Immodesty and Violence Against Women

Skinny jeansLast year a friend of mine was asked by a male pastor to change, because her jeans were too tight. Yes, you read correctly. Her jeans were too tight. To my knowledge – and please correct me if I am wrong – no man has ever been rebuked for wearing pants that were too tight. Even though we have lived through the advent of skinny jeans and ministry of Carl Lentz. But on a more serious note, recent events in South African have rocked the nation. Violence against women is once again generating considerable outcry—and rightly so. The hashtag #AmINext indicates widespread fear and anxiety among women. This has done for unspoken fear what #MeToo did for silent sufferers. But what can the church, especially Christian men, do?

To answer that question I want to return to my friend’s wardrobe rebuke. It is true that the New Testament exhorts women to dress respectably and modestly (1 Timothy 2:9). As the NIV translates that verse, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety.” It is not an overstatement to say that this is one of very few New Testament verses that directly deals with what women wear. Though instead of prescribing a timeless dress code, Christians are exhorted to adorn themselves with good deeds in keeping with their fear of God (2:10). In fact, the word typically translated as ‘modest’ in 2:9 appears nowhere else in the New Testament. The other words, respectable and self-controlled or propriety, are not usually concerned with apparel but our attitude. Therefore, in passing, I think these verses do address a women’s choice of clothing but the emphasis is on her own heart. Others can debate the details.

Before you light your metaphorical torches, let me make a crucial proviso: under no circumstances is someone’s choice of clothing to blame for someone else’s sin—least of all when it comes to the disgusting realities of sexual assault and rape. Martin Luther famously said, ‘You can’t stop birds flying over your head but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.’ When men objectify women that is a choice, from lusting after them to lewd comments about them, long before violent and sexual crimes are committed against them. It is deeply unsettling in South Africa, even in some churches, that the question about what she was was wearing is close behind a tragic story of sexual assault. To use another analogy, consider crimes of passion. If I come home and find my wife in bed with another man and kill both of them, we can be assured that the judge or jury will not moderate my sentence because my actions were motivated. That is stupid—so is tying rape and sexual assault, or any sin for that matter, to her attire.

But what if a woman is dressed immodestly, by your own definition or according to your culture? In other words, what if you find yourself in the same shoes as the aforementioned pastor  was in. Firstly, the New Testament has a lot to say to you before you say anything to her. “Urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:6). For this is what God’s gracious salvation trains us to be: “self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:13-14; also see 2 Peter 1:6; 1 Corinthians 9:25). Contrast with the one mention of modesty in the New Testament, I lost track of how many times we are exhorted to be self-controlled. Greek even has more than one word for it. You may be familiar with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and modesty (Galatians 5:22-23). Except that the list stops at self-control. In fact, Paul goes on, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Notice, that Christian maturity is less about covering up flesh as it is about crucifying your own flesh—which is New Testament language for sin. 

Finally, did that pastor have the right to challenge her about her tight jeans? No, I do not think that he did. At most, if I am reading 1 Timothy 2 correctly, he could ask her to consider whether she thought she was being immodest. Let me say again, how we define modesty is both cultural and personal. In other words, immodesty is rooted more in the desired outcomes for what you wear than a prescribed dress code. Let’s not be legalists. In the Christian church there is only one occasion I can think of when I might be permitted to speak to a Christian women about what she is wearing. That is in the case that I am the weaker brother, either in terms of sin or my conscience. However, in that conversation, I must admit that the problem lies with me. Not her.  But Christian men, be self-controlled. Before a woman is made to feel guilty about being immodest, confess your own sin and lack of self-control. Men need to do far more repenting in this area than women need to do concerning their choice of clothing.

Jesus’ Resurrection and the Christian Life

Albrecht AltdorferThough the reference eludes me, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” In the past I have written posts defending the historical veracity of the resurrection: the first argued that the most convincing reason for the existence and expansion of the early church is Christ’s bodily resurrection; the second compared Christ with the Caesars, asking why an itinerant Jewish rabbi is remembered as a god while his contemporaries, worshipped in the Imperial Cult, are all but forgotten. Following Lewis’ dictum, my aim in this post is to offer a few theological points on the resurrection that I hope will encourage and exhort believers. Come and feed on the resurrection, let it nourish your soul.

