Women in the Ministry of Jesus: Gender Roles in the Church Part 2

In my previous post, I shared a bit about my experience with the gender roles controversy and emphasized the need for careful resolution of the tension we find among the biblical texts that relate to women in the church. I now wish to examine some of the Scriptural evidence pertaining to the status and responsibilities of women in Jesus’ pre-ascension ministry. (In part 3, I’ll deal with Paul’s epistles.)

 We certainly shouldn’t minimize the fact that The Twelve—the dozen men Jesus hand-picked to be his principal learners and leaders—were all men; that is significant. But, we also cannot ignore the fact that there were others, including women, who learned and ministered under the direction of Jesus. They were part of his travelling entourage (Luke 8:1-3), carried out duties that would eventually be done by deacons and deaconesses, and, as we will see later, some were collectively referred to as disciples, as well. This was extremely counter-cultural! As Dr. Ben Witherington puts it: “For a Jewish woman, the possibility of being a disciple of a great teacher, of being a travelling follower of Jesus, of remaining single ‘for the sake of the Kingdom,’ or even of being a teacher of the faith to persons other than children, were all opportunities that did not exist prior to her entrance into the community of Jesus.”

christ-samaritan-woman-at-well-living-water-simon-dewey-3Jesus turned both the religious and social norms upside down, and where women were concerned, His actions were undeniably equalizing. Recall the account of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). As far as the Jews were concerned, Samaritans were unclean half-breeds, and moreover, Jewish men were not supposed to speak to strange women in public. What does our Lord Jesus do? He sits down with a promiscuous Samaritan woman out in broad daylight at the town’s common water well and has one of the most important theological discussions recorded in John’s Gospel. He explicitly identifies Himself to her as the Messiah! She abandons her water jar and runs into the town to tell everyone who will listen—and many believed based upon her testimony (4:39). A woman was the first evangelist to Sychar in Samaria.

I wish I knew her name.

Throughout my latest study of women in the Gospel narratives, what has surprised me is realizing how often I’ve made a mistaken generalization instead of carefully identifying who the Gospel writers meant to include when they used the word “disciples” in any particular passage. When I’m reading along and come to the phrase “the disciples” or “His disciples,” my mind automatically registers that as “The Twelve.” I know there were more disciples than The Twelve; I’m just saying that when I’m reading the Gospels, my brain defaults to the exclusive circle all too often as I’m trying to rush forward to the main point of the passage (shame on me).

There’s one particular cross reference that I really like. The synoptic Gospels record Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection. For example, in Matthew 16:21 we read, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Compare this to Mark 8:27-34, where a distinction is made between what Jesus says to the disciples (including the death/resurrection prediction) before he calls the general crowd to him. My point is, the Scripture tells us that the disciples were the ones that he spoke his prediction to (he voiced this prediction several times, and it should be noted that at least once it was to The Twelve, exclusively). But then notice what happens immediately after his resurrection, when the prophecy has come true.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women (“the women who had come with Him from Galilee”—Luke 23:55) set off to embalm Jesus’ body:

 Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Emphasis, mine.)

Take note: the angels tell the women to recall what Jesus told them would happen. This indicates that when Jesus foretold to “his disciples” his betrayal, death, and resurrection, the women were included in that group. The women ran back to tell The Eleven (Judas is gone) about what the angels had told them at the open, empty tomb. Women were the first to discover and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord risen.  

Women, whose testimony wasn’t of much worth in that culture, were entrusted by God with the most important message in all of human history, and they delivered it to the men who had been closest to Jesus.

And the men thought they had made it all up.

