A Surprising Result: The Freedom Not To Believe

I have the immense pleasure each year of teaching the four Gospels to 14 & 15 year olds at a fairly large Christian high school. Almost all of these students have grown up in the evangelical Bible Belt and many have been immersed in a “Christian” culture through private schooling and church involvement. However, each year I find my work most identifiable with the work of an evangelist or a missionary.

I say this because for the vast majority of my students, my class is the first time they will hear of the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the Trinity. My students are generally only familiar with a watered-down flavor of the faith which hardily continues on in our increasingly Post-Christendom society like algae on the bottom of a fish tank. This Christianity majors on justification by grace through faith – saying the sinner’s prayer, receiving eternal assurance of salvation, and being shamed into not having sex, using drugs, or saying bad words (as an aside, they continue to regularly do all three of these things, despite the pleas of their parents and youth pastors).

As a Christian teacher, my goal is clear, public, and unmitigated: for my students to know and follow Christ. However, there are many different reactions to my teaching, some of them unexpected and disappointing. One of those reactions: unbelief. Some students come to a point where they agree with me that much of what is around them is not biblical or Christlike. Unfortunately, for some students this discovery is not accompanied by a desire to follow the Jesus revealed in the Gospels and the demands laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. (Fortunately, this has been a very rare occurrence over my four years of teaching). This creates in me a true spiritual and moral dilemma: do I keep the status-quo and maintain the commitment of “nominal Christians” or continue to proclaim the truth even if some of those previously identified as “believers” now choose to not believe.

I was reminded of this dilemma while reading Yoder’s recently released Theology of MissionIn a passage defending group conversions in communitarian cultures, he states:

“Based on anecdotes from anthropologically conscious missionaries, once a group started hearing more about Jesus – his promises and his demands, including the moral content of discipleship – the divisions in the community that were not previously there would come to the surface. They were not there before because the Jesus message was not there to provoke them. Some individuals, sometimes many, broke out of the tribal group in order to fall back into the old life, into unbelief and nonconformity to the new norms. The freedom not to believe had become real, in fact, more real than before, because before there were no other options than the traditional tribal one. The initial group decision opened the door to Christian belief. Before that decision, unbelief had been a prison; afterwards it was an option. It was the novelty of the gospel that created the freedom not to believe.”

The observations Yoder notes of certain missionary contexts reminds me of my teaching context. When a foreign group/family/community converts to Christianity, it is not unusual for individuals to begin rejecting Christ as they learn more about him. In a different but similar way, my students come to me (mass) baptized into a nominal Christianity. The introduction of the “Jesus message” – including the moral content of discipleship – now “provokes” the students, until now only exposed to a shallow Christianity, in a new way. Their a priori commitment to Christ leads to a crisis when the previously cheap Christ is challenged and exposed by the Living Christ – leading some to no longer believe. A wise man once said that the truth would set you free – and it seems that this form of unbelief is the result of a new freedom made available by the truth.

I fear my dilemma is ultimately one of truth and commitment vs. numbers and assurance. But as I read (and teach) the Gospels, it doesn’t appear that Jesus is after large numbers or is afraid of people turning their back on him when confronted with the truth. Indeed, in a haunting passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus predicts a time in which he will turn away from those who thought they were on his team but were not truly committed. I’ve humbly come to believe that it is better to face that crisis now, with time to think and reflect, than when one is on their knees in front Jesus himself.

What do you think?
Does this resonate with the experience of other Bible teachers?
Does the Gospel necessarily open a door for unbelief to “Nominal” Christians?

