction with the spiritual world (sometimes through their own initiation, sometimes not) and some people seem to be able to more easily perceive spiritual beings. Maybe it’s like the difference between being colorblind and seeing colors.  My brother can’t tell the difference between green and red, I can.  I don’t walk into a room and feel a spiritual presence, my sister can (sometimes).

4. People can be too focused on the spiritual realm

In the Old Testament, people were expressly prohibited from engaging with any spirits that were not God or sent from God.  Though there is natural curiosity here, it’s clearly dangerous to mess with evil beings you don’t understand.  As stated before, the Bible gives us lots of windows into the spiritual realm but, clearly, leaves out a LOT of details.  We should assume that if the Bible doesn’t teach us about a spiritual thing we probably don’t need to know about it.  We should also realize that it’s pretty stupid to learn too much about the spiritual realm by evil spirits who are bent on our destruction…they enemy is not likely to tell us the truth or to tell the the truth in ways we can understand or use it. The disciples were excited after returning from preaching and casting out demons.  Jesus reminds them that they shouldn’t get too focused on their power (which is completely dependent on him) but, rather, rejoice in their identity and salvation (Luke 10:1-24).

5. People can be too unaware of the spiritual realm

It is easier for the enemy of your soul to sneak up on you if you are unaware of his existence.  And you’re more vulnerable to attack when you’re unaware of his tactics. While we can be attacked in big flashy ways (demons or terror, for example) the enemy is often much more subtle. We know that he is the father of lies and uses lies and half-truths to deceive, condemn, and tempt us all the time.  He also twists scripture to cause confusion and doubt. 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us to be alert, because our enemy (like a lion) is looking for someone to devour.

6. There are a lot of people with really bad information about the spiritual realm

ALWAYS test your sources.  If it’s not clearly in the Bible, then hold it loosely.  If it’s not in the Bible at all, be highly skeptical.  Be aware that A LOT of your ideas about angels, demons, and the spiritual realm are probably cultural ideas rather than Biblical ideas.  For example, when angels show up in the Bible to talk to people, how many wings do they usually have?  None. The tend to look like normal men (not women) who are glowing (and terrifying).

7.  Do this, not that. 

I’m an Instructor for Western Seminary’s course on Equipping the Saints for Spiritual Warfare.  There is SO MUCH more that could be said about this topic…but not enough space in this one post.  So here are some highlights:  Be aware that the Spiritual world exists and affects the material world. Don’t focus too much on the spiritual realm.  It’s hard to win a war you don’t realize you’re fighting.  But your eyes should always be on Jesus who has defeated the Satan, sin, and death.  He is bigger, stronger, and on our side (or, rather, we are on his).  Keep your eyes on the victor not the enemy.  Your weapons are things like the name of Jesus (really, the power that his name represents) and truth.  And everything mentioned in Ephesians 6 . Prepare for battle.  Fight the good fight.  Do it with the power of Jesus.  Rest on his word and in his name.

And this:  This week Cory and I are in Mongolia teaching Wesleyan History, Theology, and Practice to a group of Mongolian pastors working toward ordination.  Please pray that God works in powerful ways and blesses the teaching.  Pray that God bless and provides for the pastors who are sacrificing to attend Bible school this week.  Pray for all of our health.  And pray that we have fun.




Trinity, Part II

“Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Part II)

On a previous Facebook post I told you that the ontological equality of the Trinity expressed through economic inequality may have implications for gender roles within the church and the home.

Now I’m going to tell you what that means.

Let’s start with some simple definitions (that will be expanded upon below):
Ontological: the essence of a thing, the core of it
Economic: in this context it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with function.  In fact, you could say “function” or “functional” and be just fine, except that a lot of the theological writing on this topic uses the word economic and I want you to be educated.  So, there, now you’re educated.
Complementarian: the belief that men and women are ontologically equal but were created for different roles (the woman is, generally, understood to be functionally subordinate).  In a marriage this usually means the husband is the head of the home and the wife is seen as a helpmate.  In the church this usually means a woman cannot be a pastor, elder, or preacher as she must submit to the authority of the God-ordained male leadership.
Subordinate: one who has a position or function with less authority than the other one and submits to their leadership.
Egalitarian: the belief that men and women are ontologcally equal, they may be created different from each other (aren’t all of us different from each other?).  In a marriage this usually means that both husband and wife share authority and responsibility based on gifting, preferences, or functionality and they submit to one another out of love.  In the church this means that both men and women can serve in whatever role they are otherwise qualified for and called to.

