Junia: The First Woman Apostle review

juniaDr. Eldon Epp, a professor of Biblical literature, has put together a thorough and well researched case for the existence of a woman apostle in scripture in his book Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The verse in question?

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Romans 16:7, NIV.

The debate originally centered around the name Junia; is it a woman’s name (Junia) or a man’s name (Junias)? The issue was largely uncontested until two hundred years ago when two scholars, separately, came to the conclusion that the verse clearly points to this individual being an apostle, therefore it must be a man, making it imposible for this Greek name to be translated in a female form. They proposed that the actual name was Junias, a male rendering of the Greek, a theory that was quickly accepted throughout the church and Bible translations were updated to reflect it. However, in recent decades it has become clear that there is no such male name in the Greek, while Junia, the female form, was in fact a common woman’s name through every class of society (slave, poor, wealthy, royalty). Consequently, in recent years Bibles have been corrected to reflect this feminine spelling. At this point, the debate has shifted to question whether or not Junia was an apostle, or simply known to the apostles.

Epp uses his expertise in ancient literature to trace the use of this name and language through every major grouping of Greek texts we have from over the centuries as well as how these texts were understood to make the case that Junia was both understood to be a woman from the beginning, and recognized as an apostle. To say he is thorough in his exploration is an understatement. Making the case for the name being feminine is far easier now than it was fifty years ago; it is widely accepted now in Christian scholarship to be the case.

From there, Epp then tackles the issue of whether or not Junia was recognized as an apostle, or simply known to the apostles. Much of his argument centers on the contention that until the last few decades, this was never even a question; from the time of Chrysotom the two individuals mentioned in this verse were universally accepted to be apostles. Paul does not use the title lightly, and through an examination of the original Greek, Epp makes the case that while there may be some lack of clarity in the English, there was no uncertainty in the Greek. So much so, that it was not even questioned until recently when it became clear that the name Junia was in fact feminine, leading him to conclude that rather than allowing the scriptures to speak for themselves, complementarian theologians are instead rewording the intent of scripture to match their own theology. He cites C.E.B Cranfield’s assertion that this approach is “mere conventional prejudice” (Kindle location 738).

Overall, it is a fascinating exploration of controversial topic. Published by Fortress Press, it is an academic book and not a light read. So much so that a third of the book is footnotes and bibliography. Epp is systematic and thorough in his approach, with each of the ten chapters focused on a different aspect of his case for Junia being a woman apostle. Consequently, there is some repetition as he reiterates different pieces of evidence in support of each point he makes; on the positive side, this allows each chapter to stand on its own, but it does get somewhat repetitive at times. Regardless of one’s opinion on the translation of Romans 16:7, Epp’s book is a strong entry into the discussion.

Us Versus Us review

us versus usAndrew Marin’s Us Versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community is a powerful examination of the relationship between the LGBT community and the church. Based on extensive research and surveys – the largest of its type – administered by his organization, The Marin Foundation, Marin presents startling and convicting results. The big result? 86% of the LGBT community were raised in faith communities, leading to the title of the book; Marin contends that for too long the debate on sexuality has been framed as an “us versus them” approach, when the reality is that most of us originated in the same place – it is actually and “us versus us” debate, which has only resulted in damage.

Each chapter is committed to examining the major findings of the research; beyond the 86% statistic, he also found that 54% of those in the LGBT community left their faith communities by the age of 18, 76% are open to returning to faith and its practices, 36% of the LGBT community continue to pursue faith beyond the age of 18, 80% regularly pray regardless of faith association (or lack thereof), and finally, he examines the impact of coming out on religiosity.

For years, Marin has powerfully advocated for building bridges instead of walls in the conversation between the church and the LGBT community. He writes that “we have allowed the people comprising the conversation to be characterized by caricature” (Kindle location 128), pointing out that we define positions and camps, focusing the conversation on opposition. Instead, he advocates for “the lost art of loving in disagreement” (Kindle location 135).

What do we do with these results? For Marin, the answer seems obvious. The pattern for many churches in America has been incredibly painful for those in and out of the congregation; somehow we have not been able to emulate Christ’s approach, which in His divine perfection somehow combined His sinless reputation with the ability to have sinners flock to Him. Throughout the gospels Christ avoided closed door conversations; when people asked him yes/no questions in an effort to nail down where He stood, He answered with parables, with stories, with questions of His own. The result? Instead of shutting down the conversation He continued the dialogue and built bridges.