I wonder if there was ever an “I told you so.”  ;-) 

Level Ground at the Foot of the Cross: Gender Roles in the Church, Part 1

I’ve never written or spoken publicly on the issue of gender roles in the church. My philosophy about my personal ministry work has long been: “Lord, here I am, send me, and I will go.” A prayer I pray persistently is, “Open the doors I am to walk through, but seal tight the ones that would displease you.” I trust that the Lord hears me and knows my heart, and I proceed in my work with caution, doing all I can to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. (Although, I do admit that sometimes I plead for the proverbial neon sign.:-) )

I’ve given public lectures by invitation, and I’ve taught classes for churches of which I was a member. At Houston Baptist University, I teach a course I designed on Science and Christianity, and many (but not all) of my students are Christians. Once in a while, over the course of my years in ministry, my audience has been exclusively female, but that has, surprisingly, been the exception rather than the rule.

Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching a room full of women! In fact, I recently developed a talk entitled “Womanhood and the Life of the Mind,” which is based upon some of the material in the cover article I wrote for the spring issue of Christian Research Journal, “Motherhood and the Life of the Mind.” I gave the talk for the first time at a beautiful women’s tea in Richmond, Virginia last weekend, and it was a sweet time of sharing my heart and doing my best to encourage sisters in Christ towards developing a more robust intellectual life. The content of the talk really isn’t gender-specific, with the exception of my exhortation to mothers and grandmothers about mentoring children intellectually. It’s a Scripture-based exhortation to love the Lord with our minds so that we can be and make excellent disciples.

The morning after I delivered the talk in Richmond, the event organizer sent me a note, and something that really stuck out to me was her remark that the men who had worked as servers at the tea (in spiffy black bow ties, no less!), who had stood in the back of the room during my talk, approached her at church the next morning to tell her of their appreciation for what I’d had to say.

I’m painfully aware that there are some Christians who would condemn me for teaching within the walls of the church where men are in attendance and/or condemn the men for listening to my teaching. More than once, I have received indirect criticism for teaching mixed audiences. At a church where I served as a Sunday morning class teacher, the disapproval from some was subtle but unmistakable. Fellow members (thankfully only a very few), who had been gracious and friendly in the years prior to me assuming a teaching role, immediately began doing the cold-shoulder routine, and when I would smile and greet them in the hallway, the response was always a tight-lipped, begrudging half-smile with a curt nod. I know that, in their eyes, my teaching was a form of open disobedience, of outright sin. Nevermind that some of my male class members were open about how the knowledge I shared from week to week was helping them have more effective faith conversations at the workplace and with their own children. Some might reply: “Well, God can even use sinful actions for His own glory.” 

I have often been asked to articulate my position on the role of women in the church, and, honestly, I’ve just avoided the controversy as much as possible; it gives me a headache. But, at the end of the day, the fact that I am a woman who teaches in churches means that I truly need to be willing to talk about it, to justify my actions on biblical grounds. So, I’ve been reading more deeply, more broadly, and meditating upon the words of Scripture pertaining to this issue. 

How do we define “teaching in the church”? By “church” do we mean specific brick-and-mortar locations? Or, do we mean teaching the people that make up “the church” regardless of the setting in which the teaching happens? If we mean the latter, then any and all Scripture-related teaching a woman does, whether in the university setting, a home-based study, on television, by writing books, or even blogging counts as “teaching in the church.” Obviously, there’s no way to limit the readers and hearers to women. Do we mean that Scripture is referring to the teaching that goes on only in the worship service setting on Sunday morning? That would imply that worship only happens in specific corporate gatherings on specific days. We know that’s not true.  What’s the deal, then? 

This post will be the first in a short series, because I hope to give this topic more than a cursory treatment. I want to wrap up this first installment by highlighting what I think is a key general observation about the relevant Scripture.

st_junia2.jpg_w540Within the New Testament, there seems to be significant tension among various passages that communicate, whether implicitly or explicitly, anything about the place of women in the body of Christ. For example, if some of the words of Paul are taken at plain face value and applied to all Christians in all times and cultures, they seem to be at odds with Jesus’ attitude towards women and even with some of Paul’s other remarks and actions regarding women. When we find such tension, it’s intellectually and theologically irresponsible to ignore it, or worse, to pick out a “proof text” that seems to justify our preferred view. There is complexity that must be explored for a comprehensive and viable understanding. What we need is a harmonious integration of the texts that pays very careful attention to the cultural context in which the passage was written, recognizes the nuances of the original language, and considers the intended audience of an epistle. 

