In an edited extract from the introduction to her book Bathsheba Survives which we’re publishing soon , Sara M. Koenig introduces us to the many lives of the Bible’s most enigmatic character
When people have found out that I am researching Bathsheba, responses have ranged from frank curiosity to rude dismissiveness. One student asked me, “Why do you like her so much?” while a colleague—in an attempt at a joke—said, “And your book can be titled Everything You Never Wanted to Know about Bathsheba.”
While I think the colleague in particular could have used some etiquette tips on how not to devalue another’s research interests, I understand these responses because Bathsheba is a minor biblical character. She appears in a grand total of merely 76 verses: just four chapters in Samuel–Kings, mentioned in the superscription to Psalm 51, and only alluded to in the genealogy that begins the New Testament.
Moreover, the texts that do speak about Bathsheba are riddled with gaps, or holes in the narrative where details are lacking. If that chapter, where Bathsheba first appears, does not tell much about her, neither does the final chapter in her story; she fades away in 1 Kings 2 without a report of her death.
However, the post-biblical reception of Bathsheba is rich and extensive. She has not only been characterized on the spectrum from helpless victim to unscrupulous seductress; but also, she has filled that spectrum. It might seem that the sparse profile of biblical Bathsheba stands in stark contrast to the varying interpretations of her through the centuries, but they are, in fact, related.
Gaps:Promise and Peril
Gaps in any text give it both peril and promise. At times, readers have filled in the gaps concerning Bathsheba in such ways that the story becomes a tool for either anti-Judaism or misogyny; such consequences are more evident with the benefit of hindsight.
But the gaps in the text are what make the text more interesting and curious, and what invite the reader to participate dynamically, in making meaning of the text. In fact, without the involvement of the reader, there is so little to Bathsheba that she is—as has often been the case—completely overshadowed by the richer, more complex, and dominant characters in the chapters: David and Solomon, and even Joab and Nathan. Were it not for readers filling in the gaps, Bathsheba would be a mere parenthesis, or footnote, to the grand story. If there is no active reader, there is no Bathsheba surviving through the centuries.
While Bathsheba says very little, she does speak. Not much is known about her, but she is no Jane Doe: we know her name, and the name of her father and her husband. She is acted upon, but she also acts.
With the gaps that are present (for example, why does she send the message of her pregnancy to David in 2 Sam 11:5? Why does she ask Solomon to give Abishag to Adonijah in 1 Kgs 2:18–21?), the reader is invited to answer the questions that are left unanswered by the taciturn Hebrew narrative.
Without the gaps in Bathsheba’s motives and feelings, her character would be so predictable or so functionary that she would not be worth noting. Bathsheba’s character is given dry bones by the narrator; it is up to the reader to flesh out her character, to give her breath and sinew, and to allow her to live. It is Bathsheba’s sparely drawn character that makes the reader’s activity so significant.
“Here’s why I like Bathsheba,” I told my student. “She reminds me not to make assumptions about people when I know only part of their story.” If I saw that student today, I would add that Bathsheba’s character also serves as a reminder that the future can be different from the present. She reminds me to keep asking, “What happens next?”
This and the reasons mentioned above make the reception history of this minor, enigmatic biblical character something worthy of study and reflection that student today, I would add that Bathsheba’s character also serves as a re- minder that the future can be different from the present. She reminds me to keep asking, “What happens next?” This and the reasons mentioned above make the reception history of this minor, enigmatic biblical character something worthy of study and reflection.
Sara Koenig is an associate professor of biblical studies at Seattle Pacific University
David: Can you give us a quick idea of the journey in your own scholarship that has led to you writing this book?
Scot: For 2-3 decades of my life as a professor I concentrated on Jesus and the Gospels with a foot occasionally in Paul’s life and mission and letters. I grew up “in Paul” and so there was never a time in my life when I haven’t had some instincts for reading him and interpreting him.
When I was a PhD student at Nottingham, Professor James D.G. Dunn was my supervisor and he was at that time making a name for himself as a creative and innovative and pioneering expert on Paul. His writings on Paul are both numerous and influential. So, though I was researching Matthew’s Gospel there was plenty of chat around us about Paul and the New Perspective on Paul.
When I was offered a post to teach at Northern Seminary I was assigned to teach a course on Paul and I had already made a commitment to spend the rest of my career concentrating on Paul’s life, mission and letters. So, for the last seven years nearly all my writing and lecturing have been about Paul.
