An Interview: Talking about God, Jesus and discovering truth

Yesterday evening I had the privilege of being interviewed By the Pneuma Hermenutics Group about Christadelphians, the Trinity and my own journey of faith and scriptural rediscovery. I was asked about how and why I came to change my views about God and Jesus. Although the interview ran a little more loosely than set out here, these are the questions and the answers which I prepared.

1. How did you become a Christadelphian?
My parents were Christadelphians and I was brought up in that denomination, going to Sunday School and youth group and attending the Sunday services, being part of the community. I was baptised when I was 17.

2. How did you view Jesus while you were a Christadelphian?
I subscribed to the Christadelphian view of the Godhead, which is that Jesus is fully human, the son of Mary by a miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit such that God was Jesus’ Father. This means denial that Joseph was the human father of Jesus. I believed Jesus was not God incarnate and did not pre-exist before his conception, except in the mind and purpose of the Father and was not the agent of creation (contra Jehovah’s Witnessess). Christadelphians believe that Jesus has only one nature, the human, however in some way that is never clearly articulated, he was empowered to be sinless as a result of also being God’s Son, but his accomplishment was essentially by his own effort.

3. What made you question Christadelphian beliefs?
I accepted the Christadelphian interpretation and the arguments against mainstream Trinitarian doctrine — or at least what was presented as Trinitarian doctrine. The arguments seemed very reasonable, and very scriptural, and it must be admitted, the whole Christadelphian doctrinal package is consistent within itself. That means if you question one part of the complex edifice, you have to question nearly all of it, which is difficult.
However, I became increasingly uneasy with the Christadelphian assertion that the church began to deviate from apostolic teaching almost immediately after the death of the apostles and that the apostasy persisted unchecked until the full truth was rediscovered in the mid 19th century by John Thomas, the Christadelphian founder. It seemed to me incredible that God would have allowed 1900 years’ worth of Christians to perish from false doctrine and that generations of sincere and educated seekers after truth, with a high view of scripture, could have been ignorant of the truth until this man came along with no particular gifted insight or Spirit inspiration and finally got it right. I became increasingly unconvinced by arguments that mainstream Christians were willfully ignorant, or biased by church authority and tradition, or simply didn’t read their Bibles enough, especially as I began to engage with the wider Christian community.

I began to question whether Christadelphians really had it right, whether we were the only ones who really read and understood Scripture free from traditional biases, and whether we were correctly representing the beliefs of mainstream Christians which we so vehemently rejected. That discomfort and curiosity led me to go to Bible College to learn more about mainstream doctrines and to study Scripture, original languages and church history in depth. This study, along with a lot of prayerful reading, led me to two conclusions.
Firstly, that the Christadelphian position arises from an inappropriate hermeneutic that leads to a downplaying of the role of Jesus in the biblical salvation narrative. Secondly, Christadelphians consistently misrepresent mainstream Trinitarian doctrine when they argue against it, which means they haven’t proved their case at all. When I began to understand how the whole Bible must be understood with the incarnation in a central and defining position, and understood what the Trinitarian concept of the Godhead actually was and where it came from, scripturally and historically, I adopted this position and rejected the Christadelphian position.

4. After starting to question Christadelphian beliefs, how long did it take you to come to a Trinitarian view of God, and how did it happen?
It didn’t happen quickly, and it was no easy decision. I think I had subliminally been questioning the premise of some beliefs, such as the exclusivity of having “the truth,” for a long time. When I had children of my own in my early 30s it really brought home to me the need to set them on the right path. As I mingled with more mainstream Christians particularly through the godly people I met at the girls’ school I began to see Christadelphianism in a different perspective. Eventually that led to me beginning Bible College, in my late 30s. I still remained in the Christadelphian community but felt increasingly on the outer. It is very hard to break free from communities like the Christadelphians because they provide such a solid community, long standing friendships and powerful loyalty ties. These are positive things, and I certainly did not experience the ostracism which some others have. Nevertheless, questioning of doctrines is not welcomed, although I resigned voluntarily well before the issue of disfellowship would have arisen. Family circumstances were such that we moved away from the community in which I had grown up and in hindsight this was a blessing. It relieved me of the pressure of defending still imperfectly formed beliefs whilst still in the community, and the potential for friction that would have caused. I had freedom to visit other churches and complete my studies. I was in my early 40s when I recommitted myself to the Lord with a genuine understanding of his person and work and formally resigned from the Christadelphians.

5. What role did Trinitarian Christians play in your conversion?
I believe that God was teaching me from his word, but he also brought me within the orbit of some wise and Godly Christians. What I respected most was a lack of aggressive argument; no one attacked me or tried to “convert” me, I was just gently and convincingly led to the truth. I was accepted into Bible College even though I was open about my background. I was there to learn, not to push my own ideas. I also associated with a number of very Godly people who taught by example and demonstrated how beautifully integrated their lives were with their doctrines. I felt ashamed of the arrogance with which I had formerly argued my Christadelphian position and the way I had looked down on those who thought differently. I learnt a tremendous amount from my Bible College tutors and by reading Christian authors such as Don Carson, John Stott, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem and Gerald Bray. I know that lot of people prayed for me and that was very encouraging. But ultimately, conversion is a work of God and I can look back and see his influence.

6. Which specific passages convinced you of the full ontological deity of Jesus Christ?
It’s difficult to narrow down; it was more a change in how I viewed Scripture and how I changed my hermeneutic from an Old Testament dominated, verse-by-verse approach to a more contextualised approach that identified the centrality of Christ as the foundation of the biblical message. I already had a good head knowledge of Scripture, but I had been looking at it entirely the wrong way. Surprisingly, the most convincing passages were not the key Trinitarian “proofs” that I had been schooled to refute, and had believed critical to demolishing the doctrine. A lot of it was seeing how the New Testament writers applied the Old Testament scriptures about God to Christ, as well as examining what Jesus said about himself and how astounding those claims which he makes are. For example, Hebrews 1 exalts the Son as God by quoting Old Testament referents to God as applicable to Christ. John 12:39–41 states that Isaiah’s vision of God in ch 6 was a vision of Christ. Jesus is worthy of worship, a prerogative of God alone throughout the Old Testament, the God who will not share his glory with another. Jesus takes up the names, descriptors and prerogatives of YHWH and when the promised Lord God shows up to redeem his people, it’s Jesus.

Another factor was looking at the New Testament in the original Greek and realising that key words and phrases actually conveyed different concepts from what I had previously thought. Examining the depth and breadth of Paul’s use of the title kyrios, Lord, was eye-opening, as was a consideration of the root of the “I AM” sayings in Isaiah. Another important aspect was understanding the essential link between Christ’s work and his person. When I understood the nature of the atonement and how essential it was for the incarnate Son to be our Saviour, everything fell into place.

7. How did this change in theological conviction affect your family life?
As a member of a couple of ex-Christadelphian discussion groups, I am aware that some people have had a very difficult time leaving the community, whether voluntarily or being excommunicated, and this has had a profoundly negative effect on their families. I have been very blessed in this respect, the experience was almost entirely positive. My mother remained a staunch Christadelphian (my father was already dead) and she was worried about me going to Bible College. She hoped I wouldn’t be led astray from what she deeply held to be “the truth.” She died before I really changed my core beliefs, so I never had a chance to properly articulate what I now believe, and why. I would have wanted her to read my book, and I am confident she would have done so. My children grew up learning the Bible and have fond memories of Christadelphian Sunday School. By the time they needed to be thinking more doctrinally, we had already changed our church affiliation. I think the effect on my family would have been significant if we had not happened to have moved interstate, or if the children had been old enough to appreciate the life-changing paradigm shift I was undergoing. I took care to shield them from that at the time, but am open about it now they are older. I still regard a number of Christadelphians as friends, but a lot of them have distanced themselves from me. Part of that is the tyranny of distance, but I think many of them feel threatened and they truly believe I have apostasised and that consequently my opinions aren’t worth considering.

8. What is your advice to those who doubt the deity of Christ?
Firstly, challenge your assumptions. If you belong to a non-mainstream denomination or sect, think hard about the reasonableness of your group being the only ones to have discovered “the truth.” Do you really think that the founders and leaders of your group have better scriptural insight, read the Bible more, or have some special giftedness or revelation that justifies such a major doctrinal difference with the mainstream church over the centuries? Do you really understand enough about how the doctrines you criticise were debated and articulated from the earliest days of the church, and how Christians have wrestled with understanding and explaining these concepts? Do you really think that all mainstream Christians through the ages rejected the Bible in favour of superstition? If so many wise and godly and knowledgeable scholars made such a fundamental mistake, could not your own founders and leaders have been fallible too? Be prepared to break out of your comfort zone.

