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Against the Flesh: Part 2

Yesterday, we looked at a list of the negative treatment of “the flesh” in the New Testament.

The Flesh = The Sinful Nature

When the gospel writers and Paul write about “the flesh,” they are not making general statements condemning our physical bodies.  Fleshly, earthly, and human are all descriptors used in reference to the sinful nature.  For example, you’ll notice I used the NIV for the Galatians 5:16-18 link yesterday because it uses the translation “flesh” rather than the updated TNIV translation “sinful nature.”  The scholars working on the TNIV decided to update the translation to help illuminate the point Paul is trying to make.

It is the desires of our sinful nature that are against the Spirit, not the desires of our physical bodies.  Our bodies’ need for basics like food, sleep, and sex are not evil or filthy desires in and of themselves. God created us with these desires and designed our bodies to function this way.  Paul’s point is that the sinful nature corrupts these desires.

Paul’s Already/Not Yet Theology

But the list I shared yesterday is not the full story.  That list was only the “not yet” of Paul’s argument: that we are still battling the sinful nature and must fight to follow the Spirit and bear fruit.  The battle is ongoing and will not be fully realized until we die or Jesus returns. 

There is another part of the story, the “already” of Paul’s argument.  The battle has already been won.  We can experience the fullness of redemption right now and forever.  There is nothing to struggle against anymore because Jesus came to live among us, was crucified as the ultimate sacrifice for our sin, and was raised from the dead in final victory.

Here are some “already” verses for you:

We Christians are really good at living in the “not yet” part of the kingdom of God.  We struggle and try and work out our salvation with sweat and tears.  We put the burden on ourselves to do the work of capturing every thought, renewing our minds, and beating our flesh into submission.  We are still being saved.

What we can’t seem to learn is how to live life in the “already.”  This part of the kingdom of God is just as real, just as available to us as the “not yet.” This is where we have already been saved.  The battle is won, and we are now heirs with Christ Jesus.  We can approach the throne of grace with confidence.  We are clothed with righteousness.  There is no condemnation for us because we are under Christ Jesus. We are dead to sin and alive to Christ.  We have taken off the old and have put on the new.

Old Testament Sacrifice and Jesus

In the Old Testament, the blood sacrifice of a pure, unblemished animal was necessary to purify the sinful flesh of the people of God.  Every time a person sinned, another blood sacrifice was necessary to make the person clean and pure again.

When Jesus died on the cross, our pure, spotless lamb, his blood purified the sinful flesh of the people of God forever.  No longer are we bound to the need to sacrifice an animal for each of our sins. Our sins have already been paid for.  Jesus’ blood has already purified us.  We are called righteous because of what Christ has already done.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the implications of this “already” theology for holistic body theology.

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Against the Flesh: Part 1

One of my pet peeves is when people talk about fighting against their flesh, beating their flesh into submission, or some other allusion to the flesh/spirit (sometimes also earthly/heavenly) dichotomy present in a number of New Testament passages–mostly in Paul’s letters.

It bothers me because people often use these passages to support an unhealthy–or at least unbalanced–body theology, one in which the body is something wholly other, something to be forced into submission, blamed for failures, lamented, battled, beaten, and regarded as dirty, filthy, and something to get rid of and be finally, blessedly free from after death.

I am not my body, people seem to acknowledge.  I am my mind, my personality, and my spirit.  I am pursuing God, but my body pursues evil.  I am good, but my body is bad.  I am purified, but my body keeps contaminating me. “What I don’t want to do, I do, and what I do want to do, I don’t do”; and it’s all my body’s fault.  Stupid human flesh holding me back from the glorious, Spirit-filled Christian life.

I get a little upset.

That is not the truth about who we are as children of God.  These are lies we believe, perpetuated by a consistent misreading of scripture.  Just as we can’t read Romans 3:23 without Romans 3:24, or Colossians 3:22 without Galatians 3:28, or Ephesians 5:22 without Ephesians 5:21 — so we can’t read Galatians 5:16-18 without Ephesians 6:12.

The Bible is meant to be read collectively as the revelation of the story of God for the people of God.  We need a holistic hermeneutic by which to read the entirety of scripture. Otherwise we get caught up in a verse here and a verse there and end up so far away from the point the author was trying to make, or the truth the Holy Spirit intends to reveal.