David: Romans is one of those letters which we either love or hate (what here in the UK we might refer to as a ‘Marmite letter’!) What on earth drew you to want to think about the letter in greater detail?
Scot: I don’t personally understand why anyone would put Marmite on toast, and I have plenty of friends who don’t understand why anyone would concentrate on Paul.
Paul suffers from some
reputation damage, in part because he’s not Jesus (after all), in part because
of what he says about women in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and 1 Timothy 2, in part
because he does not seem to have seen the challenge of emancipating slaves – so
let me summarize this: because of what is called “presentism” some look down on
Paul. It’s easy to be a snob about Paul and it’s far more difficult to enter
into his world and to see what he was saying in his time and in his own way.
What we find in Paul in his world is that he may not take the steps we
preferred him to take but he was a courageous Christian man innovating on the
very theme of inclusion.
When I hear people say things about Paul I often say, “What are those very elements about us that we don’t see and that a few generations beyond us will see us as blinkered in our capacity to have clear moral insight?”
David: Why read the letter ‘backwards’? What different light does it shed?
Scot: In one brief statement: Because Romans is not abstract, systematic theology divorced from context and time but instead a letter written by one man to one set of churches in one city about one major issue: learning to get along with one another as siblings in Christ.
If you read Romans 14-15 and let those two chapters sink in deeply and write out some major descriptions of the Weak and the Strong, and then begin at Romans 1 all over again and keep those descriptions in front of you – and then ask in each chapter and over each passage – How does this relate to the Weak and Strong? … if you read this way by the time you get to Romans 5 and 6 you will have a conversion in your imagination of who is reading this letter the first time and why it mattered so much.
This is a letter about privilege – both Jewish believers and gentile believers were intoxicated with their claims to privilege and Paul’s mission is to knock that privilege out from under them and put the on level ground so they could learn to live not like Romans but like Christians.
David: You note in your preface that “Western Christianity has been shaped by Romans like no other book in the Bible”. Why is that, do you think?
Scot: Because of Augustine, I suspect. Others in the first four centuries of the church had emphasis on Paul but no one brought Pauline theology more to bear on crucial intellectual concepts more than Augustine, and Augustine was behind Aquinas and Luther and Calvin and the rest is our Western story.
Romans is the densest of Paul’s letters so it plays the biggest role in framing how Paul thought, and that has meant in the Western Christian church Paul and Romans set the categories for all theology. Compare the categories in James DG Dunn’s Theology of the Apostle Paul, which Dunn uses to sort out Paul’s ideas, with most systematic theologies and you will see that the latter uses categories identical to those used by Dunn to frame Paul’s ideas.
David: You say in the book that “the theologian’s Power and Privilege have made Romans about theology, abstracted from the peace it seeks to create”. Could you unpack that a little more for us?
Scot: Again, read Romans 14-15 and you see a war of cultures: Jewish believers who think their approach to Christian living is right, and it is shaped by observing the law. Gentile believers think their approach to Christian living is right, and it is shaped by freedom and non-observance of the law.
Yet, when you read many
scholars and commentaries on Romans 1-8 or 1-11, you hear precious little about
the Weak and Strong. If you ask the ordinary Christian what Romans is about
they do not very often say “Weak and Strong.” They say “soteriology” or
“Justification by faith” or “atonement theory.”
Why? Because the privilege of theologians to teach people and write books has formed people into thinking Romans settles modern debates about systematic theology. It does and it doesn’t, but what it does is provide a rationale for Christians to live with one another as siblings in Rome. In the heart of the empire. In peace
David: What do you hope we as readers will come away with after reading the book? What difference would you like to see it make to our pastoral and ecclesial practice?
Scot: I hope to breathe some fresh air into pastors and teachers and lay folks who want to read Romans carefully as a 1st Century missionary document that helps us to live the Christian life in the Spirit.
We could spend some long afternoons in prayer pondering who are our Weak and who are our Strong and how our own Privileges are blocking our life together as siblings in Christ.
We’ve got an exciting lineup of new books due for publication over July, August and September. Here’s a sneak peek:
First up in July, there’s a radical new approach to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans by one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, Scot McKnight. Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel in Search of Peace in the Midst of the Empire explores how Romans offers a message of deep reconciliation and living in fellowship as siblings – a message of vital relevance to today’s church. Exploring the oft-neglected motif of the weak and the strong in the letter, McKnight reads the epistle in the light of its closing chapters, where we get a glimpse of the everyday life of the church to whom Paul writes. He suggests that in Romans we can find a challenge to the contemporary church to consider whether privilege too often blocks the way to life together as siblings of Christ.
