Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Putting on God’s Whole Armor …. in Context

     In 21st-century western societies we tend to take for granted that God’s word is so readily available. Most of us own at least one copy of the Bible, and many have access to multiple copies. We can read and study and learn from the scriptures whenever we want!
     But what if we lived at a time and place where the written word of God was not as easily accessible? What would it have been like to be part of a Christian community in the 1st-century Greco-Roman world, receiving for the first time an inspired document from an apostolic representative of Jesus Christ? What if we were among the disciples living in the ancient city of Ephesus? Would the NT epistle Paul sends to this church be viewed, understood, and applied any differently than it is today?
Historical Background1
     It was around spring of the year 50 that Paul and his companions planned to take the gospel into the Roman province of Asia (modern-day western Turkey), but the Holy Spirit didn’t allow it at this time (Acts 16:6). Two years later (ca. spring 52) the apostle makes a brief visit to Asia, to the principal city of Ephesus, leaving Aquila and Priscilla to initiate the work while he promises, “I will return again to you, God willing” (Acts 18:19-21 NKJV).    
     Several months afterwards (late spring/early summer 53) he does return to Ephesus and spends the next three years helping to establish the Lord’s church in this great city (Acts 19:1, 8, 10; 20:31). From here Paul composes 1 Corinthians (cf. 16:8), wherein he writes: “The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house” (16:19).
     Paul departs from Ephesus in early summer 56 (cf. 1 Cor. 4:19; 16:3-8), and several months later (spring 57) he meets with the elders of the Ephesus church in Miletus (Acts 20:17-38). Here he reminds them of his recent labors and teachings (vv. 18-27) and issues stern warnings and exhortations (vv. 28-35), followed by an emotional scene of praying, embracing, tears, and goodbyes (vv. 36-38). In the biblical record they have no more communication with each other until Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is delivered via Tychicus about five years later.
The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians2
     At the time of writing Paul is incarcerated (Eph. 3:1, 13; 4:1; 6:20). Since his last face-to-face meeting with these disciples, he has endured multiple near-death experiences, imprisonment in Caesarea for a couple of years, and has been taken to Rome where he spends another two years confined to house arrest (Acts 21:1–28:30). 
     The apostle addresses his correspondence to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1).His letter is intended for all the Ephesian saints [sanctified ones] as a whole, presumably comprising a small house church (as in 1 Cor. 16:19). Each member did not possess his/her own exclusive copy of the manuscript; rather it would have been read publicly (no doubt multiple times) to the entire assembly.
     Let me challenge us for a moment to remove ourselves from the modern, westernized mentality of reading our own private copy of the letter in English translation during a quiet time of devotion or study. While it has become customary for us to interpret the message as individuals and then make personal application, in all likelihood this is not what Paul had in mind when he first penned the document, and it is certainly not how the original audience would have received it.
     Note the 1st person plurals (“we,” “us,” “our”), applicable to all the readers collectively (Eph. 1:3-14, 19; 2:3-7, 10, 14, 18; 3:12, 20; 4:13-14, 25; 5:2, 20, 30; 6:12, 24). Moreover, the 2nd person pronoun “you” in reference to the reading audience is plural throughout. The epistle places much emphasis on “the church” as a whole (1:18, 22-23; 2:16, 19-22; 3:6, 10, 15, 18, 21; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:3, 23-32; 6:18), as well as “one another” (4:2, 25, 32; 5:19, 21). Even the directives to husbands, wives, children, bondservants, and masters (5:22–6:9) are in the context of a communal house church.
Putting on the Whole Armor of God
     The message of Eph. 6:10-18 was unambiguous when it was first communicated in koinē Greek in its original setting. Nevertheless, it has the potential of being obscured when read in English translation in the context of a modern, individualistic society. Ambiguity occurs because the 2nd-person pronoun “you” in English can either be singular or plural, depending on whether an individual or multiple persons are in view. When one reads this paragraph as a 21st-century, English-speaking westerner, one is inclined to ask, “What is this text saying to me, and how does it apply to my life?” In other words, the “you” tends to be interpreted as a singular (= “me”), but in so doing the point is obscured.
     Paul actually uses the 2nd-person plural form of address as he directs this admonition to a collectivity of believers. Here is how it would have sounded to those who first heard it:4
Finally, my brethren, [you all] be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. [You all] Put on the whole armor of God, that you [all] may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore [you all] take up the whole armor of God, that you [all] may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. [You all] Stand therefore, having girded [you all’s] waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod [the] feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you [all] will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And [you all] take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints
     While each of us faces his/her own spiritual battles, this passage is talking about the spiritual warfare we all face together (cf. 2 Cor. 10:4-6; 1 Thess. 5:8-11). Everyone is to prepare, participate, and fight, but we do so in a collaborative effort. Notice that when the “whole armor of God” is itemized, there is no protective gear for the back. Apparently we are to watch one another’s backs, understanding that no provision has been made for surrender or retreat.
     If I am a young or weak Christian and my shield of faith is the size of a postage stamp, I need to stand alongside the sound, mature, faithful brothers and sisters whose shields are bigger and stronger. If I have been dutifully engaged in Christ’s service for an extended period of time, I ought to be looking out for my fellow soldiers who may be struggling more than I. Christianity is not designed as a personal religion to be experienced independently and privately (cf. Eph. 4:2, 25, 32; 5:19, 21). We are part of a spiritual family, members of one body, joint-citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and fellow-soldiers fighting side-by-side in a spiritual conflict as the cohesive army of God.
     Very few in this world have a legitimate excuse for not being actively involved in a local congregation of the Lord’s people. Instead of sitting back waiting to be asked to serve or waiting to be served, everyone needs to be looking for opportunities of service, to volunteer, and to take initiative. Together we can be strong in the Lord as we take up and put on God’s whole armor, standing in truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, and salvation, collectively wielding the Spirit’s sword as we pray and persevere for (and with) all the saints.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 For chronological details, see K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the NT 42-44, 154-74.
     2 On questions of authorship and destination, see Authorship of Ephesians, and Ephesians: Why So Impersonal? 
     3 Ephesus at this time was the third largest city in Roman Asia Minor, a prosperous commercial center, and the home of the magnificent temple of the goddess Diana/Artemis (cf. Acts 19:24-35).
     4 This is my own New King James Southern USA Revised version. Words added for clarification are in [square brackets], with emphasis added in bold type.