New Testament scholar (and retired Anglican Bishop) N.T. Wright is fond of saying, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” We are made male and female for purposes beyond procreation, I am certain. Separately, we have been given some special ways in which we are uniquely equipped to serve the body. But in addition, the testimony of Scripture seems to indicate that, whether in the marital union or the corporate church, men and women together reflect the image of God most fully, and this includes some overlap in our roles as Christ followers. The question is, where is the overlap and how far does it extend?

In my next post, we’ll examine Jesus’ attitude towards women, particularly how women were treated and used in his pre-ascension ministry. Remember, this was before the birth of the church proper, which happened on the day of Pentecost (a day commemorated as a Principal Holy Day in my church tradition). It will be interesting to compare and contrast the Gospels with Paul’s epistolary instructions to various churches of his day.

Preparing Heart and Mind for Holy Week

This is the first year that my family and I have been part of a Christian tradition in which the historic church seasons are formally observed, and we looked forward, with much anticipation, to what the Lord wanted to teach us through the Lenten weeks of solemn reflection, prayer, and lamentation. We attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service for confession of sin and imposition of ashes. It is such a wonderful mystery how that experience is, all at once, heart-rending and beautiful! We are dust, and to dust we will return. Yet in our unworthiness, we have glorious hope…

My husband and I had prayed, independently, that God would reveal to us how He wanted us to fast for these 40 days, and an answer was not immediately forthcoming. A few weeks went by, still with no clear idea of what we should sacrifice. “We make really terrible Anglicans!” I was thinking to myself (only half-jokingly). 

Then, in the middle of the season, as I sat in the dusky silence of the predawn hour, contemplating the prayers, canticles, and Scripture of the Daily Office, the Holy Spirit made it suddenly clear to me what the appropriate sacrifice was for me–for us–this year. It was something that could be done all at once, so it didn’t matter that we were already well into Lent. I kept the epiphany to myself for a day or two, until my husband said one morning, “You know, I think we’re supposed to make this particular sacrifice for Lent…” and I smiled, my heart reveling in the undoubtable direct confirmation. This is just one example of how blessedly evident the Spirit has been. Oh the stories I could tell you about all the marvelous ways He has shown up lately…

So here we are, just a couple of days away from Holy Week. I’ve been reflecting upon the final days of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry–the sorrow, the urgency, the sense of spiritual isolation, the bittersweet time with his dearest friends…the abandonment.

This Sunday, we will commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the time of year when the city was filling up with those coming to celebrate Passover.

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-13)

When Jesus looked at the jubilant faces around him, what did He feel? These people were celebrating triumphantly. They didn’t see what was coming–a bloody cross, a broken body, a darkened earth. Our Lord Jesus probably felt many things, but nothing more than love…love for the world he was about to sacrifice himself for. 

holyweekAnd thus our Holy Week will begin, with Hosannahs, declarations, and waving palm branches. But we do know what followed that day, and that makes observance of these days indescribably meaningful. 

The week continues with additional opportunities for quiet prayer and Holy Communion. Maundy Thursday is the remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, the night he instituted Holy Communion in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine–and the night he washed His disciples’ feet. “Maundy” is from the Latin word Mandatum, which is translated “commandment” and refers in this context to Jesus’ commandment to love one another. In the Anglican tradition, Maundy Thursday may include feet washing and something called “the stripping of the altar.” In The Anglican Way, Fr. Thomas McKenzie describes the stripping this way: 

This can be somber or dramatic, or both. The holy objects that we normally use in worship–the candles, books, chalices, hangings, etc. –are hastily removed…When we treat the holy things of the sanctuary as common, we are showing that the Son of God was treated as a common criminal, a man of no account. Afterward, we’re invited to stay before the now-barren altar. We wait with Christ, as he asked his disciples to do in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36), but no matter how much we love him, eventually the sanctuary empties. Everyone leaves him.