“Anyone who begins reading Romans at chapter 1 verse 1 may be forgiven for allowing their attention to slip by the time they have reached chapter 16. In this important reading of Romans, Scot McKnight offers a different way of looking at the letter – starting at the end, with the lived experience of those to whom Paul writes, and working backwards. It is a fascinating exploration of this most important letter and brings it to life in new ways/ Highly recommended!“
Rev Canon Dr Scot McKnight is the Julius R. Mantey Chair of New Testament at Northern Seminary, Illinois, an author of numerous bestselling books, and a globally renowned authority on the historical Jesus, early Christianity, and the New Testament.
Perhaps more than ever before, the concept of ‘truth’ is hard to pin down.
The essays in Truth and the Church in a Secular Age , which is also published in July, seek to explore the place of Christianity, the Church and their claims to uphold the truth in an age of `post-truth’.
Beginning with a consideration of truth within the biblical tradition, the chapters come from historical, theological and philosophical starting points in their concerns, setting out the groundwork for discussions of Christian truth and science, prayer, ethics and the liturgy.
The book is edited by David Jasper, Professor of Literature and Theology at Glasgow University and Rev Dr Jenny Wright, a parish priest in Edinburgh, with contributions from Trevor Hart and Alison Peden.
Published in August, Bathsheba Survives is a portrait of a biblical woman seen through the centuries as everything from adviser to temptress to victim
Bathsheba is a mysterious and enigmatic figure who appears in only seventy-six verses of the Bible and whose story is riddled with gaps. But this seemingly minor female character, who plays a critical role in King David’s story, has survived through the ages, and her “afterlife” in the history of interpretation is rich and extensive. In Bathsheba Survives, Sara M. Koenig traces Bathsheba’s reception throughout history and in various genres, demonstrating how she has been characterized on the spectrum from helpless victim to unscrupulous seductress.
Koenig traces Bathsheba’s afterlife in art, culture and scholarship from early Jewish interpretation, through the enlightenment to more contemporary portrayals in novels, films, and in music from such artists as Leonard Cohen and Sting.
“In Bathsheba Survives, Sara Koenig offers an impressive reception history that provides a revealing portrait of this complex character. Sweeping in scope, Koenig’s volume reclaims Bathsheba as a significant figure and takes readers on an exciting journey from ancient to contemporary periods. It will make you reconsider Bathsheba and her role within biblical narratives and beyond.”
Theology began with the appearances of the risen Jesus. That is, theology began when persons were confronted with a presence that could only be realized by the act of God.
Published in September, The Eucharistic Faith, is the first of a significant new systematic theology of the Eucharist. The author, Ralph N. McMichael, weaves liturgy and theology together to understand the ways in which theology and Christian faith are, at heart, about the receiving of the gift of Jesus’ life in Communion.
“What McMichael has done is not theology as usual. This is not just another academic theologian trying to gain notice by emphasizing one or another aspect of the Christian faith—e.g. eschatology—to try to convince their readers how such an emphasis helps us better understand every aspect of the Christian faith. By rethinking everything from the reality of the Eucharistic faith McMichael recovers the Christological center of our faith in a manner that helps us see the radical character of the everyday.”
From the foreword by Stanley Hauerwas
Should women who preach, preach as women? In Preaching Women: Gender, Power and the Pulpit, published in September, Liz Shercliff argues that far from being a gender-neutral space, the pulpit is a critical place in which a gender imbalance can begin to be redressed.
There is a vital need for women preachers to speak out of their experience of living as women in today’s culture and church. Filling a glaring gap in the literature around homiletics, the book considers reasons why women preachers should preach from their experiences as women, how male privilege distorts what we hear from the pulpit, and what women bring to preaching that is missing otherwise.
“Women’s voices need to be heard not only as a matter of justice and as a means of building a better society and church, but because they are central to human flourishing. This book identifies the issues and proclaims that good news. “
From the foreword by Bishop Libby Lane
Finally in September, we have a new edition of one of our most popular Studyguides. The SCM Studyguide Biblical Hermenuetics offers entry-level undergraduates a framework for interpreting the Bible. The book goes beyond offering guidance on how to do exegesis, and is intended as a practical tool to help readers develop good interpretative strategies for themselves. As such it features pedagogical tools such as Try it Out boxes to assist students to develop a tested and thought – through overall interpretative strategy of their own.
