Q&A on My New Study Guide to Galatians

Why I wrote this book and what you can expect from it.

WS_5.5x8.5_templateAs I announced in my last posting, the publishing house Wipf and Stock has released my new book: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I offer this short Q&A as a way of explaining why I have written this book and what you may expect to find in it:

Q. Why have you written this book on Galatians?

A. Because it is one of the most influential literary works written in Christian history. It redirected the course of apostolic Christianity. It has sparked many reform movements in the church, including the Protestant Reformation. It gave teeth to campaigns in the twentieth century to ordain women. And it has revolutionized my own spiritual life.

Q. There are many commentaries available on Galatians. Why another?

A.This book started out in response to a request from a minister friend who was teaching a men’s Bible study class. He was frustrated in finding suitable study materials for the class. His men shied away from academic volumes, but also found most Sunday school materials too simplistic. They loved William Barclay, but found him dated. Having read my blog, he challenged me to write something for his men that had substance but avoided academic jargon. This book is written to be just that kind of study resource for laypeople studying the Bible and for working pastors.

Q. How do you approach the Letter to the Galatians?

A. Too many people read the Bible in isolated snippets. I read books of the Bible as literary works, paying attention to the flow of the whole work and its historical, canonical, and literary contexts. The tools I use to read the Bible are ones I first learned in a college class on poetry writing. I discovered in the class that I was not a great poet, but I did learn how to read a literary work closely. I have transferred those tools to reading the Bible, including the Letter to the Galatians.

Q. In a nutshell summary, what is the basic message of Galatians?

A. Galatians is a kind of polemical pamphlet. Paul wrote it to address a controversy roiling the apostolic church. On what basis could Gentiles be accepted into a religious movement that was originally Jewish? Paul says they are to be accepted on the same basis as Jewish Christians: by faith in Jesus Christ. They are free from adopting Jewish identity markers. They can be Christians as Gentiles rather than as Jewish converts.

Q. That sounds as if Galatians is an obsolete tract dealing with an old, by-gone controversy? Why study it today?

A. The way Paul addresses that old controversy has spoken powerfully to Christians ever since. Paul does not see the Christian life as one of following iron rules of morality and religious practice. Instead we are called to sink deep roots into the Holy Spirit. In turn the Holy Spirit will bring about a transformation of our lives. It is a way of living freely. And I find that is a clarifying message we Christians need to hear once again today.

Q. If that’s the case, how has your study of Galatians changed your own life?

A.  I grew up in a legalistic version of Christianity focused on identifying and avoiding sins. It nurtured a joy-killing spirit. I hated it. But when I came to read Galatians and understand the import of what Paul was saying, I realized how wrong I was in the vision of Christianity I carried from my childhood. Galatians truly revolutionized my spiritual life. That’s one reason I wrote this book–to help others discover this same liberating message.

Q. Do you have a favorite passage in Galatians?

A. Yes, it is verse 5:13, which reads: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” Paul expresses a fundamental paradox in Christianity. Freedom is experienced in service. Now that turns our normal expectations upside down.

If you would like to explore the Letter to Galatians, you can order the book from Amazon (including an e-book version) or order it directly (including an e-book version) from the publisher’s website below: http://wipfandstock.com/charter-of-christian-freedom.html.

 

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Transmitting Faith to Children: How Can We Do It?

An unexpected Biblical text counsels parents on how to share their faith with their children.

It has been said that the church is only one generation away from extinction. That is certainly true if we talk of local congregations. New churches rise, old ones die all the time. This highlights the importance of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next.

But how do we best do that? Many Christians are asking this urgent question as we watch young people abandon their religious upbringing in droves. Too often we spend enormous resources of volunteer time and money on educating children in our faith only to see them never step into a church again after they graduate from high school.

Howard_Pyle_and_daughter_Phoebe_(Johnston)

The American artist Howard Pyle reads to his daughter Phoebe, early 20th century.

Wisdom out of Deuteronomy

So where can we turn for some insight and help? Surprisingly, I think we find a peculiarly succinct and perceptive understanding of the educational challenge in a place we don’t expect–the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.

As a literary conceit, the book of Deuteronomy comes to us as the farewell sermon Moses gives before he dies and before the children of Israel cross the Jordan River to take possession of the Promised Land.

It comes, therefore, at a transition point in Israel’s history. Israel is going to leave behind its 40 years of nomadic wandering in the desert to take up a settled life in Canaan. The generation that left Egypt in the Exodus has died off. A new generation has arisen.