Some churches may use a black pall on the altar to symbolize the impending crucifixion day. Recession from the church occurs in silent solemnity. 

Good Friday (“Good”=”Holy”), the day that commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, is when the Stations of the Cross are visibly represented. These stations are spots to meditate upon each major scene of the final hours of Christ’s Passion. Then, Holy Saturday recognizes the dark, mournful day during which Jesus’ body reposed in the garden tomb. 

Then comes Resurrection Day: a grand celebration–the feast day that tops all other feast days. In church tradition, Easter is an entire festal season, lasting 50 days! The mood of worship is joyous, and the church is adorned with white flowers, white fabrics, white candles. Hearts, minds, bodies, and all the trappings of worship proclaim that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed.

Note: There are two songs in particular that I listen to a lot during this season and I’d like to recommend them to you: Chris Tomlin’s “At the Cross: Love Ran Red” and Kari Jobe’s “Forever.” 

New Resource!! Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side by Natasha Crain

The question I receive most often from my seminar attendees is: What books would you recommend for parents and for elementary-age children? Typically, I point parents to introductory-level apologetics texts that will provide a foundation upon which they can gradually build. For preteen children, the pickings are rather slim, which was one of the main motivations behind my Young Defenders apologetics storybook series. Beyond this, however, there were no resources (that I know of) specifically designed for the training and encouragement of parents in the area of actually teaching apologetics and worldview to their children in an interesting and effective manner.

Enter: Natasha Crain. 

I first learned about Ms. Crain’s work through social media groups. Her blog, Christian Mom Thoughts, quickly became a favorite of mine, not only because of the excellent, well-researched content, but also because of the winsome, yet no-nonsense writing style. When she announced her book deal with Harvest House Publishers, I was ecstatic. I knew it would be a ground-breaking and desperately needed tool for parents, especially those in my own stage of life (parenting preteens). As an early pre-reader of the manuscript, I was not disappointed. Ms. Crain had written a book that would serve the Christian parenting community well.

The content of Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side is both intellectually rigorous and non-intimidating (no easy feat!). It gently and systematically guides parents through 40 key apologetics topics, including the existence of God, science and creation (my favorite!:-) ), objective truth, the identity of Jesus, and the reliability of Scripture. In this way, it serves as a fantastic introduction to apologetics, but the wonderful and unique thing about Ms. Crain’s book is that it approaches all of this from the perspective of a parent desiring to have instructive conversations with their kids. The final chapter of the book, “10 Tips for Having Deeper Faith Conversations with Your Kids,” is the crowning touch that demonstrates how to communicate the imparted knowledge to young minds.

If you are a parent and/or someone involved in children’s ministry in any capacity, I strongly encourage you to get a copy of Keeping Your Kids on God’s SideEven if you are already well-grounded in apologetics, you will likely benefit from its approach and the practical advice it offers. I will be suggesting it to every parent I encounter.

Communion: Holy Sacrament or Mere Sign?

I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. For that reason, it is difficult for me to admit that for more than three decades, I never stopped to investigate the concept of sacrament. In fact, if you had asked me only six months ago to define the term, I wouldn’t have been able to give an entirely correct response. I have no excuse for this gap in my theological knowledge; I’m sure it was mentioned at some point in my Essential Christian Doctrine courses in grad school, though I have no solid memory of it. Over the past year, as I have explored the liturgical/sacramental traditions of Christendom through research and, more recently, through church attendance, some pivotal questions have surfaced.

Why do sacramental/liturgical traditions view and conduct things like communion and baptism so differently? It certainly isn’t about aesthetic preference; it’s about theology, about the very essence of these practices. Is there a “right” and “wrong” way to carry these out? What is meant by “sacrament”? Please understand that it is not at all my intention to criticize any perspective; rather, I wish to articulate why my personal view has dramatically changed.

