Damned Suicide


suicide-pictureRecently in Bulgaria a man died.

His death is interesting because it was a political statement.  His death has achieved what the man set out to do when he set himself on fire.  He wanted to draw attention primarily to the plight of the Bulgarian masses that are suffering under corrupt and incompetent governance.

This act of self-immolation was an anti-government protest.

Interestingly, the government and the Orthodox church (though I cannot confirm this) have paid tribute to this man.  The state has even sanctioned a national day of mourning for the man.

He is a hero!

This event has led to a number of interesting discussions around the traps, some of which have demonstrated a lack of clarity on the issues by confusing the denunciation of such political maneuvers with the topic of suicide and its consequences. As communicators of biblical truth, pastors need to be careful with their influence.

Hell-maze-mapRegarding the topic of suicide, a number of pastors here in Bulgaria have told me that suicide is a sin that condemns one to hell.  I find this interesting for a number of reasons, not least because the Bible is obviously the source for their perspective.

However, when we look at the Bible regarding suicide we find that the Bible is conspicuously quiet on the subject.  Where then does this thinking come from?

It seems to me to be a response to dealing with murder, more specifically, self-murder.  But this does not explain how one can conclude that suicide is a sin that warrants eternal damnation.

Who committed suicide in the Bible.  There are a few, but let’s mention only 4:

1.  The most famous is probably Judas, who, after betraying Jesus for some silver coins went and hung himself.  Matthew 27:5 states:  ‘So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.’

2.  We might mention Sampson.  In judges 16:30 ‘Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it.’

999-2543. Then there was Saul and his armour-bearer.  1 Samuel 31:3-5 is pretty clear:  ‘Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”   But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him.’

4.  Have you heard of Abimelech.  In Judges 9:54 we read: ‘Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man thrust him through, and he died.’

So there certainly is suicide in the Bible, but the question is this: how does the Bible view suicide?

quWell, we don’t know to be frank.  However, in each of these instances the suicide reflects the disgrace and defeat that they find themselves in, except Sampson’s, which might be construed as martyrdom rather than suicide (there is room for debate here!).

We can say that suicide is deemed as a sin and unfavourable because life is not for humanity to take (even if it is our own).  One pastor was keen to point out the clear commandment not to kill in Exodus 20:13.

With this pastor we must agree that suicide is sin.  But this is hardly ever the point of contention.

The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Will they go to heaven?’

And to this question we respond as the Bible does.  Quietly!

There are no grounds to claim that suicide leads to eternal separation from God, unless ones believes that one is saved not by God’s mercy and grace but by virtue of one’s deeds.

The reasoning goes something like this.  If I commit suicide then my last act was rebellion against God; a total abandonment of God as saviour and healer; and a demonstration of my poverty of faith.  Suicide shows that I have no faith.

loveFor the protestant evangelical Christian this thinking is incongruous with our tradition (and the Bible of course).  One is saved not by virtue of one’s own deeds, whether good or bad, but by virtue of God’s love demonstrated in Christ’s deed – his obedient death.

To say that one is condemned on the basis of one’s final deed relegates salvation to a work of the flesh.  God help us all if this were the case.

No, we contend that we are saved by grace through faith, which is a gift from God, so that we have nothing to boast about.  Suicide as a sin does not fall beyond the scope of God’s love and mercy.

His death is enough.  This is the good news that gives us all hope.

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Book review: Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry


womenBourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry.  By Michael F. Bird.  Zondervan, 2012. $4.22 (On Kindle here).

Michael Bird often splits the pack with much of his theology.  In this readable and brief book Bird claims to do the same by seeking to find a middle ground between the often polarised perspectives of women in ministry.  This book is suitable for lay people who are seeking to understand how one might defensibly hold a somewhat egalitarian position.  However, this book is also useful for pastors and ministers that have assumed a position without thinking through the other side’s point of view.

