By In Culture, Wisdom

New Testament Household Codes: Enlightening or Embarrassing?

In my old church, we never read the household codes. (The church I’m referring to here is the denomination I served for nearly 20 years.)

What codes am I referring to? These: Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

We never read them from the pulpit, and if we could manage to skip them in small group Bible studies, or Sunday School, we did. And no one would object, on the contrary, sighs of relief might be heard.

Nonetheless, those good folk claimed to believe in the plenary inspiration of scripture. But it never jibed for me, either the codes are inspired, or they aren’t. If they are, we should read them. If they aren’t, we should say so.

Since I believe that they are inspired I left that church (for this reason among others). But some of my old friends appear to have reconciled their faith with their practice and are now saying that some parts of the Bible are inspired and useful for life and godliness, and others simply are not.

Still, some of those folk feel a need to justify themselves. Essentially they play the cultural relativism card. The idea is that those embarrassing codes were culturally relevant for the time, and Paul, not wishing to upset anybody, simply was all things to all men and went along with the benighted thinking of the day. He didn’t really mean what he was saying, though, and since those practices are now defunct, we no longer have to talk about them. (That’s what the nice people say anyway. Others just say Paul that was a misogynist.)

But Paul actually justified the codes theologically, not culturally. He actually used the codes to illustrate the Gospel. (I’m thinking of Ephesians chapter five here in particular–and yes, you can take that to mean I do believe Paul wrote Ephesians.)

But let’s just take the cultural relativism argument at face value. We can ask those who proffer it this question: “Okay, I get the culture argument, but can you help me understand what it was about that culture at the time that made those codes legitimate?” The response you will get I assure you will boil down to patriarchy, you know, that irrational urge many men suffer from to control everything. In other words, the codes reinforced a life that was always wrong.

But perhaps Paul knew something contemporary people have forgotten.

That line of thought has been tremendously helpful for me. It has helped me to reconstruct in my own mind the institutional framework within which Paul and his interlocutors lived. And this has led to some unexpected discoveries.

One of those discoveries is this: our attempts to contextualize the gospel to modern life have twisted the gospel. We believe we can abstract the gospel from the practices and institutions from which it sprang and then insert it into new patterns of life without altering it. But there is a wineskins problem here, form and content always go together. And some cultural forms just will not hold the Gospel.

When you try, you drive a wedge between faith and practice, and consequently, between salvation and creation. Christians end up living lives that smack of gnosticism. Salvation is reduced to an inward thing. And the social dimensions of the Christian faith necessarily end up being filtered out.

But here’s something else that I’ve discovered, we’ve had it largely wrong when it comes to the households of antiquity. Sure, there were many abuses, and there are certain features we do not need to recover. But those households had this going for them: they held together many things we’ve allowed to fly apart. Within those households: love and law, men and women, the young and the old, faith and works, creation and redemption, were all kept together and they all worked together.

What I intend to do in upcoming posts is introduce you to the household that I’ve discovered in my research. As I’ve grown in my understanding of it I’ve gone from seeing the household codes as embarrassing detritus we can live without, to a sort of rosetta stone for interpreting salvation and practicing the Christian life.

And to begin I will speak to that institution that many people consider most damning in the household codes: slavery.

An earlier version of this essay was published at Patheos.

If you’d like to read my book on the subject of household economics, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt


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By In Politics

What is a Just War?-The Just War Tradition in Brief

This is the second in an ongoing series about the just war tradition. Here is the first post where I review Charles and Demy’s book on the just war tradition. They list three basic sets of rules for a just war: rules for going to war (jus ad bellum),  rules for conducting a war (jus in bello), and a third list of what the authors call “prudential” or “secondary” criteria that flow out of the first two. There are three rules for going to war, two for conducting the war, and five prudential criteria.  In subsequent posts I will address these different criteria. In this post I give several quotes from the authors’ introduction where they explain what a just war tradition is and what it is not. The goal is to give the reader an overview of the just-war tradition.

