Isaiah 55:1-2 is one of my favorite passages. I love it because it is dripping with grace. We see grace when God reaches out to us. He does not ignore us or turn his back on us when we reject him, when we need help, when we fall short (of his expectations or of our own). No, he calls out to us and invites us to himself where we find everything we need. I so often need this reminder. I am thirsty, hungry, and tired. It’s easy for me to feel responsible for my thirst, hunger, and tiredness (and I probably am responsible to a large extent) regardless of whose fault it is, he invites me to his table anyway where he plans to feed me, quench my soul, and give me rest.
God calls to us:
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.”
-Isaiah 55:1-2 (NIV) emphasis mine
The God of the universe invites us to buy wine (a drink of celebration) and milk (a drink of sustenance) without money and without cost (grace). He invites us to get to know him as our source of joy and source of life through his revelation of himself in our lives and in Scripture . Wine and Milk is an invitation to dive deep into the study of theology to get to know God by learning who he is, who we are, and how wants to interact with the world around us.
By intention He relates to people as Father,
thereby forever declaring His goodwill toward them.
When I was 23 two words changed my relationship with God. They were, simply, “Describe God,” spoken in the middle of a conversation between me and the Chair of the Bible and Theology Department at Western Seminary. I was planning to begin seminary in the fall and I was in process of getting some classes waived. The process involved the Chair, Gerry Breshears, asking me whatever he wanted about any of the topics I was hoping to have waived. It was terrifying.
Describe God. That seemed easy enough. I talked about God’s omnipotence (how he is all-powerful), his omniscience (how he is all-knowing), his omnipresence (how he is present everywhere). I talked about his goodness and his holiness. I talked for a while; it was a pretty good answer.
Gerry simply replied, “Look up Exodus 34:6-8.”
So I did. It reads, “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (NIV)
Gerry pointed out that this is the first time God describes himself in the Bible. Earlier in the Bible we learn about who he is by how the author describes him and what he does, but when he has the opportunity to describe himself he doesn’t talk about his power, presence, knowledge, or holiness. He talks about himself in relational terms. God is gracious and compassionate, patient, full of love and faithfulness.
That was very different than how I described God. I wasn’t wrong but my answer still somehow missed the mark. I had described God in distant academic terms; God described himself in relational terms.
We went on to talk about other biblical and theological themes but this particular conversation stuck with me and I mulled it over for weeks.
My mulling led me to realize was that I had a very deistic view of God. Deism is the understanding that God exists and is the source of all that exists but that once he got things up and running he kind of stepped back and let the world run itself. It’s the understanding that, while he may step in every now and then to perform a miracle of give direction, he’s not actively involved in the day to day running of the universe.
I also came to realize that this was similar to how I would describe my relationship with my dad. He was an active part in creating our family but then he kind of stepped back and let us run ourselves. He was physically present but emotionally distant and largely uninvolved. And it hit me, in this and a million other ways, my view of God had been dramatically shaped by my experiences with my dad.
I’d bet the same is true for you. Your view of God, the things you most deeply believe about who he is and how he interacts with you, are (is?) probably strikingly similar to your believes about who your dad is and how he interacted with you.
If your dad adored you, encouraged you, guided you, and prepared you well for life you probably have a pretty benevolent view of God. If your dad was angry, sulky, or abusive, you probably live in the shadow of God’s anger and disappointment.
The more I explored the more I realized that even though I could say that God is love, I acted like God was indifference. I acted like He was emotionally distant, occasionally stepping in to fix something that was broken (or mess something up) but that he was generally uninterested and a bit agitated. I believed that God’s love was practical, not passionate. That he might never delight in me but I could at least strive to achieve so he wouldn’t be disappointed in me. I tried to make him proud of me but mostly I just tried to stay out of his way when he was angry. And I believed this and lived like this because I had an unexamined view of who God was based on my experiences with my dad.
