Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

Ballet dancers in a ballroom. The man has his bare back to the camera holding the woman. She wraps her arms calmly around his body. She has blonde hair and is wearing dark red. The colour contrasts against the monochrome background of the room. Text: "Flesh: what Paul really meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)"

(Photo credit: pixel2013 on Pixabay)

I reckon one of the biggest chasms between Christian thought and sex-positive thinking comes down to how we understand the word “flesh” in the New Testament. Or in the Greek, σαρξ.

The word appears 147 times and in the NIVUK translation it gets rendered 53 times as either “flesh” or “body”, 23 times as “sinful nature”, and a further 58 times with other meanings, translated either on its own or in conjunction with other words. These uses refer to something associated with humanity or earthliness, ranging from neutral terms like “human ancestry” to loaded terms like “perversion”. (And untranslated 13 times for those who want the maths.)[1]

Of the times that sarx is rendered as flesh or body, the context is often negative, emphasising weakness or mortality.

What’s more, the NIVUK repeatedly translates sarx as ‘flesh’ in Galatians 5.  That’s the passage where Paul writes this:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIVUK)

Upshot: it’s very, very easy to come away from the New Testament thinking that flesh is bad, bodies are bad, and anything to do physical pleasure is very, very bad. This is particularly the case for Paul, whose letters account for 20 of the 23 times sarx is translated as “sinful nature”.

But what was Paul’s intention? Continue reading Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

St Paul's Cathedral between two modern buildings with the text: Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

The book of Daniel often gets cited as the model for Christians to follow because he doesn’t acculturate, famously refusing the king’s food. The thing is, there are people other than Daniel in the Bible who did acculturate and brought God’s salvation and transformation into the world by doing so. (Esther and Joseph being the two leading examples.)

In my last post, I wrote about how the UK and US churches’ use of Daniel to promote non-conformity is problematic; in this post I want to dig deeper into assumptions that underpin our ‘Daniel-only’ models of church.

Because I reckon the overuse of non-conformity comes down to a flawed theology of hope. Continue reading Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

Picture of St Paul's Cathedral in London between two modern buildings; caption: Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

One of my bugbears about the church in the UK and US, is the strong emphasis of non-conformity.

We’re told to be like Daniel and show our distinctiveness. We have to be bold like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who would face the fiery furnace sooner than bow down to the Babylonian king. As Paul put it in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.”

I have no complaint about these Bible passages, but I’m tired of this narrative. I think it’s being overused and misused. Not only that, but its counterpart is being missed altogether. Continue reading Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.

Juliet from 1996 20th Century Fox adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, with quote "Proud can I never be of what I hate" and text "Let's talk about that Old Testament law where a girl marries her rapist"
Background picture of Claire Danes, taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

CONTENT NOTE: This post has general discussion of murder, rape, parent-perpetrated domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage.  

‘Proud can I never be of what I hate’
– Juliet

Juliet’s words sum up the reaction of many women when they read a certain law in Deuteronomy 22.

The law I’m thinking of is this one:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
– Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (NIVUK)

In a world even remotely aware of consent and women’s bodily agency, this law makes no apparent sense. How, how, how can it be good for a woman to have to marry – and have sex with – a man who raped her? How can a law be good when it means women – often children – are forced to marry? How can a marriage be good, when its origin was an act of violence?

Or, to take Juliet’s words, how can a woman expect to be proud of being married to someone she hates?

You might have heard the apologist arguments before: it was a different culture, virginity in a woman was a big deal, no one else would marry a raped woman, sex was thought to constitute marriage.

Well, guess again. Because I don’t think this law is about marriage or about sex.

To explain what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at the scene in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, where this quote comes from.

(Grab a cuppa, this post is 3,000 words long – or over 4,000 if you read all the footnotes.)

Continue reading Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.

David’s story is no defence for male impunity (and Kavanaugh apologists need to know this)

Word cloud in red and blue about David and Bathsheba with the post’s title

 

With all that has been written about Dr Christine Ford and US Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh over the last few weeks, I’ve asked myself what I might be able to contribute that wasn’t already being said.

One of the best pieces I read was a post on Slate.com titled ‘Men are more afraid than ever.’

It lays out how one argument in defence of Kavanaugh is essentially the idea that if a man sexually assaults a woman then he should have impunity. Perhaps he might be taken out of the public eye for a few months, but if so, then his time out should not be long:

They grew up in a world that taught them they “get to” do the things they did. They feel, accordingly, that they have been unjustly penalized. They believe they’re suffering greatly.

As I reflected on the article, it struck me that one of the biggest drivers behind this toxic mentality might be a modern Christian (mis)understanding of David and Bathsheba. If so, then perhaps what people need to hear, is something that undercuts poor interpretation of this story.  Continue reading David’s story is no defence for male impunity (and Kavanaugh apologists need to know this)

What exactly is a pledge? Exploring the types of commitment seen in the Bible

Silver heart bracelet worn by bride. Text: Purity pledges and the Bible, what exactly is a pledge or vow or covenant?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about purity pledges.

