Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 13 - The Lord's Supper

1 Corinthians provides our only clear window into how the Lord's Supper was practiced by the first Christians, and what the apostles taught about it. While Paul speaks does speak about the "table of the Lord" a bit earlier in 10:14-22, his main discussion of the Lord's Supper comes here in 11:17-34. As with most things in the life of the church in Corinth the Lord's Supper had become a source of division rather than unity. But as with all of the other issues addressed in this letter it provided Paul an opportunity to provide Christians down the ages with important teaching.
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:17-22. How do divisions, injustices and broken relationships affect our ability to worship God faithfully? How might authentic worship (that is focused on God and his call to love) help to heal and set right our brokenness?
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:27-34. In light of what Paul says in verses 17-22 what might he mean when he speaks of eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner? What kind of self-examination is Paul requiring from his church?  What kind of self-examination should we practice today? 
  • The Lord's Supper is a free gift from Jesus to his disciples. Yet Paul's teaching suggests that it's important to open our hearts and lives to receive that gift and it's spiritual benefits. How can we seek God's help to prepare our hearts, minds and lives to receive the Lord’s Supper today?
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:23-26. This passage is used all the time in our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. How has reading of the rest of 1 Cor. 11:17-34 affected how you hear these words? What role does the faithful practice of the Lord’s Supper have in fostering Christian love and unity in the church?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone. Though I'm not much on New Year's resolutions, one I will make for this year is to keep this blog regularly updated. Seeing as I've been saying that for a while, we'll see how that goes. In any case the change of year does offer the chance to try some new things and make a few changes.

It's also an opportunity to do more than just get ourselves back to the gym or drop a few items from our diet (for a few weeks). In a number of Christian traditions the New Year is taken as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to God. One of the best known is the practice of the New Year's Covenant service that goes back to John Wesley the founder of the Methodist tradition (though Wesley adapted much of his practice from the English Puritans).

Even though I'm a Presbyterian and a Calvinist, I've always had a love for John Wesley and his brother Charles (the great hymn writer). All of my ancestors on my Nana's side (my dad's mother) were devout Methodists going back to at least early decades of the 19th Century, and my dad also has a love for Charles Wesley's hymns.

Anyhow, one piece of the Covenant service that many people have perhaps heard of is Wesley's Covenant prayer. It's one of my favourite pieces of Protestant Christian liturgy (written prayer), and is an excellent way for any of us as individual Christians, small group ministries, or congregations can renew our commitment to God as we enter a new year, or really at any time of the year.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. 
(The Methodist Church in Britain, 1999)

Note for History Geeks: You may be interested to know that while the words of the Covenant Prayer do go back to John Wesley, he did not compose them in the form of this compact liturgical prayer. In 1780 Wesley produced a 22 page pamphlet called Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God. It's a fascinating short work calling for intense self-examination, confession of sin, prayer and submission to God. Every single one of the phrases in the Covenant Prayer comes from this pamphlet. The Prayer in this form seems to have been compiled by the British Methodist Church in the first few decades of the 20th Century (the earliest version I could find is from a 1936 service book). If you're interested in Wesley's original work you can find a .pdf copy here:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 12 - Women's Role in Worship

With this session we get into that contentious issue of the Apostle Paul's views on women in the Christian church. I'm going to present one perspective, and while I believe this perspective is correct I recognize that there are a wide variety of views on this subject. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 deals specifically with the question of whether women in Paul's churches should have their heads covered when they take part in worship, but touches on the larger issues of women's roles in worship, as well as the differences and commonalities between men and women.
  • Paul's discussion of head coverings in 11:2-16 is pretty much the most confusing passage in 1 Corinthians. Read Genesis chapters 1-3, and Galatians 3:26-29 to help understand what he’s saying. 
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:2-16. The key word in this passage is ‘head’ which Paul uses both literally and metaphorically. Without making assumptions about what Paul means, think of all of the possible meanings of the word ‘head’. How do these different meanings of ‘head’ affect the meaning of the passage? 
  • Why do you think Paul bothers to talk about head coverings? Is he concerned with clothing or something else? 
  • Does Paul allow women to pray and prophesy in worship?
Having asked some questions I'm going to continue my bad habit of going ahead and answering some of them. I do this because this passage affects the place of women in Christian communities, and also affects the reputation of the Christian faith in contemporary culture. While there are plenty of times and issues where our faith will give offense to the various cultures in which the church finds itself (and it will offend people in different cultures and societies differently), if there's little conflict between what the Bible teaches and our culture I'd rather not create tension where none exists.

I'll answer my last question first. It's quite clear in this passage that Paul assumes that women will pray and prophesy in the public worship of the church. He assumes that women will speak in worship and take a leading role - especially in light of his argument later in chapter 14 that prophecy is a superior spiritual gift and one that is exercised publicly.