That conversation with Gerry began the process of intense evaluation of what I believed about God at a deep, practical level in light of what he revealed about himself though his word and through his interaction with me.
The Wesleyan Church states that God intentionally relates to us as Father, thereby declaring his goodwill toward us. Jesus is working from the same underlying thesis when talking about prayer in Matthew 7: 9-11, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
Through his rhetorical questions he’s pointing what should be obvious, in the same way that dad’s take care of their kids’ needs, God, our heavenly father, will provided for us because a dad loves his child. Of course, it’s not obvious for all of us. Because some of us have fathers who would give us bread but others had fathers who would give us stone or ignore us completely. Some had fathers who responded to our needs others had fathers who neglected, rejected, or abused us. Not all of us had dads who laid the groundwork for a healthy understanding of who God is. Some of them, in fact, wrecked that for us.
But, here’s the thing, our dads don’t determine who God is. They may affect how we see him but they don’t affect who he actually is. So we have the opportunity to examine our understanding of who God is in light of how our dad’s shaped that understanding and then to evaluate and change it with truth. Our dads may have let us down but our heavenly father is good. Our dads may have rejected or ignored us but our heavenly father loves us and passionately pursues us. And, of course, our dads might have shown us who God is and set us up to see him for who he really is.
God chooses to relate to us as father because, at their best, fathers love their children, care for them, provide for them, guide them, and protect them. At their best, father’s delight in their children and work for their good.
There are a few dicey theological points I feel like I should address here:
- God is not male. God is spirit, he does not have a body, and is not gendered (Jesus has a body and he is gendered). Men and women are equally made in his image. God displays both traditionally masculine or feminine characteristics (the fruit of the spirit, for example, tend to be exalted as feminine characteristics but are deeply rooted in God’s nature).
- God is not a man nor is he a woman yet the Bible primarily, though not exclusively, uses masculine imagery to relate to the world. If we accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, we accept that this is God’s intention, not just a hold-over from oppressive patriarchal society.
- God chooses to relate to us, primarily, as father. There are times when he uses feminine imagery and metaphors (God is the original mama bear and is also described as human mother, a mother hen, and a woman looking for a lost coin) but he primarily uses the masculine imagery. I don’t have a firm grasp on why he chose to relate to us primarily as father rather than mother so I’m not going to offer any reasons here. Have fun googling though…you’ll find a lot of interesting ideas.
How Does God Relate to You as Your Father?
What kind of father do you think God is? How much is he like your earthly dad? I’d encourage you, if you haven’t thought about this already, to take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your dad and how he made you feel growing up. Then take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your relationship with God. As you do this, ask God to reveal to you what you most deeply believe (not just what you know the right thing to say is) and what the implications of your beliefs are on your relationship with him and in your life. See how the two line up, see where they’re different. Ask God to show you more of who he is, to cement the things that are true and to reshape the things that are untrue.
Spend some time meditating (thinking about) Scripture that talks about (or shows) God as father. You might go to http://www.biblegateway.com or http://www.biblehub.com and search for words like “father.” Or maybe read through the book of John and take notes about Jesus’s relationship with his Father. He is, after all, our best model of what it means to live a full human life, who better to learn from regarding how we can interact with our Father? Listen to some of your favorite songs that talk about God as Father.
If you’re a parent, get down on your knees and pray. Because this particularly responsibility, the one where we shape our children’s initial understanding of God, is based on how we act toward them NOT based on what we say or try to teach them. This is a HUGE responsibility. HUGE. And terrifying. And it highlights the importance of experiencing God as Father before we can display his character as parents. We probably won’t get it 100% right but, with his help and by his grace, we can parent them as God is parenting us with love, grace, compassion, truth, faithfulness, gentleness, etc.
Here are some songs…(you knew the first one was coming, didn’t you?)