The revised and updated 2nd edition takes into account the changing church and world context, and the new challenges to reading the Bible with attentiveness, integrity and faithfulness. To help students to apply biblical interpretation to ministry/mission in direct and concrete ways, the new edition is structured around 4 core themes: hospitality (being both host and guest); sustainable consumption; power and generosity (leadership) and migration and movement .
In my curacy I had the privilege of a significant baptismal ministry, and as week by week I asked parents and godparents, “do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God”, and “do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?” I began to wonder what precisely they thought I was asking them.
As I explored this question, and began to read more widely the liturgical texts which the Church of England has received, adapted and developed over its history, I became increasingly sure that there were some profound questions to be asked of the coherence and consistency of our language of evil and of the devil.
Valiantly is a response to those initial questions, and
evaluates the present provision in Common
Worship, as far as it relates to the devil and evil. It is a deliberately
liturgically focused study, examining the texts which the church provides for
congregations and individuals to use, and in that sense it is a profoundly
practical book. It seeks to identify whether the Church of England speaks with
a coherent voice when it makes its public prayer, and asks questions about the
implications for the pastoral ministry of the church when that voice is found
to be incoherent.
The book falls into three sections. The first section
explores models of liturgical theology, and also a review of the liturgy of the
Church of England from 1549 until the publication of the Alternative Service Book of 1980. The examination of liturgical
theology provides some common language, and the apparatus for exploring and
examining the liturgical texts. It includes a treatment of the often referenced
claimed that the Church of England finds its theology principally in its
liturgy. This is vital for the argument later in the book that deficiency in
liturgical provision is dangerous because it results in deficiency in theology.
The review of Church of England liturgies from the point of the Reformation
until the end of the 20th century charts the way in which the Church
of England has inherited and edited texts over its history. The focus in this
section is on texts concerned with initiation: baptism and confirmation in
particular, because these are the texts where the most substantial references
to evil and the devil historically occur.
The third chapter is a summary of my methodology. I am
profoundly indebted to Juliette Day, whose adaption of Robert Taft’s method of
structural analysis I have further developed in order to examine the texts in
which I’m interested. Structural analysis put simply is the examination of a
liturgy section by section, breaking the liturgy down into the smallest
‘liturgical unit’ (Juliette Day’s phrase) possible, and then carefully
identifying what is going on within that section of the liturgy and how it
connects to what precedes and follows it. Attention is paid not only to the
words, but also to any gestures, movements, silences, and actions that take
place, and also to whether it is the minister, the candidate, the congregation
or someone else who is involved at that moment. My methodology then seeks to
discern whether, having carefully analysed each section of the liturgy, it can
be demonstrated that there is a coherence running through the whole which
results in a consistent theology. My thesis from the outset is that there does
not seem to be the level of consistency that one would hope for. My conclusions
go on to demonstrate that.
At the heart of the book are the three chapters which
look in detail at services of initiation, services of healing, and services of
deliverance. These are the three areas of the church’s ministry where a
candidate, liturgically at least, comes into contact with or conversation with
the things of evil and the devil. Turning away from the devil at baptism, and
turning away from the world of evil and of sin are markers of the beginning of
a Christian life and occur in liturgies from the earliest days. When the church
offers prayers of healing often what is prayed for is protection from evil as
well as other things. The ministry of deliverance in the Church of England is a
slightly different beast because there are no centrally authorised or commended
texts at present. This may change in the coming years, as the Church of England
is engaged in a piece of work considering whether liturgies and guidance notes
for the ministry of deliverance and exorcism ought to be centrally produced.
One of my conclusions is that this piece of work is important and urgent, and
I’m pleased to be part of the group which has been invited to consider this. At
the moment, however, there are no authorised texts produced by the Church of
England, and it is up to each diocese and each bishop to produce them locally.
This, again, I identify as a deficiency.
The book concludes by drawing some liturgical and
theological threads together, identifies the most significant deficiencies in
the current provision, and makes some suggestions for further work on the part
of the Church of England in order to improve the situation. Some of the most
troubling inconsistency is demonstrated to be a result of a set of complicated
and confusing liturgical texts and notes.