So here’s how these definitions relate to the Trinity:

All three members of the Trinity are ontologically equal.  That is, in their essence or their nature of being, at their very core, they are equal.   They have all existed eternally, are all omnipotent (all-powerful), and are all as important and valuable as the others.

They are equal in essence but do not have equal roles. We see, for example, that all three have distinct roles but work together for the salvation of humanity. The Father elects (Ephesians 1:4), the Son redeems (Ephesians 1:7), and the Holy Spirit seals (Ephesians 1:13).

We see the greatest (and most important for our discussion) distinction when the Son takes human form.   As a human, the Son (I will call him Jesus from now on) is in a role where he is economically (functionally)but not ontologically, subordinate to the Father and, to some extent, the Holy Spirit.  He is no less God than he was before he took human form but he takes on a distinctly subordinate role.  Jesus is dependent on the Father for guidance and direction. For example in John 5:19, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

In (1 John 4:10) we see that the Father sends the Son. The one being sent is taking a subordinate role to the one sending.

Philippians 2 we read that we should have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” We know that Jesus didn’t give up his ontological equality (his essence never changed) but he did not live in functional (or economic) equality, he accepted a subordinate role. 

And while he lived and walked among humanity, Jesus constantly was led and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1, Luke 4:14, Luke 10:21, etc.) indication his dependence not only on the Father but on the Spirit to carry out his ministry on earth. 

What we see is Jesus submitting to the Father and being led by the Holy Spirit.  He is no less God but he is choosing to obey the Father and follow the Holy Spirit (again, the core of who he is hasn’t changed; he’s still God) but he is in a subordinate role.

Let’s try a non-theological example just to make sure we’re all on the same page here. Let’s say I have triplets (I do not, let’s just say that I do) and they are all equally brilliant and perfect (because if I have triplets they’re going to be perfect).  My triplets are working on a presentation for class.  They decide that one of them will lead the project.  As the leader, he delegates tasks to the other two: one works on research, the other works on the visual arts aspect of the presentation, and the leader decides to be the speaker.  The two who are, at their very essence, equal to the third (that is, ontologically equal), agree to take on a subordinate role for this project. They are ontologically equal but not functionally (or economically) unequal.  They are choosing to submit to someone who is on their same level.

Here’s how this doctrine of functional subordination within the ontologically equal members of the Trinity relates to the role of men and women in the home and at church:  the Bible CLEARLY teaches that men and women where created ontologically equal.  By this I mean that that are both fully human and equally valuable in creation and before God (men and women aren’t exactly the same, no two people are, but they’re of equal worth). Nearly all complementarians and egalitatians agree with this ontological equality.  They disagree when it comes to the economic roles of men and women.  A complementarian would argue that men are the head of the household and wives are to submit to their husbands.  This does not mean that they are less valuable, or (usually) less capable of leading but that God has created this special helping role for them (and, more often than not, their biology sets them up to thrive in this subordinate role). In the church it usually means that women shouldn’t be pastors, preachers, or elders. Egalitarians would argue that, while their may be general biological differences between men and women, neither these differences, nor the Bible indicate that one gender should be subordinate to the other.  Instead, husbands and wives are to submit to one another out of love.  Neither should dominate.  In the church it usually means that both men and women can serve in any role that they are qualified for and called to regardless of their gender.

Here’s where the Trinity ties in:  Some people will argue against inherently subordinate roles (like saying a wife is always subordinate to her husband) because they tend toward, and are sometimes based on, an underlying belief that women are ontologically subordinate to men as well. And when the complementarian system is not doused in love and truth, women are often treated as less capable and less valuable than men. The complementarian response to this is to remind us all that the Bible teaches ontological equality among men and women then to argue that if we can see ontological equality within the trinity expressed in economic inequality (the Son subordinating himself to the Father) than certainly we can use their relationship as a model for our own human relationships.  If Jesus, being fully equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, can submit to their leadership then women, being fully equal with men, can submit to their leadership.