Through the resurrection Christ earned absolute trust

Jesus told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). When we slow down and reflect on these words we cannot but be in awe of Jesus. His power matches his promises. The resurrection is no parlour trick. It is the validation of all that he said he would do. Elsewhere Jesus is recorded saying that he would give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Therefore at the resurrection Jesus is not merely vindicated as a martyr or misunderstood zealot but confirmed as God’s Messiah. His work is powerfully presented as complete. What does this mean for us? It means that Christ can be trusted. His word can be believed. We can depend on him for the salvation he promised. It is here that a biblical definition of faith emerges. If Christ died and three days later took his life up again then there is something more certain than death and taxes: our own resurrection.

In the resurrection our lives gain real meaning

In one of his autobiographical works, titled Confessions, Tolstoy admitted that he seriously considered taking his own life, as he suffered from severe melancholy. As he did so, he was haunted by a question, ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ Despite his monumental achievements and influence the crushing conclusion he drew was that death brings an end to all of them. A similar sentiment can be read in 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”. Frighteningly, such outlook can not only be widely observed today but is celebrated. Importantly, however, while gallantly expressed with a drink in hand among friends it is far more sobering to reflect on quietly—and alone. We should do so, since we will all face death alone.

ResurrectionEarlier in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:14); and a little later, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (15:17). Part of Paul’s argument in this chapter is that for the Christian life is not vain and death is not final. Apart from the resurrection we only have only death to look forward to, when everything we spent our lives pursuing is lost. In the resurrection, on the other hand, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Though this life is besotted with blessings it labours vainly for meaning if death has the last say. For the Christian even though death is inevitable it does not destroy. One of J. I. Packer’s regularly quoted verses is John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To know Christ means eternal life has already begun. To know his resurrection means this life is not futile.

By the resurrection we are set free from sin

In 1 Corinthians 15, mentioned above, Paul makes the point that Christ’s death means we need not fear God’s judgment against sin. As Paul puts it, ‘Death has lost its sting, which was our sin.’ We are free from the power of sin in the future. But in Romans 6 Paul mounts a different argument: Christians are free from the power of sin in the present. It reads,“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (6:2); “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4); and “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (6:6-7). Paul’s point, which is worthy of much more reflection and rereading is that objectively the power of sin is broken in the life of the Christian. Therefore when we sin we do so freely and not under compulsion. Sin is our decision to submit to a defeated power. Our sin denies the work God has done and defies the work he is doing.

A few verses later Paul offers one of the first imperatives in the book of Romans, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (6:11-12). Echoing Paul I say this as much to myself as I do to you: the resurrection broke the power of sin, which means you are no longer a slave. Stop choosing slavery; stop choosing sin. We have been raised that we might live a new life, a life no longer marked and defined by sin. I know that I often do not believe this, particularly when I struggle with sin and temptation. But according to these verses in Romans 6 when I sin it is not because I was powerless to do otherwise. When I sin it is because I am not standing with conviction and resolution in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Go and sin no more, as you go with the confidence found in Christ’s finished work.

Brokenness: How We Reframe Sin

Broken WorldPastors and service leaders often tell stories or make reference to a sporting event or news item to connect with the congregation. Recently, however, I have noticed these techniques give way to the sure-fire connection that is made when the person upfront talks about brokenness. At a prayer meeting someone lamented,

We are broken people
Living in a broken world
Breaking things

And on reflection, I wouldn’t argue with it.

I also didn’t argue with it when it was said because we were talking about plenty of truly broken things in people’s lives. Things over which they had no control and that introduced seemingly senseless pain. Brokenness is a word that captures this idea really well and yet, I remember a time when I would have said, “We are fallen people living in a fallen world.” So I’ve been wondering about the difference.

My church did a series on Joel – the minor prophet who spends three chapters finding synonyms for “swarm of locusts.” The locusts come as God’s judgement on Israel. “Why are you telling me this?” you ask. Because somehow we did not talk about judgement in the series: week one: “the power of stories,” week two: “the possibility that pain is for our good,” week three: “the hope for restoration” (my titles). Each week the worship leader would welcome us and talk about how we probably all had rough weeks and that we come together as broken people to be refreshed by the Word and I was being my usual (non-critical) self thinking, “what happened to sin?”