This book is important because, as I stated at the
outset, there are genuine pastoral dangers in the current liturgical provision.
People come to the church asking for baptism, confirmation, or the ministry of
healing and deliverance in large numbers. In these and other pastoral
situations where people are seeking answers for some of the deepest questions in
life, it is vital that the church has given robust thought to the way in which
Rev Dr Tom Clammer is a theologian, spiritual director and a visiting scholar at Sarum College.
As a divinity student in the late
1990s, I was among the few—maybe only—openly gay seminarians at my urban Roman
Catholic seminary. That school was then and now on the progressive end of
things—“Bold and Faithful” was the tagline—and not a few of our liturgies began
with a once-common hymn “All are welcome.” Of course, we weren’t, not really.
But for a time, the aspiration was sufficient.
home congregation then was Dignity/Chicago, an assembly of LGBTQIA+ Roman
Catholics who gathered for Eucharist once a week in a local Methodist Church.
Dignity became famous in the late 1980s for rejecting the 1986 “Halloween
drafted by the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which asserted homosexuality
was an “objective disorder” toward an “intrinsic moral evil.” Any Catholic
organization unable to affirm that bit of theological terrorism was unwelcome
on Roman Catholic property. So we rented from the Methodists. And thanks to
them, we did more or less as the Spirit led us.
those things we did was celebrate “holy unions”—marriage by another name for
same-gender couples—along with couples’ blessings, baptisms of the children of
same-sex couples, coming-out celebration, commemorations of those lost to AIDS.
All those celebrations over time shaped a new way—for us anyway—of being
Christian: In our assembly, being queer whether in desire or relationship or
gender identity wasn’t an exception, it was the rule, the norm. Even the
straight folks were queer in their choice of assembly. And it was through our
gatherings for common prayer that we insisted that our lives, too, reflected
forward 20 years and almost everything has changed in some places, while nothing
has in others. On the one hand, same-sex couples are winning greater access to
civil forms of marriage in many places, and trans- and gender-nonconforming
persons are winning hard fought steps toward equal access and legal protection.
On the other, the Roman Catholic Church remains intransigent on the question of
same- or trans-gender anything, and the Methodist Church that used to welcome
Dignity just hardened its own position on LGBTQIA+ ministers (non-partnered or
“chaste” only) and same-gender marriage (not allowed).
While my own Episcopal Church in the U.S. has progressively extended marriage
and ordination without regard to sexuality or gender identity, it is an outlier
in the Anglican Communion. Worldwide Anglican uncertainty about sexuality
indeed has reached almost comic proportions with Archbishop of Canterbury
Justin Welby inviting the world’s Anglican few gay bishops to the next Lambeth
gathering but excluding their spouses—both of them! (There
are only two bishops married to same-gender partners in the Anglican Communion.)
“All are welcome”? Not in the least.
limits signal the problem with “welcome” or “inclusion” at church or anywhere
else: It’s generally defined by someone else—the “welcomer”—often the
gatekeeper of whatever “normal” is being contravened by “welcome” or
“inclusion.” I have experienced these “normals” most vividly as a gay man whose
sexuality and romantic life contravene the heterosexual expectation. The
extension of marriage to my same-gender relationship is fast absorbing my
difference into that relational “normal” (as long as I hew closely to a certain
marital script)—though the gatekeepers at Lambeth seem intent on holding out.
Believe it or not, I am happy for them to do so, if only to help me remember
how easy it would be to give in to the “tyranny of normal.”
might sound a bit odd for a gay man to say, but these past 20 years of
“inclusion” and even major wins for sexual and gender minorities have made me
increasingly suspicious of any “normal,” and especially suspicious of the ways
being “normal” gets worked out in the common prayer of the churches. It is
interesting to me that the liturgies of both marriage and ordination have been
and continue to be the battlegrounds in theological controversies around sex
and gender. Both are primary ways Christians and their churches mark what is
“normal” or acceptable in such matters. It is not a bad thing that women and
gender minorities are now ordained in some churches, and couples can pledge
themselves to each other regardless of the parties’ genders in some others. But
are there not other tyrannical “normals” that need to be contested?