But why then does Paul bother to talk about head coverings? Well one possible reason may have been to protect the reputation of Christian communities from unnecessary slander (they'd get enough criticism for the right reasons), since one group of women who wore their hair loose and uncovered in public were prostitutes. Another possibility is that Paul wanted to avoid confusion with other religious groups in which women would wear their hair loose while worshiping.

However the main reason for Paul's concern probably has to do with his radical teaching that men and women in Christ are united and equal, which we find in Galatians 3:26-29. This teaching would have been profoundly liberating for women in Greek and Roman society, but the question it raised was what does this look like in everyday life and in the life of the church? From this passage it would seem that some took Paul to mean that women and men were the same, or equivalent. Paul here seems to argue instead that while women and men are equal, they were created different and distinct from one another (something Paul argues with his references to Genesis 1-3 in this passage) Therefore women and men should maintain their genuine distinctions while celebrating their new equality in Christ (admittedly though, I tend to think that Paul here confuses cultural gender norms around hair with the biological and psychological distinctions between men and women).

What about the way Paul uses the word head in this passage, specifically in 11:3 "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and a man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ." The most common reading of this verse is that head here means 'one who has authority over' (ie. that 'a man has authority over a woman'). But as I've noted above, the word head can have a wide variety of meanings. In the light of what Paul says about woman coming from man and man coming from woman in verses 8 and 9, it makes more sense 'head' in verse 3 means 'source' (as in 'the head of a river' ie. its source). This gives verse 3 the meaning 'Christ is the source of every man, and a man is the source of a woman, and God is the source of Christ,' which makes perfect sense if Paul is talking about the creation of humankind in light of Genesis 1-3.

Anyway, these are some of my thoughts on the passage. But even if you don't agree (or follow my reasoning, since I'm abbreviating a more detailed argument from my onsite Bible study), I would hope that most would agree that this passage should inspire some careful thought and a humble recognition that we're always going to be a little unclear on some of what Paul meant.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 11 - Clear Lines & Nuance

This session wraps up Paul's discussion of food offered in temples that started in chapter 8. With chapter 10 Paul turns to the question of where Christians need to draw lines between how we live and how the cultures around us live and what kind of lines are needed. While we no longer have to deal with our food being tied up in pagan religious practices, the question of when we should separate ourselves from the surrounding culture and when we should accommodate ourselves to it is always relevant.
  •  Paul uses some details from the Exodus story as examples in chapter 10. Read through Exodus 13:17-17:7 & 32:1-35 before doing your reading from 1 Corinthians.
  • Read 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Do you agree with Paul’s statement that God does not test us beyond out strength, and provides us with the ability to endure? Does this teaching apply only to temptations to sin or to more general trials such as suffering?
  • Read 1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1. Paul makes a distinction between taking part in overt idol worship (to be avoided at all costs) and eating meat that probably came from a pagan temple (the response depends on the circumstances). Are there times when we have to draw absolute lines against the world, and times when we need to take a more nuanced approach so that we are able to engage with people outside of the church?

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 10 - Our Rights vs. Needs of Others

This session continues Paul's discussion of the issue of "food offered to idols" that started in chapter 8. For the background information on this issue please see the last post. Here Paul continues to make his argument that there are times when Christians should not make full use of their rights, but instead set them aside for the needs of others. Here in chapter 9 Paul refers to his own refusal to accept money from the churches he founded and continues to serve.
  • Read 1 Corinthians 9:1-12a (end of the first sentence). Paul here lists the rights of apostles in the early church. How might this list apply to those who serve as ministers, pastors and priests in the church today? Should there be full-time ministers, pastors or priests who are paid to lead and care for local congregations in their Christian mission?
  • Read 1 Corinthians 9:12b-18. What do you make of Paul’s reasons for not using his rights? How might this apply to the issue Paul is dealing with in chapter 8? How might this apply to how we use our own rights today?
  • Read 1 Corinthians 9:19-26. Paul says he’s ‘become all things to all people’ for his mission. Is this a good or bad? Does this mean Paul has no firm beliefs and standards or does he mean something else?

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 9 - Using our freedom

With this session we come to a new section of 1 Corinthians. In chapters 8 to 10 Paul is again responding to a question he's received from the Christians in Corinth. This time the concrete issue is "food sacrificed to idols," something which seems far removed from life today (and will need some explanation). That being said this ancient issue leads to an important discussion of the ways Christians should fit into the world and the ways we should stand out. It also raises the issue of how we should use our freedom, and whether there are times when we should limit out freedom for the sake of others.