Broken JarThen it dawned on me. Brokenness is something that happens to us. Jars get dropped, balls hit windows, iphones fall out of pockets – they all get broken and they are broken through no fault of their own. Broken things are victims. We are victims.

On the other hand, sin is something that we do. We are the perpetrators: we pull the trigger, we bend the truth, two options are presented and we choose the morally inferior one. Sinners are blameworthy and we haven’t wanted to take the blame since back in the garden.

I’m still not sure what the difference between fallenness and brokenness is but I am pretty confident about the difference between brokenness and sin. And the reason that the worship leader keeps talking about brokenness at the beginning of the service and we keep praying about it in prayer meetings is the same reason that the sermon series on Joel never accused me of being a sinner. I don’t like taking the blame.

Brokenness reframes sin turning us into victims
rather than perpetrators

Don’t misunderstand me. There are broken things and we are broken people. Not every bad thing that happened to you is the result of your own sin. And yet, the reason that I live in a sinful world is as much about me as it is about anyone else. Maybe in a generation that has such apathy to obedience and holiness, it’s time to own up to the part we play in breaking our world.

Was Jesus Really Tempted?

TemptationIn the last post Graham began a series on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew. In it, he claimed that “Jesus was truly tempted, because the task set before him was overwhelmingly daunting.” But the fact that Jesus was tempted is a point worth further investigation. We quickly affirm Jesus’ perfection and his holiness but if those things are true was the temptation Jesus was faced with anything like our own temptation? If not was he really tempted? Or more, was he really human?

Jesus Didn’t sin

Let’s begin by reasserting Jesus’ perfection. In 2009 the American research company Barna ran a poll that concluded that 22% of Americans strongly agree that “Jesus probably sinned” and another 17% “agree somewhat”. In other words, 40% of those who would describe themselves as Christians (2 out of every group of 5!) would be okay with the idea that Jesus sinned. Or even, they think it’s unlikely that he didn’t.

Jesus’ moral perfection is something that is often questioned and doubted. It is also, however, something that is absoultely critical. We see this 1 Peter 2:22. Peter quotes Isaiah 53 with reference to Jesus and the punchline is that “He committed no sin”. The thing is, Peter is encouraging Christians to endure through suffering. How are they supposed to do that? Look to Jesus as their example. That logic doesn’t really work if Jesus sinned. Peter also doesn’t stop there; in verse 24 we see that the point of Jesus’ sinless death is that we could die to sin. Peter wouldn’t care about dying to sin though unless Jesus were our sinless example.

Jesus Couldn’t Sin

Okay so we all believe Jesus didn’t sin but we may wonder, “Could Jesus have sinned? Was Jesus actually able to sin?” After all, if Jesus was not able to sin, was he really human – isn’t it human nature to sin?

Think back to the Garden of Eden though and we will quickly remember that God made everything good. Adam and Eve were perfectly human and perfectly sinless the way God made them. Sin, ironically, is precisely not human nature. So Jesus could be human without ever sinning (and for that matter, he didn’t even need to be tempted to sin in order to qualify as a real human).

I think we can go one step further though and say that Jesus could not have sinned because not only was he 100% flesh and blood human, he was also 100% real McCoy God. Now something we often forget is that morality is not this arbitrary set of rules out there that God is just really good at keeping. If that were true, there would be something in authority over God. Instead, morality is rooted in God himself, in his nature and character. Quite simply, Jesus couldn’t have sinned because by definition he is the source of morality. To suggest Jesus could have sinned is kind of like suggesting that tree could plant itself.

Morality comes from Jesus and so what he does defines it. That doesn’t mean morality twists and turns and changes all the time, by the way, because something else we need to remember about God is that he is consistent and doesn’t change like shadows as the day wears on. Instead, we see God outlining a moral code and then we see him acting consistently with it through all of Scripture.

Jesus Wouldn’t Sin

If Jesus couldn’t sin though, then it stands to reason that he also couldn’t be tempted – at least in any real or significant way. I mean what’s the worry of temptation if I am don’t even have to worry about resisting it, because of who I am I’ll never be able to be immoral.