For the uninitiated, these are when Christian teenagers (both male and female, though it seems to be more common for girls) promise to be sexually abstinent until marriage. The promise is made usually around the time they hit puberty and girls sometimes buy or receive a ‘purity ring’, possibly given to them by their parents. In the more extreme forms, you have ‘purity balls’, where young girls go on ‘dates’ with their fathers during which they promise that they will not to have sex or marry against his wishes. Sometimes, they even sign a covenant to that effect.

I’ve read a number of articles and stories about the damaging effects of these pledges and the culture which endorses them (witness the links above).

What I haven’t seen is a theological, Bible-focussed discussion of the concept of pledges, or how they compare to the various kinds of commitments we see in the Bible.

I’m guessing one of the reasons for this is because, at a glance, the Bible seems to paint a confusing picture. Solemn promises are meant to be kept, yet there are many examples where keeping a promise led to death and destruction. We also have Jesus’ teaching that we shouldn’t swear anything at all – which is somewhat puzzling for couples who (like myself) have made wedding vows. So, are promises good or not? And what kind of commitment is a purity pledge?

To answer these questions, I’ll first look at the different types of commitment in the Bible (this post), then I’ll look at what characterises good and bad commitments, and lastly I’ll apply the findings of those two posts to the specific example of purity pledges.

Here we go. (Grab a cuppa, this post has 3,500 words.)

Continue reading What exactly is a pledge? Exploring the types of commitment seen in the Bible

Books of 2017: Titles of interest to theology lovers and Bible students

I read all of these from cover to cover.

Only kidding! The themes for 2017’s theological reading seem to have been justification (and my discovery of a long-standing debate between John Piper and Tom Wright), hope and the kingdom of heaven, and prophecy. So here are a few short reviews of:

  • Justification
  • Why the Reformation Still Matters
  • New Testament for Everyone commentaries
  • Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
  • Whole Life Worship
  • Surprised by Hope

(Actually, they’re not short. This post is about 3,500 words. Whoops.)

Continue reading Books of 2017: Titles of interest to theology lovers and Bible students

Good Gifts for Growing People: A sermon on Romans 12:1-8

So, there is this idea that women have the ability and commission to preach just as much as men. This sermon is offered alongside the work of other like-minded groups of people who are each doing their bit for bringing about the fullness of women’s ministry. A group I have some involvement with is the Ezer Rising team, and you can even order mugs and t-shirts with this slogan if you want!

You can watch the YouTube video (~25 minutes, ~480MB) or you can read the text which is (for the most part!) reproduced below.

(The video is also embedded above, but it doesn’t display in all readers.)

Continue reading Good Gifts for Growing People: A sermon on Romans 12:1-8

Always reforming: 95 statements on hope, sexuality and consent

It is 500 years to the day (well, sort of, if we don’t worry about the shift to the Gregorian calendar) since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses onto the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, on 31 October 1517. His actions kicked off the reformation – a movement during which the protestant denominations split away from the Roman Catholic church.

Coming from a protestant background, this seems a fitting time for me to write 95 short statements on the themes of this blog. Of course, they don’t cover everything! But you’ll find in them thoughts and theologies that either have been, or will be, very much an integral part of my writing. (And when I’m cribbing someone else’s work, I’ve put their name in brackets.) I’ve split them into ten categories:

  • personhood
  • abuse
  • God
  • sex
  • consent
  • Christian witness
  • the Bible
  • hope
  • purity
  • and me.

Continue reading Always reforming: 95 statements on hope, sexuality and consent

I always loved the Torah – and now I feel lied to (a complaint about translation)

Worn used NIV Study Bible

I’ve always loved the first five books of the Bible (aka the Torah).

I don’t feel lied to because suddenly I’ve opened up and noticed the gory bits. I had already noticed the bits prejudiced against women, disabled people, homosexuals and people with different ethnicities. Oh, and the slavery and the retributive violence. And the honour-shame culture.

I’m not opening up my Old Testament every day thinking “This is the text that’s unadulterated goodness and will show me show to live my life with absolute clarity.” I always knew it was more complicated than that.

Yes, I have approached the text from my earliest youth with a presumption that it is inherently good, but I’ve not been so naïve as to think that everything it describes is good. Including the bits that the authors and compilers don’t seem to be flinching at.

Now I know that this makes me an outlier and I’m prepared to own that. I’m not about to inflict the genealogies of Numbers or the sacrifices of Leviticus on people who simply don’t have the stomach for it. Struggling with the Pentateuch does not make someone less of a Christian or less of a human being. If anything, struggling with it shows you’re actually exercising your God-given faculties of thought. Good. Do that.

So why do I feel lied to? Well, loving the Torah is something I felt as a child and as a teenager and as a student.

And you wanna know what else I was doing all that time? I was reading my New International Version translation of the Bible.

And the NIV translators don’t like the Torah. Continue reading I always loved the Torah – and now I feel lied to (a complaint about translation)

Why purity-as-separation undermines the church’s covenant calling

Wedding shoes of different colours but similar ribbons and styleLast Christmas I realised something that made me so angry I wanted to pick up my laptop and smash it to pieces.

