Pursuing Unity, Revisiting Assumptions, Winning with Winsomeness

By LeRoy Lawson

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart
Christena Cleveland
Downers Grove: IVP Books/Intervarsity Press, 2013

 

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women
Sarah Bessey
New York: Howard Books, 2013

 

The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips
John Dickson
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013

 

Hearing Her Voice: A Biblical Invitation for Women to Preach (Revised Edition)
John Dickson
Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2012, 2014

I like introducing people to authors I’ve just met. Recently I read three books that made me want to become better acquainted with their writers. They are thoughtful, perceptive, and provocative without being offensive. That’s not an easy balancing act. They all seem too young to be so smart! They have a lot to teach this old man.

12_FMB-books_JN2Christena Cleveland is a Christian social psychologist with a passion for unity in the body of Christ. As her Disunity in Christ makes clear, she’s not fooled by anyone’s easy talk about unity, especially among us who still carry on our disputes and nurse our prejudices. We can proclaim in pious theological platitudes, of course, but she isn’t fooled. She doesn’t accept our claim that “we are the good guys and they are the bad guys.” In fact, this “we-them” talk is the root of the problem, whether the issue is racial, political, social, or religious.

I’m a member of a Christian unity movement that has lost a lot of its steam. That is to be expected; movements wind down—or shift direction—and it does no good to insist that if we can just get everybody to think the way we think, voila! unity will have been achieved.

No, she says. That will come only when we and they have been replaced by an all-encompassing us. And that happens in Christ only when we humbly, openly, and with great effort, work at meeting them in the inviting embrace of Jesus.

Such unity is not simple to achieve. But applying the principles of this book is a good place to start.

I should mention that Dr. Cleveland is African-American. She has firsthand experience as a minority person in the church: she’s black, she’s female, she’s highly educated.

And she’s persuasive.

Equally Valued

Sarah Bessey’s focus is narrower, but her approach is similar. Jesus Feminist convicted this male chauvinist. The term feminist could be a turn-off. It was initially for me. But what she means by the word is what I want to be: a person who believes that females should be treated as men are, equally valued sons and daughters of the King.

She builds her case from Scriptures, pointing out their generous references to women in leadership roles in the Old Testament and New Testament, in the early church, and beyond.

One of her chapters is “Jesus Made a Feminist Out of Me.” Me too. I have always thought of myself as one, I suppose, just without the word. The female leaders in my home church (whether in elected office or not) were such strong influences in my life that I was baffled when I left home and learned that in other churches women were barred from “official” roles and relegated to those jobs the men didn’t want to do. I listened respectfully to arguments for keeping them in their proper place, but I wasn’t convinced.

This pained me on a personal level because of my own gifted daughters. The circles I run around in have not been very open to female leadership. I couldn’t encourage them to become pastors. It was the church’s loss.

It continues to pain me because I have the privilege of teaching some outstanding female students who are in seminary to prepare themselves for full-time ministry. Their options are limited, though, because so many churches don’t think women should lead, even if they can, even if they seem so spiritually gifted, so called of God. It’s the church’s loss.

Sarah Bessey, by the way, is a married and very much committed mother of four young children. She is not writing as a cynic, but as a fully realized person who is not arguing for a more prominent place for herself, but on behalf of the majority of the body of Christ (females) who need to be encouraged to use their gifts to serve the church—even if one of those spiritual gifts is leadership.

Showing the Way

The third new author is John Dickson, who writes compellingly about personal evangelism. A long time ago I developed a pretty ingrained suspicion of books on this topic. Too formulaic, I thought. The answers are too pat, the stated issues too simplistic. People can’t all be confronted with the claims of Christ in the same way. And many of them shouldn’t be approached too soon, not without one’s earning the right to speak to them on such an important subject. I was afraid Christians would come across to their non-Christian friends as mere peddlers of religious pap. I’m still afraid. This is how some of my friends view us.

So I held my breath as I started reading Dickson’s The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. I hadn’t read very far when I dropped my defenses. Here is a book I could take seriously—and could recommend to other Christians, including to small study groups. It’s a “how-to” book with a difference.

It’s not just about how to talk the talk in the hope that someone will listen and be converted. It’s about how to talk and walk and pray and become a real friend of “sinners,” and how to use our money in a Christian way, and be a good employee, and help our church become alive to people who really want to live.

Dickson is an Aussie. That may have been part of my initial attraction, since my daughter married an Australian who is more son than son-in-law to me. What held my attention, though, is that he lives in that modern, secular, can’t-be-bothered-with-Christianity nation as a for-real believer who shows the way for us Americans in our increasingly can’t-be-bothered-with-Christianity society to share the good news of the gospel in a winsome, winning way.

Dickson holds a PhD in ancient history from Macquarie University in Sydney (where he is a senior research fellow in the Department of Ancient History) and is senior minister at St. Andrew’s in Roseville (a suburb of Sydney). I only mention these credentials to indicate that here is a thoughtful student who combines scholarly research with practical experience. What matters most is certainty that Jesus is relevant to our contemporary society. This book makes his case that relevance.

No Prohibition

When I learned that he had also written a small book on the controversial subject of women’s preaching (I had just read Cleveland and Bessey, so my curiosity was piqued), I had to read his Hearing Her Voice. It surprised me. Dickson presents a closely reasoned study of the biblical word for teaching, didache, to prove that in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 Paul “cannot mean” what we think he does. In the Bible, teaching has a very specific denotation: it “consistently refers to the task of passing on the ‘deposit’ of apostolic words in a period when those words were mostly not written down.” Such teaching is not “an exposition and application of a scriptural passage,” that is, a sermon in our modern sense of the word.

“What we call ‘giving a sermon’ has more in common with what Paul called ‘exhorting’ and ‘prophesying’ than with what he labeled ‘teaching.’ And there’s no prohibition against it.”

Therefore, “a woman ought to be allowed to give sermons in our churches, without fearing that 1 Timothy 2:12 is being violated.”

The book is short, packed with Scripture and carefully presented explanations. It is certain to raise some eyebrows. I’ve heard many heated pros and cons for inviting women to the pulpit. This is one I haven’t heard before. Since some of my favorite sermonizers are female, I was easily persuaded.

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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