It’s helpful to realise that there are two types of temptation. Internal, like the kind James 1:14 refers to when James says we are tempted “when [we are] lured and enticed by [our] own evil desires.” and External, like the kind that Adam and Eve faced from the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus was not tempted internally because, unlike you are I, Jesus was not part of fallen humanity. However, it’s also clear that Jesus was tempted externally. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all report Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Satan tries three times to have Jesus follow the rest of humanity in sin and three times Jesus resists, consistently turning to Scripture (a poingant lesson to 21st century Christians who are known for our “snuggle” with sin).

The gospel accounts use Jesus’ victory against temptation to set him up as the true Israel and the second Adam through whom the Fall will be overturned. There is, however, one other particularly significant passage we should take note of; Hebrews 4:15

we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

Here we see the importance of Jesus’ temptation to us as frail sinners. Jesus is not someone who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses. He was tempted in all things! In fact, if I were Satan I would have maxed out my efforts on getting Jesus to sin. “Yet,” Hebrews tells us, Jesus was without sin. This is an encouragement to us when we fall into sin to turn once more to Jesus. More than that, the author of Hebrews knows that Jesus sinlessness means that even when we sin, there is forgiveness because Jesus was not only our great high priest but our perfect atoning sacrifice.

How Aronofsky’s Noah Misrepresents God, Man, and Sin

Noahs-ark-pic

As the dust settles around Noah and Christian audiences set their gaze (or crosshairs) on Son of God I thought I would throw some brief and no doubt far from novel thoughts into the cooling cauldron of Aronofsky’s film. James has written a balanced post here; though making many qualifications, he suggests three features that we ought to appreciate and discuss. For despite the movie failing to clearly communicate the message of Genesis 6-9, many of its details and interpretive salvos are colourfully thought provoking, even helpful. However, in this post, I want to highlight areas where Aronofsky’s eisegesis contributed to the film’s failure in conveying Noah’s story, immediately embedded in Genesis and ultimately the seedbed for all of Scripture.

1. God is vague

From the outset of the film “the Creator” is palpably distant. This God, tending towards silence, gives Noah dreams. The interpretation of these dreams is however not offered by God but rather through an encounter with Methuselah the mystic. Noah is not lead by God but left by him, to ponder what on earth the Creator hoped to tell him. To risk pointing out the glaringly obvious, in Genesis we read that God spoke to Noah (see 6:13; 7:1); later he would establish a covenant with Noah and reiterate the promises of the Abrahamic covenant (8:20-9:17). But perhaps the most significant detail is found in Genesis 6:9, “Noah walked with God,” casting our minds back to Eden when God walked with Adam and Eve (3:8). The picture is one of closeness and intimacy, indicating that Noah was in the presence of God. Yet Aronofsky’s Creator is vague and unclear, leaving Noah to not only piece together the dreams but also determine the course of human history, which almost backfires when he decides to end human progeny. Aronofsky’s God is more akin to Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” or George Lucas’ “Force” than the personal presence that we meet in Genesis, walking with and talking to his creation. To steal the wording from a post I wrote a while back: in Noah, God is denied the ability to reveal himself to what he has made, as we are asked to imagine he either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making himself known. Without suggesting that Noah was unsure, even unconvinced about what God promised to do, we must maintain that his doubts were never because God was unclear.

2. Man and sin

Aronofsky's NoahI agree with James that Aronosky clearly showed the need for mercy in the light of evil. However where the film missed the mark was in its depiction of sin, which was implicitly defined as the mistreatment of creation. The city dwellers, led by Tubal-Cain, thought that their God-given dominion justified a rapacious handling of the created world. I have written regarding the covenant of creation, here and here, where I showed that Adam and Eve were appointed as custodians, rather than conquerors, over creation. This task involved faithful obedience to God’s authority, retaining the created order where God rules what he has made through his image-bearers. Therefore, responsible rule is not measured in care for the creation but submission to the Creator. Sin, seen in exploiting the environment or fratricide, stems from disobedience to God. Wickedness may become manifest in the abuses Aronofsky vividly portrayed, but is ultimately defined by man’s relation to God rather than what God has made. Aronofsky’s Noah completely muddied this point. Surely Noah’s description as righteous and blameless man, who walked with God (Genesis 6:9) means more than that he had green fingers. Oppositely, the wickedness of Tubal-Cain and his followers is grander than their distasteful misuse of creation. Unwittingly the film comes close to showing sin for what it is – in fleeting references to Eden as well as Tubal-Cain’s final speech – but this is unfortunately obscured by Aronofsky’s redefinition, away from obedience to the Creator and towards worshipping the creation.