The thesis of the book is that Paul not only endorsed women teaching in churches, but ‘Paul specifically encouraged it!’  In other words, Paul’s clear use of women in teaching roles must be integrated into any Pauline perspective of women in ministry.

After laying out his own journey from a complimentarian view towards a more egalitarian view Bird defines the terms and the spectrum on which they are found. This is a concise and helpful summary of the main players and their perspective of the debate.

In chapter 2, Bird presents the complimentarian reader with a conundrum, which is that Paul used a woman to deliver, read and expound his theological masterpiece – Romans – to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2).  This cameo by Phoebe is the ground-breaker that Bird uses to open the door to engage the idea that perhaps women can play a more substantial teaching role than complimentarians might suggest.

Bird then engages with the primary Pauline texts in this debate.  In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Bird argues that Paul is not creating a hierarchy, but rather couplets, in which the head is honored.  Because Paul is not articulating a hierarchy (God at the top and women at the bottom), Bird contends that this passage cannot be used to limit the role that women might play in ministry.  On the contrary, women and men alike are permitted and able to engage in the same ministries by maintaining their God-given gender identity according to the cultural norms and by ministering according to their gifts in an orderly fashion.

Regarding I Corinthians 14:33-36 the issue of the interpolation stands out.  Even though this might solve Bird’s issue, he simply but effectively plays away the notion that the difficult verses of 33b-35 are an inserted interpolation by calling upon textual and internal evidence.  He treats the difficult verses in another way.  By drawing upon the reason behind Paul’s instruction for women on how to carry themselves in public worship, Bird mounts his case.  Women must honor their husband in their public use of speech.  Bird states: ‘It is the type of speaking and not the possibility of wives speaking that Paul prohibits.’

The third text that Bird deals with is Ephesians 5:21-24.  Whereas this passage is often called upon to explicate the submission of women to their husbands, Bird calls the readers’ attention to verse 21, which calls for mutual submission.  He defends this notion of mutual submission by referring to other passages like 1 Corinthians 7:4 and 11:11.  Bird also draws upon some anecdotal evidence to show how submission to the head of the house often meant submitting to a woman.  If the church was lead by the head of the house (i.e. Chloe in 1 Corinthians 1, 7 and 11) then it is no surprise to learn that there were sanctioned woman leaders in the early churches.

Before Bird moves on to Galatians 3:26-29, he makes note of Paul’s female co-workers who had teaching roles in the church, where he returns to more fully deal with Phoebe’s role in the delivery of Romans to the church in Rome.  When Bird turns his attention to Galatians, he argues that this passage is primarily dealing with soteriology.  What determines if one is in Christ or not?  Not race, gender or societal position.  But while this text has soteriological emphasis, Bird claims it also has ecclesiological implications.  If men and women are one in Christ then gender cannot be the quality that dictates ministry roles.

Finally, Bird looks at the 1 Timothy 2:11-15 text that at first glance is a knockout blow to the egalitarian cause.  Bird begins his defence by looking at the perspective that God’s created order was the driving argument in this text, instead of one that was culturally confined.  This appeal to creation, however, is not in line with 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and the command for women to cover their heads on the grounds of the created order.  The command in this instance is obviously culturally driven and therefore not universally applicable, and so Bird argues that an appeal to the creation principle does not necessarily imply a universal application.

Bird’s second defence is somewhat logical.  He says that a decision to restrict women from teaching should be consistent at all levels and all contexts, both religious and secular.  If this is a divine principle embedded in creation then it should translate to all spheres of existence.  In the end, Bird denies that the driving argument in this text is one that appeals to creation, but rather is one that is embedded in the cultural issues of the time.  Women may not teach men if they are teaching false doctrine with a view to gain superiority over men as was the custom in Ephesus at the time.