Just war thought in its classic expression…is not first and foremost about military tactics and strategy; nor is it about justifying military operations that already have been undertaken. Rather properly viewed, it is a morally guided approach to statecraft that (1) qualifies the administration of coercive force and (2) views peace as the result of justly ordered relationships. Not all use of force is just; frequently it is not. And not all use of force creates conditions for bringing about peace and justice.  Therefore, the use of force must be highly qualified. Peace is not to be understood as the absence of conflict; it is rather the fruit or by-product of a justly ordered society…The ordering of society-and the just maintenance of that order at its various levels-is the task of policy


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By In Theology, Worship

Attaining Unity: A Reply to Mike Allen

By Peter Leithart

Mike Allen of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, scores some points in his review of The End of Protestantism. He lodges the fair complaint that my rhetoric sometimes outruns my evidence. He argues that more stress on the present reality of the church’s unity deepens the tragedy of division; divisions in the church “straightforwardly oppose reality.”

Of course, I have parries to these criticisms. The complaint about rhetoric misconstrues the genre of the book, which is sermonic rather than academic. Sermons need arguments too, but sermons aim to move, not merely to convince.

Mike is right that I don’t provide complete arguments or probative evidence for many of my assertions, that doesn’t mean there are no arguments or evidence to present. In some cases, I mistakenly wrote as if the reader would be familiar with my other work, where I offer fuller arguments. Mike is also right that my assertion that “nothing has so weakened our witness as our tragic divisions” is unprovable. But there’s plenty that makes it plausible – the New Testament’s forceful emphasis on unity as a part of the church’s witness, the testimony of unbelievers over several centuries, and the cultural effects of the church’s fragmentation documented by writers like Brad Gregory. (I suspect Mike is as skeptical of Gregory as he is of me, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Some of his other criticisms miss the bull’s eye. Mike thinks he can rebut my discussion of global Christianity by saying that the globalization of the church is likely to make Christianity more “fissiparous” rather than more unified. But I make exactly that point (p. 128), and his criticism misrepresents my argument in any case. The north-south inversion of Christianity isn’t evidence that “unity is just around the corner” (Mike’s mischaracterization, not my words). Along with the softening of Protestant-Catholic and East-West boundaries, it’s evidence that God is busting up the old world of post-Reformation Christianity, an end that offers opportunities for fresh beginnings. Mike doesn’t think these trends have much of anything to do with one another, but, working within the biblical paradigm I outline in chapter 8, I take both trends as signs of what appears to be an epochal internal restructuring of Christianity.

Mike’s point about the present unity of the church is criticism of a different order and requires a different sort of response. Like many, perhaps most, Reformed thinkers, Mike takes the present unity of the church as an invisible or heavenly unity, and characterizes my position as illegitimately empirical. Mine, he charges, is an ecclesiology of sight rather than faith. He acknowledges that I occasionally speak of present unity (p. 28), but thinks that present unity doesn’t play a large enough role in my book.

Let me attempt a slight restatement of my position that I hope takes account of Mike’s criticisms.

For starters, a methodological remark that addresses one of the underlying issues in Mike’s review: He characterizes the “underlying logic” of my book as “sociological” rather than “theological.” I don’t accept the criticism because I don’t acknowledge that disciplinary separation. More positively, I write from the conviction that theology is inherently sociological and that biblically-informed history-writing is a mode, and should be one of the chief modes, of theology. Are Samuel and Kings political science or theology? Is Acts history or ecclesiology? To my way of thinking, The End of Protestantism is a thoroughly theological treatise.

To the question of unity more particularly: An empirical test is integral to the biblical portrayal of unity. Jesus prays the church would be unified enough for the world to recognize it (John 17:21, 23). This cannot be a unity discernible only to faith, since Jesus expects the world to discern it. If our unity doesn’t show the world that the Father sent the Son, it’s not the unity Jesus prayed for.

On the basis of Ephesians 4:4-6, Mike argues that the unity of the “one body” is a present reality but not an empirical reality. The unity must be the unity of the invisible church. “God reveals oneness first as a gift in the present” that “must be maintained.” It “can be stretched and even scandalized” but remains inviolable. In the midst of stretch and scandal, we need to view the church theologically rather than sociologically or empirically.