Disclaimer: To some extent, I don’t really know what my dad was like (none of us really know what our dad’s are like…or any other person for that matter). All I “know” is how I’ve interpreted my experiences with him. I believe he was dealt a rotten hand in life and did the best he could with what he had. I believe he was full of contradictions: tenderhearted but often angry, living in poverty but incredibly generous, brilliant with little formal education. I believe he’s now in heaven, dancing with Jesus. I’m happy he’s now experiencing life to the fullest.
Last week I wrote about how men and women are equally created in his image. This doesn’t answer all of the questions about what roles they should have in the home or the church but it does give us a baseline for understanding our shared value and dignity. The question of roles is dealt with later in Scripture (and we’ll get there eventually). Rather than moving forward and talking about the next thing in the Articles of Religion, I want to take a side-step this week and talk, briefly, about how God created man but it was not good for him to be alone.
The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone…” (Gen 2:18)
Christians are fond of saying that God is everything we need. The truth is both that he is…and he isn’t. In a sinless world, while walking in perfect fellowship with God, God tells Adam that it’s not good for man to be alone. God says (basically), “Hey, I’m pretty great, perfect actually, but I didn’t design it to be just you and me. It’s not good for it just to be the two of us, you were designed for intimate relationships with other human beings.” God wanted more for Adam than just a fulfilling divine relationship, he wanted Adam to have fulfilling human relationships. And when he didn’t have them it was not good.
Of course, God wants to be the center of our universe and our most important relationship, and God never wants us to lower or standards or violate his relational rules just to be intimate with others, BUT that longing you feel when you’re single, or when you’re alone in your marriage, or when everyone else seems to have friends and your awkwardly standing on the outside? That feeling is normal, and it exists because you long for something you were designed to have, intimacy with other human beings.
When those relationships don’t exist, God will sustain us, but, if we’re really going to thrive, his ideal is that we are in intimate relationship with him and with other human beings.
When I was in high school I, like nearly everyone else, didn’t feel like I belonged. I had my group that I hung out with and did the normal teenage things with, but I didn’t feel like they really knew me or that I could fully be myself around them. I was surrounded by people but was lonely. It was my mom who pointed out to me that God created us for relationships, and not just surface-level relationships, but deep, meaningful relationships. She told me it was not good to be alone. That didn’t fix anything but it at least took away the, “Shouldn’t God be enough?” guilt.
So, today, if you find yourself lonely, either because you don’t have close friends or you long for a deep romantic relationship that you don’t have, look to God to sustain you. But know that your longing for people to help satisfy you isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s actually the logical outflow of how you were created and isn’t, in itself, bad. When we compromise to get that intimacy or when we make relationships with others a higher priority than our relationship with God it becomes a problem. But that longing? It’s from him. When you feel it, take it to him. Ask him for friends, for deep relationships, for love for and from others where you know and are deeply known. When he doesn’t provide the people? And ask him to sustain you but be okay with not being okay when God is enough but not quite enough.
With the Son and the Holy Spirit, He made man, male and female, in His image.
Today I’m focusing on something that’s not uniquely Wesleyan. Really, nothing in the above statement is uniquely Wesleyan, it’s pretty universally Christian. In theory we all agree that all human beings, male and female, are created in God’s image. Men don’t have more of his image, women don’t have more of his image, we all are created in his image. When our thinking gets skewed, it’s often in the direction of believing that God is male (because Jesus was) and we think that to represent God we have to be more masculine which can also lead to overstated fears of the “feminization of the church”. Thinking can also be skewed toward acting like women are inherently less capable or valuable which can lead to things like abuse and social inequality.
To fight against this skewed thinking we need to be firmly planted in the truth so we’re going to look at where the Bible shows us this equality and why it matters.
Man = Male and Female
When it comes to image bearing, we all (Christians) tend to agree that all men and all women bear God’s image. We’re going to build a quick case for why this is incredibly obvious from Scripture.