answer to that question is surely, undeniably, affirmative. Many of these norms,
like those governing gender and sexuality, are rooted in bodies. Persons with
impairment will lament what Thomas Reynolds calls the “cult of normalcy,” which
renders many bodies problematic and thus consigned to the backbenches of church
and society. Persons whose skin colour or cultural heritage marks them as
outside the “white” norm in U.S. and U.K. contexts (among others) have
documented well the ongoing effects of such inbuilt racism, and its continuing
effects—so expansive that a simple reference cannot do them justice. Even
granting the expansion of ordination beyond the historic male “normal,” the
residual “male pattern” at the altar continues to perpetuate a legacy of
clerical dominance over the “merely baptized.” Assemblies are only beginning to
engage the challenges posed by the mass migration of people, whether at the
southern border of the United States or the Mediterranean shores of the
European Union. These movements follow previous migrations related to imperial
expansion, displacement of First Peoples, and colonization—of which the
churches in their many forms were an undeniable part.
Like it or not church liturgies tend to perpetuate many of these tyrannical norms, whether through more obvious exclusions in the matter of ordination and marriage, or in more subtle ways. I note in my own Episcopal Church that the English language and the musical heritage of the British Isles dominate most gatherings for prayer—no matter the actual heritage of art and culture of those gathered in the room. It is hard to deny that such preference suggests somehow that the English language and the cultures most shaped by it—and the persons who bear them—are somehow superior to other languages and cultures, which are, of course, no less capable bearing the church’s prayer.
the matter of marriage, then, some churches have begun to scratch at the
surface of the “normals” of which Christians have often been involved in
enforcing. That in itself is a good thing—but only a first step toward
exploring which other unexamined norms have oppressed and excluded in the name
of God. As Hauerwas has written: “[T]he demand to be normal can be tyrannical
unless we understand that the normal condition of our being together is that we
are all different.”
The breadth of the divine welcome so expressed lies further down the road.
 The 1 October 1986 “Letter to
the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”
of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith identified a “movement within
the church, which takes the form of pressure groups of various names and sizes,
 The expression belongs to
ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. See his “Community and Diversity: The Tyranny of
Normal,” in Suffering Presence:
Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church
(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 211-17.
 Reynolds defines that “cult”
as “a set of rituals trained upon demarcating and policing the borders of a
‘normal’ way of being . . . so as to remediate and thus neutralize their
deviances.” See his Vulnerable Communion:
A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos
Press, 2008), 60.
 See, for example, my “Diary of
Pilgrimage: An American Pilgrim Under the Southern Cross,” Worship 92 (September 2018): 396-414.
 “Community and Diversity: The
Tyranny of Normal,” 214.
“Is the Church essentially a perfect or an imperfect entity?”
This is a question I like to ask the MA students that I teach. The answer seems obvious. We only have to glance into church history, around the Church today, or, for those of us who are part of the Church, into our own lives and hearts to see myriad examples of the Church’s imperfection.
The world outside the Church, understandably, calls this imperfection out. One recent example of such critique comes through the character of the priest in the critically-acclaimed series Fleabag. This priest, rather than leading the atheist main character, Fleabag, towards God, stands in the way of any attempt she might have made to reach out to him. Whether an intentional or subconscious depiction of the Church on the part of the writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the message conveyed is sobering. Rather than a group of people who inspire and encourage others to find life and hope in the good news of the grace poured out in Jesus, the Church, as portrayed in Fleabag at least, blocks the path towards God that others might take if only the Church weren’t in the way.
Many would testify that such a picture of the Church does not match their experience. Many lives have been turned around by meeting Christians who have demonstrated love, compassion, and goodness, encouraging others to know God for themselves. However, even if a picture like the one we see in Fleabag were only a tiny bit true, and most Christians would recognise that it’s sadly more than that, this would be a tragedy worthy of much grief and sombre self-assessment on the Church’s part. The Church is imperfect. Christians see this. The wider world sees this. God sees this.
So why ask the question? At this point in the lecture, after my students have voiced their own examples of the Church’s shortcomings, I bring in the work of Paul Minear and his Images of the Church in the New Testament. In the New Testament, there are descriptions of the Church in practice, in Acts and Paul’s letters, for example, where we see that imperfection in the Church is not new. There are also prescriptions given as to the character and behaviour that the Church should exhibit. However, the primary way that the Church is depicted, Minear argues, is through images, or metaphors. The Church is Christ’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the people of God, the bride of Christ, the aroma of Christ, a family, salt, light, and a city on a hill, to name the most prominent metaphors used. Despite the variety, Minear contends, these images shed light on the one reality of the Church that they all point to. Different images emphasise different aspects of this one reality, but the reality itself is the same. It is the redeeming and reconciling activity of God the Father in the Son and through the Spirit in drawing people to himself. Moreover, this reconciliation of people to God is a foretaste and sign of the redemption of creation that God will accomplish on Christ’s return.
