Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix) – a call to Christians who campaign

Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah spoke about injustice, calling the people of Israel and Judah to account for their actions and appealing to them to change their ways. And I know it’s a cliché but: many of his words, written hundreds of years ago, are deeply resonant today. Things like ending oppression and showing hospitality to the poor.

The thing is though, many Christians reading this passage would frame themselves as being in Isaiah’s shoes; they would use his words to call non-Christians and other parts of the church to account. Yet there comes a point when you can’t escape the fact that at least some Christians are wrong to claim the moral high ground. At least some Christians must be campaigning for causes which aren’t actually just.

So as I thought about this passage over the last couple of weeks, I began to move away from framing it in terms of “Don’t oppress the poor” (which is good advice any day of the week). Instead, I thought of it in terms of “Don’t engage in wasteful campaigns.” 

And this is a message that speaks to all sides of the political divide. Because the problem is not just campaigns with an unjust purpose; it’s also campaigns that have good intentions but which (a) are ineffectual, (b) use dubious methods, and/or (c) are unnecessarily divisive.

So, with that in mind, I wrote an alternative ‘remix’ version of these verses to raise a contemporary challenge to the church. I want to get us thinking about the methods we use in our activism, and what it is that produces lasting and fruitful results.

I hope the words speak to you. Maybe they’ll encourage you or challenge you in your own practices; maybe they’ll help you understand and articulate something (whether good or bad) about someone else’s practices.

Something I’ve come to understand, is that the Holy Spirit never inflicts shame. These words aren’t here to pressurise you or make you compromise necessary boundaries; so if they jar, maybe they were written more for someone else. But if they nudge your awareness and challenge you to think differently, maybe it’s worth letting the words sink in.

Oh, and one last thing: Isaiah is one of the ‘major’ Old Testament prophets, because the book written in his name is one of the longest books of prophecy. In chapter 6, there’s an account of Isaiah’s calling; he saw heaven open and God asking who he would send to give a message to Judah. Isaiah’s response was “Here I am! Send me!”

Yeah, so, keep that in mind.


Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix)

Speak up, and don’t sanitise what you have to say
Tell my church where they’re going wrong,
Tell those who call themselves Christ-followers,
where they’re going their own way.

They come into churches and small groups each week
Like a congregation that searches
For my kingdom and its righteousness.
They ask me to intervene in response to their prayers,
Claiming their faith is truly spiritual.

“Why have we donated to good causes,” they say
“And you haven’t noticed it?”
“Why have we protested and stood out from the crowd,
Yet you don’t seem to care?”

OK, listen: on the day you preach and campaign,
You do it just so you can say you did something.
You don’t even stop to consider
Whether your methods are even ethical.

The truth is, your activism is an excuse
To express disgust and be argumentative,
To wash your conscience on the moral high ground.
You cannot act like this if you want
My Spirit to breathe through you.

Is this the righteousness that I want?
To pick out ideal victims and idealised causes
And put your words on repeat inside an echo chamber?
Is it to protest that you’re being persecuted
When people challenge the accuracy of what you say
And the helpfulness of how you say it?

I delight in activism that lifts the voices of those
Who have been falsely discredited or sidelined;
I desire activism that makes it easier, not harder,
For professionals to improve the structures
Of the organisations they are already working in;
I take pleasure in careful sifting through the evidence,
To provide an approachable answer for misunderstandings
and to silence the myths and the lies.

Share your energy with those
who are hungry for encouragement;
Include lesser known causes within your sphere —
Yes, those that lack political glamour;
And muster the courage
for tempered and slow conversations —
Even with your family members who don’t feel like family.

Then Christ’s light will shine on you
And through you,
And your divisions will heal.
Your reputation for compassion and justice
Will precede you,
And the LORD’s revealing wisdom will watch your back.

Then, when you pray, I will answer.
When you call to me, I will be the one who says,
“Here I am.”


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Honour, not sex. Why applying Deuteronomy 22 is more complex than you thought. And why this matters.

There are a fair few strange laws concerning sex and marriage in the Old Testament books of law.

Problem is, whilst some Christians see much of the Old Testament as not relevant at all, there are others who tend to look for modern application. And if you’re in this second camp, there are all manner of questions to be answered about which laws describe the past and which prescribe principles for ethical living — and how exactly these translate to the modern day.

My personal belief is that none of the Old Testament laws are either wholly prescriptive or wholly descriptive; I think they all reflect their time (descriptive) and they all have something to teach us (prescriptive). Well, to varying degrees, obviously, but I’m not prepared to write off any of them as wholly irrelevant relics. And maybe you agree or maybe you don’t. Either way, it’s fair to say that some Christians are inclined to interpret prescriptively and when they do, they’re influenced by what each law is actually talking about.