This book argues against a simple reading of the relevant texts.  Bird’s persistent calling for consistency with regard to the use of the created order to defend a complimentarian perspective is convincing, as is his call for consistency in implementing this divine order.  While these arguments dent the complimentarian view, Bird’s own argument is weakened by the speculative nature of having to depend on cultural reconstructions.  While he aims at a middle ground between the egalitarian and the complimentarian perspectives, Bird does not demonstrate why the lead pastor, bishop or other such figure should be male, even though this is his preference.  If one was to take his arguments at face value one might well have to argue for equal opportunity in these roles too.

0 Days to Christmas…


Budni_Vecher-620x465Tonight we had the boys from the Learning Center Borovtsi over for Christmas Eve.  In Bulgarian it is called Budni Vecher (Бъдни вечер).  This is the normally a big family occasion.

It’s been a full half day.

Before we began dinner we had a little time to talk about Christmas.  Of course we talked about Jesus’ birth, but we tried to move the discussion of the birth narrative to the Biblical meta-narrative, that is, how Jesus fits into the bigger picture.

This has been my theme for my ‘X Days to Christmas…’ blog posts.   Christmas is not just about the incarnation of Jesus.  It is about God acting decisively in history to save his people from their sins.

For this reason I created a video for the men to watch.  The theme that I try to capture is purpose in confusion.  This is a theme that they know well.

The video is called ‘Unnamed soundsculpture’ and it was created by Daniel Franke.  You can see the original and/or download it here at Vimeo.  I placed biblical text over the top of the film.

The text recounts the big picture that unfolds in the Bible: Creation, fall, redemption, re-creation.

The arrival of Jesus in history is momentous because in the Jesus God brings hope to the hopeless, purpose to the purposeless, and order to chaos.

Jesus is good news.  Merry Christmas!

8 Days to Christmas… put that tree up!


Christmas-Tree-Nature1024-226431I never really wondered where the Christmas tree came from.  Did you?

Well, I did a bit of research and for all hullabaloo surrounding the un-Christian-ness of the humble fir tree it appears that there are grounds to the idea that there is a very Christmasy meaning to it.  Well, it seems to cut both ways.  The Christians don’t want it because it is pagan and worldly, and the White House doesn’t want it because it is to Christ-y.

You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the ol’ tree.

This is what I found.

Back in the Middle Ages (Robin Hood era) people began decorating trees as a part of a play depicting Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  This is why we often see apples on Christmas trees because this was the forbidden fruit that they ate… hmmm… anyway…

birthday-christmas-creative-jesus-lights-125672The play ended with a prophecy that there would be a saviour that would make new what had been destroyed or lost because of sin.  Perhaps the Christmas tree is in fact Christ’s mass (mission) tree after all.

Did somebody say gospel?

Granted, the Christmas tree did have a pagan look to it when the Eastern Europeans decided to set the village Christmas tree on fire and dance around it.  Ok, so it’s getting a bit dodgy here, but this is only as perverted as what we have done to it by making it a present umbrella.

Who would have thought?  All around the world the grand story of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption and re-creation is being shown.

If only they knew.

Racism: The Christian Way


Racism, in my mind, is one of the most grotesque distortions of the Gospel that we can find in the modern church.

Ok, so that was a pretty strong statement to start a post for a Saturday afternoon, but this one’s been brewing for some time.  Racism in the church is something that must be denounced in the strongest terms because it not only contradicts the content of the Gospel, but also undermines the impact of the gospel in the areas where racism and the Gospel coexist.

Firstly, racism is a form of self-centredness.  

Racism speaks more about the racist person and their needs and desires rather than about the person or group being marginalised by the racist.  The concept of racism relies upon a basic principle that can be observed everyday in a school playground, which for our purposes we will call the I’m Normal Your Not principle

It goes like this: Johnny calls Timmy fat and Timmy cries.  The issue here is that Johnny has constructed a norm that of course he himself fits into and which Timmy does not (no pun intended).

Normality is the issue.  What is normal and who fits that definition?  And who decides what is normal and who fits into it?