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and sacramental/liturgical Protestants don’t all have the same view on the number and exact nature of the sacraments. For example, the Roman Catholic church recognizes seven: baptism, Eucharist (Holy Communion), confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage. Sacramental/liturgical Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, only recognize baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments, since these were instituted by Christ. He participated in them and they are commanded by Him.

Even though all of the above traditions hold these two sacraments in common, there is a difference (in general) between the non-Protestant and sacramental/liturgical Protestant beliefs about them. For instance, the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches hold to transubstantiation–the belief that the bread and wine are quite literally mystically transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ’s body. Most sacramental/liturgical Protestants would deny this but affirm that, in a very real yet mysterious way, Christ is present in Holy Communion and His once-and-for-all sacrifice is thereby symbolized.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and many of my family and friends are still members of that denomination. I have enormous admiration and respect for their commitment to the right handling of Scripture, diligent personal Bible study, and emphasis on close community. Typically, the practice of communion in non-liturgical/sacramental Protestant churches (at least in my 30+ years of experience) is a quarterly worship service add-on. The officiant invites believers to participate and then reads the Scripture that records Christ’s last supper with His disciples prior to His crucifixion. Sometimes there is a moment of silence during which believers are meant to privately examine their hearts and repent from sin. Plates are passed with tiny cups of grape juice and small fragments of bread or unleavened wafer (the elements). Prayers of blessing are said over each prior to consumption. Communion is done as a symbolic practice of remembrance of Christ’s work for us.

I have a personal confession to make: In all my years as a Christian participating in communion, I have never been able to get over a sense of awkwardness and incompleteness in the ceremony, though I didn’t have an explanation for why. I did look forward to “communion Sundays,” as I craved an atmosphere of solemnity and visible, tangible acknowledgement of the meaning and holiness of the meal.  But I often felt as though something was missing. I remember how on many Sundays, I would place my empty juice cup in the tiny cupholder bolted to the back of the pew in front of me, and the thought going through my mind as I did so was, “Is that it?”

In 1 Corinthians 11:24-28, the Apostle Paul recounts Christ’s words about Holy Communion:

the-last-supper-large-image-zoom

“The Last Supper” by Harry Anderson

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 

There are three things that really stand out to me about this passage. First of all, the practice of communion was commanded by our Lord. “Do this,” He said. Second, He calls the practice a remembrance, and Paul explains that it is a proclamation of Christ’s crucifixion. Third, Paul gives a sober warning about the necessity of coming to the table in a worthy manner–having confessed our sin with a penitent heart.

The book of Acts, our earliest text of church history, tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) and that “on the first day of the week” they “gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Sunday, the Lord’s resurrection day, was recognized through gathering together and observing Holy Communion. The indication is that this was a weekly act of Christian devotion that was accompanied by specific prayers. The writings of the Apostolic and other Ante-Nicene Fathers are further testament to the importance of Holy Communion in the early church. 

In the Anglican tradition, which I and my family have recently entered, Holy Communion is a sacrament. What does that mean? The simplest way to explain it is that it is “an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Holy Communion is a means by which our faith is fortified, by the grace of God, in a deeply incarnational way. We are creatures of body and soul, and therefore such outward, physical expressions of worship feed our whole person. There is beautiful mystery in how this happens…yet it does! I believe this is exactly why Christ commanded the practice. I love how Rev. Gavin Pate of All Saints Dallas put it: “It is a meal of sustaining grace, embodying the prayer of Jesus, that Our Father would ‘give us this day our daily bread.'”

At my church, HopePointe Anglican, Holy Communion  is a serious and beautiful affair that I have found deeply nourishing. We kneel together at the rail in front of the Lord’s table as a visible communion of believers hungry for Christ. When the broken bread is pressed into my upturned palm, I am told, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” When the wine chalice is presented to me, I am told, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Afterwards, it is difficult to stand, as I want to remain there indefinitely, prostrate before my holy God. My heart cries out, “Lord Jesus, I remember!”

