No Longer Strangers
The VOW Board is pleased to recommend the Horizon’s Bible Study 2002-2003, No Longer Strangers: A Study of the Letter to the Ephesians, by Kay E. Huggins with suggestions for leaders by Eugenia Phillips as a worth while and up-building study for the Church.
Some Care Needed With Words
The title of this study, No Longer Strangers, comes from the text of Ephesians itself and is the focal point for the author’s exposition of the text. In the way this language, as well as language such as, “CreatorRedeemerSustainer” language for God (P.5), “welcoming place to worship” (p. 30, sidebar), and “unity that cherishes diversity” (p.42), is used in this Bible study it is used well. However these words are loaded words in our denomination today and should always be heard cautiously to discern whether someone is investing them with the solid Biblical meaning they have, or if someone is using them to advocate for an un-biblical point of view. We cannot assume that when someone is talking about “welcoming” and “diversity” that they are using it in the biblical manner. In this way these words, and others like them can function as sheep’s wool costumes for the wolves of false teaching that tear apart the unity of the flock and leave devastation in their wake.
The author rightly makes the point that language is formative in the life of the church (cf. p.8, 28, and 58). That being the case, the definitions given for certain key words in this study merit careful consideration. On page 12, a definition for the Greek word “Sophia” in the sidebar equates Jesus Christ who is the creative Word of God himself with Sophia’ or wisdom.’ The difficulty with this understanding is portrayed clearly in the author’s discussion of “Wisdom” in item Number four on the same page: in Proverbs 8:22-3, Sophia’ or Wisdom’ is clearly a “creation.” She is the first of God’s creations, but a creation nonetheless. To understand Sophia’ as a reference to Jesus Christ himself is to ignore the essential Christian doctrine of the Son as eternally begotten of the Father, it is to equate Jesus with an attribute of God and not as a full, eternal, person of the Godhead.
The other definition worth mention is the one given for “Fornication” on page 54. To define fornication with the added connotation of “promiscuity” and “prostitution” is to invest this word with a narrower meaning than it truly has. Fornication primarily refers to adultery– any sex outside the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman. It does not imply “sex for hire” or “exploitation” Webster’s New World Dictionary is clear, fornication in its primary definition is “voluntary sexual intercourse” (p.549). To associate fornication strongly with “slavery,” “prostitution” and “exploitation” is a common tactic of those who would argue that loving, committed sexual expression, even outside the bonds of marriage, is a relationship accepted and encouraged by God.
The language used to describe family relationships in this study, such as, “partners” instead of spouses’ (p.3 sidebar), and the statement, “Family structures other than the traditional nuclear family are increasingly common and enrich the lives of family members” (p. 63 sidebar), are commonly used to serve an agenda that seeks to normalize the homosexual lifestyle and validate it as an alternative way of being a family. These are loaded words and concepts and should be carefully considered in their context.
Some Words That Are Missing
The words that are used are as important as those that are missing. In her discussion of Ephesians 2:1-10 where Paul makes some very strong statements regarding the state of human beings without God the author seems to do everything possible to avoid the word, “sin.” When evil is mentioned, it is as a component of, “any cultural environment” (p. 19) and not as that which resides in our own hearts. In her discussion of Paul’s phrase, “we were by nature children of wrath,” the author ignores the meaning of the phrase as a whole and instead speaks of children in chronological terms and how we are not to be wrathful with them. Paul is obviously not referring to his readers as children’ in the chronological sense but in the sense of their origin and inheritance. The author refuses to deal seriously with Paul’s description of our sinful state. She in fact denies that this is, “a divine word on our sinful human nature,” (p.22) which is exactly what it is. By avoiding a hard look at our sin, the author also does an end-run around grace, missing the opportunity to point out that this phrase, “we were by nature children of wrath,” is a strong past tense. How much more powerful her words about forgiveness and mercy would be if we had been made aware of how much we really need them.
Throughout the study there are many references to the “peace” and “unity” of the church, (cf. pp. 33 and 41); yet there is not one reference to the “purity” of the church. In a study for PC (USA) women who would be familiar with the triad of “peace, unity and purity of the church” presented in our ordination vows this is a glaring omission not necessitated by the text.
In conjunction with a careful use of some words and a careful avoidance of others, is the author’s treatment of the Word. Suggestions such as inviting readers to equate Ephesians with their own church newsletters (p.10), or that there was in fact a “school of Paul” (p.45 sidebar)something for which there is no evidence, or that the “household codes” in Ephesians 5 speak of the “cultural captivity of the church” and “meant that they could not see all that Christ intends”(p.63)implying that today we know better than the Bible, undermines the canonical authority of the Epistle by placing its authorship in doubt and treating it as you would any other piece of Church communication. Such comments seem inconsistent with the author’s clear and powerful statement at the top of page 20 which upholds the authority of Scripture, even the parts we do not like.