Finally, a change in leadership will accompany this transition. Moses, the towering leader for the last 40 years, will die. Joshua will succeed him. The author asks us to keep all of these transitions in mind as we read the text.

So in the context that the book creates, Israel faces the question of how it can pass on its faith to the next generation. We find “Moses” (the speaker in the text) providing some guidance in Deuteronomy 6:20-25.

When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’(Revised Standard Version)

You becomes We

As we study this text, notice a fascinating switch that goes on in the first three lines. The passage opens with a youth asking the question: “What is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?”

When I read this, I think Moses must have had some experience raising teen-agers. He knows adolescence is a time of rebellion. Young people often assert their independence by rejecting their parents’ beliefs and values.

I hear just such an adolescent speaking in this text. “Now, Dad, just what is the meaning of these ordinances God commanded you.” Note he says emphatically “you.” It’s as if he were putting himself outside the circle of the family, saying, “This may be your faith, but I’m not sure it’s not mine.”

How does Moses counsel the parent to respond?* You shall say to your son, he says, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” In effect, the father says, “Son, this is not just your mother’s and my faith. It’s also yours. You, too, are a part of the people of God. We are in this together.”

That’s important to remember when we instruct our youth. In Catholic and most Protestant churches children are baptized into the faith. As such, they are insiders. The challenge is to help them understand and live out the faith to which they already belong.

This means the church community becomes an important setting for Christian education. We’re all familiar with the old African proverb that it takes a whole village to raise one child. Well, it takes a whole church to raise one Christian. And in the Presbyterian church to which I belong, we promise to do that every time we baptize a new child into our fellowship.

The father’s answer also points to the solidarity between the past and the present. When the father says, “We,” he places himself and his child right back there at the Exodus event itself. What happened at the Exodus was not something that happened to our ancestors. It happened to us. We were there, too.

As Christians we do the same thing every time we sing the spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Past and present are not then and now. They are both now, in the life of faith. We need to convey that mindset to our children as we educate them in the fundamentals of our faith.

What is the meaning behind what we do?

The second thing to notice about this child’s question is that it asks about the meaning of the community’s faithful behavior.

Sometimes in Christian education, we so focus on the teachings of Christianity that we overlook the actions that express our faith. Being a faithful Christian is far more than reciting the Apostles’ Creed. It includes actions like worshipping God, baptizing and eating the Lord’s supper, caring for the sick, feeding and housing the homeless, protecting the rights of the vulnerable, and engaging in prayer.

It’s important that children and new believers know the doctrines of our faith. It’s just as important that they know how to live as Christians.

Have you ever noticed how reluctant some church visitors are to make a commitment to church membership until they feel comfortable with the ways of a church? Welcoming visitors and making them feel at home with how we practice Christianity in our church may be the most fruitful way to bring them to a commitment.

Tell me the old, old story

Since we’re noticing interesting shifts in the text, let me point out one more. When the child asks the meaning of the actions he sees the community practices, the father does not respond with a philosophical analysis or a scientific explanation.

He tells a story. He recounts the story of the Exodus. “We were Pharaoh’s slaves, “ he begins, and then he tells how God brought them out of Egypt to this place where they now stand.

I think this is terribly, terribly important. Story lies at the heart of our Christian faith, as it lies at the heart of Israel’s faith. It’s one of the very distinctive features of both religions. The story tells of God’s acts on behalf of his people. It is a story about God taking the initiative to liberate his people…from enslavement to Pharaoh in the Jewish story…from enslavement to sin, death, and the devil in the Christian story.

That’s why I believe instructing our children in the stories of the Bible is fundamental. Those stories are the foundation of everything else we do in Christian education.

I know that from personal experience. When I was a child, my mother read Bible stories from a children’s Bible to my sisters and me before we went to bed. I had to become an adult before I began to understand their deeper meaning, but all of my future theological study was grounded in knowing those stories from my childhood.

This has enormous consequences for how we teach ethics to our children. It is so easy to communicate the idea that we follow the Ten Commandments because that is what will make God happy and motivate him to bless us. Deuteronomy is saying something very different. The meaning of our obedient behavior, Moses says, is that we live ethical lives as a grateful response to what God has done for us.

In our instruction, we must never separate the ethics of the Christian life from the story of gracious love that lies behind them. If we do, we turn the ethics into a tyrannous law that kills rather than enlivens.