Secondly, make sure that you actually correctly understand any doctrine, such as the Trinity, that you critique. Most Christadelphian material on the Trinity actually profoundly misrepresents the doctrine. It refutes something that is not the way the Trinity is actually understood, but more like Apollinarianism or Docetism. If you take the time to study the arguments for the Trinity as presented by Trinitarian theologians, not by other anti-trinitarians, you will notice the difference. It’s a courtesy to allow someone a fair hearing.

Thirdly, try to read the Scriptures afresh, asking different questions of the text than you are probably used to. We are told to exalt the Lord Jesus and honour him as we honour the Father (John 5:23). What does that look like? Read through the New Testament specifically looking for passages, in context, that exalt Jesus and that describe his relationship to the Father. Think about how radical they must have seemed to the first readers and therefore what the text is actually claiming. Look at the original context of Old Testament passages that are applied to Jesus in the New Testament, and see how they originally applied to YHWH God. Appreciate how Jesus fulfils all that God said he himself would do. When you read about the workings of the Holy Spirit, think about whether the best fit is someone personal, or an impersonal force.

9. What were the major obstacles that you had to overcome in order to accept the Trinitarian view of God, and how did you overcome them?
Interestingly, when I came to understand what the doctrine of the Trinity really expressed and not what I thought it did, the “problem” passages were no longer problematic. For example, great stress is laid on the humanity of Christ in Christadelphian circles. I used to think that this discounted Jesus being fully God, and that to believe the Trinity was to deny the full humanity of Christ, for which there is so much scriptural evidence. When I realised that the correct understanding of the Godhead and the person and work of Christ requires the full humanity of Christ, the problem simply went away. Similarly with coming to grips with the unity of the Godhead as being intrinsic to, and not adverse to, the correct understanding of the Trinity.

But I think, deep down, the hardest part was accepting that I had been wrong for much of my life, and that the tradition in which I had grown up, and the beliefs of people I still loved and respected were wrong. In our pride we tend to kick against that. Another difficult thing for Christadelphians, which I experienced, was the idea that to adopt the Trinity was to apostasise, to adopt all that was and had been wrong with “the church” throughout the ages. It was viewed akin to becoming a medieval Roman Catholic and believing in indulgences! That’s partly because there isn’t a very nuanced understanding among Christadelphians of differences in doctrine and practice in wider Christianity, they can all be lumped together as “Christendom Astray.” To make Christ equal to the Father was seen as blasphemous, a very serious doctrinal error, particularly for a group that insists that correct doctrine (in enormous detail) is essential for salvation. You can’t undertake such a change lightly. What helped me was a reliance on God to reveal his will to me through perseverance with the Scriptures, and accept his steady directing and enlightening. Seeing that Trinitarians loved the Bible, knew it well and handled it aright was important.

10. Which were the major passages that you once considered as a major challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity, and how do you think about them now?
Probably the main ones were those which can be taken to imply a sort of adoptionism, that the human Christ had to undergo a testing and proving of himself before exaltation (Acts 2:22, 36; 17:31; Rom 1:4; Heb 1:9). Also those that demonstrated the functional subordination of the Son which can so easily be misinterpreted as ontological inferiority (John 14:28; 1 Cor 11:3; John 7:16). If these passages are considered in isolation, and from a predetermined non-Trinitarian perspective, they can be very convincing. We can tend to overlook or downplay passages that testify to the Son’s supremacy, preexistence and ascriptions of deity, explaining them way or interpreting them metaphorically. For example, Christadelphians assert, Christ pre-existed only “in the mind and purpose of the Father” and he is only permitted to be worshipped as God now that he is exalted. When I realised that Scripture should not be treated that way, and that Scripture should be allowed to explain Scripture, not having to “explain away” certain passages, the troublesome passages could be seen in context as not troublesome at all. I want to stress that the hermeneutic is key in all of this. As I said before, other passages that Christadelphians think are challenging to the Trinity, such as God is one and Christ as fully human, actually do not challenge the doctrine, when it is correctly understood.

11. What role should church history play in our conviction about the Trinity?
This is a very important question. Christadelphians have a low view of the value of church history and remain largely ignorant of it. They selectively cite historical theological writings to demonstrate what they believe is a continual deviation from the second century away from apostolic doctrine and practice (for example, the succession of creeds). They at times cite other non-trinitarian historical groups as their predecessors, sometimes assuming that these groups thought the same as Christadelphians in all major doctrinal areas.
For me, church history was enlightening. I was struck by the consistency of belief, from the very earliest times, in the deity of Christ. I came to see how the theological development and the articulation of doctrine came about largely as a response to various needs and heresies within the church, and creeds must be interpreted in light of the purpose for which they were written. They are not meant to replace scripture Doctrinal statements and expositions need to be appraised in terms of their scriptural basis and the historical context of their development. For example, if it is understood that the phrasing of the Chalcedonian Definition is designed to counteract specific heresies, it can be rightly understood as defining boundaries, rather than promulgating a new “apostasy.” Also, Christadelphians should be wary of alleging continuity of doctrinal conviction with other groups, to bolster their theological position and underplay its uniqueness. It is important to know all there is to know about those other groups. For example, it was once common to find Christadelphians alleging great commonality of doctrine with the Anabaptists, but this has now been thoroughly debunked. But we should be careful not to fall into the trap of placing church tradition above scripture, and believing that a doctrine such as the Trinity must be true primarily because the church has always taught it.

12. Which were the least convincing arguments from the Trinitarian side?
The least convincing arguments were those that were based on wrong ideas about non-trinitarian views! It works both ways. If Trinitarians try to argue against a Christadelphian or Jehovah’s Witness position with simplistic verse-by-verse polemics and an inadequate or inaccurate understanding of the beliefs they try to combat, it is every bit as bad as non-trinitarians attacking an inaccurate doctrine of the Trinity. For example, insisting that all non-trinitarians must believe that Joseph was the natural father of Jesus is plain wrong; Christadelphians don’t believe that. The least convincing arguments for the Trinity are typically the most simplistic, decontextualised, proof-texting arguments, such as repeating Jesus’ claim that “My Father and I are One,” as if that’s all that needs to be said. Other non-convincing arguments, for me, were those that derived from weak analogies, or non-scriptural writings such as ancient philosophies or the mere opinions of church fathers.

13. What are the strongest passages that, when taken together, point to the truthfulness of the Doctrine of the Trinity?
You have to look at the whole package. Just proving Jesus is divine doesn’t prove the Trinity. The same verses could be used by Modalists or Adoptionists or Docetists. There are plenty of passages that testify to the divinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit specifically and individually. Taken alone these could be interpreted tritheistically. But put together with the assertions that God is one we have to have a model, if you like, that explains how God can be one and yet three. Obviously, one in a different sense from which he is three. That’s what Scripture teaches, and whether we label this doctrinal understanding as “Trinity” and use ancient terms like ousia and hypostasis, or whether we come up with different terminology, such as Richard Baukham’s “divine identity,” the combination is what Scripture teaches. We cannot sacrifice diversity and threeness to support unity, nor sacrifice unity to support threeness. When we understand these bases, then triadic formulae and the ease with which the ideas of “Lord God” and “Lord Jesus” become interchangeable become very powerful.

14. Why should we reject modalistic explanations?
Modalism attempts to uphold the oneness of God and the equality of Father, Son and Spirit by downplaying the distinctiveness of the three. It avoids the heresies of subordinationism and tritheism, but it blurs or obliterates the distinction between Father, Son and Spirit. Ironically, Christadelphians come close to modalism with their doctrine of “God Manifestation,” which sees the man Christ Jesus as manifesting the person of the Father, not a separate person of the Son. But the Father sent the Son. The Son submitted to the Father, the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit leads us to Christ, they glorify each other. The Bible never equates Jesus with the Father; yes they are one in the unity of the Godhead, but they are also distinct.

15. What is the connection between the Trinitarian view of God and the Gospel?
This is a really important connection and one which was life-changing for me. If we don’t correctly understand the person of Christ, we cannot correctly appreciate his work, and vice versa. If Jesus Christ is not God incarnate, then God used a third person, a mere human, to accomplish his saving work. God stands at arms length and salvation is a human accomplishment. Jesus becomes merely a representative of sinners rather than an effective substitute. He gets condemned and bears the punishment as a man among equals, although he did not deserve it. This becomes a cruel parody of atonement. God is portrayed as being appeased by a sacrificial victim, and his love becomes the result, not the cause, of the atonement.