What Does It Mean To Be Reformed?
Linked with this somewhat anti-canonical approach to the Epistle is the author’s understanding of what it means to be Reformed. Certainly we are as noted in the sidebar on page 35, “perpetually reforming.” However, the author explains the cause of reform as our interactions with others who make us uncomfortablethose who rub us the wrong way,’ (p.27). In Reformed understanding it is the Word of God that pushes us to reform, not our experiences with other people.
Just as some of the words and definitions used in the study require careful discernment in their use, or non-use as the case may be, so also the comparisons that are drawn between the text and our own context need to be thought through. For instance, the implied comparison between traditional Christian teaching on the family and the fate of Muslim women in Afghanistan on page 60; is it really fair to compare Paul and subsequent church history to the Taliban?
Perhaps the most expected comparison and the most problematic in the whole study is the correlation the author draws between the Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s day and the Liberals and Conservatives as well as the fundamentalists and social activists of our own day (p.34). If the Jews and Gentiles are made one in Christ, then it stands to reason, according to the author, that liberals and conservatives are one in Christ and that fundamentalists and social activists are also one in Christ. However, these are not valid comparisons, they are illogical. Jews and Gentiles are well-defined, socio-economic, ethnic, and religious groups of people who are born into their station in life. Liberal and conservative are relative terms, a person is liberal or conservative based upon her relationship to any given referent outside herself. A person may be liberal in reference to one issue and conservative in relation to another. These relative categories, subject to change by the person’s own choice, cannot be equated with fixed racial-ethnic categories. It might also be pointed out that while Christ was the unifying point for Jewish and Gentile Christians who shared this “one Lord” and “one faith,” he is often the dividing point between liberal and conservative Christians. It is often one’s belief about the person of Christ that determines one’s place on the continuum between liberal and conservative.
The comparison the author attempts to draw between the Jew/Gentile situation and the fundamentalist and social activist is illogical because the dichotomy between fundamentalism and social activism is a false one. Many fundamentalists are social activists and many social activists are fundamentalists. Simply because a fundamentalist does not espouse the same cause as another activist does not mean she is not a social activist. In drawing this comparison, the author finds herself in the awkward position of having erected a dividing wall where she had hoped to assist in tearing one down. It is unfortunate that the author mentions only the particularly beautiful poetry of Ephesians 4:3-6. Had she wrestled with this passage as well as she had many others, perhaps she would have been able to draw more helpful comparisons to illustrate what it actually means in our day to confess, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” (Ephesians 4:5, NIV).
Study Challenging and Thought Provoking
While we do have some concerns about the aforementioned items, it is our pleasure to be able to recommend this study for use in the Church. Many board members found the majority of the questions and issues raised by this study to be challenging and thought provoking, relevant to the text and to our lives as Christians in a fallen world. We agreed that the “Suggestions for Leaders” that accompanied each section were some of the most helpful and impressive that Horizons has published. On the whole, the sidebars were full of useful information that adds to the understanding of the text. The pictures and prayers were characterized as moving’ and as a fine addition to the study. If we could make one more suggestion to leaders, it would be to use in conjunction with this study a good modern translation of John Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians. As was noted by the author, his work on Ephesians is widely considered some of his best. It may seem intimidating to read Calvin himself, but it is a tried and true principle that reading the original sources is always better than reading what someone else says about them, not to mention, it is almost always easier.
Easy To Use and Generally Faithful to the Text
Bible study leaders, who will find it clear and easy to use, will most likely receive this study with joy. The study is well written and for the most part faithful to the text. We admired the author’s willingness to wrestle with the difficult parts of the text and not simply skip over them. The teaching on marriage, as well as the author’s stress on the call of Christians to treat one another with kindness, to look at those with whom we disagree in Christ, her emphasis on salvation by grace alone, the cross, the community it creates, and both the immanence and the transcendence of God is to be commended. Also to be commended is her challenge to the church to consider the difficult subjects of domestic violence and racism in a biblical and relevant manner.
Sessions Must Review and Approve Curricula
The VOW board is of one mind that there is much to be gained by engaging one’s mind and heart fully in this study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As always, we uphold the responsibility of Pastors and Sessions to review and approve any curriculum used in their congregations. May the Lord bless your work and fellowship.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.