Do I agree with all of Marin’s conclusions? Not necessarily; we differ on the interpretation of some of the data. But the work he and his team have done is essential. Every pastor/church leader should read this book. It is a powerful insight into a group often dehumanized and vilified by churches in America, and the longing for community and spiritual hunger present there.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria review

mark 2Dr. Mark Yarhouse, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Regent University, has put together a solid resource for leaders and those wanting to know more about Gender Dysphoria, or transgenderism, in his book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. There are very few issues in my experience as a pastor as misunderstood as this topic, and in that misunderstanding, tremendous damage and hurt has been and will continue to be caused.

Yarhouse does a tremendous job of explaining the nature of gender dysphoria, as well the different theories surrounding the causes and treatment of gender dysphoria, and the pros and cons of each. He also explains his own approach as a psychologist and his rationale. Because the research is still in early stages regarding the ramifications for the different treatment approaches, he personally advocates taking the least invasive approach that can resolve the dysphoria; which in practicality means different approaches for each individual. I won’t try to summarize his content here; I would never be able to do it justice.

One of the strengths of Yarhouse’s book for those in ministry is his careful and well thought out Christian perspective and connections to scripture paired with his deep knowledge as a psychologist and his practical experience. He has done the research and it shows. By shedding light on this topic and confronting many of the wrong perceptions and faulty ideas, his book is both beneficial and a call to many in the church to rethink their assumptions. One particularly jarring quote from his book really hit home for me;

“What most people who are gender dysphoric find in the church is rejection and shame – the feeling that there is something fundamentally flawed in them, that the flaw is their fault (back to willful disobedience) and that if others knew about their gender incongruence, they too would reject them.” (Kindle location 946)

Yarhouse’s book is timely. As such a hot button topic, it is a relevant work for anyone who wants to grow in their understanding rather than allow news headlines and Facebook rants shape their opinions. As the church, this is an area where we need to grow in our love and empathy, and I think Yarhouse helps point in a direction that accomplishes that. I have personally read a number of resources and articles in my own pursuit of understanding, and his work is the first to really help address that need for me. He has clearly done his homework, supports his assertions with the research, yet writes in a way that is approachable and understandable. Definitely worth checking out.

Life Without Ed review

life without edLife Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, by Jenni Schaefer, is a powerful book detailing the author’s struggle with recovery. What makes the tenth anniversary edition particularly interesting to read is that she has added additional thoughts. Where she originally wondered if she would ever truly beat her eating disorder, ten years later, she is able to proudly declare her full recovery and offer hope through her experience to others that it is attainable.

While she does write about the methods she used to pursue recovery, the real strength in her book are her inner narratives. Like many who fight eating disorders, she personified her disorder as Ed, the inner voice driving her to devastating self image and decisions regarding health. As she documents the inner conversations, the struggle between her eating disorder’s views on her image, how she should live, what success looks like, and the reality of the destruction it was waging on her health. She writes that “eating disorders are about constant self-criticism, loss of self-esteem, and unrelenting perfectionism” (Kindle location 433). Seeing the constant, overwhelming presence of these thoughts in all interactions and aspects of life, begin to help the reader to understand the impact an eating disorder can have on an individual.

Her co-author, Thom Rutledge, is a psychotherapist and brings authority to the methods and approaches discussed in the book through Jenni’s experience. Having said that, my impression is that this book is not so much about communicating approaches to counsel those pursuing recovery – it is far too complex an issue with far too many variations for someone to be equipped to that degree from this book. Instead, this book is an essential tool on two fronts; for the individual struggling with an eating disorder it helps them to see they are not alone and there is hope. They will see their struggles, their thoughts, and story echoed in Jenni’s struggle, thoughts, and story. And secondly, for the family member or caring friend of someone dealing with an eating disorder; it is an essential look into what this experience is like and is a great resource in helping build understanding, or at the very least, how better to be supportive.