This is a questionable reading of Ephesians. Nothing in the passage suggests that Paul is speaking of an invisible body (a strange category in any case). Immediately after the “poem” on oneness, Paul writes of gifts distributed by the ascended Lord Jesus to His church (vv. 7-11), gifts including visible apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who build up what must be the visible “body of Christ” (v. 11). Does it make sense to say that “body” in verse 4 is an invisible company when “body of Christ” in verse 11 is a visible communion? What warrants the insertion of a visible-invisible distinction? It seems more straightforward to conclude that for Paul the unity of the body is as visible as the unity of baptism. (more…)

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By In Theology

Salvation Through Sin

Romans 9–11 is challenging on so many levels. Predestination and apostasy walk side-by-side in this part of the letter without even a line of explanation of how the two work together. This is the way things are. No explanation is needed.

As much as these realities are focused upon by exegetes and theologians, these doctrines are not the focus of this somewhat climatic part of the letter. They (and other Scriptural presuppositions with them) provide the foundation for Paul’s main subject: how God maintains his righteousness by keeping his promises to the fleshly children of Abraham when he has ordained their rebellion in order to accomplish salvation in Christ. (Got all that?) Earlier in the letter (2.17–3.8) it was established that it was through Israel’s sinful rebellion that salvation–God’s saving righteousness–was revealed in Jesus Christ. That is, Israel’s sin in rejecting her Messiah and crucifying him brought salvation to the world. God used Israel’s rebellion to display his righteousness.

That provoked some questions with which Paul had to deal immediately: “If our unrighteousness brings about the righteousness of God, should we continue to sin so that the whole world will be saved?!” Those questions were dealt with, but some other questions were left dangling; namely, “What about God’s promises to the physical descendants of Abraham?” Paul is answering that question throughout Romans 9–11. This goes to the greater concern, “Has the word of God failed?” (cf. Rom 9.6)

Though much of the way God worked can now be understood as we look back through what he has done in Christ Jesus, the wisdom of God’s plan remains inscrutable. He chooses to harden some in rebellion so that he might show mercy to others. He hardens Pharaoh to show mercy to Israel. He hardens Israel to show mercy to the Gentiles. But then he will use the mercy shown to the Gentiles to make the Jews jealous so that they will come join in on the promises that were given to them in the first place.

This is God’s plan. It is the way things are. Though we are called to connect as many dots as we can in studying the works of God, there are some things we will never figure out. If we are following Paul, our inability to comprehend everything doesn’t lead to frustration but rather doxology. “ Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11.33-36)

There are graces given to you by God that you will never figure out. How is it that someone with your family history can experience the salvation that you have experienced? How is it that with all the bad things that people have done to you, you have a healthy relationship with God? How is it that a sinner like you can know God like you do? There is no other explanation but the grace of God. He chose to harden some so that he could show mercy to you. In the story of redemption he did this with Israel. In our personal stories within this story, it is possible that he has hardened others in order to show mercy to you.

Why? I don’t know. That’s just his plan. He hasn’t called you to figure out why. Ours is to respond in grateful allegiance and praise, enjoying the mercy we’ve been shown.

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By In Culture, Wisdom

Are Humans Obsolete?

“Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” Orange Catholic Bible

That quotation comes from a sacred text found only in the imaginary universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. But if things keep going the way they’re going, we may need that “Bible”.

Dune is about a distant future, over ten thousand years from now. Man has gone off to colonize the galaxy, but on the way, there has been great social upheaval. The machines man made had come to dominate him, and even enslave him. Some of the elite had merged with the machines, achieving god-like power and seemingly unending life, while the rest of humanity was enervated and idle. Then came the war, the Butlerian Jihad. Over a 100 year span, the machines were defeated and the new commandment you see above was enshrined.

Just so much science fiction?

If you’re dismissive of science fiction, you shouldn’t be. Not only has this preoccupation of teenage boys predicted many of the things we enjoy today, everything from smartphones to gene therapy, it has helped to direct the aspirations of those boys.

You could say science fiction is a series of thought experiments about the role of science and technology on the development of human society.

What are people for?

I have a book, a collection of essays actually, by Wendell Berry by that title. It is one of the basic questions. A great deal depends on the answer. I’m afraid most of the people working in the fields of science and engineering proffer a really bad answer. And because the question is so terribly important to being human, the implications of those answers are dehumanizing.

The real Bible tells us that man was made in the image of God and was immediately situated in a garden in order to cultivate it. That work was performed within a household economy right from the start. The union of a man and wife was intended to be productive and they were to share both the work and the fruit. The cultivation included their bodies: Eve is the mother all the living and Adam is the husbandman, tilling the soil of her body. And they are to be fruitful and multiply and extend their dominion, their household–their domus–over all the earth.