However, if Jesus is God, then God himself has personally intervened in his wayward creation to redeem it. He bears our sins and their consequences in himself, exactly as Isaiah 53 explains. Only God could bear the sin of the world and propitiate his own wrath in this way. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. The Son became incarnate, took on real humanity so that he could overcome temptation and die, and in doing so destroy sin in the very flesh in which it usually reigned. Although Jesus had to be fully human, and he was, he also had to be God in order to truly defeat sin. No mere human could overcome temptation and never sin, and what achievements he had in this respect would necessarily be as a mere puppet, his human nature overridden, or a work of the flesh alone. There would be uncertainty as to whether a mere man could pull it off, unless he were fully coerced. Our salvation would depend on imitation of Christ’s perfection, on works, rather than as a free gift of grace. Whereas the Bible presents salvation as wholly an act of God, from beginning to end and in this lies the Christian’s assurance.

16. What is your advice to Trinitarian apologists who are interacting with Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-trinitarians?
Firstly, know your scriptures really thoroughly. You need to be able to think clearly and comprehensively and be able to argue from the whole of Scripture in an authentic and balanced way. Do not just rely on a “kit” of disconnected verses or proof texts. Address the larger metanarrative of Scripture, and keep the discussion in its scriptural context. If you present anything to a biblical monotheist or unitarian that is not thoroughly saturated with Scripture you won’t get past first base. They know their stuff.

Secondly, understand Christian doctrine thoroughly. Do not make the mistake of misrepresenting the doctrines, for example using modalistic analogies to explain the Trinity. When a non-trinitarian presents an anti-trinitarian argument, you must ensure they are not demolishing a “straw man,” an inaccurate version of the doctrine. Spot the error and be equipped to gently but firmly correct it.

Thirdly, understand the other person’s doctrinal position, thoroughly. Otherwise you will misrepresent them and argue against something different from what they actually believe. You need to read actual Christadelphian works to properly understand the Christadelphian position. You need to read Watchtower publications to understand the JWs’ position. Don’t just read what mainstream Christians say that Christadelphians or JWs or anyone else believe, because they often get it wrong. Use primary sources and make sure they are the best, most respected authorities from those denominations. Choose which arguments to focus on and don’t spread yourself too thinly by being distracted by a different doctrinal error if it crops up.

Fourthly, maintain a relationship of mutual respect. Assume that all those in the discussion want to love and honour God and value his word and show that you do too. Critique the doctrines, not the people. Find some common ground. This may mean being willing to use the JWs’ New World Translation when speaking with them, although you should have an understanding of its specific inaccuracies. Speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) — Burning heretics has never been the right approach!

Finally, and most importantly, remember that it is not we who “convert” others, it is God’s Holy Spirit, through his word. No one likes to consider they may be wrong. Our job is not to win the argument or force people to see their flaws in a way that belittles them. These arguments are not mere points of objective fact, they touch on the things that define our view of God and salvation, they define our very selves. To question people’s beliefs and encourage them to do so will seem to them initially like an invitation to apostasy. Rome is not built in a day. Our job is to present scriptural truth, to preach the Gospel, not to win the argument. And to win the person is the work of God, not our cleverness or conviction. At the end of the day, we are just God’s humble servants. The power and the glory are all his.

Holy, Holy, Holy

The holiness of God shines throughout scripture and we are called to be holy as he is holy. Like so many beautiful words and concepts, the idea of holiness has been corrupted to represent a sort of superiority, “holier than thou” which is remote from its true intent. The root meaning of “holy” is the idea of separateness and God is the ultimate in holiness. He is completely separate in nature from all created things, because he is the Creator. The Hebrew qadosh/qodesh and the Greek hagios mean “set apart.” Only God is truly holy, set apart from his creation. We cannot claim any holiness for ourselves. Only God can determine what or who is set apart for him. Because that is the issue; holiness is not just separating from anything, as if we were somehow intrinsically better or superior, but being set apart to and for God. When God declares something to be set apart to or for him, he makes it holy; he sanctifies (same root words). Only God can do this because he alone is truly holy.

God is holy, and the things he sets apart for himself are holy. In Genesis 2:3 God singled out the Sabbath day and made it holy. To mark its distinctiveness, he gave Israel laws designed to focus their minds and actions on him on that set-apart day. They were to do no routine work (Ex 20:8–10). Of course, this concept became corrupted over time by the Jewish elite so that the Sabbath became a burden, a list of restrictions, instead of a joyous setting apart to God (Luke 11:46; Matt 12:10–12). Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath for God, doing the Lord’s work on the Lord’s day. Only the Lord God himself could claim this prerogative, to define what could and could not be done and Jesus is indeed Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:11–8). The creation prerogative is his (Col 1:16). God made a “holy covenant” with Abraham and his descendants (Luke 1:72–73) and set them apart for himself (Ex 19:5–6). This was an act of grace, in no way reflecting anything special or intrinsically deserving on their part (Deut 7:6–8). He gave them his holy law (Rom 7:12).

God directed them to make a sanctuary, a holy dwelling place for his name, so that he might dwell among his people. This tabernacle, and later the temple, were symbols of greater heavenly realities (Ex 25:8–9; Acts 7:44; Heb 8:5). God did not need a temple to dwell in (1 Kings 8:27; Acts 7:48–50) nor was the temple an assembly hall for the people. Rather, only a chosen, set-apart few could draw near to God under that dispensation. God used the tabernacle to teach lessons about holiness. Uncleanness was to be kept outside the camp (Lev 13:46; Num 5:2–3; 31:17; Deut 23:10–14). The tribes were arranged according to election by God, with the Levites closest to the tabernacle itself (Num 1:51–53; 2). The congregation could come only to the door of the tabernacle compound and present themselves to the priest with their sacrifices (Lev 1:2–5). The courtyard contained the sacrificial altar and its furnishings were bronze. Only the priests could enter the tent itself and then only into the outer room, the Holy Place, for its ministries (Ex 28:41–43; Lev 6:16). The furnishings here were gold. No one other than a priest could enter here, and not just anyone could be a priest; they were appointed by God (Lev 10:1–10; 2 Chron 26:16–21). The Most Holy Place represented the very presence of God, who dwelt between the cherubim on the mercy seat. Only the High Priest could enter here, only once a year and only with sacrificial blood (Lev 16:1–4, 11–17; Heb 9:1–7). God prescribed how he could be approached, and there was no other way. All these rules and symbols were not ends in themselves. They were appointed because of sin. In the garden (of which the tabernacle and temple served as types) Adam and Eve walked with God in his very presence and this will be the case again when Eden is restored and we walk among the trees of life with God and the Lamb in the midst of his people (Rev 22:1-3). Our sins separate us from God and the tabernacle and its sacrificial rituals only served to emphasise this. They pointed to the final solution.

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Heb 9:6–12)

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb 9:22–26)

God himself entered into his creation to do what we could not do for ourselves (Isa 63:5; Rom 3:20–24). In our own strength and wretched attempts at holiness we could not approach a holy God. The curtain always stood in the way. Blood of bulls and goats pointed toward the sacrifice of Christ, whose blood paved the way permanently for entry to the Most Holy Place, into the presence of God himself (Matt 27:50–51; Heb 6:19–20; Heb 10:19–20). No longer are we forbidden to touch and partake of holy things because we have been sanctified by the blood of Jesus. The rules, “touch not, taste not” no longer apply (Col 2:20–23). We have no need to fear approaching the high and holy mountain upon which God dwells (Heb 12:18–24). We have been graciously given the pure hands and upright heart that is a requirement for entry to stand in his holy place (Psa 15:1–2). We are now enabled to worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness (Psa 65:4; 96:8–9).

Two things are important to understand here; firstly, Jesus and his work were in no way constrained by these Old Testament types, but rather they always pointed to him. Christ was always the meaning behind these rituals. Sacrificial blood was required as a covering, to temporarily sanctify, not because blood in general has some redeeming property, and not because God was no different from any other gods that required such rituals (1 Sam 15:22; Psa 40:6–8; 50:8–15; 51:16–17; Isa 66:3; Mic 6:7–8; Jer 31:31–34; Matt 9:13; Luke 22:18). Blood was required to teach us that only through Christ’s offering of himself, bearing our sins, could we truly be cleansed and sanctified.

The second thing to understand is that Christ himself was in no need of cleansing or sanctification. He is and was intrinsically holy (Psa 16:10; Mark 1:24; John 6:68–69; Acts 2:27, 31; 3:14; 4:27, 30; Rev 3:7). Isaiah saw a vision of the glory of God , with seraphim crying “Holy, holy, holy!” This vision of holiness and sanctification was, says John, a vision of the glory of Christ (Isa 6:1–7; John 12:41 — the link is Isa 6:9–10) with John 12:38–40). He came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3); truly flesh and blood, yes, but not in any respect sinful. He was holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners (Heb 7:26). Jesus was and is intrinsically holy because he is divine. Only God is holy, only God can make holy; Jesus sanctifies (makes holy) us because he is holy (1 Cor 1:2, 30; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 1:4; 2:20–22; 5:26; Col 1:21–22; Heb 2:11; 9:14; 10:10, 14; 13:12; 1 Pet 2:5).