Romaphobia and the Tragic Loss of Incarnational Worship

I mentioned in my last post that I’m investigating heavily into what the early church Fathers and ancient historians had to say about liturgical/sacramental practices in the church, and that I would blog about the books and articles I’m reading on that topic. However, I felt the need to first take a short detour into something [related] that has been at the forefront of my mind lately.

I was having a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, a gentleman devout in his Christian faith and extremely theologically knowledgeable. The topic of C.S. Lewis came up, and I mentioned something about Lewis’s Anglicanism. 

“Yeah, Anglican…that’s just one step away from Catholicism,” my friend said. 

His tone was not disrespectful, but it carried a certain mild disdain. I was taken aback by his words. I’m certain of his awareness that Anglicanism is fully Protestant, which means there are key theological (and other) distinctions between it and Roman Catholicism. So what could he have meant, exactly? I’ve pondered this as I’ve read works of church history, ecclesiology, and theology of worship over the past several weeks. My conclusion is that what he had in mind, at least partially, were the commonalities to be found in worship and devotional practices between these two traditions of Christendom. 

I believe a very apt description of these paractices is that they are deeply incarnational. What do I mean by that? Simply put, incarnational worship and devotion recognizes and celebrates the Lord’s use of the material creation as a means by which the reality of the Holy Spirit can be perceived by those who are in Christ. Why would we describe this as “incarnational”? Because God the Son saw fit to enter the material creation, even taking on a fully human, material body; moreover, during his earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus used material things such as water, wine, bread, and even saliva and dirt as tools through which his power was made manifest. He used the mundane elements of creation to do and communicate extraordinary things! He didn’t need the water in the wine jars in order to miraculously produce wine for the wedding at Cana, but he requested it anyway. He didn’t need the mud to restore the sight of the blind man, but he used it. Why? I am convinced that His use of the material was a blessed sign to us that we can and should see Him through everything he has made, and that the physical can remind us of his holiness in a tangible way.

Never should we worship created things, and we should fully reject the idea that material objects, by themselves, have some kind of inherent mystical powers. Rather, by incorporating the physical, earthly realm, our five senses can participate in and greatly enrich our worship and devotion practices. I’m not talking about cultivating emotions; I’m talking about a heightened awareness of God’s presence. I think these two things should not be confused, but often are. For example, in my case, some very modern Christian music (David Crowder, Third Day, etc.) will foster emotions about God, but it’s not at all the same experience as sensing the nearness of the person of the Holy Spirit. The latter has an entirely different texture. Can these things happen together? Of course. Do they always? No. 

If you’ve ever witnessed a Roman Catholic Mass or Eastern Orthodox liturgy, you’ve likely experienced the many beautiful material/sensory trappings that often characterize them: candles, incense, golden crosses and chalices, ornately embroidered vestments, prayer beads, bells, tonal chants, and sometimes a sung liturgy. While I am not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, the high church experience is intensely worshipful for me. It is majestic, beautiful, and immersive. I sense with my whole self the holiness of God and the sacredness of worship. And, I know I’m not the only Protestant who would say this; based upon the many emails I’ve received from readers over the past few weeks, there are droves of us. Yet, many Protestant denominations almost entirely exclude these material elements from their practices. Why is this? 

I think the reason, sometimes, is what I have heard called Romaphobia–a strong disagreement with (even fear of) non-Protestant theology/ecclesiology characterized by a wholesale rejection of all things that look, feel, or sound “Catholic.” (Take note that this is definitely not the approach that was taken by the Reformers!) Churches, such as many parishes of the Anglican church, that have not thrown out the baby with the bathwater, are sometimes looked upon with suspicion. My very first experience of high church was at an Anglican church in California five years ago, and I remember being struck by the similarities between their worship and what I’d read and seen on television about Roman Catholic Mass. Thankfully, this did not repel me, despite the fact that I grew up around a ton of anti-Rome attitudes. 