The family as the nursery of faith

The last thing notice in the passage is the role of the family as the agent for transmitting faith to the next generation.

It is common today for many Christian families to hand over the task of their children’s religious education to Sunday schools. Sunday schools are very important in our ministry of Christian education. They deserve all the support we can give them. But when parents surrender their own personal responsibility, they make a serious mistake.

The Protestant Reformers believed the most fundamental school for faith is the family itself. For them, families are the chief agents for educating their children in the faith. Sunday schools in fact were not even invented until the 19th century.

Moses shares this same perspective with Luther and Calvin. When it comes to transmitting the faith to the next generation, he places the heaviest responsibility on parents. When a child asks the meaning of the faith, it is the parents who respond.

Parents have the most influence on the rearing of their children. They model the life of faith most directly for their children. How well they do so often determines whether their children retain the faith when they become adults.

If we are a parent, how do we model our faith for our children? Do they see us reading the Bible and praying? Do they see us reaching out in compassion to people in need? Do we talk about faith issues with our children? Are they learning from our example that our Christian faith is central to how we live?

Sometimes parents feel embarrassed to talk religion around their children. They may do so because they are not sure what they believe or because they don’t want to unduly influence their children’s religious development.

Their silence, however, sends a powerful message. It tells their children that religious faith in not important in their parents’ lives and so it need not be important in their children’s lives. That almost certainly ensures that the faith will not be transmitted on.

Difficult though the challenge of Christian education is for churches and for parents, the Deuteronomy text gives us confidence. We know that the Jews did make the generational transition when they entered the Promised Land. The Jews did not die off. They are still alive today, practicing their traditional faith just as generations upon generations of their ancestors have. And the same can be true for Christians.


* I recognize the text reads father and son. It reflects the patriarchal society in which it was written. But in our culture, where fathers and mothers share responsibilities in raising children, what the text counsels applies to both parents.

Check It Out

I launch a newly redesigned website to support my teaching ministry.

Teaching GOrdon

 Times change. And so must I.

Five years ago I joined the digital age in my teaching ministry. I created a personal website to promote the teaching services I provide to churches and community groups. Recently I have been feeling it was becoming dated. So I have redesigned it and re-launched it under a new URL. I invite you to check it out at gordonlindsey.com.

If, after you review it, you want to explore with me how I might provide my teaching service to your church or group, please get in touch with me. You can e-mail at ggrlindsey@earthlink.net or telephone me at the numbers listed on the website.

 

The Authoritative Voice of Jesus

What must it have been like to hear Jesus speak?

Recently I began re-reading the gospel of Mark. We don’t get far into the gospel before Mark recounts Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-20) is terse. Jesus encounters both sets of brothers along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. All are fishermen. Jesus calls them to follow him, saying “I will make you become fishers of men.” In both cases, Mark says, the brothers leave their nets (and James and John their father) and start to follow Jesus.

Mark says they do this immediately. That detail is likely to arouse curiosity for most readers. Why would these four men abandon everything to follow Jesus upon their first encounter with Jesus–and do so immediately? Had they had some prior contact with Jesus? (The gospel of John suggests that Andrew may have had.)

Mark gives no explanation. He seems unconcerned with the question. His purpose in telling the story is to set it up as a paradigm for Christian discipleship. Here is the essence of discipleship. But Mark may give a subtle answer to our question if we are careful to read between his lines.

Manifesting Authority

In the story that immediately follows (Mark 1:21-28), Mark tells of Jesus’ first healing miracle. In a synagogue in Capernaum, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit challenges Jesus. Jesus casts it out to the amazement of the congregation. They comment to themselves, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

As a prelude to the miracle, Mark says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. The congregation is astonished with his teaching, because “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Mark bookends the miracle with public comments about the authority with which Jesus speaks and acts. This places great emphasis on the sense of authority that people perceive when they are around Jesus.

The fact that these allusions to the authoritative impact of Jesus’ voice and presence follow immediately upon the story of the disciples’ call may suggest an answer to why Simon, Andrew, James, and John respond immediately. When Jesus issues his call, he does so with an authority that leaves the four men no other option but to respond immediately.

If that is the case, then hearing the voice of Jesus directly addressing them must have been a profoundly moving experience. Which triggers my curiosity. What was it about Jesus’ voice that conveyed that sense of authority, an authority that commanded a life-changing response? Was there a special quality to the sound of Jesus’ voice?