Therefore, Minear maintains, rather than the overly
human-centred definitions and understandings of the Church that Christians today
so easily adopt, in the New Testament, the Church’s identity and calling is
firmly rooted, not in itself, but in the Triune God, whose being and acts are
perfect. Not only is the Church founded on the works of a perfect God, but it is,
itself, heading towards perfection. The bride of Christ image is particularly
striking in this regard. Ephesians 5 looks forward to the time when Christ’s
bride is without spot or blemish; Revelation 21 describes this future reality in
But that is then, and this is now — we might counter. Not so
for Paul, who, like the other New Testament authors, sees a more complex
relationship between the present and the future than binary opposition. For
Paul, the future reality of the perfection of God’s kingdom has broken
powerfully into the here and now through the coming of Christ. The Church, though
awaiting final perfection, is now the body and bride of Christ and the temple
of God’s Spirit.
The Church, then, is located in a tension between the
perfect entity that it is in Christ, and will become on Christ’s return, and
its current imperfection. The danger with any tension is that only one side is
maintained. In this instance, imbalance leads to either an unhealthy
triumphalism that fails to prepare and account for the current reality of sin,
or an eeyorish pessimism that loses sight of the power of Christ’s work in and
through the present lives of believers. The challenge is to hold both ends
firmly. Paul does just this when, in Ephesians for example, he instructs his
readers that the Church is Christ’s body and
must grow up into the full stature of Christ, or that Christians are new
creations and must put off their old
selves, or that the Church is Christ’s fullness and then prays that the believers will be filled with the fullness
Maintaining tensions can be challenging, but it also stabilises. The stabilising effect of tensions has prompted me to promote a new metaphor for the Church, based on Paul’s body of Christ texts: the image of the Church as a suspension bridge. Just as the tensions in the supporting cables uphold a suspension bridge, so, I argue in my book Flexible Church, maintaining the tensions conveyed through Scripture upholds the Church. The tension between the perfection and imperfection of the Church’s current calling and identity is one that I explore. I also examine dialectical tensions between: God’s transcendence and immanence; believers’ calling to be spiritual and religious; the Church’s existence as a network and an institution; the Church’s nature as inherited and innovative; and the Church’s relationship with the wider world as both inculturated and countercultural.
My hope is that the image of a suspension bridge encourages the contemporary church to maintain the flexibility and stability needed to faithfully communicate and demonstrate the good news of Jesus in a range of different contexts. My aim is to provide a diagnostic tool by which churches can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and identify imbalances that may have arisen. My prayer is that those of us involved in Church would keep seeking God’s wisdom, infilling and strength to be people who inspire others to know Jesus too, and never a barrier that blocks their path.
Rev Dr Helen D. Morris is a BA Course Leader and Lecturer in Applied Theology at Moorlands College, Christchurch, UK.
A guest post from Chris Lane, taken from his foreword to the new edition of Christianity Rediscovered
In May 1966, the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan wrote a letter to his Bishop, a year into his work in Loliondo, Tanzania. He had joined a long-term mission which was having a strong influence in the locality through excellent work involving schools and a hospital. But Donovan was frustrated.
Crucially for the future of the work, he carried the godly frustration of a true pioneer, which ultimately leads to courageous and clear-sighted action.
This story, about a Catholic man communicating the gospel to tribes of mostly illiterate cattle herders on the plains of Tanzania, informed and challenged my own missional practice in planting a church in the Langworthy estate in Salford, England – a place renowned at the time for high levels of crime and deprivation.
Donovan’s work, separated from my own by 7000 miles and 40 years, gave a beautiful theological language to what we were experiencing as we pioneered a new expression of church in an estate where a tiny percentage of people attended any church or had any concept of the gospel.
