Good morning. This is working theology.
In an attempt to better understand the debates surrounding gender within the church, I read three books over the holidays that lay a firm foundation: Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, and Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian.
The latter book contained a section that struck me, reproduced below the image. It’s an idea that has become significantly more real to me as I’ve tried to understand other cultural debates and synthesize my studies over the last few years. I wanted to share this section with you, but also as a goal for myself for 2022. I hope it speaks to you as it did me. I hope it helps you see this year differently.
Relish the paradoxical and ironic in 2022.
One notable feature of the Old Testament is the presence of “reversals,” which God works in unexpected ways that upend traditional expectations. For example, God chooses the elder Esau to serve the younger Jacob (Gen. 25:23) and selects David as the Lord’s anointed rather than his older brothers because “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). It is through reversals that God demonstrates that his ways are not human ways (Isa. 55:8–9). The Lord has Gideon winnow his men from thirty-two thousand to three hundred to defeat the Midianite army (Judg. 7:2–8) to make clear that God is the one who delivers Israel. Thus these reversals of expectations often teach a larger lesson of God’s sovereignty and human inadequacy.
The presence of these reversals and the lessons they impart continue in the New Testament. The rich man goes to Hades, while Lazarus, the poor man, is carried away by the angels to blessings with Abraham (Luke 16:19–31). The widow’s mite counts more than the large contributions of the rich (Mark 12:41–44). The news of the birth of the Messiah is given to lowly and humble shepherds (Luke 2:8–20), and it is the women, not the twelve male apostles, who are the first witnesses to the resurrection (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–10; John 20:1–18).
The principle of reversal also characterizes the very nature of the church. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of God’s calling of the Corinthians in their low state, in which “there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” (1:26). For the most part, the church did not consist of the elite and those considered influential in society. However, God used them instead of the powerful. “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are” (1:27–28).
What is lowly or despised in the world may be esteemed in the kingdom. Those of low status perform great deeds for God, contrary to the expectations of their society, in which they may be rejected, ignored, or marginalized. In this way the reversals show God’s power and supremacy and the futility of human ways. Mary praises God for choosing her despite her low status (Luke 1:48–49) and speaks of how the humble are exalted and God brings down rulers from their thrones (1:52). Those who think they are self-sufficient will see their error as the rich are sent away empty, but God will fill the hungry (1:53). God chooses those who were considered low in the world’s eyes so that “no man may boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:29). What matters is not human strength or power, but dependence on God. John Drury describes this pattern in this way: “God’s judgement and mercy always form the classic prophetic message, worked out in the annihilation of the achievements of disobedient human pride and the rebuilding of a new life in obedient humility.”
The reversals must also be understood in the context of the kingdom of God. According to Jewish apocalyptic, in the age to come God would establish his final and undisputed reign, and the coming of the kingdom would bring a reversal of Israel’s fortunes in which Israel would exercise lordship over the kingdoms that had formerly oppressed and humiliated the nation. The end could be brought about not by any human activity but only through God’s decisive act, “the apocalyptic, world-shattering, and world-renewing act of God, which brings both final judgment and final salvation.”
However, the kingdom that Jesus announced did not bring about the transformation of Israel’s fortunes as expected. Instead the kingdom is characterized by a reversal of the existing order as the eschatological blessings are given to be ones least expected to receive them—the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the sinners, the gentiles—and woes fall on the rich and the religious leaders. This is the “great reversal,” in which the present order and its rules of prestige and privilege are questioned and values are transformed.
Thus Jesus makes pronouncements such as “many who are first will be last, and the last, first” (Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30; Mark 9:35; Matt. 20.16); “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; cf. Matt. 18:4); and “the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant” (Luke 22:26). He proclaims that instead of the ethic of reciprocity, which marks the present age, his disciples are to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, and pray for their persecutors (Luke 6:27, 35; Matt. 5:44). The ethic of Jesus “spells an end to self-assertiveness and self-glorifying and the beginning of the self-forgetfulness that already submits to God’s sovereignty and serves the neighbor.”
As will be explained more in the following chapters, Christ himself is the prime example of the reversal of the kingdom, especially as seen in his incarnation and death. He is the one who, “although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,” and so took the form of a “bond-servant” and became “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:6–8). Instead of exercising his privileges as God, he took the opposite course and became a servant or slave.
The cross is the most prominent place where notions of wisdom and power are reversed, setting up a paradoxical situation. Paul says, “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being sad it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The Jews would have considered a crucified Messiah to be an oxymoron, since “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:23). In the Greco-Roman world, where people sought a “mastery” of life characterized by esteem, honor, and success, the crucifixion would have signified failure, dishonor, and shame. Consequently, Jesus is a “stumbling block” to Jews and “foolishness” to the gentiles, but to those whom God has called, he is “the power of God and the wisdom of
God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24). God has called people to believe that one who was cursed by God and who died as a crucified criminal is the Savior and that the death of Christ leads to life. To see the truth of the cross, one must be able to comprehend the reversal inherent within it.
As citizens of the kingdom, Christ’s followers are also to emulate his example of humility and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. They are to learn from Christ’s example to “regard one another as more important than [themselves]” (Phil. 2:1–11). Instead of striving for their own honor, they are to “give preference to one another in honor” (Rom. 12:10). Jesus states in John’s Gospel, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” (John 12:25). The sacrifice of those who follow Christ will result in humble service to others, which will then result in their being considered “great” in God’s eyes.
Significantly, one of the main results of such a “reversal” is to increase unity. In Phil. 2:1–11 Paul tells the Philippians that they can achieve the “same mind” and “same love” and be “united in spirit, intent on one purpose” by following Christ’s example of humility and so looking out for the interests of others. The community is bonded together as the members care for one another. Paul elsewhere says that God reverses the status of the members of the body, so that the less honorable ones receive more honor and the less presentable ones become more presentable “so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:22–25).