Haggai 2:12–13 explains a point of the old Law, that uncleanness was contagious but cleanness or holiness was not. Something unclean could not be the means of sanctification. Something secondarily made holy, such as Haggai’s “holy meat” cannot make anything else holy. Sanctification can only come from God; our own righteousness is as filthy rags; we need the righteousness from God through faith in Christ Jesus. Jesus could not have accomplished this without himself being holy. Otherwise, when he touched lepers and the woman with the issue of blood, he himself would have been unclean along with them. The Pharisees looked down on Jesus for consorting with unclean, sinful people and for disregarding the many rules about ritual cleanliness (Matt 9:10–13; 15:17–20). Jesus explained in response that he was a doctor come to heal the sick and that defilement comes from within, not from without. Jesus transcends external uncleanness, he enters into and cleanses the heart, just as God promised he would do through his new covenant. He enables us dirty sinners to be holy also and to draw near to our holy God. What God has cleansed must not be called common or unclean (Acts 10:13–16, 34–35).

There is a lot more that could be said about holiness, but three things stand out from this brief survey; what holiness teaches us about the Lord Jesus, about his work and about us. The Lord Jesus, like his Father and the Spirit, are perfect in holiness, as Creator separate from creation, in divinity wholly “other.” In this aspect as in so many others, the Son shares the attributes of his Father. The person of the Son is inextricably connected with his work. Being holy he can sanctify; if he were only “made holy” this would not be possible. Because he is holy he could enter the Most Holy Place and achieve our sanctification, once for all. This should give the Christian tremendous assurance, because our salvation depends not on human accomplishment or repeated ritual but on the gracious action of God who desires to dwell with his people. Finally, through his Holy Spirit, Christ continues the work of sanctification which will one day be complete when we will worship him in the splendour of holiness and dwell with him. We should be reminded that we can call no one common or unclean, nor should we have any attitude of superiority to others who do not live up to our human rules about “holiness,” or inspire a culture of shame or exclusiveness. For salvation and sanctification are not of works, lest anyone should boast, but wholly a work of God.


The Apostle Paul sings of the supremacy of Christ in Colossians 1:15–20.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

This is probably an ancient Christian poem or hymn of the exaltation and supremacy of Christ of which there are a number in the New Testament, such as Philippians 2:6–11. The middle part of the Colossians poem provides the theme; “he is before all things and in him all things hold together.” Notice how many times the phrase ta panta, “all things” is repeated. Nothing is omitted. Christ is Lord over the whole creation and over the church. He is the image of the invisible God and all God’s fullness dwells in him. In everything he is preeminent; the verb is proteuo, to have first place.

What does it mean to say Christ is the firstborn? It might be thought to mean Jesus is a creation of the Father, that he had a beginning. But that is incorrect, for a number of reasons. Firstly, creation itself is attributed to Christ As we see in the very next verse; he is the firstborn of all creation because  by him all things were created — through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. The word for firstborn, prototokos, is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the eldest son who held the family birthright, as well as to Jesus being the firstborn son of Mary. In its most literal sense it refers to birth order, but it also carried the meaning of the special status accorded the firstborn son. The firstborn received a double portion of his father’s goods, and a special blessing (Deut 21:17; Gen 25:29–34; 27:35–37). Nearly all firstborn sons in the Old Testament were disappointments, and often their younger brothers took on the responsibilities and received the spiritual inheritance that were their due. The only “firstborn” who truly deserved the rights of the firstborn was Jesus. The term firstborn can be used to refer to status, for example David is appointed firstborn in Psa 89:27 even though he was neither the eldest of Jesse’s sons nor the first king of Israel. This is why God can claim Israel (Exod 4:22) the Levites (Num 8:18) and Ephraim (Jer 31:9) are all his firstborn sons, without contradiction. To call Jesus the firstborn is a comment on his status and his supremacy, not his origin, and cannot be used to definitively support a unitarian position. This Colossians hymn emphasises Christ’s supremacy over and separateness from, creation and his participation in God’s rule. God is distinguished from “all things” and rules over “all things” because he created them (Isa 44:24; Rom 11:36) and the same is attributed to Christ (Matt 11:27; John 1:3; 3:35; 13:3; Eph 1:10, 22; 4:10; Col 1:16–20; Heb 1:2–14).

There are many other passages in scripture where Jesus’s superiority is noted. He is superior to all people and even to angels (Heb 1:5, 13; 2:5–8) in fact the angels are to worship him. This worship was not reserved for his exaltation following his resurrection, but when the Son first came into the world. Jesus’ superiority was evident during his earthly ministry, prior to his resurrection and exaltation. He was spoken of as greater than John the Baptist, Jonah, David, Solomon, the disciples, Adam, Moses, Melchizedek and the Levitical priesthood. Jesus could speak with supreme authority of heavenly things, because he spoke from direct experience (John 1:14–18; 6:51, 57–58; 8:26–28; 14:9–10).

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.” (John 3:31–32).

The Son, being God, nevertheless humbled himself in his incarnation, not grasping at his place on the throne, but taking on the form of a servant, being born as a man (Phil 2:6–11). Nevertheless, he had tremendous authority whilst on earth. He referred to the angels and the kingdom of God as his (Matt 13:41; Luke 12:8–9; 15:10). He had the prerogative to forgive sins, which belongs to God alone (Mark 2:5–12) and the prerogative to judge the world (Matt 25:31–46). He directed people to believe in himself in order to be saved (John 14:1) knowing that YHWH alone is Saviour (Isa 45:19). He was Lord over the divinely instituted Sabbath (Matt 12:8) and claimed a unique relationship with the Father (John 10:30). He spoke with the authority of the divine Word (Matt 5:21–22, 27-28) and claimed that his words, unlike heaven and earth, would not pass away (Matt 24:35; Isa 40:8). He claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only way to God and the only one who could reveal God (John 14:6; Matt 11:27). He exhorted the disciples to believe in him as they believe in God (John 14:1). He not only claimed the power of life and death but claimed to be the resurrection and the life (John 11:25; 20:31; Acts 3:15). The man Christ Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, the Word made flesh, God with us, had authority on earth which had never before been ascribed to anyone but God. And yet after his resurrection Jesus could claim even more; he could claim all authority in heaven and on earth:

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’” (Matt 28:18–19).

This claim to all-encompassing authority is rightly linked with his declaration that the Son shares the name of Father and Holy Spirit. He ranks together with them as Lord and God over all, and in this ultimate authority he gives his great commission. He humbled himself (Phil 2:6–11), and was to be exalted once again, to return “where he was before” (John 6:62) and take his place at his Father’s right hand, sharing his very throne (Heb 1; Rev 21:3–6). As the Philippians hymn fittingly scribes to him “the highest place,” it also quotes the direct ascription of the name above every name, the name of God, which is also Jesus’ name, that at this name every knee will bow (Isa 45:21–23) and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. This is to the glory of God the Father, whose glory he shares (John 12:41; 13:31–32; 17:5; Heb 1:3; Rev 5:13 c.f. Isa 42:8).

There is no inconsistency in the Father glorifying the Son and the Son glorifying the Father, because to glorify the one is to bring glory to the other. Whilst on earth, Jesus set aside his own glory in that he did not directly seek it (John 8:54–58). Instead, he drew the eyes of all to the glory of the Father. That’s why Paul referred to his example of humbling in Philippians 2:5. Jesus spoke of the cross as his glorification (John 13:31–32). He showed all humanity what it was like to live humbly before God and to glorify him in word and deed, even to death of the cross (John 17:4–8). Therefore it was fitting that when he had accomplished all things he would return to the glory he had with the Father before the world began. Nevertheless, even as Jesus walked among us as a fully human person, his glory was not completely hidden; “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth,” because “grace and truth came” through Jesus, and these characteristics of God manifest his glory (John 1:14, 17; Ex 33:18–19). “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2Cor 4:6 ).

Therefore, all must honour the Son, even as they honour the Father (John 5:23). What an awesome imperative! This is why Jesus was and is worthy of worship, in his incarnate life on earth and now and forever. In the work of creation, and in the renewal and redemption of that creation, Christ is central. All things were created by him and for him (Col 1:16) and he is the agent and heir of God’s work (1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:2). Christ is the conduit for every spiritual blessing; God chose us in him and predestined us to adoption through him. Through him we have grace and redemption; in him we were chosen. The mystery of God’s will, which he purposed in Christ, is to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ (Eph 1:3–12).