Maybe that seems so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said — of course laws about the priesthood, warfare or slavery are going to be taken less literally than laws about putting up safety rails on a roof or not cursing the deaf. Why? For the simple reason that modern Western societies are structured very differently to ancient Israel.

But here’s the issue: what if there are laws designed for ancient societal structures, but which mainly use timeless language? Laws like that risk being interpreted and applied more literally by modern Christians, when they shouldn’t be.

This is what I think happens with Deuteronomy 22:13-30.

CONTENT NOTE: this post includes discussion of sexual abuse, ‘honour’ violence and rape myths. Continue reading Honour, not sex. Why applying Deuteronomy 22 is more complex than you thought. And why this matters.

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How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 is one of the scarier passages for impressionable young Christian women, as it seems to hold up pre-marital sex as a crime punishable by death. Even for married women, such as myself, the passage can be puzzling: hymeneal blood following intercourse is a notoriously unreliable proof of virginity.

Well, having just published 2,600 words explaining this law (and that doesn’t count the footnotes), I thought I’d give the short version. Here it is in fewer than 500 words: Continue reading How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)

Picture of a bride with her eyes closed, standing against a white flowing veil-like background with the words: About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22:13-21... it's not what you think. Forget the hymen. This was about power. And money.. workthegreymatter.com

About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22: it’s not what you think

There was some justifiable outrage recently when rapper T.I. said that he had a gynaecologist annually test that his daughter’s hymen was still intact.

Leaving aside the brutal, if not fatal, penalties that women may suffer even today if they lose their virginity in a socially unacceptable manner, T.I.’s attitude is reminiscent of Old Testament times.

Or is it?

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of murder and toxic purity culture.

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 is one of the scarier passages for impressionable young Christian women, as it SEEMS to hold up pre-marital sex as a crime punishable by death. Even for married women, such as myself, the passage can be puzzling: hymeneal blood following intercourse is a notoriously unreliable proof of virginity.

So, do we:

  1. Take Deuteronomy 22:13-21 as nevertheless prohibiting all pre-marital sex,
  2. Write it off as an ancient relic, void of Christian love as we know it, or
  3. Say there’s got to be more here than meets the eye?

In case you hadn’t guessed, this post is all about option 3 and it focuses strongly on the ‘evidence’ of the bedsheets. (If you want a summary of this post in fewer than 500 words, click here. Also, for discussion of the wider themes of this passage, I strongly recommend checking out Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to).) Continue reading About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22: it’s not what you think

Picture of a closed black Bible resting on an ornate lectern, with the words: What exactly is this 'preaching' MacArthur speaks of, that he says it's categorically beyond all women? workthegreymatter.com

What exactly is this ‘preaching’ MacArthur speaks of, that he says it’s categorically beyond all women?

John MacArthur was recently asked what he thought of Beth Moore. In addition to telling her to ‘go home’, he said: “There’s no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher – period – paragraph – end of discussion.” (Video here.)

[For those less familiar: if you want a flavour of the more recent controversy around Beth Moore, try reading this Church Leaders article from May 2019: Beth Moore Has Had Enough of ‘Sinful’ Evangelical Misogyny. John MacArthur is on Wikipedia here.]

This ‘no case that can be made biblically’ statement has got me scratching my head a little. I mean…

Before Zelophehad’s daughters, there was no scriptural case for daughters inheriting. (Numbers 27:7-11) Continue reading What exactly is this ‘preaching’ MacArthur speaks of, that he says it’s categorically beyond all women?

Picture of woman sitting outside with her eyes closed and a slight frown, holding a closed copy of the Bible, with the words: Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws? workthegreymatter.com

Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

What I blog about and what I want to blog about, do not always align.

The Old Testament laws on sex, adultery and rape, particularly those in Deuteronomy 22:13-29, are a sensitive topic to say the least. Whenever I find an angle to write about, my inner caution tends to apply the brakes before my enthusiasm gets to the point of posting.

It’s not that this is a topic to be enthusiastic about, per se. It’s just that, in the last few years, the biblical scholarship I’ve read on these passages has absolutely blown my mind. And the more feminist literature I read (currently working through Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth), the more I believe the church needs to re-evaluate its relationship with these verses. Because although these verses are steeped in patriarchy, I’ve come to believe that there’s a lot of good stuff that they can teach us today.

If you’re now raising your eyebrow at me, I’m gonna guess it’s for one of several reasons. I’ll take them in turn. Continue reading Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

Picture of chess board with a king piece and pawns visible with the words: Law not patriarchy: why submission isn't the issue in Esther and Vashti's stories workthegreymatter.com

Law not patriarchy: why submission isn’t the issue in Esther and Vashti’s stories

The story of Esther, a Jewish orphan who became queen of Persia and saved her people from annihilation, is loaded with intrigue and drama. But that doesn’t necessarily make it comfortable reading.