Jenni’s story is an important one, and her added reflections ten years later only add to its power. I certainly recommend it to anyone impacting by eating disorders – which honestly, at this point in our culture, is everyone – whether they realize it or not. We all are connected to someone battling this issue.

Thoughts on Graduating

graduation blog

September, 2013, when I began my first classes, I looked at the list of 31 classes that I would have to complete for a total of 93 credits and genuinely thought it was an impossibly overwhelming task. Last Saturday, after a hectic week of submitting final papers and assignments, I was awarded a Master of Divinity, with an emphasis in Pastoral Counseling. It went by fast, it felt like an eternity.

Being a full time student, working, and having a family would have been impossible without Heather’s support. Being a student affected the whole family. The ‘yes’ to school meant saying ‘no’ to a thousand other things. It’s why the whole family was so excited to go to the graduation and see this chapter conclude!

Speaking of which, graduation was a zoo! With President Trump as the commencement speaker at Liberty University, their normal graduation attendance of around 30,000 graduates and attendees nearly doubled to more than 50,000. They actually tore down a building to erect additional temporary grandstands for the larger crowd. Contrary to some media reports, which have taken a couple comments out of context, his speech was a good, traditional commencement speech. He didn’t talk about himself, or politics, and instead focused on the stories of two men in attendance; a hall of fame football player who had fought and beat cancer twice (whose daughter was a graduate), and a former vice president of the university who had survived the death march of World War II, and after returning home at only 88 lbs, was told he wouldn’t live to the age 40, is now 98 years old. He praised their tenacity and will to overcome great odds and used that as a challenge to all of the graduates to use their finished educations to push forward in making a difference.

The degree awarding ceremony happened later that afternoon; I graduated from Liberty’s School of Divinity which took place at the original Thomas Road Church. It was my favorite part of the day. Hearing from the Seminary professors, receiving my (symbolic – the real one will arrive in the mail) degree, celebrating with family and friends. It was a fun way to end the experience.

The process has been a good one for me. The classes, the readings, the demands by the professors, have all impacted me in more ways than I anticipated. My approach to sermon preparation and preaching has changed significantly. My thoughts on teaching and planning lessons has grown. The classes on all of the different aspects of leading a church, as well as the studies in pastoral counseling, have all given me a much deeper toolbox for ministry at my church. For any of my peers wondering about whether or not they should go after further education in ministry, I would strongly encourage them to do so!

The Lost World of Adam and Eve

lost world of adam and eveJohn Walton followed up his book, The Lost World of Genesis One (my review is here), with The Lost World of Adam and Eve, an exploration of Genesis 2-3 and human origins. Walton is the professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (he had a similar position at Moody Bible Institute previously) and a widely recognized expert on Genesis. I found his first book fascinating; this was one was certainly as well, but also quite provocative in its proposals.

He spends the first few chapters summarizing the thesis of his first book; articulating both the critical need for understanding the culture and ancient writings from the time period Genesis was written, as well as his theories reconciling science and faith in such a way that they can complement one another rather than be at odds. From there he builds a series of propositions regarding Genesis 2-3 and the origins of humanity. He builds off the idea that Adam and Eve are both literal individuals as well as archetypal, he makes the case that the description and creation of the Garden of Eden was language that describes sacred space, or a temple, and therefore Adam and Eve functioned in a priestly role for a possibly already existing humanity from which they were called. Ultimately, God’s creation was about order, an order that Adam and Eve disrupted by eating the fruit and essentially positioning themselves as gods (much like Satan looking at God’s throne and believing He could take it), with Christ’s eventual arrival about restoring order to creation.

While Walton clarifies he is not necessarily espousing this view (a safe statement for a professor at Wheaton), he does argue that there is room to believe what he proposes without compromising scripture or faith. For me, the most provocative proposals regarded Adam and Eve serving in priestly roles together (not one over the other), as well as the idea that humanity had already come into existence over time, from which Adam and Eve were called out of it (as Abraham was called out of humanity to father the Jewish race, and Jesus was called/sent to bring order). He writes, “just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation” (p. 177).