If Christ is not God, if he does not share in the Father’s unique divinity, separate from creation, we would have a tremendous contradiction. Christ addressed as Lord and God, Christ having the very name above all names (there’s can’t be a higher one, can there?), Christ sharing the throne of God and all his prerogatives, including being worshiped, glorified and honoured as God… how can this be possible for a mere human being? This is not to deny the true humanity of Christ as something he took on in the incarnation, but to rightfully attribute to Christ what is his and has been since before the world began. How can the complete supremacy of Christ possibly sit with a God who proclaims he alone is God, he alone is Creator, he alone is to be worshipped, and who will not share his glory with another unless that other is also of the Godhead? Yes, God is one, Scripture mightily and unequivocally testifies to this; there is no other Being in the universe or outside of it who can be called “God.” This divinity, this “God-ness” is what Father, Son and Holy Spirit share, and along with it a shared glory and a shared honour.

To deny this, to claim, against the scriptural evidence, that Christ was not just truly human but merely human (and there is a difference) is to dishonour the Son and the Father. Consider the consequences of the denial of the supremacy of Christ; it makes God a liar. Yet as soon as someone attempts to strip Jesus of his divinity, his preexistence, his involvement in creation, his sharing the attributes of God, they attempt to strip him of the glory, honour and supremacy that his rightfully and intrinsically his, and negate God’s testimony. Tell me, anyone who thinks it appropriate to take anything away from Christ; how can you possibly imagine this would glorify God?


I am not a Jehovah’s Witness. I know a bit about the Witnesses, particularly their neo-Arian, non-Trinitarian beliefs. As a Christadelphian, I was taught  to “side” with the Witnesses on certain points of agreement, but to roundly condemn them on other points. It was convenient to draw alongside them in their anti-Trinitarian stance, even to uphold (very selectively) their writings and interpretations. But we would equally write polemics against their acknowledgement of Christ’s pre-existence, and other doctrines, such as the devil. Christadelphians have held their exegesis of John 1:1–2 as authoritative, but condemn them roundly for their predictions about the timing of the second coming and their adjustments to prophetic interpretation when it didn’t eventuate — whilst justifying similar mistakes from the Christadelphian “pioneers.” Both Christadelphians and Witnesses are conscientious objectors and faced condemnation, ostracism and even imprisonment for those beliefs in wartime. Both groups can behave in a sect-like way, very insulated, with strong family associations, a belief that they alone have “the Truth” and varying degrees of ostracism and discipline of non-conformists or those members who wish to leave. Both groups are regarded as non-Christians or “sects” by many mainstream Christians.

How then should Christians respond to ridicule, discrimination and persecution directed at such groups? On April 20th, Russia’s Supreme Court accepted the government’s request to designate Jehovah’s Witnesses as an outlawed religious group, deeming it to be an extremist organisation. The denomination has effectively been criminalised. Witnesses can no longer gather at Kingdom Halls, which are to be confiscated, nor distribute literature. This is the culmination of years of low-level harassment and uses a 2002 anti-“extremism” law designed to respond to violent religious extremism, as the basis for attack on a non-violent religious group. [1]

This is nothing new. Many countries have taken a stance against Witnesses, particularly as conscientious objectors in the two World Wars, even in the “enlightened” West. The Nazis persecuted JWs, forcing them to wear a purple triangle and sent them to concentration camps, executing some. [2]  Russia has a record of persecution of these and other religious outliers, particularly under Stalin. What is additionally horrifying about this State-sponsored persecution is that the Russian Orthodox Church supports it, despite its own tragic history of suffering under communism.

In America, the UK and Australia, the general populace probably knows very little about what JWs believe and stand for, apart from door-knocking and pushing pamphlets, and maybe for refusing blood transfusions. In a pluralistic, secular society this breeds mockery and verbal abuse rather than much overt discrimination or persecution. They’re just some relatively harmless, crackpot end-of-the-world sect who want to force their beliefs on others. The popular press and tabloids lap up “I escaped the JWs” and “How the JWs Destroyed my Family” stories. But dangerous extremists? As Andrew Brown wrote in The Guardian, [3]

Their persecution around the world is a horrible testament to the relish we take in the bullying of small, alien and defenceless groups. In Russia it is yet another testimony to the ruthless and brutal dishonesty of the Putin regime. All authoritarian regimes loathe minority religions, perhaps because religious groupings are one of the most powerful ways of imagining a world that might be different.”

Brown rightly points out that the issue at stake is not whether the doctrines and practices of the Witnesses are wrong; “Freedom of religion means freedom to be wrong or it means nothing at all.” Russia claims to honour freedom of religion, as do western democracies, but too often the way it works out is that “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.” In Russia, the JWs stand for things that clash with the state’s values and that of the increasingly influential Russian Orthodox church. Here in Australia the JWs’ and the Christadelphians’ values and beliefs clash with secular pluralism and the intolerance of intolerance, as well as finding few friends in mainstream Christian denominations.

Ironically, given the current Christian and wider religious and political discussion about “martyrdom,” we may need reminding that the biblical Greek word for “witness” is martys. It originally simply meant “witness,” and referred to legal witnesses, false witnesses, God, Israel, John the Baptist, the apostles and Jesus himself. The term “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was appropriated from Isaiah 43:8. In the early church, those who confessed their faith and were willing to die for it were “witnesses,” but eventually the word came to mean specifically one who died for the faith. Martyrs became venerated and an unhealthy cult of martyr worship grew up. Today, a distinction has been drawn between those persecuted for their faith who die for it or die for others (such as the Coptic Christians and their protectors killed by ISIS) and so-called martyrs such as suicide bombers who murder others and themselves, ostensibly for a “religious” cause. Jehovah’s witnesses are about as far from violent religious extremists as you can get. They are pacifists and historically have always refused to take up arms to defend their own cause, or that of the states in which they reside.

Public opinion is very fickle about conscientious objection and non-mainstream churches. When a country is at war, pacifist groups tend to be looked on as traitors and cowards. They are ridiculed, publicly shamed and may face prosecutions, as happened in so-called religiously free countries during the world wars. But in an oppressive or totalitarian state such as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s (and Putin’s?) Russia this is treason. Stubborn resistance to joining the Nazis or even performing the Hitler salute saw about a quarter of Germany’s JWs killed and about half imprisoned by the end of WWII. In the present climate, the same right wing Christians who call for Muslim bans and restrictions on immigrants lament the demise of Christianity as a public and political force and rejoice that the church is being granted more political clout under President Trump. The American right wing evangelical church seems to have forgotten the lessons of early Christianity. When the early church moved from being a persecuted minority to a power broker the result was not uniformly good. The “Christian” empire was significantly less tolerant than its pagan predecessor and instituted greater and more systematic persecutions against dissenters within its borders.

Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church, with its resurgence of power and influence with the current government, may have also forgotten what it was like to be persecuted and has now, like the old imperial church, become the persecutor. The Russian Church called Jehovah’s Witnesses a dangerous sect and supported its ban in the Russian federation.

This is a sect that is both totalitarian and harmful,” stated Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Ilarion, on the Russian program “Church and World.” The Witnesses approach people with their literature, presenting themselves as a Christian organisation, but they manipulate the mind and “destroy the psyche of people and the family.” They “distort the teaching of Christ and interpret the New Testament incorrectly… Their doctrine contains a multitude of false teachings. They do not believe in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, they do not acknowledge the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and therefore they cannot in any way be called Christian.”[4]

Many mainstream Christians and perhaps some ex-Witnesses would agree with this assessment, but does that justify persecution? Should we be concerned that a strong branch of the Christian church promotes eradication of one it views as heretical? Have we not learned from the horrible errors of the past? If the state or the mainstream church is indeed right, why the need to destroy those who disagree?

Recently, many people who might not have thought very much about religious minorities, persecution or conscientious objection have been (rightly) moved by the portrayal of Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector hero Desmond Doss in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. Doss’ story teaches, among other things, that conscientious objection does not equate to cowardice, but usually requires greater bravery, conviction and fortitude than going with the flow. The point I want to make is that we either stand for freedom of religion or we side with the persecutors (Luke 9:49-50). We cannot, without sacrificing moral integrity, take a stance that says, “well, the JWs aren’t really Christians. What do they expect if they promulgate their weird, non-biblical ideas?” Or, “I want religious freedom for Christians like me, but not for non-Christians.” The issue of whether Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Christadelphians, or Mormons, or Seventh Day Adventists or monophysite Copts are theologically incorrect is completely separate to the respect and toleration which they should be afforded as human beings  and people who honour the Bible. Christians (in the widest sense) are the most persecuted religion today, worldwide. The evidence for this is readily available and it is compelling.[5] Islamic states feature prominently on the World Watch list but so do secular states like North Korea and China where political ideology is a potent, essentially quasi-religious force. Persecution is persecution; it is ungodly and we have no right to usurp God’s judgement and condone it in any form (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:17–21; Mark 9:38–41; Matt 6:1–5; 1 Cor 5:10–11; Eph 4:14–15).