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Matriarchy Before the Fall

What if the world was originally created as a matriarchy?
(*cue dramatic gasp*)

John Howard Yoder often explored this possibility by laying out the following pieces of evidence [discussed in Nugent’s The Politics of Jesus, 26-28]:

[1] The Word “Helper”
Yoder claims that the connotation of subordination which “helper” has in English is not present with the Hebrew word. The other 5 times the word appears in the Pentateuch it always refers to God. It appears that Eve is the crown of creation, who fills in a gap in the original creation. The point seems to be that the man is dependent on the woman (not vice versa). The man was called to leave his family and build his life around his wife (Gen. 2:24). The Edenic culture depended on what Ancient Israelites would have seems as women’s duties (gardening and gathering) as opposed to men’s duties (hunting and fighting).

2) The Role of Eve in the “Fall”
If the evidence above is accepted as portraying Eve in a unique leadership role (pre-Fall), it then causes one to read the narrative of the fall in a different light. Interestingly, the serpent approaches Eve, not Adam. What if this is not because she is weak and easily deceived, but because she was seen as the natural decision-maker? After Eve’s choice, Adam eats what is set before him without any hesitation.

3) The Curses as Reversals
The curses that come because of the Fall are a reversal of things as they were in the prelapsarian state (animal roles are reversed, joy of birth is overcome with pain and death, those given charge over creation are now its slaves, life-giving ground now receives death, etc). Among all these reversals, it is noteworthy that a matriarchal structure gives way to a patriarchal lordship. This in fact leads Yoder to an interesting interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as he sees Jesus’ redemptive work as restoring the dignity of women (for another post, perhaps).

I’m not sure I’m completely convinced by Yoder, but it’s an interesting alternative reading.

What do you think?
Do you agree that the world was structured as a matriarchy
before sin entered in and brought death?

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Love Missions, Hate War

“Pacifist Christians are used to thinking of war as an ethical abuse because it is wrong to kill people, which is true. We can also talk about war as an abuse from the missionary perspective: when we kill people we cannot evangelize them. We do not see them as potential members of our community. We do not apply to them the relationship to the nations that the New Testament says God’s people should apply.”
– John Howard Yoder, Theology of Mission, 159.

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Yoder: Is the Kingdom a Train or a Taxi?

I’m currently reading Yoder’s Theology of Mission (thanks, IVP!). In a chapter on the ministry of Paul in salvation history, he makes an important point between proclamation and persuasion. He points out that the New Testament witnesses proclaimed the good news of the Gospel and did not utilize many of the manipulative methods of persuasion that we currently see in many settings (fear of hell, “if you died tonight,” your life would be so much better, etc…).

He then compares these two approaches of gospel-witnessing to the difference between a train and a taxi. A taxi can’t go anywhere unless a person wants to get in it and pay for it. Therefore, a taxi must sell an individual on their service. A train, on the other hand, is on a schedule and will reach its destination regardless of an individual passenger’s desire. You can get on, or stay off, but either way the train is going.

“Whether somebody gets on the train is completely his or her decision. But if somebody does not get on, they do not go anywhere. Moreover, what constitutes the destination does not depend on them at all.
Think of the difference as it relates to evangelism. Modern Western evangelism says, “Won’t you please get on so I can have a fare? Because I have to make my living running this taxi.” Kingdom of God proclamation says, “This train is bound for glory. Get on or get left.” The objectivity, the fact that the train is going to leave without us if we do not get on, the fact that the Kingdom is coming whether we want it or not, is the way of the kingdom whether we like it or not. As it happens, we will find that it is a good trip. But whether the conductor gets paid does not depend on whether we get on. The train is simply going. The kingdom is not a taxi. The kingdom is more like a train.” (109-110)

Do you agree with Yoder?
Is the Kingdom more like a train or a 
taxi?

Thanks @IVPAcademic – Books to Review

Check out what came in the mail today! Can’t wait to read them – reviews to come.
A big thanks to Adrianna Wright and IVP Academic for the following books:

Theology of Mission- A Believers Church Perspective


Theology of Mission: A Believers Church Perspective 
– John Howard Yoder (Edited by Gayle Gerber Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker) [available here]

 


AND

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Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology
– Andrew Louth [available here]