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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

What about pre-christian boys leading worship?

     Many congregations give opportunities to young boys (who have not yet obeyed the gospel in baptism) to read or recite scriptures and to lead prayers and songs in front of the assembled church. Is this biblical? Does this set a dangerous precedent for non-christian adults or others who are not scripturally qualified to exercise leadership in the church?
     Male leadership and leadership training are certainly biblical concepts (Mark 3:14; Luke 11:1-4; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 2 Timothy 2:2; etc.). Thus preparing boys to be future leaders does not fit into the same category as opening doors to non-christian adults or female leaders. While we respect divinely ordained gender roles, we must also appreciate that culpability and innocence before God distinguishes boys from non-christian men. Prior to reaching the age of accountability,1 a child is not guilty of sin or separated from God and is thus spiritually safe.2
     It is my judgment that the practice of pre-christian boys leading in worship activities does not set a “dangerous precedent” but rather a biblical precedent of training future church leaders (cf. 1 Samuel 2:11, 18; Proverbs 22:6; Ecclesiastes 12:1; 1 Timothy 4:12 and 2 Timothy 3:14-15).
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Seeing that individuals develop and mature at varying rates, a specific age is not biblically prescribed. Nevertheless, a state of innocence prior to reaching a point at which one is accountable before God is clearly assumed in scripture: Deuteronomy 1:39; Numbers 8:2-3; 10:28; 14:29-31; Isaiah 7:15-16; John 9:21, 23; cf. Ezekiel 18:20; 28:15; Ecclesiastes 7:29; 1 John 3:4; 1 Corinthians 13:11; Luke 2:40-52.
     2 On the spiritual security of young children, see Deuteronomy 1:39; Matthew 18:1-5; 19:13-14; Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 14:20.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2015

To be scripturally qualified as an elder in the Lord’s church, must a man’s children all be faithful Christians?