The problem lies within the view that to be normal is to be normal, which is just not the case.  In other words, as soon as any given individual slips from the realm of normal-ness they become not normal, which is code for being deficient or sub-human in some measure.  The dynamic between Johnny and Timmy is clear.  Once Timmy slips from the realm of normal because of his weight problem Johnny continues to exist in his normal state.  Due to Timmy’s slip, Johnny by default becomes superior.

Johnny is normal and therefore superior.

The point however is not the normal vs not normal dynamic per se, but the deliberate orchestration of this dynamic in order to gain the superior (normal) status.  How can this be orchestrated?  Easy.  Observe those characteristics in another person that are different from you due to their race (or whatever!) and then isolate and articulate these as not normal.  The result is that you will be normal and superior to the person that is different to you.

Well, that’s how they think anyway.

We can stoop lower still.  It is not uncommon to hear professing Christians isolate a particular race with the social circumstances that the marginalised often find themselves in.  So, smelling badly, not being able to think as one educated (whatever that means) and dressing poorly is synonymous with – those that are not normal.  Not only are they a lower class of being because of their racial identity, but they feel the brunt of some Christians’ ire because they smell, speak poorly and/or dress shabbily.

This deliberate use of race and associated social characteristics are highlighted by racists out of self-interest, which flies in the face of the most basic Christian teaching.

I was told the other day by a fellow Christian friend that he was not obligated to love gypsies.  Hmmm… well, that news to me!  Was Jesus just joking around when he said, ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’?  Was Jesus just engaging in the optional extra duties when he talked with the Samaritan woman at the well?  And what do we make of his eating with the tax collectors and other rabble?  What?  That was Jesus, but that is not our responsibility?

Of course not!

That Christians would treat other Christians of a different race in such a belittling manner because they look, smell, sound different is disgusting.  Such egoism and self-centredness is far removed from the kind of interaction that Jesus teaches his followers to engage in.

Secondly, racism demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Gospel.

Of late, me and my friend Vlado have been working our way through Ephesians 2 and 3.  One of the  distinct themes that you cannot miss (well, clearly you can!) is that Jesus has broken down the race barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles.   Reconciliation (among other things) with God is made available to all through Jesus Christ.  It’s pretty clear when we read this snazzy passage:

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.  I (Paul) became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things (Ephesians 3:6-9).

Racism is the turning back of the clock.  Racism strips the Gospel of its sheer beauty.  Racism grabs what Jesus has done away with and shoves it back into the spotlight and proclaims, ‘This is important!’  Racism builds a dividing wall of hostility (see 2:14), and implements the law with its commands and regulations (see 2:15).  There is not one in Christ but many: me, the racially superior creation, and you, the sub-par version.

The spiritual poverty of this view of the Gospel is far worse than any material poverty that some Gypsy will ever live through!

Thirdly, racism misunderstands church and eschatology.

The final eschatological (end times) scene is one of corporate worship.  Have a look at Revelations 7:9-10 at the picture that the writer creates for us.  He makes specific reference to those praising the Lamb as consisting of all sorts.  And they are together:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice...

The picture is one of corporate worship of God; a gathering of many for one purpose, which is not a phenomenon that we see only in the eschaton.  The church partially realises this future reality in the present, which the New Testament is constantly talking about.  The variables that we read about are predictable: young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentiles.  This is the composition of the church in the eschaton and in the present.

For goodness sake, the heart of Paul’s letters were often addressing the discontent and doctrinal error that was found between the Jews and Gentiles.  And how quickly do we forget Paul’s courageous rebuke of Peter for separating himself from Gentiles when eating.  Multiculturalism is not a social engineering fad of the 90’s, but a Gospel reality in the future and present!