Scripture is easily twisted to fit our preconceptions and presumptions.  We are so used to reading scripture through the lens of our own understanding and experience that we are often unable to recognize when a beautiful spiritual truth — intended to free us and bring us into the fullness of life and completion of joy promised to us — has been distorted into a horrible lie — intended to steal, kill, and destroy us.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the scriptures below through the lens of holistic body theology.  This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but representative of the New Testament’s negative treatment of “the flesh.”

To be continued…

 

A Woman’s Place

It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology.  Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.

First posted April 20, 2008

First impressions of Ephesians 5 and 1-2 Timothy

After my initial reading of Ephesians 5 and 1-2 Timothy, I conclude that women led varied lives depending on their economic and marital status. In Ephesians, married women are encouraged to submit to the authority of their husbands as they would to Christ and to respect their husbands as part of the union of two into one flesh.

In the Timothy letters, the emphasis is on the widows. The young ones are encouraged to get remarried so that they will be too occupied with household tasks to fall into gossip and idleness. The old ones are encouraged to mentor the younger ones and can only receive aid if they have, in a sense, proved themselves worthy by a lifestyle of service, submission, and obedience. Concerning corporate worship, women regardless of marital state are encouraged to be modest, submissive, quiet…and fertile? I never have discovered how to interpret 1 Tim 2:15.

My impression, then, of the lives of women at this time is that women were expected to submit to male authority, behave with modesty and decorum, and serve with hospitality as part of running a good household. They were not expected to take up authority themselves, abandon or neglect their duties, or behave or dress indecently.

But the fact that women are being put in their place in some of these passages implies that some women perhaps were teaching or asking questions or neglecting household tasks or gossiping among themselves or any number of other expressions of their new-found freedom in Christ that shocked and appalled observers both within the Christian community and outside of it. There seems to be an effort in the letters to recall women to (or to remind them, lest they forget, of) proper etiquette that would bring honor to both themselves and their husbands or families and would keep them from bringing the shame of the world on the early church as it struggled against the world’s accusations and persecutions.

A Woman’s Place, metaphors, and symbolism

Osiek and MacDonald, in A Woman’s Place, concern themselves largely with cultural and social context in exegeting these texts and other references to women in the New Testament. Interestingly, the authors spend time exegeting the Ephesians text as an extended metaphor for Christ and the church, insisting that the metaphor would have been clear to the early readers or listeners. They label the passage “an important socio-political statement” rather than a concerted teaching on the roles of men and women in marriage (120).

The use of marriage is symbolic, not necessarily prescriptive, and certainly reflects an ideal that cannot be realistic in our fallen world (125). Moreover, the authors argue that the text is a central pivoting point for the themes of the letter, marriage serving as a useful conventional metaphor (121). The text turns the convention of marriage on its head: “The husband is head of his wife as Chris is head of the majestic and heavenly church. Human ‘wifely’ behavior within the church becomes an indicator of the community’s dislocation as an apparently conventional but nevertheless heavenly body” (127). Thus, in taking the passage at face value, we miss the point.

Literal interpretation vs. historical-critical method

Growing up in the evangelically conservative South, I was taught as a general rule that the Bible was to be taken literally, its texts at face value, and its every word as the infallible authority of God. Now, I believe in the authority of the Bible, but its literal interpretation has fallen short of my understanding of who God is and what it means to be a child of God.

I appreciate Osiek’s and MacDonald’s effort to take a more holistic approach to the texts by both reading them in conjunction with each other and by considering at length the cultural context of the day as a lens through which to interpret the issue of women. They broaden the older scholarly perspective by including what the text does not say, what has been left out or assumed concerning the daily lives of women.

The metaphorical interpretation is an interesting approach to the problem of Ephesians 5. I am not sure that I could hold an audience long enough to explain such a position with those who expect a quick, two-punch sound bite or proof text. Nevertheless, the interpretation is a useful reminder that texts should not always be taken at face value or as prescriptive when they are just as likely meant to function as literary or as descriptive.