Side Note: I’m reading Thomas McKenzie’s book, The Anglican Way right now, and it is phenomenal! So informative! 

embed-celtic-crossRecently, I attended worship at a local Anglican church (affiliated with the conservative Anglican Church in North America). It wasn’t the highest-of-high-church services, but it was a very incarnational experience nonetheless. Behind the linen-draped altar table  and rising above it, was an enormous cross carved in a Celtic style. Royal-looking lit candles were set at either end of the Lord’s table. The service opened with a procession of the vestment-clad Bishop, priests, and deacon down the center aisle, led by a young acolyte (I think that’s the term) holding a long rod with a golden cross at the top. The liturgy included the Nicene Creed being declared in unison by everyone present, as well as deeply theological spoken prayers. At several points, many attendees made the sign of the cross–forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, then back to chest. (I love that practice–crossing yourself to outwardly signify your identity in Jesus Christ!) The liturgy of the Eucharist was very reverent and formal, and it was the first time I’ve taken Communion on my knees, in front of a cross, with a priest serving the elements. At the end of the worship service, the Bishop walked out front and center to give a final blessing. In his hand, he carried what is called a crozier or bishop’s staff. It’s a large, hooked shepherd’s staff, and his was made of what appeared to be intricately-carved wood. The rich symbolism was immediately apparent to me–the Bishop’s Christ-appointed role is to shepherd those under his care.  

Make no mistake: I affirm that there is room in orthodox Christendom for different expressions of worship; I’m not saying that there is one specific “right way to do it.” (Nor am I saying that anything goes; do laser lights and smoke machines point people to Jesus? I doubt it.) What I find tragic is how much that is good has been lost in many Protestant denominations (in both worship and private devotion), sometimes (not always!) because their tradition sprang from a history of Romaphobia. 

From West to East: An Evangelical Minister’s Discovery of the Orthodox Church

This is part 2 of my new series examining issues of ecclesiology, liturgical/sacramental worship practices, and the historical roots from which the branches of Christianity have grown. The response to part 1 was incredible–the article has been shared several thousand times on social media and reblogged in a few places. Readers have emailed me with stories of their journeys to liturgical traditions or to simply say, “Thank you for this; it has been weighing on my mind for quite some time as well.” I never would have imagined that my personal exploration of these matters would touch such a sensitive nerve in the faith community. 

In part 1, I offered a brief review of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Churchwhich describes Robert Webber’s journey to Anglicanism several decades ago plus a few recent stories of others who have moved from Evangelicalism to the Anglican church. What I find helpful about this kind of memoir is that it allows me to examine the author’s motivations and rationale; it’s a more gentle (and often more thoughtful) introduction to a church than a scholarly apologetic (or polemic) would be. 

The next book on my growing list is Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Peter Gilquist. Prior to reading it I knew next to nothing about the Orthodox Church. Twenty years ago, I toured the Holy Lands with my dad, and the trip included stops at a couple of gorgeous Greek Orthodox churches. I remember the stunning, mysterious iconography and intricate tile mosaics, but as a teenager raised in the Southern Baptist church, the experience impacted me no differently than touring any other grandiose historical/religious site. (I didn’t begin to understand the distinctives of the different branches of Christendom until my mid-30’s, unfortunately.)

Gilquist’s story surprised me from its beginning. He opens with the account of his ordination, alongside 59 other men, into the diaconate and priesthood of the Orthodox Church back in 1987. The service also included the reception of over 200 laypersons. Virtually all of them, clergy included, had come from Evangelical Protestant denominations. Gilquist asks:

whatever would possess…Bible-believing, blood-bought, Gospel-preaching, Christ-centered, lifelong evangelical Protestants to come to embrace this Orthodox faith so enthusiastically? Is this a new form of religious rebellion? Have vital Spirit-filled Christian people somehow jumped the track to a staid and lifeless, crusty, sacral gloom? Worse yet, is this one of those subtle deceptions of the enemy? 