Why are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, specifically, disliked and persecuted?  Mainstream Christians tend to disown groups like JWs primarily because they are non-Trinitarian. Unitarians, Christadelphians and others likewise are regarded somewhere on a spectrum from non-mainstream but essentially Christian, to heretical sects who are not really Christian at all. Regardless of how much issue mainstream Christians take with these groups’ beliefs, it is not a Christian response to endorse discrimination or persecution against them. We are to “speak the truth in love,” teach, admonish and engage with them from the scriptures (Acts 17:11). We have nothing to fear from them; I venture that in nearly all cases it will be the JWs or Christadelphians that will dismiss those overtures and want to distance themselves from the false doctrines and practices of Christendom.

The second reason for persecution of minority denominations is that a state or society might want to suppress Christianity in general. In North Korea it is illegal to possess a Bible. In a number of nations the penalty for a Muslim converting to mainstream protestant Christianity or to the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be the same; ostracism and potentially death. Smaller denominations that do not rate as much priority on the international stage may not engender as much support. The mainstream churches might tend to channel their efforts into persecuted mainstream denominations, leaving it to secular human rights groups to notice the problem with outliers and spring to their defence.

The third reason for persecution of Witnesses and others is that such groups do not match up with the prevailing religious or political ideology. The Nazis did not persecute all Christians. Hitler wooed the German church and, with varying degrees of complicity many Protestant and Catholic churches, to their shame, joined in the acclaim of the Nazis as those who would save Germany and restore its greatness. For various reasons, they subscribed to the lie that the Jews, who killed Christ, were the cause of all evil in the country. This may be similar to the Russian Orthodox’s attitude toward JWs, Baptists and even Roman Catholics. Not all Christians went along with Nazism, of course; many protected Jews and stood up for them. The Confessing Church under leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer were opposed to Nazism. Christians today must be careful not to seek political power and join in political or other ideologies that isolate, discriminate against or demonise other denominations or religions, or that support policies that disadvantage the less powerful, regardless of whether they are foreigners or in some way “not like us.”

In Russia today, not all Christians are persecuted. Russia is not on the 2017 World Watch List of the top 50 persecutors of Christians. Nevertheless some Protestant denominations face degrees of persecution as result of the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the State. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been singled out, as they have in Russia and in other countries over the years. The official position is that “the Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . under the cover of religion establish extensive governing structures which they use for gathering socio-political, economic, military, and other information about ongoing events in Russia, indoctrinate the citizens and incite separatist tendencies.” “This kind of paranoia and religious discrimination has also affected, to a lesser degree, other ‘non-historically Russian’ minorities such as Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, and Pentecostals as well as Orthodox schismatics and some Muslim groups,” according to National Review.[1]

Why might the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings and practices be seen as so offensive and extremist, and a challenge to the mighty Russian State? I have, obviously, not read any of the Russian Witness literature that has specifically offended, but given that all JW literature is produced by the Watchtower Society it is probably essentially the same as available in other countries. I don’t know how much Vladimir Putin cares about the doctrine of the Trinity, but apart from appeasement of the Orthodox church, it would seem the Russians would take most offence at the apolitical stance and eschatological doctrines of the JWs as well as their tendency to argue that other churches’ teachings are false. The JWs are 170,000 Russians who don’t vote, won’t serve in the military and refuse to attend national celebrations that arguably glorify violence. They could be interpreted as having pro-Western sympathies, since the JWs are based in the United States. The JWs believe that their faith is the one true faith, and will actively promulgate that. Other groups such as the Christadelphians have also claimed a more or less exclusive commitment to “the Truth.” This would presumably antagonise the Orthodox church, especially if its beliefs and practices were publicly denounced.

The Witnesses, along with other Millennialist groups, promulgate the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the worldwide kingdom of Christ who will reign for a thousand years. This was one of the Nazis’ objections because it posited an alternative thousand year reich. It is possible that some of the “subversive and extremist” literature referred to Russia as Gog, the enemy army against God (Ezek 38–39). The JWs do not participate in specific anti-government activities but they are not pro-government, either. Their agenda is other-worldly. They would refuse to take up arms in defence of the Russian State. They actively proselytise, which implies a subversive, underground sort of influence on the minds of others — from an “American” religious society at that.

Although JWs’ beliefs differ from those of early orthodox Christianity, their situation and their stance in relation to personal moral behaviour and their interaction with the state is very similar to that of the early Christians. People distrust groups who are exclusive and who are different and who could be interpreted as feeling superior in their beliefs and practices. The early Christians were disliked and distrusted for their refusal to participate in arena games and spectacles, social activities and festivals, to worship in the state religion, and were the subject of rumours about evil and immoral practices.[6] They were persecuted for the name they bore. Perhaps the JWs have been tactless and undiplomatic in their views of other churches and their beliefs. Perhaps they are overly dogmatic on issues which other Christian denominations would consider to be of little importance. Perhaps, in terms of worldly wisdom, they have picked the wrong hill to die on, emphasising beliefs which are not at the core of the gospel, some of which only attract ridicule and condemnation. But surely, the appropriate response from the church is rational engagement? (2 Tim 3:1-5) Surely it is never coercion or persecution, attempts to shut down the voices of those who hold different opinions? Both churches and states have made that mistake in the past.

Tertullian, the great third century Latin Christian thinker, wrote “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion — to which free will and not force should lead us.” [7] The humanist Voltaire, who had no love for religion, famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

God is the judge of our hearts, our beliefs, our practices (1 Cor 4:5; James 4:12; Rev 2:21). We should not neglect the plight of the JWs, regardless of our opinion on their teachings. In the twenty-first century, when religious freedom is under attack, not only from totalitarian states and fundamentalist religious views, or from secular ridicule and distrust of the mingling of politics and religion, when intolerance of “intolerance” is the new “tolerance,” and Christianity appears to be losing the moral high ground in society, now more than ever we have to get this right. I pray that political, secular and religious institutions will condemn this human rights abuse, and others throughout the world which persecute people for their faith. I pray that the JWs will see beyond the indoctrination of their denomination and come to appreciate the gospel as they read the Bible with an open mind. I pray that Christians will not despise or condone or ignore persecution of denominations that do not share mainstream beliefs but rather teach the truth in love and speak and demonstrate what the gospel truly is. I pray that God will restrain this evil and others like it and that no Christian will gullibly, unwittingly or deliberately be a part of it. For ultimately, if faced with a gun at your head or a torch to your house, or Siberian exile or imprisonment, and the demand to know whether you are a follower of Christ or not, there can only be one answer. And most of all I pray the subversive prayer of a believer – that Christ is the rightful ruler of the world, who one day will return and displace every rule, authority and power.


Ruth Sutcliffe is currently studying for a PhD on the topic of the theology of early Christian persecution.


  2. Julie A. Klein, Faith on Trial: Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses in North Rhine-Westphalia during the Third Reich. MA thesis,
    Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 2016.
  5. See Open Doors and their World Watch List also Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013) and John Allen Jnr, The Global War on Christians (New York: Image, 2013).
  6. Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them 2nd ed. (Yale: UP, 2003).
  7. Tertullian, (Ad Scapulam, 2.2-3)

Pear-shaped Exegesis

“The New is in the Old concealed, and in the New, the Old revealed,” claimed the fifth century theologian Augustine of Hippo,[1] and he was right. Jesus Christ permeates the Old Testament from start to finish, as Jesus himself explained. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The Scriptures “bear witness about me,” (John 5:39). Time and time again the Gospel writers narrate, or Jesus states, that “the Scriptures must be fulfilled,” and “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). The apostles taught people about Jesus “from the Scriptures,” (Acts 8:35; 18:28) and these “scriptures” are the (Greek) Old Testament. There was no “New Testament” at that time, for the documents which came to be acknowledged as new scriptures were still being written. The Old Testament contained the seeds of the gospel, and the apostles could explain who Jesus was, from its writings. “And Paul… reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2–3).

Jesus is the seed of the woman who would strike the serpent’s head, the ark, the Lamb which God would provide, the promised son, the Passover lamb, the whole burnt offering, the High Priest, the serpent on the pole, the leader into the promised land, the kinsman-redeemer, the true king in the line of David, the Shepherd of Israel, the suffering servant, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Judge of all the earth, the Messenger of the covenant; God’s anointed, Immanuel God with us; the Saviour, who is Christ — the LORD. Jesus, who came from above, is above all (John 3:31–32). He is the image of God, all things were created by him, through him and for him, he is before all things and in him all things hold together, in everything preeminent (Col 1:15–19). Jesus is and always has been central to everything God has done and will do with creation. The Son is the means by which God created, and the means by which God redeemed that same creation and by whom God will indwell it.