And, sure, as a model, we could see how that works. This is irrelevant though, because the bulk of biblical data, as Wesleyans* and other egalitarians understand it, teaches that women and men are ontologically equal and have the freedom to exercise mutual submission in marriage and equal roles in the church.  I’ll explore this more later.   Jesus’s voluntary submission is a valuable model, not just for women in marriage or the church, but for all believers in all their spheres of life.  So my husband can follow Christ’s example as he submits to me and I to him.  I can follow Christ’s example as I submit to my supervisor and lead pastor, who are men, as easily as I could follow his example to submit to a lead pastor who was female.  You can follow Christ’s example, the one who does not demand equality, as you submit to your leaders whether it’s your manager who is older and wiser or younger and foolish.  You can follow his example as you submit to leaders at your church, and as you  mutually submit within your home.  This submission, of course, does not mean that you never speak up, never challenge authority or the process, but that you do it carefully, wisely, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

*Yes, I’m saying the Wesleyans, as a denomination, are egalitarians.  At least we are in our paperwork, we may not always be in practice.





Doctrine of Holiness (not the Trinity, Part II)

I’m teaching a class called The Doctrine of Holiness to local pastors through FLAME/District Extension Classes so instead of writing Trinity, Part II,  I’m providing a short simple primer on Entire Sanctification for your reading pleasure.  Day 1 of class is in the books, I need to get read for Day 2, and then Day 3 (which, thankfully, is only half a day!) Please pray for my students (all busy pastors) and I as we walk through this doctrine.

Wesleyan theology is a theology of hopefulness and optimism.  This hope and optimism is base on our understanding of God’s grace as revealed in Scripture.  We believe that Christ died not only to cover the guilt of our actual sins (the sins we commit willingly or unintentionally) but also to cleanse/heal our bent toward sin.  When this bent toward sin is healed (or our sin nature is eradicated) he concurrently empowers us to live lives free of willful sin. Another way of saying this is that we are freed from our sinful nature and empowered to love God with our whole hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We’re talking about 3 different solutions to three types of sin:

Original Sin (aka sin nature, the old man, bent toward sinning, etc.)
Willful Sin (when we make a choice to do something that we know is against what God wants us to do. This is what we normally think of when we say “sin”)
Involuntary/Unintentional Sin (these are sins we commit without realizing we’re actually doing anything wrong.  This could include things like using a word you don’t know is a cuss word, or enabling an addict when you thought you were just being kind by giving them money, crushing your child’s spirit when you were disciplining them in what you thought was the best way, etc. )

We believe that the what Jesus accomplished at the cross (his atonement) addresses each of these sins:

Involuntary/Unintentional Sins need atonement.  They are forgiven for the believer at conversion.
Willful Sins need atonement.  They are forgiven for the believer at conversion.
Original Sin: Any guilt associated with original sin is covered for all people at the atonement. But the corruption remains for unbelievers and believers alike until the corruption is healed/eradicated either at entire sanctification (a spiritual event that can happen during your life time) or at glorification (when all things are made right after the you die).

When our original sin (sin nature, bent toward sinning, etc.) is eradicated  or hearts are turned toward God and our desire is to please him completely.  We are empowered to live holy lives.  Holiness is being 1) set apart for God’s use and 2) purity.  This purity is a purity of love.  We love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and we love our neighbor as ourselves.  Sin is primarily doing something that is not loving God well or not loving our neighbor well.

It is possible for someone to willfully sin, even after their sin nature is eradicated.  We know this both from experience and by looking at the lives of Adam & Eve.  They had no sin nature, they existed in a state of innocent holiness, and yet they chose to disobey God.  An entirely sanctified believer can sin.

When I lack the faith the pray for God to entirely sanctify me I step back and ask him to so fill me with his love that I can love him with my whole heart soul, mind, and strength and love others as I love myself.  And I ask him to keep me from sin…which is basically just asking him to entirely sanctify me.  Really, who can argue with that?

Here are a few videos that we’ll take a look at in class and other helpful resources.

Articles and Blog Posts:

Holiness, Entire Sanctification, and the Redirected Heart by Timothy Tennent (on Seedbed)

A Primer on Prevenient Grace by Andrew Dragos

Holiness by the Bible Project

The Image of God by the Bible Project:

John Wesley on Prevenient Grace

What is Holiness? by John Oswalt

Moving Beyond Spiritual Defeat and into God’s Gift of Holiness by John Oswalt

Does Romans 7 Teach that Christians Will Continue Sinning? 7 Minute Seminary by Ben Witherington III

What is Christian Perfection? by Ryan Danker

Holiness as a Life of Christian Victory