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Wearing Nothing But a Belt

I’m studying the book of Romans this year with a group of women from a wide variety of age groups, races and religious denominations. It does my heart good to see the body of Christ in all its jasper and carnelian glory.  (See The Throne of God.)

However, studying Paul’s letters in any setting with any group, listening to everyone-but-me speak of Paul with glowing affection and adoration, I can’t help but wonder:

Who died and made Paul God?

Jesus?

We evangelicals tend to treat Paul as though he is a deity. We do. I was in a blog comment discussion once with a guy who actually wrote, “Paul was God.” To be fair, what he meant was that Paul’s words are on par with God’s. But are they?

Paul wasn’t a prophet – he didn’t speak forth the very words of God. He was a missionary, a church-planter. A flawed, human church planter. And though he had some really good things to say, he wasn’t any different than the flawed human missionaries and church planters you might know.

Everyday Christians who do not do the good they want to do, but the evil they do not want to do. Continually.

I have often wondered when this evangelical love affair with Paul began and now, thanks to my Bible study notes, I think I know. It began with Martin Luther:

“When I learned how the justification of the sinner proceeds from the free mercy of our Lord through faith… then I felt born again like a new man,” Luther wrote, … “In very truth, this language of St. Paul was to me the true gate of Paradise.” – J.H. Merle D’Aubigue, The Life and Times of Martin Luther (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), 55-56.

“Later, Luther called Romans ‘the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel.’ He taught that ‘every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, [and] occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.’”  – Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1976), xiii.

Purest gospel? Purer than the gospels written by those who actually lived with, served with and sat at the feet of Jesus for three years? Of those who recorded His actual words. In red letters?!

If it all began with Martin Luther, I can see how the adoration of Paul would be foundational to being an evangelical, to being born-again. No wonder I feel like the kid yelling, “The emperor is naked!” among crowds who are admiring his new clothes.

Pointing out human flaws in Paul’s logic, pointing out his sometimes defensive posture and his convoluted writing style makes me highly unfashionable. Leprous even.

But then, take a look in my closet and you will see that I’ve never been all that concerned with fashion.

Why does it rile my soul?

Because I think it does harm to the church to look at Paul’s writing through such a (falsely) rosy lens. It insults my intelligence when Bible commentators twist themselves into pretzels trying to make sense of Paul’s baffling words in order to preserve the idea of his perfection rather than just telling it like it is: Paul was human and humans get defensive, try to please everyone, misquote their sources, embellish when trying to win an argument and just plain misspeak.

The church would be healthier if we were allowed to point out the elephant in the room. Isn’t ignoring the elephant the thing that makes a family dysfunctional?

Telling the truth would also make church a lot more appealing to those who say they are too intelligent for church as well as to those who, like me, notice a bit of nakedness but feel pressured to pipe down, dress up in good Christian clothes and pretend.

I have a lot to say about Paul, whom I actually like in many ways. It’s not his fault we put on these unfortunate glasses.

If you want to know more about Paul and me, type “Paul” into the search bar at the top of this blog and scroll away.  If you’re about to throw 2 Timothy 3:16 at me, type “The Inerrancy of God” into search and read, read, read.  🙂

In the meantime, I’ll keep the belt of truth buckled firmly around my waist.

#fashionable

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Jesus

Longing

If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you know that I used to teach the Bible to children on Monday nights.

If you’ve ever been a Children’s Leader in BSF (Bible Study Fellowship), you know how it works:  At some point during the summer break the age group you will teach the following school year is selected for you. Then, at the Leader’s Workshop in late August, you are given your assignment.  You can make your age-group preference known, but you likely won’t get it.

One of the reasons I stepped down from teaching this year is because I didn’t want to risk being assigned the first and second graders, the third and fourth graders, or even the fifth and sixth graders.

The only level I could remotely imagine teaching this year is Level 5 – the senior high students.

Why?

Because we’re studying the book of Romans and I’ve taught it before, to youngsters, in BSF.

BSF is well structured, organized and uniform – which is a good thing in the adult program – but it’s too much of a good thing in the Children’s program.