But it wasn’t until Jesus had died and risen, completing his great redeeming act and sending his Spirit to his apostles, that the whole picture came together (John 15:26; 16:12–13). As Augustine said, the gospel was “concealed” (“latent”) within the Old Testament scriptures. It was there in types and shadows, in things the prophets and even the angels did not fully understand but which have now been revealed (1 Peter 1:10–12). It was not until the coming of the Son that the cornerstone of the building, the centrepiece of the great puzzle, was put in place. The treatise to the Hebrews on the incomparable greatness of the Son, surpassing angels, Moses, the Law and every other Old Testament type, opens with a statement of the final and complete revelation of God: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1–2).

Until the advent of Jesus, the Old Testament could not be fully understood. Certainly, it told us a lot about ourselves and about God. It explains that God created us and how we fell into sin. It presents God as holy and righteous and emphasises our unworthiness to approach him. God established a covenant through his grace with a man whose descendants would become a great nation and from whom would come the Saviour. He redeemed that man’s descendants and chose them as his special people and gave them a Law by which there could be an exemplary theocracy on earth. When his people failed him, God chastised them and gave more and more clues to the final solution, a true King, prophet and priest who would bring the ultimate redemption and enable his spiritual people to be part of a world-wide and eternal kingdom. As the Old Testament saga unfolded, more and more was revealed about this great plan and the central figure, Jesus. For centuries the faithful in Israel looked for the direct intervention of God — and he finally came in the person of Jesus Christ. It was a progressive revelation. Abraham knew more about the promised son than Eve did. Moses had more detail on sacrifice and holiness than Abraham. King David understood more about his great Descendant than Abraham did. Isaiah filled out the awesome nature of the servant’s sacrifice. But until Jesus was revealed, these were just pieces of an incomplete puzzle. Only through Christ is God more fully known as Father, and as Son and as Holy Spirit. Benjamin B. Warfield expressed this in an apt metaphor:

The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted: the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what was in it but was only dimly or not at all perceived before… Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but is only perfected, extended and enlarged.” [2]

This picture is helpful because, on the one hand it upholds the inspired Old Testament as equally the Word of God, but at the same time puts it in perspective. We can learn a lot about God from the Old Testament, but not the whole story. The Bible uses the “fulfill” to encapsulate how the New Testament supersedes the Old, without contradicting or negating it. Consistently, the New Testament claims that Jesus and his work “fulfills” the Old Testament Scriptures. In English the word means to “fill fully,” in other words, to fill to the top, to complete what is lacking. The Hebrew words male and kalah and the Greek pleroo, teleo and their cognates mean the same; completeness and finishing. The Old Testament message is not a contradiction; it is incomplete. It becomes more complete as it journeys from Genesis to Malachi, but it remains incomplete until filled to the brim by Christ. That’s why Jesus was able to chide the disciples on the one hand for not understanding everything the Scriptures had said, but also to explain that he had come to more fully reveal the Father and fulfill (complete) all that was written. This concept also gives the lie to those who would force a dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments, between the supposedly wrathful and legalistic YHWH of Israel and the loving Father of Jesus Christ. It is only when we understand that the Old Testament is incomplete, not erroneous or contradictory in its message, that we can begin to understand its relationship to Christ and how the New Testament writers used the Scriptures.

There are two exegetical errors that can be made, and plenty of historical and contemporary examples of their making. Firstly, the Old Testament could be discounted, written off as contradictory or erroneous. The second century heretic Marcion did that; he posited that the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ was a different God from YHWH of the Old Testament and literally tore the Old Testament and every taint of “Jewishness” out of the Bible, accepting only an edited version of Luke and most of Paul’s letters. Early theologians [3]  vigorously opposed Marcion, yet they also struggled with how to reconcile apparent contradictions between, say, the massacre of the Canaanites, and the God of love and mercy. One recourse was to allegory. Origen of Alexandria was (in)famous for his allegorising passages which seemed difficult in their literal sense, such as the battles of Israel. Whatever one’s knowledge and opinion of early Christian exegetical strategies, one thing is clear; they treated the text itself as revelation, a Christ-centred unity. For them, Jesus Christ is the basis for right reading of all of Scripture.[4] If I may add an analogy of my own; Scripture is like a delicious, ripe orange. When sliced open its structure is revealed to be radial; each segment is oriented centrally, radiating outward and contained within a whole. Jesus Christ is not one slice among many, whereas portions of the Bible are. Jesus Christ is the whole, complete package, its radial arrangement. In a much misunderstood passage (Gal 3:24–25), Paul explains that the Law was a paidagogos, that leads us to Christ. The KJV unhelpfully translates this word as “schoolmaster,” implying that the Law is a teacher, and we can frame our understanding of God quite specifically through its precepts. That’s not what the word means, and it’s not what Paul is saying. The paidagogos (literally, child-leader) was a slave entrusted with the discipline of the master’s sons, ensuring that they did not play truant, but went to school and attended to their studies. It was a temporary and disciplinary role, subservient to the real Instructor, Christ.

Which brings me to the second error, as exemplified by an exegesis which takes a high view of Scripture, but a relatively low view of Jesus. This sort of exegesis is pear shaped, or bottom-heavy. Whilst not necessarily explicitly, it gives primacy to the Old Testament and forces the New Testament into alignment with the Old in a somewhat subservient manner. In its extreme, such an exegete says things like “The Trinity is not found in the Old Testament, so Jesus cannot be God.” The problem is, there’s a lot about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that isn’t explicit in the Old Testament, for reasons that have been explained above. But there is plenty of evidence of the God of the New Testament; loving Father, incarnate Son and poured-out Holy Spirit, in the Old Testament for those who have eyes to see (John 5:39-40). These are the things the New Testament clarifies and fulfills (completes). Examples include the extensive application of passages about YHWH to Jesus by New Testament writers, and application of appellations, characteristics and roles of God to the Lord Jesus. In contrast, a pear-shaped, or distorted Old Testament primacy approach models the New Testament on the Old, to make it defined by Old Testament limitations and squeezing Jesus into an inappropriate mould. It makes Jesus defined by and limited by, in a real sense, images in the Old Testament which are necessarily typological, shadowy and incomplete.

For example, sacrifice. God required sacrifice in the Old Testament. It was highly prescribed under the Law in minute detail, and laxity or abuse of the system was sacrilege. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev 17:11). The whole burnt offering, the Passover lamb, the sin offering, all typified Christ in some aspects. The blood symbolised the covenant and the covenants were sealed with blood (Heb 9:18–21). “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). Jesus took up this imagery when he spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:53–56), a saying which the disciples found difficult, doubtless because of their familiarity with sacrifices and the prohibition of eating blood. Jesus inaugurated his memorial supper with the words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). The apostles make it clear that Christ’s sacrifice, the shedding of his blood, brought salvation, drawing on the whole range of atonement metaphors; justification, redemption, reconciliation, access to God, sanctification (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12; 10:19; 13:12).

Undoubtedly, we can learn a tremendous amount about Jesus’ work on the cross from these pictures of atonement and sacrifice. But here’s the crucial thing: Jesus did not give his life because in the Old Testament God demanded blood for appeasement. God required blood sacrifice in the Old Testament to teach us that Jesus would give his life for us. Jesus did not have to die the way he did because he had to imitate the sacrifices of the Law. He died the way he did because that was God’s plan from before the world was created, and the Law (and pre-Law sacrifices such as in Gen 22) provided a framework for understanding that. Sacrifice was not unique to Israel; every ancient culture practiced it. It was part of the ancient mindset. Israel’s prescribed sacrifices were different because (a) they were made exclusively to the one God and (b) they were symbolic of something much greater and more permanent to come. Those sacrifices could never take away sin completely; they had to be offered continually, for specific sins. Only the sacrifice of Christ which actually destroyed sin itself could permanently deal with sin (Heb 9:11–15; Heb 10:4–10). In this way Christ fulfills the Law of sacrifice, not by simply being a better type of the same thing (a perfect man rather than a beast) but because this was always and only the efficacious sacrifice which would be made. Fulfilling means completing, finishing; it does not mean copying.

Why is this such a big deal? Because seeing the basis of Christ’s sacrifice as simply a better version of an ancient principle of blood atonement allows the person and work of Christ to be downplayed. “God requires blood and Jesus gave the best blood,” becomes the principle of atonement, rather than “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That is what “the life is in the blood” means.

Without that Christ-centred perspective, substitutionary atonement becomes a parody of justice. Jesus is just a man, albeit a perfect one, who is treated like a sheep or goat. How is that fair? How does that demonstrate the righteousness of God if Jesus is a mere man taking the place of mere men? Christadephians attack a straw man when they so misrepresent the atonement. Only when it is understood as God himself becoming flesh and blood for our sakes and averting his own wrath against sin by taking it upon himself in Jesus Christ, as planned from before Creation, does substitutionary atonement work. It is no mere “exemplary” death by means of which we are shamed into an “apology” [5] but a gracious act of redemption. “Sacrifice” is the type, not the principle, of atonement. But if one denies Jesus is God, then one is forced to reject substitutionary atonement. If one uses a pear-shaped exegesis of Jesus’ sacrificial work, defined by Old Testament types, this will lead to a denial of the efficacy and meaning of substitutionary atonement and the very notion of Who Jesus is.