Genesis 1:27 (NASB) says,
“God created man in His own image,
in the image of God He created him;
male and female He created them.“
The word “man” (in the first line) can mean several things: ranging from one single male (a man) to all of humanity (man or mankind). When Genesis 1:26 & 27 tell us that God has decided to make “man” in his image, we need to be sure which definition of “man” was intended. The context makes it abundantly clear. In typically Hebrew fashion, the author says something, then repeats it again (kind of backwards) saying basically the same thing but a slightly different way.
- God created man in His own image (the original statement)
- In the image of God He created him (repeating the same idea but flipped so “image” is first and “created” is second)
- Male and female he created them (further explains that “him” isn’t just men but males and females)
The context clearly intends that “male and female” modify “man” which, then, must mean mankind (which both the original language and English allow for). Here are how some different translations translate it (with my emphasis added):
NIV: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
ESV: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”
KJV: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
RSV: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Why the difference? When translators translate the Bible they have to decide how closely they want to stick to what the passage says (formal equivalence) vs. what the passage means (dynamic equivalence). For example, when you translate “hot dog” out of English do you use the formally equivalent words (warm canine) or the dynamically equivalent words (bland lunch sausage)? One is word-for-word but looses the meaning, while the other maintains the meaning by translating the concept, not the words. The NIV tends to be heavier on the dynamic equivalent side so rather than translating “man” they clarified that it means “mankind” while the others stuck to the formal equivalence translating it “man” allowing the reader to determine from the context that “man” actually means “mankind.” The risk of dynamic equivalence is over-interpreting in your translation. The risk of formal equivalence is losing meaning.
Nearly all Christians agree that Genesis 1:26-27 indicates that:
- “man” means “mankind” or “humanity” and,
- both males and females are image bearers.
Though not mentioned above, we also see that:
3. there is a distinction between “males” and “females” (but it is unclear, at this point, what the distinction is).
This means that at our core, males and females are of equal value and equal standing before God. A woman, in all her femininity bears the image of God as much as a male in all his masculinity does. (Masculinity and femininity need not be defined according to the expectations of the prevailing culture.) We agree with this equality of essence in theory but that doesn’t always translate to practice.
The challenges come with how we understand and interpret the distinction mentioned in point #3 above. There are two basic camps 1) one that believes that males and females have equal standing before God and that, though there are some distinctions, we should be wary of gender roles and allow each male and each female to flourish in the realm of their giftedness in the home, in society, and in the church (this is called egalitarian) and 2) and one that believes that males and females have equal standing before God and that the distinctions between genders lead to God-given gender roles that give the best avenues for how an individual’s giftedness should be expressed within the home, in society, and in the church (this is called complementarian, a.k.a. wives submit to husbands and shouldn’t be pastors).
This is, of course, an oversimplification for the sake of space. There is a spectrum of equality, distinctions, and understanding of roles within the home, society, and church but these two views capture the major essence of the biblically-based perspectives. Each of these views also can be dangerous when taken to an unbiblical extreme. Those who go too far to equality may loose all gender distinctions. Those who go too far in understanding different roles may treat women as if they identified with their role (less competent or valuable since they have a more submissive role).
Our theology of gender is important because it affects EVERY SINGLE AREA of our lives whether we are female, male, or inter-sexed. So you should do a lot more reading to make sure your theology of gender is on firm biblical footing and explore how this theology is lived out in your real life. But my goal in this post was to focus on what we agree on regarding males and females made in the image of God. So I’m not going to dive into the biblical basis for equality in roles. If you want to explore more, and I think you should, I recommend you explore opposing Christian viewpoints: The Council For Biblical Sexuality (formerly called the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and Christians for Biblical Equality. I, along with the majority of the Wesleyan Church (though, sadly, not all of it) would largely align, at least theoretically, with CBE.
Some Implications of Image bearing:
As image bearers, we are unique from the rest of creation. Like the rest of creation we are created beings. Unlike the rest of creation we’re in our own category, the category of image bearers. We are above the rest of creation. We are given every seed-bearing plant to eat and commissioned to rule over every animal on land, in the sea, and in the sky.