After this rather sensational introduction, Gilquist offers his personal account beginning with his time serving as a college evangelist for Campus Crusade for Christ back in the 1960’s. He began his ministry while he was a first-year seminary student at Dallas Theological Seminary, but was asked by Campus Crusade to move to Wheaton College. So, he transferred to Wheaton Graduate School and began a new campus ministry in the Chicago area. But the disquiet in his soul only grew. He says:

It was at Wheaton that I resumed the process of disenchantment with church. I had now been educated against anything with sacramental and liturgical overtones…There were a few ‘weirdos’ or ‘rebels’ at Wheaton who wore wire-rimmed glasses and tweed sport coats and opted for the Episcopal Church. Most of the rest of us leaned toward what had become a growing American phenomenon: the Bible church. I was drawn to the preaching and biblical exposition…There were times…I wanted a bit more dignity, or maybe majesty, in the Sunday morning services, but giving up more meaningful worship was the trade-off for the preaching of the Bible. 

From there, Gilquist chronicles years and years of increasing frustration with the status quo and how the Holy Spirit also moved in the hearts of his closest friends from his Campus Crusade ministry years–pastors of Evangelical Protestant congregations scattered around the US. What resulted was a council of sorts; each of them agreed to do independent investigation into church history, theology, and ecclesiology with the most objective eye possible. At a landmark meeting, one of the group members, Jack Sparks, articulated their mission this way: “Everybody claims to be the New Testament Church. The Catholics say they are; the Baptists say they are; the Church of Christ says it is–and nobody else is. We need to find out who’s right.” 

Says Gilquist:

our motivation was to be the best Christian people we could be, to be a twentieth-century expression of the first-century Church…we had agreed on the front end to do and be whatever we found that the New Testament church did and was, as we followed her through history. If we found we were wrong, we would change. We were committed to believe her doctrine, to enter into her worship, and to reflect her government as best we could discern it.

When they would convene in person to discuss their independent conclusions, they found that their searches were converging…on the Orthodox Church, much to their shock (and some dismay). 

Gilquist gives a key list of the early Church documents they examined and generally outlines their investigation into church history (loved this). Then, in part two, he spends five chapters evaluating Orthodox theology from a biblical perspective. I found this extremely helpful; I had some of my misconceptions about [scary] things like veneration of Saints (including Mary) and ritualistic worship corrected. Veneration is not worship. Extremely enlightening to me was coming to understand a very real distinction between “prayer to” and “worship of.” In the Orthodox Church, there is no such thing as a dead Christian. The Saints are Christians who led exemplary lives on earth and are now living in the presence of Christ. Orthodox Christians entreat the Saints to pray for them just as they would ask any other family member or close friend to pray for them. There is no idolatry going on; the Saints are not asked for anything other than intercessory prayer. 

Bottom line: I highly recommend Gilquist’s book and I have continued my exploration of the Orthodox Church through a few different routes, both written and in video format. I particularly like a video series on YouTube called Orthodoxy 101 Boot Camp by Father Barnabas Powell, a former Pentecostal preacher from the south who converted to Orthodox Christianity. Being a southern girl myself, I could totally relate to some of his anecdotes and church humor.:-) He tells quite a bit of his personal story in the first episode. I’m halfway through episode 3. I plan to read Fr. Thomas Hopko’s multi-color introductory book series, The Orthodox Faith.

In my next post, I will offer reflections on the book I’m currently reading, When the Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio. I have the very strong conviction that understanding the earliest history of the Church through its surviving documents is crucial in this type of exploration. Even though the writings of the earliest Church Fathers are not canonized as Scripture, they have much value. What happened right after the time of Paul? How were Christians worshiping in the corporate setting? What was their view on church polity? The standard Evangelical Protestant view seems to be that the baby Church basically left the ritualistic trappings of Judaism behind (“freedom from Law”) and that after the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the church gradually went down a path of confusion and corruption (with small pockets of faithful Christians enduring) until things were “set right” by the Reformation. I’m finding out that this is not only an over-simplification, it is a distortion of the facts. Stay tuned.