The rise of the machines

The machines began their rise when creation itself was reconceived as a machine. Once, man had been the center, a microcosm, the hermeneutic of the cosmos. Man’s life was the scale by which the universe was ordered. This made the cosmos our home.

But today we see things differently. The universe is a vast mechanism and human beings are just tiny cogs in it, perhaps even malfunctioning ones. But we are still microcosms, but now the hermeneutic works in reverse. Now the machine defines us.

Are you obsolete yet?

A few years back a fantasy purporting to be social commentary was published entitled, The End of Men. The gist of it was pretty simple, men are obsolete because many of the functions traditionally performed by men are now performed by either the welfare state or by machines. (The same thing, actually, the welfare state is a kind of machine.)

I’m not sure what would make a feminists think women are exempt from this. Many of the jobs performed by women in the corporate economy are just as vulnerable to being made redundant by machines as those performed by men. (See the video below to see this explained.) Even sex with women is subject to obsolescence; virtual reality-porn is just around the corner and we even have sex-bots to look forward to. And don’t think your uterus makes you indispensable ladies, people are working on a replacement for that too. (Click here to learn about artificial wombs.)

The first possibility is to merge with the machines. There are people out there advocating the way of the Cymeks of Dune. They’d like to take a hand in their evolution and upgrade humanity. (If you think this is overblown, just follow the diva of transhumanists, Ray Kurzweil and I think you’ll begin to see things differently.)

But this is odd; we are told repeatedly by materialists that evolution is a blind process, feeling its way forward, filling niches in a vast, interdependent, mechanical system. Transhumanists overestimate our ability plan and control human development. And wouldn’t radically extending human life-span, genetically modifying people, and merging humans with machines make for a new species? And how will this be implemented? Who will be the early adopters? And how will they feel about the rest of us?

The recovery of the household economy

But there is another way forward. These new technologies could portend a re-centering of the economy back in the household. Telecommunication networks, and small-scale, highly adaptive manufacturing, will allow for a decentralized economy where husbands and wives, and even children, can work together.

What we need is dreamers, people who can envision an altogether different future than the one seen by the transhumanists. We need a vision of man the microcosm again, where our creations enrich us and lend meaning to our lives, not replace us or turn us into something subhuman.

I leave you with the following video. I hope you can agree with me by the end of it; if we can’t redirect this freight train of technological innovation in a more humane direction, let the Butlerian Jihad begin.

An earlier version of this essay was published at Patheos.

If you’d like to read my book on the subject of household economics, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

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By In Politics

It’s You I Like: Plato’s Cave and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

I recently had a student get injured. Not seriously so, but enough to warrant a few sick days. I told the student I wanted to pray for her, that God would heal her ailment. She responded, “Thanks, but instead please pray that I’ll be more faithful in having quiet times. I don’t think God has much interest in my body, but I know he cares about my soul.” I asked the student if she was able to do the readings from class while she was out. “Yes,” she said hesitantly, “I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Plato!”

Well over two millennia ago, Plato gave an analogy that helped shape much of Western philosophy going forward. Here’s the most famous (though, not best) interpretation of the allegory: There are people in a dark cave facing a wall. Behind the people is a fire and behind the fire is an opening to the outside world. In that world, people walk, talk, dance, live.

Inside the cave, however, the people can only watch their shadows. Having never seen the outside, “real” world, the cave-people foolishly think the dancing shadows are ends in themselves, actual things. They aren’t, of course; they’re only shadows, “receptacles.” Freedom, for Plato, is recognizing the ultimate vapidity and illusiveness of the material world. Physicality—“objects”—lie in the realm of mere opinion and shadow. It’s in the incorporeal, metaphysical world of forms that true life can be found.

Having just completed readings surrounding this interpretation of the cave illustration, I asked the student, “how has this view shaped the church, do you think?” Substitute “objects” with “creation,” “form-world” with “heaven,” and you start to see the origin of the disembodied world many modern Christians inhabit. A view that leads us to think that only the spiritual world is real, and God takes no interest in concussions or broken bones.