Being an image bearer means that we are intrinsically valuable. Genesis 9:6 teaches justice for murder based on the uniqueness of the murdered human as an image bearer. James 3:9-10 points out the absurdity of praising God with our mouths while cursing his image bearers with that same mouth because, as his image bearers, respecting us means respecting him, at least at some level. Because we bear his image (and every human being does) we are automatically valuable, even if we’re terrible people.
As image bearers, we have the authority to rule over creation and the responsibility to do it well. In the Old Testament the emphasis on the image in not so much about morality but more about representing God on earth. He has given us the authority and the responsibility to rule over creation, to harness the earth’s resources in a way that respects creations, honors God, and leads to human flourishing. Sometimes we (personally or corporately) do that well, other times we’re terrible at it. It is better to represent him in a way that honors him and is in accordance with what he values (this is where morality/love/respect comes in).
This video explains our role as image bearer representatives better than I can. It’s definitely worth the 6 minute investment to watch (even our six year old is mesmerized by the Bible Project videos).
As gendered image bearers our femininity or masculinity somehow help us image God. If we believe our gender is deeper than just our biology than it most certainly affects our image bearing. I don’t know exactly what this looks like but I do know that as a woman I don’t need to adapt to the prevailing male-dominated culture to effectively represent God to the world. I know that both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine characteristics and tendencies represent God. My advice to you: Seek God. Be obedient. Long for holiness and love. Change what God tells you to change but embrace the things he doesn’t tell you to change and let your whole self wholey represent God.
“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.
“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.
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:
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
“Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
It seems like I’ve had issues with the doctrine of the trinity my whole life. From a young age my dad shared his concerns about this formulation that seemed to be illogical. I listened and absorbed his hesitation. In junior high I asked my Sunday school teachers to help me understand the “hypostatic union” (in junior high I actually knew what those words meant and used them…they refer to how Jesus’ human and divine natures worked together, how he could be fully human and fully God at the same time). My Sunday School teachers were not, not surprisingly, ill-prepared to answer. So my questions remained and grew. Throughout high school I heard a lot of analogies that left me more confused and frustrated. I asked a lot of questions in my theology classes at Bible College. One semester we had a visiting theology professor…I had the honor of lunching with him one on one, I assume my professor hoped this guy could explain the Trinity to me in a way that would make sense so that I could rest and he would need not worry about the eternal destiny of my potentially heretical soul. He could not.
The doctrine of the Trinity just never made sense to me. But it seems like nearly every other orthodox Christian throughout history believed it, so I kept trying to figure out what I was missing. What made it possible for other people to so easily accept Trinity as basic fact? What did they know that I didn’t? Or did they just not care?
When I looked at the Bible, here’s what I saw: there were clearly three distinct persons…the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (it seems to me that the distinction between them becomes more clear in the New Testament). Each of them has uniquely divine characteristics, does uniquely divine stuff, and is worshiped as God. Despite this, the Bible is abundantly clear that there is only one God. I knew from experience that God was real and trusted the Bible so, even though I didn’t understand the doctrine, through lots of wrestling and uneasiness, I eventually came to accept it but I still don’t really like it.
I think the turning point for me was accepting something as true even when I couldn’t understand it. For a generally logical person this goes against my very nature. But I came to realize that truth was not determined by my ability to comprehend something but by what God revealed through* his word.
In this post I’m going to lay out the basic doctrine and share a couple of helpful videos. Next week I’ll talk a little about the “ontological equality” and “economic roles” within the trinity, explore some common heresies, and I’ll share a little bit about what the idea of “the eternal subordination of the son” means and why it matters to you (especially if you are a woman).