The first thing we learned from Donovan was the importance of humble listening. A group of us had moved into Langworthy in 1999: young, shiny, happy Christians arriving with answers to every question and a clear idea of how to help people improve their lives and find Jesus. We didn’t realise at the time that we had much more to learn than we had to give. This was a painful lesson for us. When Donovan is asked by a Masai tribe whether his ‘tribe’ has found the most High God, he thinks deeply before answering ‘no…I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with me. Let us search for him together’. He invites them on a journey of discovery. He will listen and they will listen and they will seek God together. Unlike his missionary colleagues, he doesn’t go with medical help or education, but simply to sow the seeds of the gospel and see what grows up.
There is a humility here that has echoes of St Aidan’s mission to the tribes of northern England. Not imposing the gospel from a position of power, but offering it with openness and a willingness to listen and learn. Aidan went to a place and a people written off by his peers as impossible to reach, too barbaric and wild. Donovan was told it might take one hundred years before the Masai were ready to discuss the Christian faith, that ‘it is impossible to preach the gospel directly to the Masai’.
Like Aidan and all true pioneers, it was this apparent impossibility that drove him to abandon the theories and discussions, and ‘simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa’ (13). When he did this, the question he received was ‘why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’.
As Donovan and the Masai began this journey together they began to realise that the Most High God, the God of the whole world, had been with them before the missionaries came. When we began our work in Langworthy there was almost a sense that we were taking the light of Jesus with us into this dark, godless place. It was quite a revelation when we realised that Jesus was already there!
Donovan helped us to understand the Missio Dei – that God is on a mission everywhere and in every person. It is our job to join that mission. For every person I meet, my task is to find out what God has been doing in their life, and help them to join the dots and recognise that those moments of awe and wonder are signs that (to use Donovan’s analogy) the Lion has been pursuing them.
This is a reflection of
the whole biblical story. Creation begins in the tohu wabohu – formless,
void, wilderness. The story of the people of God starts with an elderly couple
who can’t have children. The news of the Messiah comes to the shepherds. The
impossible places, the unreachable people. Yet God is at work there.
Another issue that emerges in pioneering mission, or ‘first evangelisation’ , is we can often come with our quick answers and theological assumptions, and then they don’t work anymore outside the safety of our church bubble. Jonny Baker talks about a ‘theological homelessness’ (see Jonny’s chapter in The End of Theology) often experienced by pioneers as they leave the comforts of what they know and relearn the gospel for the culture or group they are reaching. It is fascinating to see how Donovan wrestles with this, ‘every single thing I prepared to teach them had to be revised or discarded once I had presented it to them. Just what was the essential message of Christianity?’ There is a thrilling freshness to the message that emerges as a result of this process, as there is all over the world as the seeds of the gospel are sown, including in a little forgotten estate in the north west of England.
We searched in vain for a proven model that we could use for our mission in Langworthy. Donovan taught us to discard the models and listen to the whisper of the Spirit. He taught us the importance of proximity – of friendship, and of living and working among the people you are reaching. Proximity is not only significant missionally but also theologically, as you observe at first hand the traces of the Missio Dei in people’s day to day lives and in their culture and the stories they tell.
Donovan gives a stunning example of this in the Masai custom of bringing peace between feuding families. The two families prepare endaa sinyati, or holy food, and bring it to the centre of the village accompanied by the whole community, and in the exchanging of food, forgiveness comes and a new covenant is established between the families. In Donovan’s words ‘a new testament of forgiveness is brought about by the exchange of holy food. What more can one say?’ (49) Evidence of the work of God in a supposedly ‘godless’ culture.
What is the gospel? What
is church? Every missionary pioneer will have grappled with these questions,
and Donovan grounds them in this real and remarkable story. It is both
beautiful and unsettling, and speaks to the Christian church today with great
relevance and power. It reminds us of the importance of mission for the church
– ‘a church that turns in on itself is no longer a church’ (85) – and challenges
Western concepts of individualism and organisation. When decisions are made as
a whole tribe, what about those who don’t fully understand the gospel? How are
leaders raised up and recognised by the wider church when most of the Masai
leaders are illiterate and the usual ordination processes simply don’t work for
them? What is the future for such a mission?
There are many big questions raised here; some are answered eloquently within the book and others are left for the reader to wrestle with. It is an incomplete and imperfect story, yet beautiful and breathtaking, and this is fitting because this is the very nature of Christian mission. Our story in Langworthy is also incomplete and imperfect, yet at times beautiful and breathtaking, as is your story and that of your community. Read this book and be challenged and inspired, be frustrated, be equipped, but most of all, wrestle with the ideas here and sow the seeds of the gospel into your context and see what emerges!