Even in its earliest days, it had mixed reception. The Jews at Qumran ignored it; the Alexandrian Jews added extra passages to make the story more normative to Jewish ideology; and whoever translated the Hebrew into Greek “corrected” the original by (for example) pervasively inserting references to God.[1]

Likewise today, the book’s reception amongst Christian audiences faces tension. However, the topics now seem less concerned with whether Esther kept Torah, and more concerned with the justice (or otherwise) of patriarchy and warfare. Even so, the story remains immensely popular, with commentaries and Bible studies vying to interpret how Esther and Mordecai’s actions are exemplary for the modern Christian.

And in the middle of this, every now and then I see someone drawing attention to Vashti, who was queen before Esther, and they commend Vashti for her thoroughly feminist refusal to be a spectacle for the drunken king.

But is women’s equality what the author of the book had in mind, and if not, how much are we helped when we look at her through a feminist or egalitarian lens? These are the questions I want to explore in this post. Continue reading Law not patriarchy: why submission isn’t the issue in Esther and Vashti’s stories

Picture of woman from behind, sitting in church pew, with large Orthodox icon at the front of the church. Text: Ever had a moment when you got a glimpse of how amazing Jesus is? I just had one. (Whilst studying Deuteronomy. I know, I'm weird) workthegreymatter.com

Ever had a moment when you glimpsed how amazing Jesus is? I just had one. (Whilst studying Deuteronomy. I know, I’m weird)

When I was in my teens, I had a somewhat unorthodox rant with God.

“Why do churches go on and on and on about Jesus?” I said. “It’s ‘Jesus this, Jesus that,’ wherever I go! Why? It’s not like he’s the be-all-and-end-all!”

As soon as I said it, I felt the Holy Spirit give what I can only describe as a polite cough next to me. “So, what do you think he meant when he said he’s the Alpha and the Omega?”

I groaned and threw my hands up in the air. God: 1, Christine: 0. There was no winning the argument, but I was still dissatisfied with how churches only ever seemed to talk about Jesus. Continue reading Ever had a moment when you glimpsed how amazing Jesus is? I just had one. (Whilst studying Deuteronomy. I know, I’m weird)

Text on purple, white and black swirly background: Why do Methodist evangelicals insist all sex outside marriage is 'sexual immorality'? Because that's not in the Bible. workthegreymatter.com

Why do Methodist evangelicals insist that all sex outside marriage is ‘sexual immorality’? Because it’s not in the Bible.

The Methodist Conference in Great Britain recently commended a report about marriage and relationships, God In Love Unites Us, by 247 votes to 48. The headlines have focussed on how this report commends same-sex marriage, but it’s actually much broader than this. For example, it also discusses cohabitation, developing resources for married people, and even developing liturgies for when relationships end.

Meanwhile, Methodist Evangelicals Together have issued a statement and article in Premier Christianity saying that the report was one-sided, ignored testimony, and biblically unsound.  They’re calling on evangelicals to “make the case for a biblical view of marriage and relationships” rather than echo society’s views. [Edited to add: I should probably caveat here that that not all Methodist Evangelicals agree with the stance that MET has taken. Certainly, I saw tweets to the contrary as the report and article came out.]

Now, I might have my own problems with the report (the section on good sexual relating doesn’t mention consent), but I also recognise that it’s attempting to tackle and contextualise big and very sensitive issues, whilst still being accessible to read. And on the whole, I reckon does very well at this. What’s more, far from being unbiblical, I think the report is conceptually groundbreaking in how it de-couples sexual ethics from marriage.

Make no mistake, the report doesn’t give a free-for-all. For all my talk of ‘groundbreaking’, much of what the report says about sex is still well within the bounds of Methodist evangelical sexual ethics. It explicitly says “promiscuous, exploitative or demeaning” sex is unacceptable and emphasises exclusivity (albeit, not marriage) as a pre-requisite for sexual flourishing.

As such, the report places itself outside of much sex-positive thought, including any discussion of, for example, BDSM or polyamory. I’m not going to debate that in this post. In fact, right now, I’m not interested in going over same-sex marriage (though you’ll probably be able to guess where I stand).

What I want to ask is simply this:

Why do evangelicals insist on directly linking extra-marital sex to sexual immorality?  Continue reading Why do Methodist evangelicals insist that all sex outside marriage is ‘sexual immorality’? Because it’s not in the Bible.