This approach, both to the Ephesians text and in general, does make a significant difference in the reading of scripture because it (at the risk of using a buzz word) liberates the text from its pigeonhole and consequently liberates women from relegation to the older understanding of “submission” and “authority” as ordained by God to keep women under the proverbial thumb of their men.

Give Your Body a Valentine

Believe it or not, your body is aware of who you are, what you care about, and how you are doing emotionally and spiritually.  Our bodies are part of who we are, and they know us better than we think they do.  (If you missed it yesterday, you can read about my experience learning to listen to my body here.)

This week we’re learning together about the connection between our physical and spiritual selves through Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book Prayer and Our Bodies.  These posts are not meant to be a book review but a sharing of and engaging with some of her insights as an ordained minister, adjunct professor, and trained spiritual director.

Wuellner’s Introduction

Here is some of what Wuellner has to say about the body throughout her introduction:

Our understanding and awareness of our bodily selves unfold slowly as we grow, learn, and mature within God’s embrace.

This is why the development of a holistic body theology begins with and is constantly being informed by our identity in Christ. This is also why becoming more media literate and culturally discerning is important so we can sift through the messages we receive in search of God’s truth about who we are.

When the body is mentioned in the New Testament, it is often referred to by the Greek word soma, which usually implies the whole human self: body, emotion, intelligence, will.

Because our faith is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, any form of spirituality we claim must also be incarnational, which by definition includes the wholeness of the person.  This will profoundly influence our relationship to our communities and our world.

This is why I have added the word “holistic” to my discussions of body theology and have expanded the definition to include not only our physical selves (body image, sexuality) but also how we interact within the community of God (the body of Christ, community) and within our larger local and global context (the body of Christ, service).

…[A]s we grow into a new, transforming relationship with our bodily selves, we will begin spontaneously and naturally to make informed decisions about our habits, lifestyles, and relationships.

I don’t think I could write a better description of the purpose of holistic body theology.  We are created to engage with ourselves, with God, and with others through our bodies, not in spite of them.

Chapter 2: Reconciling and Celebrating Our Bodies

In this chapter, Wuellner gently approaches the topic of body image and the need for inner healing.  She asks, “What have our bodies done to us that we ignore, dislike, and punish them so?” and suggests that “much unhealed anger, fear, and hurt underlies our dislike and suspicion of our bodily selves.  These unresolved, underlying issues affect our engagement in culture (e.g. what and how much we eat and drink, how we identify and treat illness) as well as how we relate to ourselves, one another, and God.

Our bodies were created in unity with our emotions, intelligence and will, Wuellner describes, and being out of touch with our emotions and bodies results in “fragmentation.”  Wuellner encourages her readers to “pray for awareness that our disliked bodily parts are part of us and have served us faithfully.  We can stop blaming our bodies for our own decisions…. Celebration of even one small part is deeply healing to the whole.”

She suggests that engaging with our bodies in prayer can provide space for us to “learn to listen to the signals of our bodies, honoring them as one of the main ways God speaks to us and by which we can learn much unencountered truth about ourselves and our communities.”

Guided Meditation with the Body

She goes on to offer a guided meditation exercise in which she encourages her readers to

1) think of a part of the body they dislike or are ashamed of and picture it being “touched lovingly” or “gently washed” by Jesus,

2) touch that part of their bodies themselves, “thank it for being a faithful friend in spite of your dislike,” and ask God for healing of the dislike or shame associated with that body part,

3) remember a time their bodies were insulted or criticized by someone else and see themselves as they were at that time (e.g. child, teenager, adult) being comforted by God, and

4) thank their bodies as they are now “for taking the special tasks and challenges of this phase of your life” and allow their bodies to be held by God “as one who is precious to God and valued by God.”

A few friends and I tried this mediation exercise in our sexuality group two or three years ago. Even though it was an uncomfortable approach for some of us at the time, I remember how the night was filled with healing, freedom, and peace as we each acknowledged some shame or emotional hurt related to our bodies and were able to deal with it individually with God in a shared, safe space.

Give Your Body a Valentine

Today, try setting aside a little time to celebrate Valentine’s Day with yourself by going through this exercise (or whatever portion or version feels safe and available to you).

Show some love for your body as it is now, fearfully and wonderfully made by a powerful, creative God who knows you, loves you, and could not possibly imagine this life without you in it!

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