This view stands in stark contrast with the biblical understanding of physicality. In Genesis 1 we see a world made by God. It is good, indeed, very good. Sin enters the world and distorts this goodness, but never eradicates the Creator’s handiwork. Sin is like rust on a ship; it’s not integral to the structure of the object. The ship existed before there was rust and will exist after the rust is removed. Indeed, the removal of the rust will only make the ship more of a ship.

The Christian view of creation can be seen well in this exchange between Mr. Rogers and one of his neighbors, Jeff Erlanger:

Jeff was born with a tumor that left him bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In the video, his handicap is pronounced and his young age only makes the disability more agonizing. Watching the episode, I can see why Plato wanted to understand the world as mere shadow. It explains and relativizes so much of the torment and agony of life. In understanding ourselves as more than physicality, there is hope. However, what do we lose when we understand ourselves as less than physicality? While Plato’s analogy can interpret our pain, I don’t think it can account for the beauty and dignity of this world.

Mr. Rogers no doubt sees Jeff’s brokenness, but he also sees his worth. To Jeff, he warmly sings, “It’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings.” He saw the boy—the whole boy, body and soul—as real, as an end, as a creature. The wheelchair did not typify Jeff to Mr. Rogers. Nor was the “real” Jeff simply his spirit. In that moment, Rogers did what he did so often; he recognized and named the humanity in the other. Jeff was not a shadow to Mr. Rogers, he was real, he was worthy, he was loved.

When recounting so many of the difficulties of being handicapped, Jeff reminds us that there is such difficulty for everyone, those inside and outside of wheelchairs. Jeff knows we are all on a scale of brokenness, all in need of healing in myriad ways. So, in addition to praying for my student’s quiet times, I also prayed for her ailment, despite her earnest wishes. Because denying the goodness of our bodies won’t take away the badness. God did not place us in a cave, he placed us in a real-life neighborhood. The question is: will we see creation as a trick of the eye, or as a gift from the Creator? To do the former, ironically, is to choose to live in a cave of our own making. To do the later, however, is to be reminded of our Creator’s love for his creation when we hear Mr. Rogers’ song:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

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By In Books

What is a Just War?-Book Review

People talk about just war all the time, but rarely is it defined or described. What is a just war? Was Iraq a just war? What about World War II? How does one conduct a just war in the age of terrorism?  Does Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek mean we can never kill? Over the next several weeks I am going to do a series on just war. We will look at just war criteria for going to war and waging a war, the idea of justice and whether or not peace is an automatic indicator that a society is just. We will also consider the connection between Scripture and natural law when discussing just war, historical examples of the just war tradition, pacificism, and many other topics.

When I began studying just war I needed to get my bearings. Everything I knew about war came from talking heads. I investigated book options and found this gem; War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just War Perspective. I bought this book hoping for two things: First, I would get a basic understanding of just war theory.  Second, I would get a lot of footnotes that pointed me to other sources.  This book delivered on both counts. There are other books that will give you more depth on specific issues connected to just war theory.  But if you have never studied just war theory, Charles and Demy’s book is a great place to start.

The authors divide their book into six different sections Just War Tradition and the: Philosopher, Historian, Statesman, Theologian, Combatant, and Individual. They use a question and answer format to describe what just war is, what it is not, some questions that still need to be answered, and the history of just war. They rely heavily on Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius, Vitoria, and Suarez. (I hadn’t heard of the last three either.) They also use a lot of O’Donovan and a current just war writer named James Turner Johnson. They address terrorism, nuclear war, humanitarian intervention, the UN, post war development of countries, non-lethal weapons, “turn the other cheek,” does war violate the command to not kill, did Jesus change our approach to war, is just war only a Christian idea or it can it be found in non-Christian sources, Bonhoeffer’s attempt on Hitler’s life, Ghandi’s pacifism, C.S. Lewis’ writings on war, supreme emergency, the early church on war, including Roland Bainton’s pacifistic reading of the church fathers, criteria for going to war, criteria within a war, private military contractors, ethical development of weapons, Romans 13, etc. The value of this book is how much ground it covers. You will not get an in depth chapter length discussion of each facet of just war theory, but you will get the basic ideas on it. It is an excellent introduction to just war thought, though I doubt any reader will agree with all.

The questions and answers in various sections overlap with questions and answers in other sections thus there is some repetition.  Also, there are areas that I would like more precision and discussion, such as what makes an authority legitimate, but the sources cited should provide answers. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how Christians and others have defined just war.

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