Mark does not satisfy my curiosity, nor does any other gospel writer. Yet they bear witness to that sense of authority that Jesus conveyed to those he taught and those he called. It seems to have left an imprint on everyone he met, even his enemies. They castigated him for not staying within the lines of accepted religious discourse as hallowed by scribal tradition. He seemed to take a stance authoritatively above it.

The Sources of Jesus’ Sense of Authority

Where did that quality of authority come from? If we stay within the confines of Mark’s gospel alone, Mark must have seen it coming from Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11). We cannot know what that experience was like for Jesus. But it must have been a deeply transforming experience, comparable to the transforming experience of enlightenment that the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi tree. In both cases, Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama were never the same.

One source of Jesus’ authority therefore must be that profoundly transforming spiritual experience (as it was for the Buddha as well). For those of us who have never experienced such a profoundly soul-shaking experience, we can never fully appreciate how utterly transforming such experiences must be. The apostle Paul would be able to, as would also the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. But for the rest of us, most of us know the reality and power of such experiences by the effect it has on people’s lives afterwards.

This experience of Jesus at his baptism must have also transformed Jesus by solidifying his resolve and commitment to seek first the kingship of God above all other things. His life therefore became a perfect realization of what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “But seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus could live fully in the present moment because he trusted in the loving kingship of his Father.

That fact about Jesus must also have contributed to the sense of authority that people sensed when they heard Jesus teach. He lived what he preached. There was no inconsistency between what he said and what he did. The authority of his teaching therefore drew some of its power from the integrity of the life he lived. That integrity was sealed by his death.

Talk about authority is generally distasteful for many Americans today. The spirit of our age is anti-authoritarian. We are suspicious of authority, and for good reason. When authority is misused and abused, we have good reason for distrusting it. But if we are to understand the mindset of the New Testament, we must come to re-appreciate the legitimate role of authority. The earliest Christian confession is Jesus is Lord. The one we revere is more than a persuasive teacher. He is also one who authoritatively calls: Follow me.

Oaks of Righteousness

White_Oak_Tree_MarylandWhat does a mature Christian look like?

When I read the Old Testament prophets, their images sometimes arrest me. A case in point: Isaiah 61.

In this passage the prophet addresses an exiled and dispirited Israel. He says that the Spirit of God has commissioned him to “bring good news to the oppressed.” His message, he says, is to give them the “oil of gladness instead of mourning.” He declares to “all who mourn” God’s plan to restore the ruined city of Jerusalem.

Then comes this striking phrase:

They [the returning exiles] will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:3)

There it is, that image “oaks of righteousness.” The mature oak is a strong, sturdy tree. It sometimes can grow to great height. We have one in our backyard. And it produces a wealth of acorns at this time of year.

All of that sturdy tree is contained in the acorn. But what a contrast that mature tree is to the seed. The acorn is the embryo of a tree. The grown tree is the picture of magnificent maturity. God never intends the acorn to remain an acorn. It is to grow into its intended destiny.

Asking an Important Question

This image raises the question for me: What qualities define a spiritually mature person?

In my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.), our Book of Order has a chapter describing the mission of the church in its educational and pastoral care. The text contains this striking sentence: “The nurture of believers and their children in the Christian community is a process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ” (paragraph W-6.1003). I have highlighted the phrase in italics to call attention to it.

What is this full maturity in Jesus Christ? In fact, what does a mature Christian look like? I consider that an important question because how we understand full maturity will guide the goals and the methods we pursue in our “our process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ”. I am not sure many Christian educators or pastors have taken time to ask that question of themselves.

It is also an important question to ask because there are millions of Christians in the world today. They live at innumerably different levels of spiritual maturity. Yet their actions and their behaviors, commendable or not, shape how the world at large as well as fellow Christians see our faith.

If we want to challenge some of the immature and discreditable things Christians do and say, do we know on what basis we make our challenge? Are we judging others on the basis of our own inchoate prejudices? Or do we have a clear and thoughtful sense of what a “fully mature” Christian looks like?

It’s not an easy question to answer. For one, the answer may vary from person to person depending upon a person’s unique calling in life. We do not expect the mature fruit of a tomato seed to look exactly like the mature growth of an acorn. And for another, we find several different pictures of maturity in the Biblical texts. It is not easy to unite them into one simple, coherent whole. But let me hazard a few thoughts that come from my own reading in Scripture.

