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Thinking Out Loud

Grace is not PC (Part Three)

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 21, 2017

This man and I were sitting at a table in the refectory of a camp in northern Indiana. I was there to teach a workshop on the Christian doctrine of the atonement. He came from a church in Illinois to participate in the class. At some point, he raised the question of why Presbyterians ordain women to church offices when, as he said, "the Bible says that women should not speak in church.”

Grace is not PC 3His comments reminded me of another conversation not long before. A fellow in a study group a long, long way south of Indiana told me that he and his wife were contemplating leaving the Presbyterian Church because, he said, in violation of "the Word of God, it allows women to teach men." I reflected with him on the problem of trying to build a universal doctrine on the basis of what were clearly local teachings which addressed problems in a particular church in the first century, but he persisted. When I asked him how it was that he had become so convinced of these ideas, even to the point of leaving the church to which his family had belonged for generations, he said - without the least hint of humor or irony - "Well, my wife is actually the biblical scholar in our family. She explained all of this to me."

So, back to our Midwesterner. After reflecting on the biblical text that he used to prove his point (I Timothy 2:11-15), I said, "The larger theological issue, to quote a beloved and respected professor emeritus of our seminary, Eugene March, is that God's circle of love tends to become ever more inclusive rather than exclusive." Or, as Cynthia Campbell, former McCormick Theological Seminary president in Chicago and current pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, writes: "In the end, God's grace will win out, and all creation will be transformed and renewed."* Or, to put it the way I usually do: the trajectory of the biblical faith stretches from grace to grace; from the Gospels through the book of Acts to the letters of St. Paul and beyond the biblical era. God is progressively revealing his full intention to us. And his intention is grace.

To reflect more fully on this idea, I turned to St. Paul's letter to the Galatians in which the Apostle famously writes: "You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:26-28) Far from being an isolated, local teaching addressing a particular problem in a congregation, this teaching echoes throughout the epistles of the New Testament from I Corinthians 12:12-13 to Ephesians 2:14-22 to Colossians 3:1-14.

According to Donald Guthrie, in his commentary on the book of Galatians, Paul is signaling that all who are "in Christ" are ushered into a larger, even universal, perspective on God in contrast to those who wish to restrict God's sphere to the merely cultic, sectarian or ethnic. Guthrie notes that distinctions between Jew and Greek (synonymous here with Gentiles), slave and free, male and female were "deep-seated," not only in ancient society but in Hebrew scripture. Long-established structures defined people according to their religion, ethnicity, economic status, social position, and gender. Paul articulates a perspective that is more radical than anyone in the ancient world could grasp; frankly, the Christian Church and the world have had a very difficult time catching up with him.**

The "faith" to which St. Paul refers here, which unites the follower of Jesus to the Christ and makes him or her a "child of God" in the full theological sense of the phrase as Paul uses it, is, according to Marty Soards and Darrell Pursiful, "activated by Christ Jesus himself." The union with Christ is a reality that for Christians has priority over other allegiances and appearances. In long doctrinal passages, such as in I Corinthians chapters 10-14, and Romans 11:33-36, as well as chapter 12, St. Paul provides the theological context for understanding his vision of "the Body of Christ." As Soards and Pursiful write: "Members of the congregations of believers are as if they were one person, the Corporate Christ. In Christ Jesus, differences are nullified, and they are replaced not by mere equality but by a unity that was created by and is identified with Christ Jesus himself."***

When we are "clothed in Christ," to return to Paul's metaphor in Galatians 3:27, we are made one with him, and realize our oneness with one another, a unity that rejects as unreal all the various distinctions we use to stratify society and divide humanity. The image of being clothed with Christ was especially lively for the early church, as we see in writers such as Cyril of Jerusalem, who, in his lectures on the Christian Sacraments provides a glimpse of what baptism actually looked like in early Christian communities. Cyril provides a sort of time machine, taking us into the sanctuary, as it were, to see the ancient Christian ritual in person. We witness those who are to be baptized removing their "street clothes," the raiment that reflected the various distinctions of the world, before going down into the baptistery. We see the very heart of St. Paul's teachings given ritual form: being washed in the baptismal waters, the new believer participates spiritually in the crucifixion, death and burial of Christ; rising up from the cleansing waters, the new believer participates in the resurrection to new life in Christ; being anointed with oil, the new follower receives the sign of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And being sent forth to be clothed in a white robe, the new follower receives the symbol of union with Christ that also revokes all worldly distinctions.****

The vision of the Apostle was clear. Although various forms of oppression have been practiced in the world and in the Church through the centuries, from anti-Semitism to the justification of enslavement to misogyny and racism, for St. Paul, our union with Christ, our divine sonship and daughterhood in Christ, the indwelling of God's Spirit, has priority over every worldly distinction and division. Christ's union with us through the power of the Spirit has the power to subvert all the walls we try to build. (Ephesians 2:14-18)

God's ways, we are told in the Bible, are higher than our ways. And this is true. But it is also true that God's ways have a way of staying well ahead of us, drawing us further and further along God's trajectory of grace in human history. The question is: How do we continue to participate in what God is up to in this world?
*The context of both Gene's and Cynthia's reflections is "religious diversity," but their comments apply equally to the expansion of perspective that attends the movement of God's grace in other areas. W. Eugene March, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Cynthia M. Campbell, A Multitude of Blessings (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 16.
** Donald Guthrie, The New Century Bible Commentary: Galatians (New Series, 1974), p. 110.
*** Marion L. Soards and Darrell J. Pursiful, Galatians, (Smyth & Helwys, 2015), pp. 171-177.
****St. Cyril of Jerusalem, "Mystagogical Catechesis, II: On the Rites of Baptism,” in Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, edited by F.L. Cross (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), pp. 59-67.

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