Book of Good Omens, brown cover, hardback, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, on black background with the text "Does Good Omens promote the gospel? Not quite, but it comes close..." workthegreymatter.com

Does Good Omens promote the Gospel? Not quite, but it comes close

This is the second of a pair of posts about Good Omens. I’ll start with a quick recap of where I got to in the previous one, and don’t worry, this post is half the length of its predecessor.

There was this bit:

We should appreciate then that the story is about misfits trying to change the establishment, far more than any modern concepts of witchcraft. In fact, all the heroes, by their very nature and identity, transgress the bounds of acceptability in one way or another.

And this bit:

The question for critics, if they can concede that Good Omens is a good piece of storytelling, is whether its transgressive core is against Christian belief. Because let’s face it: disobedience, mischief and rebellion aren’t exactly renowned Christian virtues.

OK, let’s get stuck in. Continue reading Does Good Omens promote the Gospel? Not quite, but it comes close

Hardback book, "The Quite Nice and Fairly Accurate Good Omens script book" adapted from the novel, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, on black background with the text "Does Good Omens promote Satanism? Wow, OK, let's talk about this" workthegreymatter.com

Does Good Omens promote Satanism? Wow, OK, let’s talk about this.

It’s easy to guffaw when a bunch of anxious conservative Christians launch a petition calling for Netflix to cancel a popular show. Especially when that show, the recent adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s book Good Omens, was actually a joint work from Amazon and the BBC.

But if we can reasonably assume that these concerns will persist even in the face of Netflix’s promise not to make any more, let’s ask the question in all seriousness: does the show make Satanism ‘appear normal, light and acceptable’? Does it mock God’s wisdom?

In my habit of writing long posts, I’ve split this one into two parts. Part 1 digs into the genre of Good Omens and what that does and (more to the point) doesn’t say about Satanism. In Part 2, I focus more on the faith angle, looking at the theology of challenging norms and asking how closely Good Omens fits with this. Continue reading Does Good Omens promote Satanism? Wow, OK, let’s talk about this.

Ancient Hebrew manuscript showing extract from Exodus with the words superimposed: To my egalitarian friends: please don't hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Photo credit: Tanner Mardis via Unsplash

In fairness, no one has actually come to my blog and ranted about the Old Testament laws. So, this post probably isn’t aimed directly at you.

That said, I want to get more and more into writing about them and I could easily imagine many egalitarian Christians looking at me baffled and asking why I would bother at all. That in itself is not so much a problem; it’s great when people ask genuine questions. The difficulty I want to avoid is people saying things up front like, “Yeah, but we’re under grace now,” or “Moses was a misogynist.”

I have no problem sharing a high-five with anyone who believes women are equally as capable of leading as men are; I have no problem sitting with someone who believes that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law. But I don’t think egalitarians need to disregard the Old Testament, or the Torah (or those deeply uncomfortable Deuteronomy laws) in order to make their case.

Instead, I think the egalitarian standpoint (that’s the idea men and women might be different but are still equally capable of leadership) is stronger when it has an integrated understanding of the Old Testament, its stories and its laws. This is why I want to write about them.

So my ask is this: if you’re one of my allies, and you agree with what I have to say about consent etc, please don’t pile on with how the Old Testament is irrelevant or perverse. Continue reading To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Picture of large old fashioned luggage cases stacked on top of each other with the words: Handle with care: how to approach Mark 9:42-49 (the very graphic verses where Jesus talks about hell)

Handle with care: how to approach Mark 9:42-49

These are the very graphic verses where Jesus talks about …

…(content warning!)…

…cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye, and hell.

I want to talk about this. Not just to understand what the passage might mean but also because I think we should have a feel for how to approach these verses in the first place.

It’s not like they’re the only New Testament verses where Jesus uses this imagery; you’ll find similar in Matthew 5:29-30, right after the verse about how looking at a woman lustfully is adultery. The thing is, no one genuinely believes that men should pluck out their eyes after they lust. So, if we’re ever to going to get traction with the idea that men are responsible for how they look at women, then we also need to reckon with Mark 9:42-49.

What’s more, Mark’s account is longer and lays it on thick with references to the ‘worm that does not die’ and the ‘fire that is not quenched’. Out of the two then, Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ words is the more difficult to tackle.

OK, here goes. Continue reading Handle with care: how to approach Mark 9:42-49

Picture of wooden crucifix on a table with the words "I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday"

I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

So, last week I heard a man in paid ministry explain why Good Friday is good.

I took notes.

I knew in advance that he was an evangelical, so I guessed he’d be presenting a variant on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). In this post I’ll lay out what PSA is, what he said, what I said to him by way of challenge and other reasons why I felt the theology was problematic. In the next post, I’ll discuss the fallout, how that affected me, and what I make of the situation as a whole. Continue reading I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

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)"

Flesh: what Paul 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)