Where We Find the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible
The word “Trinity” isn’t used in the Bible, but the idea is definitely there. If the doctrine of the Trinity was a table, these would be the legs (it appears to be a five-legged table, don’t worry, it’s fine):
- In the Bible we see three distinct persons: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- They are all given divine titles
- They all have uniquely divine attributes
- They all do uniquely divine things
- Yet there is only one God
As Christians throughout the ages have viewed these truths they basically came to this conclusion: that makes no sense, let’s just admit that and create a new label because none of our current labels fit. Except, sometimes, they try to convince you that it does make sense and then you begin to feel like you’re crazy. It doesn’t have to make sense to be true. This isn’t anti-intellectual, it just means that God is bigger, more intricate, and more than our minds can comprehend. Certainly, it seems reasonable that we, as his creatures, couldn’t fully explain or understand the awesomeness of the God who created all things. So this thing that God has revealed about himself isn’t against reason, it’s just beyond reason.
Let’s look at the legs:
1. In the Bible We See Three Distinct Persons
As we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament the distinction between the three members of the Trinity becomes more apparent until it is explicitly stated. It is hinted at in the Old Testament, for example, when God speaks using “we” and “us” (Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7; Isaiah 6:8). There are passages when at least two distinct people are spoken of and the titles “God” and “Lord” are used of both (Psalm 45:6-7, see also Hebrews 1:8, Psalm 110:1 see also Matthew 22:41-46).
The distinction is explicitly stated in places like Matthew 28:19 “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” and other places where three members of the Trinity are listed together (Matthew 3:16-17, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 1 Peter 1:2, Jude 20-21). Of course, the fact that there are three of them isn’t that profound. It gets complicated when we declare that each is fully and equally God.
2. They Are All Given Divine Titles
They are all called God. “God” is the Father’s default title. He’s who we think of most often when we hear or read the name, “God.” The Son is called God explicitly at least twice: John 1:1 ” In the beginning was the word and the word was God” and in John 20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” The Holy Spirit is commonly referred to as “The Spirit of God” and in Acts 5:3-4 lying to the Holy Spirit is equated to lying to God (side note: you should definitely not lie to God).
2. They All have Uniquely Divine Attributes
I’m only picking a few attributes here for sake of space but you could find a ton more by checking our a systematic theology book or searching the internet.
Omnipresence (God’s ability to be all places) is ascribed to the Father (Jeremiah 23:34), the Son (Matthew 18:20), and the Holy Spirit (Psalm 139:20).
Omniscience (God’s knowing of all the things) is ascribed to the Father (Jeremiah 17:10), the Son (Revelation 2:23), and the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11).
Eternality (Always existing in all time) is ascribed to the Father (Psalm 90:2), the Son (John 1:2; Revelation 1:8, 17), and the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).
No one other than God can be everywhere, know everything, or exist in the beginning and forever.
3. They All do Uniquely Divine Things
There are some things that it seems only God can do. Here are two quick examples of divine things that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do together.
All three were involved in Creation. This is important because it means they were Creators, not created; which makes them distinct from everything and everyone else (Father: Genesis 1:1, Psalm 102:25; Son: Colossians 1:16; Holy Spirit: Genesis 1:2).
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).
4. Yet there is only one God
In a previous post I talked about the importance of the oneness of God. So here I’ll just share a list of verses (in both the Old and New Testaments) that declare there is only one God, even though three persons are clearly talked about.
- Deuteronomy 6:4-7
- Exodus 20:2-3
- James 2:19
- Isaiah 45:5-6
- 1 Timothy 2:5
- Romans 3:30
The Bible clearly declared and displayed three persons as divine while also clearly declaring there is one God. I have come to accept that the Bible does indeed declare these two, seemingly irreconcilable facts, and does not try to reconcile them or explain them away. And so, rather than trying to understand, I’ve chosen to accept and live in the tension that we’re supposed to be reasonable and that some things are beyond reason.
Analogies can be helpful for helping us understand things, but every analogy breaks down somewhere. The breakdown is most of the analogies were obvious to my junior high self. Be cautious when you use them…know your audience and be aware of the heresy that they may accidentally incorporate into their theology.