The background: In ancient cities almost all meat didn't come from a secular butcher - it came from temples where animals were sacrificed to various gods. Only a small amount was actually burned or eaten in the temples, and most of it made its way into the market. This meant that eating meat had all kinds of religious complications: should you eat food that was sacrificed to false gods? Wealthier Christians (of whom there were only a handful in Corinth) were the ones most affected, since the average person only could only afford to eat meat a few times a year (usually when it was given away free at civic festivals).

But it also affected common people because virtually all local associations (craft guilds, fraternities, burial clubs) had special meals in temples. To be a full part of your local community and get the benefit of being part of these groups you had to go to these meals. In fact one of the most common criticisms of early Christians by pagans was that they were anti-social and hated other people because they didn't take part in a lot of the public life of their towns and cities.

With all of this in mind let's now turn to what Paul has to say.

  • Read 1 Cor. 8:1-3. Are there times when we are concerned more with knowing things about God and the Christian life than loving God and loving others? 
  • Read 1 Cor. 8:4-6. What do you think Paul means he says both that no other gods exist and that there are “many gods and many lords”? What gods or lords might he be talking about in his time? What gods and lords would Paul see in ours? 
  • Read 1 Cor. 8:7-13. Are there times when we should limit our freedom for the sake of others? What activities or behaviours that are harmless to us might we consider avoiding for the sake of others?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 8 - Marriage, Celebacy & the Kingdom

With this session we continue our exploration of Paul's discussion of marriage and celibacy among Christians in 1 Corinthians 7. In the last session we considered the opening part of the chapter and now we finish it with verses 17-40. I'll give some reflection questions below, but I'll also give some interpretation because there are a few things in these verses that can be a bit confusing without clarification.

  • Read 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. What do you think Paul means when he tells Christians, “let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called? What’s your response to how Paul applies this teaching to slaves? How might this teaching apply to those who are married and single?
  •  Read 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. What do you think Paul means when he speaks of ‘the present crisis, and says ‘the time is short,’ and that ‘this world… is passing away’? What might this have to do with what he says about marriage and what he said earlier in verses 17-24? 
  • Read 1 Corinthians 7:32-40. Compare what Paul says here with Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:37-39 and Luke 9:57-62. What does this say about the kind of devotion we are to give to Jesus and God’s kingdom? 
  • Consider what Paul says in 7:38 ‘the one who marries… does well; and the one who refrains from marriage will do better.’ What do you think of Paul’s views on sexuality and marriage now that you have read through all of 1 Corinthians 7?

To make sense of what Paul is saying in 7:17-40 it's important to remember that central to Paul's beliefs is the statement he makes in Galatians 3:26-28 "For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (NRSV) For Paul, all of the old divisions in ancient Mediterranean society are healed and all are made one and equal in Jesus: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.

But just as important for Paul is the fact that unity and equality should not be reduced to sameness. Jesus calls all people, and the church must always be made up of people of all kinds. Paul taught unity in diversity. He taught that Gentiles should continue to be Gentiles and not seek to become Jewish and that Jews should not give up their Jewish identity and become Gentiles. This is what he says in 7:17-20. Here he makes no exceptions. The church must contain both Jews and Gentiles.

However, when it comes to slaves Paul does make an exception. In the context of a Roman Empire made up of slaves and free people, Christ's church ideally should always include both slaves and free to show that this false division is broken down in Jesus. This is why he tells slaves not to worry about their status as slaves - when it comes to their relationship with Jesus and their place in the community of his disciples their slave status doesn't matter.

That being said Paul does make an exception here because out in day to day life in the Roman Empire being a slave meant one had a very different life from those who were free. And so he tells them that "if you can gain your freedom, use the opportunity." (7:21) The trouble is that the Greek of this verse is a bit unclear: it can be taken to mean 'gain your freedom' or it can possibly mean 'make use of your status as a slave more than ever' (ie. stay a slave even if you can be free). The King James Version kept the ambiguity of the verse in it's translation (which is why slave owners in the 18th and 19th Centuries were able to point to it as justification), but most modern translations have favoured the 'gain your freedom if you can' reading. The only major translation that gives the alternate reading is the NRSV -  which is my preferred Bible translation, but on this verse I believe it is wrong.

So here we have Paul giving the general rule, 'stay in the same life state you were in when you were called by Jesus' and a basic example with no exceptions (Jews and Gentiles), followed by an example of a life state where exceptions to the rule apply (Slaves and Free). This sets us up for what Paul will say about celibacy and marriage. General rule: it is best to stay single and celibate, it will allow you to do more for God's Kingdom and it will also make it easier for you to be a disciple of Jesus in this age of crisis. Exception: not everyone can do this - marry if you don't have the spiritual gift of celibacy. While Paul is often described as being too caught up in big ideas, here as elsewhere in his letters he shows that he is deeply practical and familiar with the needs of day to day life in the world.