No, this was not an urge that I had felt before.

I was contemplating the second chapter of Hebrews which talks about Jesus being made like the people whom he helped. The book is one of my favourites in the New Testament because it has a wholesale take on Jesus as the Great High Priest. I’m a sucker for the Old Testament books of law (don’t judge me!) so I lap up the words of this letter with delight every time I read them. Assuming I understand them, of course. And there’s no guarantee of that because, good grief, this book is complex!

Anyway: I was contemplating how Jesus was both like and unlike the people that he acted on behalf of as a priest. The thought-process was in aid of a blog post I published in the new year about how “priest” was to be my word for 2017. You see, a priest identifies with someone who is both like and unlike them. That is an integral part of how a priest ministers reconciliation. It was that like-and-unlike idea I had in mind when picked the image for that post – which I’m reusing for this one. (It comes from a winter wedding, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

The thought I had as I was contemplating was this: when a group of people, called by God to be ministers of his covenant to the world, separate themselves from others on the grounds of “purity”, they subvert and frustrate God’s reconciling plan for everyone else.

And this is bad. Very bad.  Continue reading Why purity-as-separation undermines the church’s covenant calling

A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world

When I was a plucky secondary school pupil, I had an idea for a perpetual motion machine. I was beyond excited. I was going to solve the world’s energy problems. I was prepared to accept that maybe there was a glitch in my design that I hadn’t realised, so I prayed earnestly that if I was wrong then God will tell me that very same day.

That afternoon my older brother told me it wouldn’t work.

I didn’t believe him to begin with, but gradually reality sank in as he explained. As Scotty would say, “Ya canna change the laws of physics!” Unknowingly, I had been trying to break the first rule of thermodynamics – that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

Thing is, right now, I feel like a child again. I feel like I can change the world. Or maybe it’s not that I can but that I will – by the grace of God, in the wisdom of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the fellowship of the church – change the world.

Is that me or is that not me? I don’t care! The world is going to change – and that’s what really excites me.

So, what’s this big world-changing idea?

I’ve tried to blog about it before and I’m hoping I’ll blog about it in various forms over the coming months (years?): it’s all about purity. Continue reading A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world

Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf

OK, first up: caveats.

That tweet was in April. It’s now July. What I’m about to write is a mixture of theological thoughts I’ve been mulling on in the interim and talking over my husband – because he’s a fabulous deep-thinker who sometimes sees things I don’t.

When I’ve been talking to him about my ideas about virginity he’s said to me,

“OK but… this idea is like the fur of a cat. You can stroke it one way and it’s fine, but if you stroke it the wrong way, you get the cat’s back up. It’s still the same fur, but it doesn’t work. You’ve got to be careful with this.”

So, I could be on the wrong track, but even if I’m on the right track, you’ve got to look at my direction of travel here. Also, even if I’m on the right track and going in the right direction, this is a curiously complex issue. Again, it’s like cat’s fur: you can stroke a cat anywhere, but you can’t stroke a cat everywhere on its surface at the same time. (This is also called the ‘hairy ball theorem’.) In a similar way, what I’m about to say may not the have logical consistency the way we might expect at first.

But I think there’s something big here.
Continue reading Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf

The Orlando nightclub shooting: a challenge to non-LGBT Christians

LGBT Rainbow

It’s the one-year anniversary of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. It wasn’t long after 12 June 2016 that I spoke publicly about how I wanted to react in the wake of it. I didn’t go into whether or not I thought gay marriage and LGBT relationships were right or wrong; instead I challenged other Christians on how they were going to react.

I was nervous, but I did it, and afterwards I was glad that I did it (as were a number other people, judging by the feedback I received). I also posted a shortened version on this blog. I incorporated considerations about Brexit (which happened two weeks later), though the original was written with only Orlando in mind.

And for a while now, I’ve wanted to share the full version, and the first anniversary of the shooting seems as appropriate as any other time.

That said, I am now stepping way, way outside of my comfort zone.

Continue reading The Orlando nightclub shooting: a challenge to non-LGBT Christians

Modesty 101: modesty is not about clothes, rather glory and context

Modesty 101 fig leaves

So… the fabulous Sierra White has asked me to share some thoughts on modesty for her Facebook page Ezer Rising (and blog: Ezer Rising), which (if you didn’t know) is committed to sharing content about women’s equality from a Christian perspective.

First thing I’ll say is that I’m going to approach modesty in a way that I haven’t seen done elsewhere. Not because other ways are necessarily wrong or flawed, but because different ways of looking at things work for different people. And sometimes a different perspective can help us appreciate things that we hadn’t seen before.

For the Christians reading this, this also means I’m not going to start with Bible passages to make my case. I love the Bible, but if we start with a question like “What does the Bible say about modesty?” then it’s very easy to look for the word “modesty” and find ourselves constrained to considering only a few passages. Instead of doing that, I’ll step back and ask “What is modesty?” You can then go away and weigh my ideas against what you find in the Bible. (Or not, if the Bible isn’t really your book.)

So: modesty.  Continue reading Modesty 101: modesty is not about clothes, rather glory and context