For instance, the leaders in every level – whether they are teaching 6-year-olds or 18-year-olds – are given the same outline from which to teach.  They have the freedom to make the illustrations and applications age-appropriate, but the aim and the principles must be stated exactly as written.  It can be awkward in any study to be teaching in your own voice and then have to abruptly switch to the the writer of the principle’s voice to deliver it exactly as written.  And in the case of Romans, it’s not just awkward, it’s HARD.

Or, more accurately, it’s HARSH.  The principles can be very harsh, causing the youngsters to appear browbeaten by week 6.

Because Paul – or at least the way his letter is presented – wants to make sure they know that they are horrible sinners.

“But hang on,” we tell them, “good news is coming.”

But what if we framed it differently (and no less accurately) right from the start?

Here’s what I mean.

Wrath.

Paul begins his letter by stating that he is a minister of the gospel and then, in verse 18, he abruptly switches from gospel to wrath.

And I say, “What?”

So I look up the Greek word translated “wrath” and I learn that the word is orgē, pronounced or-gā’.

And I see that the KJV translates the word in various places as wrath, anger, vengeance, indignation.

And then I read Strong’s definition: properly, desire (as a reaching forth or excitement of the mind), i.e. (by analogy), violent passion (ire, or (justifiable) abhorrence); by implication punishment:—anger, indignation, vengeance, wrath.

Strong’s definition is taken from the root word for orgē, oregō – which means “to stretch oneself out in order to touch or to grasp something, to reach after or desire something.”

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines orgē this way:

ὀργή, ὀργῆς, (from ὀργάω to teem, denoting an internal motion, especially that of plants and fruits swelling with juice (Curtius, § 152); cf. Latinturgerealicui forirascialicui in Plautus Cas. 2, 5, 17; Most. 3, 2, 10; cf. German arg, Aerger), in Greek writings from Hesiod down “the natural disposition, temper, character; movement or agitation of soul, impulse, desire, any violent emotion,” but especially (and chiefly in Attic*) anger. In Biblical Greek anger, wrath, indignation… (bold added)

So the original Greek word could be translated as a ripening desire; a longing; reaching out for something.

And then, beginning with the writings of a poet named Hesiod, an element of anger was attached to the desire/movement of the soul.

Did you notice that last bit of Thayer’s defintion? I hope so because I emboldened it for you. In Biblical Greek, orgē is translated as anger, wrath, indignation.

Why? And what is Biblical Greek anyway?

Why isn’t it translated as longing, desire, a movement of the soul, as it was originally used?

At what point did God’s longing for us become a browbeating?

Did Paul intend that the word be interpreted that way? Was his intention to browbeat the Christians in Rome to whom he was writing  – Christians whom he had just commended for having world-famous faith? Did he want them to fully appreciate just how good the good news is by reminding them of their wretchedness? Why spoil the good news by rubbing their noses in their past? Or was he addressing any Pharisees who might get their hands on his letter thus blurring his audience? (I ask that because in several places throughout his letter he seems to be presenting an argument to those who think like he used to think, i.e. Pharisees.)

If Paul was indeed trying to lay out his (already saved) audience’s need for a Savior, Isaiah did it so much better. And faster.

In just one chapter Isaiah laid out the tangled condition of the world. Click here to read it.

And then, at the dawn of the next glorious chapter, he told the world what God’s longing/desire was going to do about it.

He left His throne and stepped into our darkness.

To redeem us.

And that’s how I’d be teaching Romans this year, if I were teaching it.

I’d define wrath as God’s longing for us, as His desire, the movement of His soul toward redemption. Any anger associated with the word is directed at the tangled mess we’ve made of things, at the mess we and His enemy have made of things, not at us, whom He loves. Paul said so himself in chapter 5: “While we were still [a tangled mess], Christ died for us.”

God’s longing is for us, His wrath is against that which entangles us.

If I could put the principles in my own words, I’d write them with God’s longing in mind. I wouldn’t alter any facts, I’d just sift each one through the good news: God knows how to untangle the mess.

*Attic is a dialect of Greek.

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P.S.  Please don’t take this post as a dis of BSF, I love BSF and I’m studying Romans with them as a general class member – but this time around I’m going to take a look at the book with fresh eyes.  I’ll probably show you the stuff I see.

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