     The relevant passages are the following: 1 Timothy 3:4-5, “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?).” Titus 1:6, “… having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination” (NKJV).
     All would agree that the IDEAL scenario is for each qualified elder to have a plurality of children who are all faithful Christians. Unfortunately, the fallible world in which we live has always challenged and complicated what is ideal, and the Bible does not specifically address every conceivable situation with which we are confronted. This necessarily requires judgment calls for each unique case in light of general biblical principles. Here are some real-life dilemmas.
Multiple Children?
     What about a man who has only one child? Could he qualify to serve as an elder? While some would disagree, I believe he could. Genesis 21:7 states, “[Sarah] also said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age’.” Here the plural “children” simply means one or more and applies to a single child. If an audience were asked, “Raise your hand if you have children,” surely the single-child parents would be expected to raise their hands. Note the following passages where the plural “children” clearly does not discount the parent of a lone child: Matt. 7:11; Luke 14:26; 20:28-31; 1 Cor. 7:14; 2 Cor. 12:14; Eph. 6:1, 4; 1 Thess. 2:7, 11; 1 Tim. 3:12; 5:4, 10, 14; Titus 2:4.
     Some would argue that a man with multiple children is more qualified to deal with differing personalities and inter-personal conflicts than a man with only one child. But this is a subjective perception rather than a biblical mandate. One could reason that a man with ten children is more qualified than a man with only two children, but obviously the two-child man is not biblically disqualified. While perhaps less than ideal, I don’t view a man with only one child as biblically disqualified to serve as an elder.
Faithful Children?
     What, then, does “faithful” mean in Titus 1:6? In light of the parallel description in 1 Timothy 3:4, a case can be made for “not unruly” in society and “compliant” while under the father’s direct influence. However, this interpretation is based on ambiguity and mere possibility rather than certainty. The more natural meaning, and surely the more solid position, is with reference to being faithful to the Lord.
     If a man has multiple children, therefore, must they all be faithful Christians? What if a father has ten children, nine of whom have obeyed the gospel and the other has not yet reached the age of accountability? It seems to me that this man has proven himself as “one who rules his house well” and would be scripturally qualified. What if he has ten adult children, nine of whom are faithful in the church and one is rebellious and unfaithful? Seeing that he no longer has direct control or immediate authority over his sons and daughters who have grown up and left home, he has still proven himself as a capable leader and can’t realistically be held accountable for the rebellious one who has resisted his direction. To suggest otherwise would be to impugn the Lord himself (cf. Psalm 107:6-11; Isaiah 1:2).
     Those of us who were raised by godly parents and are faithful in the church are testimonies to the way it’s supposed to be. Irrespective of how insubordinate we may or may not have been in the past, we exemplify receptive, moldable, compliant souls, as do our own faithful children. But this does not address the godly parents whose counsel is persistently rejected by the defiant son or daughter, not to mention any number of unseen variables beyond parental control.
     Now here’s where it gets tricky. What percentage of one’s children must be faithful in order for him to be scripturally qualified to serve as an elder? It is reasonably clear to me that if none of his children is faithful, he is not scripturally qualified. But what about 90% (as in the above hypothetical case)? While not ideal, I am not prepared to say that such a man is disqualified (assuming he meets all other criteria). What about 80%? 50%? 33%? 10%? Again, the Bible does not offer a specific, definitive answer to every conceivable, real-life predicament. Therefore, based on common sense, mature reasoning, general biblical principles, and knowledge of each unique situation, judgment calls have to be made.
     The only dogmatic statement I can make (and am compelled to make) is that a man should not serve as an elder if none of his children is faithful to the Lord. When multiple children are involved, the lower the percentage the more circumspect we ought to be. If I were to err, it would be on the side of caution.
     Consciences must not be violated. Unnecessary conflict should be averted. Commitment to doctrinal purity and the spiritual health of the church ought to supersede personalities, preferences, feelings, and opinions. For “if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Timothy 3:5).
--Kevin L. Moore

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