Conclusion of sorts

The details might be unclear, because the Creator is vague, and the verdict of wickedness imprecise, because the urgency for environmentalism is an easier implication than repentance. Yet in the film, Noah correctly diagnoses humanity, as inherently evil. The solution he reaches is startling: the rebirth of creation cannot happen without the death of mankind. Tentatively, in closing, I want to suggest that Noah’s disturbing conclusion is not far from biblical truth. The curse of death is God’s just ruling for a world that has, since the Adam and Eve, embraced the rebellion of our first parents. More than simply embracing it, the biblical as well as empirical evidence shows that we are enslaved to it. Paul says that only one who has died has been set free from sin (Romans 6:7). Through faith we are united to Jesus in his death (6:5), the old self is put to death with him (6:6). This has brought about not only the hope of resurrection life in the future but also newness of life in the present (6:4). Paul exhorts those who have died to live to God and die to sin (6:10-11). Here Noah, the apostle Paul, and John Calvin collude, “[It is] as if God had declared that for us to be reckoned amongst his children our common nature must die” (Institutes 3.3.8). But the magnificent news is that this happens through the nearness of God, initially through union with Christ in his death and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Futility of Fighting Sin with Sin

Ring PendantI think I may have started to find narrative more persuasive and more compelling than propositions (that’s quite a step for me). Again I have been thinking about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this time I have been thinking about sin through Tolkien’s spectacular metaphor of the ring. After Shelob’s lair – potentially the most exhilarating episode in the book – Sam believes Frodo to be dead and, after some deliberation, comes to the realisation that the responsibility of bearing the ring has fallen to him. This means that Sam carried it briefly and, for a short time, even wore it. My interest is the battle of wills that ensues as Sam puts on the ring.

The objective of the fellowship has always been the defeat of Sauron. The objective is a good one. It is the means of that objective being fulfilled that shifts and it is in the shift that Sauron would triumph. Sam barely wears the ring but simply having it hanging around his neck gives him courage and makes him fearsome in the eyes of orc enemies.

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

Were he to wear it and try to wield it, it would certainly destroy him. His will would be engulfed in the will of Sauron and his good desire to defeat Sauron would turn into the evil desire for the power; the power for which Sauron himself longed (this is the vice of the ring; into it was poured all of Sauron’s evil will such that it will corrupt the will of whoever wears it).

While Sam’s desire to defeat Sauron remains and is still good, conflicting desires flare up that are evil and as Tolkien allows us briefly to peak into Sam’s ring-induced imaginings, we are exposed to the subtle yet perilous shift in means. Sauron’s defeat need not come at the expense of the ring; Sam is tempted by the idea that in his own power (with the help of the ring), he could overthrow Sauron. The seductive but errant notion that the defeat of evil need not come at the expense of evil.

Figurine: Gollum with The RingThe concept is illuminating. How often I now find myself using a sinful means to try to defeat sin. Allow me to illustrate, a man beats his wife. He knows it’s wrong but he constantly finds he succumbs to the temptation. He realises, however, that should this be discovered he would lose his reputation – a reputation that has become an idol to him. He therefore puts a stop to beating his wife in order to maintain his reputation. Of course, he would still beat his wife if no one could discover him. What’s more, the sinful passion that was fed as he found satisfaction in his sin will only find another outlet. Worst of all, in my opinion, he willfully feeds a sinful desire.

On the contrary, Sauron will not be defeated by the use of the ring, only by its destruction. Sin will not be defeated by the use of sin. This is why we are urged time and again to “put to death” “the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and “what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). Sin cannot be wielded for good, it can only corrupt. It began in Eden with a desire to be like God – a good desire (which will be accomplished by Christ in us) – but a sinful means in the serpent’s whisperings to Eve, “You need only eat the fruit and claim it for your own, and all this could be.” How often I take the bait.

Evil can only be overthrown by direct assault, only the pursuit of righteousness will defeat evil. So my exhortation is, “put to death whatever is earthly in you” and “clothe yourselves with compassionate hearts.”