First, maturity is not the same thing as giftedness. A person may have many extraordinary gifts or talents that set him or her apart. But those gifts may say nothing about the emotional maturity or character of the person. History offers many examples. Mozart, for example. There have been few musicians more gifted than Mozart, but that does not say Mozart was a paragon of emotional maturity in his behavior.

Nor is spiritual maturity to be equated with deep piety. One may be deeply committed to a life of piety. That can bear admirable fruit in the character of a Christian, but not necessarily so. We can all think of people who, like the Pharisees in the gospels, are obsessive in their devotional practices, yet in their behavior give Christianity a bad odor in the wider world.

Some Initial Thoughts on an Answer

So what does spiritual maturity look like to me?

I find myself turning to Psalm 1 for one picture of maturity. There we have mature believers, people who meditate day and night on Torah, compared to trees that are planted by streams of water. (Note again the image of the tree.) Because they are so planted, they possess a basic stability. When the gales come, the winds may assault them, but they do not uproot them. In this respect, they contrast with the wicked who are rootless. The wicked blow about in the gales like lightweight chaff.

Also the trees of the righteous prove fruitful. They are productive in their work. They accomplish things.

I find it fascinating that three different psalms (Psalm 1, 52, and 92) all employ the image of the rooted tree as an image of spiritual stability just as does the prophet in Isaiah 61. In Psalms 52 and 92, those trees draw their stability by their being planted in the house of the Lord.

The second passage I draw upon in my understanding of spiritual maturity is Galatians 5:22-23. There the apostle Paul names the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Note that these are not primarily actions. They are traits of character that will express themselves in the believer’s action. Once again note that when the apostle uses the word “fruit,” he is drawing upon the image of a fruit tree.

Although the Galatians passage draws my attention to traits of character, I also think maturity can express itself in particular actions. And here I find myself returning to Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). The spiritually mature person is able to do two things well. One is to love God with all of his or her being; the other is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

There may be much more to say about this question. But they are my initial thoughts. What are yours?

 

The Bible’s in my blood

It feels as if the Bible has always been a part of my life, almost as if a part of my cellular makeup. At least, I can’t remember a time when it has not.  Given that my parents were devout Christians for whom the Bible was central to their lives, I am sure they were reading the Bible to me even as an infant.

My first conscious memory, however, is of the time when Mother bought a children’s Bible and read a story from it every night as she tucked my sisters and me into bed. I have vivid memories of the book’s end sheets. They showed a picture of rays of sunshine streaming through the clouds. I was never quite sure what the imagery was meant to convey—a vision of the first day of creation or of the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven.

We were Baptists, and so as an elementary-school student, I was taught to use my Bible in Sunday evening sword drills. This is a popular Southern Baptist practice where children line up at the front of a room. An adult yells out a verse of Scripture, like Amos 7:2. Then every child scrambles in his or her Bible to be the first one to find the verse. In Sunday school class we were required to memorize the names of all the books of the Bible in order—all 66 of them.

One thing I admire about this Baptist training is that it teaches a person to navigate the Bible, even if you misunderstand what you find. You don’t need a table of contents to find a particular book or verse. The training has served me in good stead through the years.

The Bible of my childhood was the King James Version. The unspoken assumption was that this translation was divinely inspired. So I duly read my Bible in 17th century English, even if  it didn’t often make sense. All that changed when I was a teenager, and my Dad brought home a new translation of the New Testament. The New English Bible had just come off press. Its goal was to put the Bible’s message in contemporary speech. When I opened this translation and read a few passages, I felt as if I was encountering a brand new book. The message was no longer archaic. It leaped alive. Old, familiar passages spoke with a vividness I had never before experienced. The sword of the Spirit had a sharp, new cutting edge.

I frankly fell in love with the Bible from that moment. And it is the longest love affair of my life (my wife did not arrive until some 25 years later).

I have been reading and studying the Bible ever since with never flagging interest. There have been times in my life when my Christian faith skated on thin ice. There have been times when I have wanted to throw Christianity overboard. So deep was my anger and confusion. But there was always one thing I could never discard: my fascination with the Bible. I keep reading it, trying to understand its mysteries, and being seduced by it. And now I have a lifetime of discoveries and reflections about this amazing book.

I am creating this blog to provide a way to share some of my experiences, thoughts, reflections, and questions that have emerged from this lifetime of being in conversation with the Bible. I hope that this sharing will be meaningful to others. So, if you are a new reader, I invite you to join me in conversation with and about the Bible. It’s a spring that never runs dry.