It is not enough to merely placate this idea, to agree, to nod.  After Paul’s rebuke, Peter needed to rearrange his theology, his life, and his actions.  He needed a new understanding of race in light of the Gospel.  In our churches today many pastors agree that racism is bad, yet their churches do not reflect this commitment.  I’ve been told that some pastors chase away those of different races because the other church members feel uncomfortable and have threatened to leave.

My response to these pastors is simple: let them leave!

Please God spare us the day that our pastors (myself included) care more about keeping people in pews rather than being faithful to the Gospel and the implications of it.  The church is not a place that should engage with or perpetuate racism in any shape or form because it undermines the very foundation of the church – the Gospel.

Racism is a blight on God’s church because, if understood rightly as self-centred elitism, it is the antithesis of Jesus’ message and cross-work.  We would do well to remember Paul’s proclamation of Jesus’ humility before God his father in Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mindDo nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselvesnot looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Robert Antelme: Humanity’s face


At long last my copy of The Human Race by Robert Antelme arrived in my Bulgarian postal box.

I thought that I’d do a few reflective posts on the contents of the book because it’s a heavy hitter.  To give you a quick run down, the book recounts the horrors of one Frenchman’s experience of being in the hands of the Nazis during 1944/45. Antelme survived the ordeal and this book is the result.

As the title suggests the book portrays humanity.  This work, however, not only captures the (in)humanity of the Nazis, which one might reasonably expect, but also the humanity that was revealed in himself and his fellow travellers.

The book begins with Antelme in a labour camp at Buchenwald.  He’s been chosen along with his mates to be transported somewhere.

The passage I quote below is from page 17.

The men are about to make the short walk to the train that was waiting nearby, but first they were faced with saying goodbye to the other men in the camp.

It was too late – too late to get acquainted.  We ought to have talked sooner; they were clumsy, these strangers seeking in haste to become acquainted.  Too late.  Yet all this showed that we were capable of feeling; we weren’t dead.  On the contrary, the life in us had just been awakened  from the incipient  sleep of the camps.  We were still capable  of sadness upon leaving comrades, still fresh, human.  And that was reassuring.  We already needed reassurance – which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.

I’m reminded of the overly sentimental goodbyes that we made to each other at the end of year 12.  Tears.  Talk of staying in touch and remaining friends forever.  Songs were written and sung.  Hugs.  Letters.  Heartfelt words.

In the moment is was so real.  We were serious.  We had a bond.  A year 12 leavers bond.  Nothing can break that!

And what did our parents think as they looked on?  Did they know that within a year or two all those friends bar one or two would not even be a memory?  Did they realise that our passion was momentary and fleeting?  They had been there and done that – they knew.  They knew.

Goodbyes do that.

Goodbyes are like the biblical love that covers over a multitude of sins.  Goodbyes bring out something that can rarely be mustered in the daily grind of life.  On the deathbed.  At the funeral.  We pluck up some courage to scrape together that bit of humanity that lies in the outskirts of our heart.  This is the realm of frankness, honest and grit.  The true story.  Not how it appeared, but how it was.  The brat is the kid that everybody loved.  The drunkard was a real mate.  The adulterer loved life.

Is it true?  Do goodbyes help us to see people for who they really are.  People.

Antelme picks up on the flip-side.  In such moments we come to understand ourselves truly.  We are reminded that we are, ‘still fresh, human’.  With the words that we manage to squeak out our humanity is formed – and so assured.

Hmmm… the pull is great, but a little too generous and a tad disingenuous.

I think Antelme is torn.  I don’t think he knows whether the goodbye brings out the best or the worst of the human.  He betrays himself in the last line, ‘…which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.’

Yes, we do.

Surely it is one or the other.  Is it true that the brat was loved by everyone?  Was the drunk a real mate?  What was the adulterer a lover of?   Could this fresh humanity be confused with pillow fluffing?  That one’s humanity is non-existent throughout life only to surface at the goodbye smacks of, well, a human facade.

Is one’s real humanity revealed in times like this?

My cynical bent tells me no.