God is like an egg: The egg is made up of three distinct parts but there is only one egg. There was a yolk, the shell and the white part. The problem is that the yolk is part of the egg, but it in not the egg. This is partialism (dividing God into parts).
God is like water: Water can be steam, liquid, or ice just like God is the Father, Son, And Holy Spirit. The problem with this is that the same molecule of water cannot be all three things at the same time. This is modalism (the idea that God is presents himself with different faces at different times)
This fun video will walk you through these and other heresies:
WHY IT MATTERS
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably asking, “So what?” and I don’t blame you unless you’re inherently interested in the intricacies of theology this could be really boring and seem pointless. But it’s not. And here’s why: If you want to know God and be in relationship with him (this is what we were designed for) you have to get to know God on his own terms. You have to come to see him as who he says he is and live in that reality. If you believe he is something different than what he really is you can never really deeply know him. Diving into doctrine can help us know God and relate to him in ways that prayer, worship, and even his presence cannot (of course, if we only focus on doctrine than we miss out on the incredible knowledge that comes through prayer, worship, and the experience of his presence. These are ALL important paths to get to know God and to pursue his heart).
- The Trinity shows us that God is inherently relational. He relates to himself and we, being made in his image, are designed to relate to him and others.
- The general pattern of prayer in the Bible is to pray to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18).
- Jesus’s humanity and deity have some very specific implications:
- God humbled himself to come and be with us. He did not send an ambassador, a surrogate, he himself came and entered our world, took our sin, and walked with us.
- Jesus could only be a substitute for our sin if he was human and could only die for all of us if he was infinite (one righteous man could die for one sinner but one righteous God-man could die for an infinite amount of sinners).
* this was one of the most difficult words to choose in this post because it speaks to my understanding of God’s revelation in the Bible. Does the Bible contain God’s word? Is the Bible God’s word? Is the Bible a vessel through which God communicates? You probably didn’t think about it that much…but I’ll explain more about why it matters when I get to the sections of the Articles of Religion that discuss the Bible.
This is a common picture used to describe the trinity. It doesn’t really help me but it might help you (it’s also used in one of the videos below)
When people try to hard too make sense of of the doctrine of the Trinity they usually end up falling into heresy or end up using bad analogies that are basically heresy. (Heresy simply means bad doctrine or believing false things about God).
- If you accept that there is one God, and three persons…perhaps the other persons are inferior. For example, perhaps Jesus is not really God ( this is called the “Arian heresy” after its most famous proponent, Arius. Jesus is seen as the son of God, created by God, not eternal, not God but divine. Jehovah Witnesses fall into this camp). Another option is to see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force (but he has a will, emotions, teaches, comforts, etc.)
- Occasionally Christians are accused of being tritheists (having three Gods). We know that we do not have three Gods, we only have one, but you can certainly understand why this would be confusing for those on the outside looking in.
- Modalism: This is the idea that God exists in different modes (or as different people) at different times. In the Old Testament he was the Father, in the New Testament he was Jesus, in the Church age he is the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is foolish becuase the members of the trinity are shown interacting with each other so, obviously, he’s more than one thing at one time.
- Partialism: That each member of the trinity is 1/3 of God or part of God.
It’s a sick day at the Ellison home after a rough week walking through the messiness of life with friends so there’s no post this week. But NEXT week you can look forward to a post on the Trinity. Specifically, I’ll talk about how the word “Trinity” isn’t a biblical word but the doctrine does seem to be biblical, how I argued with professors all through Bible college and how I came accept the reality of the Trinity even though it makes NO SENSE to me. I’ll talk about how the Trinity is unique to Christianity and how this doctrine separates us from pseudo-Christians factions (like Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses). I’ll also share my favorite Trinity videos and discuss why the trinity matters to your every day life. I may need to break it into a couple posts because you also need to know what the doctrine of eternal subordination of the Son is and its implications for the roles of men and women in the home and church. So, that’s what you have to look forward to.