Ultimately, part of Walton’s motivation in attempting to reconcile faith and scientific evidence is the reality that one of the more cited reasons for young people and adults leaving faith is feeling forced to chose between science and God. He closes his book with this thought: “Think, then, of our children and grandchildren. When they come home from college having accepted some scientific understanding about human origins that we do not find persuasive, are we going to denounce them, disinherit them and drive them from the doors of our homes and churches? Or are we going to suggest to them that there may be a way to interpret Scripture faithfully that will allow them to hold on to both science and faith? Can we believe that such a path does not represent a compromise that dilutes the faith but rather one that opens new doors to understanding that the next generation may find essential even though we find ourselves paralyzed on the threshold?  Let us pray together that we can chart a path of faithfulness and stop the hemorrhaging.” (p. 210)

Overall, Walton’s book is packed with insights, thoughts, ideas and concepts that I will be wrestling with for a while. His expertise on ancient near eastern culture and literature is fascinating. While some of his ideas are more controversial than others, he definitely challenges the reader to look at Genesis, creation, and Adam and Eve with new perspectives. The book is both intellectually challenging as well as approachable to the casual reader. Definitely something worth reading and exploring.

Unintentional Arrogance

unintentional arrogance

I was listening to Mark Matlock’s “Transforming Conversations: Using Research from Barna’s State of Youth Ministry Report” session from the National Youth Worker’s Convention the other day and wanted to respond to part of it. Essentially, Barna and Youth Specialties did a massive survey on youth ministry in America, producing a lot of valuable data for youth workers and churches to process and discuss; you can find the research here. In his session at the convention, Matlock highlighted some of the data, including the topic of what obstacles youth workers face in youth ministry.

To reveal my own bias, before hearing the results, my immediate response to the question of my greatest obstacle in youth ministry is my own busyness.

According to the survey, the top two obstacles reported by youth workers were (1) the busyness of youth (74% said this) and (2) 34% reported lack of parent interest (respondents could put more than one obstacle). It is significant that student busyness was far and away the highest reported obstacle.

Further complicating the conversation was the survey responses from parents regarding the busyness of their children: 11% felt their teens are way too busy, 58% feel the balance is good, and 31% believe their children need more to do.

At this point Matlock opened up the conversation to the youth workers in the room to comment on the disparity between 74% of youth workers believing students are too busy, and 89% of parents feeling kids are at the right balance or actually need more to do. There were a number of different thoughts; some felt parents needed to be educated on the busyness of their kids, perhaps parents are not in healthy balance so cannot see that their kids are not either, etc. One person suggested that youth ministries are running too many programs so kids are picking and choosing, as opposed to them actually being too busy. Matlock suggested that perhaps some youth workers blame busyness because it puts the fault of lack of involvement outside their control; it’s the fault of families and other circumstances, rather than the youth worker not giving them something they value enough to participate in.

For me, it was frustrating to hear some of the responses. Sometimes I feel like we as youth workers can be unintentionally arrogant, genuinely believing we know more about what’s best for someone else’s child(ren). Yes, there are things students talk to us about that they don’t tell their parents; while it may make me uncomfortable at times to know that my fifteen year old may go to someone else about something instead of me, I remember my own discomfort with bringing up some topics with my parents as a teenager and so I try to surround him with Christian adults I respect and trust to be positive influences and role models for him. In the same way, some of their teens come to me; but it would be incredibly arrogant of me to believe that my limited interactions with their child compared to their lifetime of daily involvement would leave me knowing more than them, only that I may have a different perspective with limited insights.

Kids make time for things they value and are excited about. Parents prioritize that involvement when they know the important enough details far enough in advance to plan for it. Rather than looking to things outside of our control to blame poor response on (busyness of teens, lack of parent interest), we should be constantly evaluating and changing our approaches and programming in response to the rapidly changing youth culture. Further, this type of blame only builds invisible walls of disconnect instead of bridges with parents. One of the values I have constantly told my team is that we should never have to guilt or manipulate kids into coming to something, and we definitely should not have to be spending excessive amounts of time trying to talk them into participating – if they’re not excited about it, than we’re doing something wrong, not them. Maybe our schedule is overcrowded, maybe we’ve picked the wrong hook, the wrong date (yeah, the time I inadvertently scheduled a retreat on homecoming weekend – that’s not them loving school more than Jesus, that’s me creating an unnecessary conflict of interest), or the wrong content.