Such distorted interpretations also lead to ridiculous ideas such as a need for continuing animal sacrifices in the Kingdom of God. This latter, perpetuated by a pear-shaped exegesis of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy (Ezek 40–48) forces Jesus into the rather subservient role of “prince” and the Kingdom as merely an eternal perpetuation of a superseded theocracy. The ancient kingdom of Israel was an incomplete and imperfect type of the people of God, being ruled by succession of sinful kings who at best only typified God’s eternal King. Israel was never the last word as God’s people and should not be used to limit the concept of God’s kingdom and people. The type that was the Davidic kingdom needed to be full-filled in the true reign of God, in Christ. But by viewing Old Testament Israel with its laws and constrained access to God as paradigmatic rather than symbolic, we end up with a model of the ekklesia that is also constrained by rules and legalism and by a low view of Christ. This model presumes the Kingdom (more correctly, the word basileia means “reign”) of God cannot be present in any sense now, because we don’t see a literal kingdom on earth. That has to wait, in its entirety, until Jesus returns and builds the temple of Ezekiel’s prophecy. This model makes the Old Testament’s limitations and incompleteness define how we view the New Testament, rather than allowing the New Testament to put the Old into perspective. It is forcing Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, into a mould that makes him just a better version of one of Israel’s kings. The New Testament does not deny any continuity of the old kingdom of Israel with God’ eternal kingdom, but sets it in context as a temporary model. The eternal reign, or kingdom of God has been inaugurated by the coming of the Lord Jesus, and there is now neither Jew nor Greek and people out of all nations are being drawn to him (Rom 10:12–13; 11:25–27; Gal 3:28–29; 1 Peter 2:9–10). Certainly, that reign is still to be consummated, but in that full realisation of it, there will be “no temple in that city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22).

Jesus defines the Old Testament types; they do not define or limit him. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4). Jesus revealed more about himself, the Father and the Holy Spirit than the Old Testament could, but the traces are there, for they testify to him. Jesus fulfilled — completed — the Scriptures; they did not define or complete him. Scripture did not paint him into a corner or constrain him; it was a preview for what he came to do, his eternal grand design, revealed piece by piece. God completed the work begun at creation, “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:9–11).



  1. Augustine, Questiones in Hepateuchum
  2. Warfield, Benjamin B. Biblical Doctrines. repub. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988, 141–142.
  3. The classic polemic, Against Marcion, was written by Tertullian c.208 AD
  4. John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2005. Particularly chapter 2, “Christ is the End of the Law and the Prophets,” 24-44.
  5. Which is how Robert Roberts defines the atonement in The Blood of Christ, 1895. repr. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2006.


What is freedom? For some it might mean freedom from debt or from worry. Sadly, for many people in our world it would still mean freedom from slavery, oppression, persecution, even fear of their own government. For many, particularly in the West, it might suggest freedom to do whatever we feel like, pursue whatever goals we have, and for some it might mean freedom from constraints of social imperatives and the law. The Bible says, “for freedom, Christ has set us free,” and “if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” At its heart, a major theme of Christianity from start to finish is freedom, but what does this actually mean? Some Christians seem to not be free at all, but burdened by guilt and hemmed in by restrictions and rules. Other “brands” of so-called Christianity espouse a prosperity-oriented gospel that promises a life of comfort and financial security. But neither of these demonstrate the true freedom to which Christ calls an enslaved world.

To an original reader of the scriptures in the ancient world, the obvious antithesis of “freedom” was slavery. Actual physical slavery characterised the life of many. People could be enslaved because they had been conquered, or as punishment. They could be sold, or even sell themselves, into slavery because they were poor. Although many types of ancient slavery were horribly oppressive, and masters literally had power of life and death and over the very bodies of their slaves, sometimes slavery was lifesaving. With no universal health care, social service, income protection or unemployment benefits, if a peasant farmer’s crops failed, or the breadwinner of the family died, there was little option but to work as a slave. The Law of Moses turned slavery from a harsh and evil institution to something akin to welfare provision. There were strict rules about fair and compassionate treatment of slaves and compulsory release after seven years. A period of indenture could save one’s family. In the Roman empire at the time the New Testament was written, the lot of the slave covered a spectrum from cruel and wretched toil, brutal treatment and the likelihood of crucifixion for transgression, through to being virtually a member of the household with significant responsibility for the education of the children or management of household affairs. Freedom could be purchased, and some slaves were permitted to become freedmen. One estimate puts the number of slaves in the Roman empire as high as 25% of the populace (

It’s not surprising then, that slavery features very strongly in the Bible, not only in terms of legal prescriptions for Israel, exhortations for Christian slaves and masters but as a metaphor for redemption. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the defining point in their existence as a nation. Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as the One who brought his people out of the land of slavery, the foundation of the ten commandments (Ex 20:2). Magnificent as this redemption was in its own right, it was also a type of the greater redemption God would bring about in and through Christ. As a consequence of Christ’s atoning work, sinners of all nations have been redeemed, purchased out from slavery to sin. The Greek words “ransom” and “redeem” (lutron, lutrosis, apolutrosis) as applied to the atonement, relate unequivocally to purchase out of slavery. Christians have been purchased (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 6:20; 1 Pet 1;18–19; Rev 5:9). Jesus declared that his life was to be given as a ransom (lutron) for many (Mark 10:45). In the Graeco-Roman world, a slave could be set free by payment of a sum at the shrine of a god, effectively purchasing them for that deity, never to be enslaved again. The expression used was payment “for freedom,” and this familiar term was used by Paul to speak of the liberation achieved by Christ (Gal 5:1).

To what or whom are humans enslaved, then, which requires the costly ransom payment of the blood of Christ to redeem us from? And to what freedom has the Christian been redeemed? In John 8:32–36, Jesus was disputing with the Jewish leaders. He told them that the truth would set them free. They replied indignantly that they were Abraham’s offspring and had never been enslaved to anyone (conveniently forgetting their enslavement in Egypt!). Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Only the Son can truly set them free. Paul’s letter to Romans systematically explained that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Our archetypal parents committed the archetypal sin; they disobeyed God because they wanted to be autonomous. God had allowed them access to the tree of life, but forbidden the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The essence of the serpent’s temptation was that if they ignored God’s silly rule (implied to be a lie!) they would be like gods, knowing good and evil (Gen 2:9, 16; 3:1-7). This had great appeal, so they took it upon themselves to be masters of their own destiny, arbiters of good and evil independent of their Creator. Adam and Eve sought freedom, but it was the wrong sort; it was an illusion. They claimed the freedom to do as they pleased and it brought the freedom to sin and to die, which is no freedom at all. In fact, they shook off what they thought was a divine restriction on their freedom, only to become enslaved to sin. As Augustine put it, they were now unable not to sin. They unseated God from the throne of their hearts and put themselves in his place, but the self is a very poor master. We likewise were once enslaved (Titus 3:3).

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth,” wrote Paul (Rom 1:18). Humans willingly ignored God and began serving created things rather than their Creator, and God gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts (Rom 1:21–25). The result is all the sin we see that stems from selfishness and the worship of other than God (Rom 1:2–32). Humankind thus reaps the wages of sin; death, just as God had warned. Whatever or whoever we obey enslaves us. If we obey the inclinations to sin, we are slaves of sin, which leads to death (Rom 6:16). “You once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness,” Paul reminded the Romans. This might have seemed like freedom, “in regard to righteousness,” but it was in fact slavery to sin “Freedom” to do whatever we want, to follow our own sinful inclinations, appears to be true freedom but this is an illusion. It brings forth shameful fruit and no eternal gain whatsoever, only death (Rom 6:19–23).

But just as sin entered the world through Adam, and death through sin (Rom 5:12) so grace came through Jesus Christ. His death bought our redemption; “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers. not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18–19). By aligning ourselves with Christ, accepting his gracious sacrifice on our behalf, we are united with him in his death and resurrection. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom 6:6–8). Sin no longer has dominion over us, its reign is broken, we are no longer its slave (Rom 6:8–14; Heb 2:15). Yes, we still sin, but we are now motivated and empowered not to. By God’s grace and strength we can say “no” to sin, because his law is now written on our hearts. We are not motivated to sin and we present our “members” — all our faculties — to God as instruments of righteousness rather than as instruments for unrighteousness (Rom 6:12–14). Augustine again: we are now “able not to sin.” (That’s not the same as “not able to sin,” which will happen at the final consummation of our salvation). Because Christ has achieved our redemption and justification, Paul could triumphantly proclaim, “The re is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1–2). Not “will set you free eventually,” or “might set you free if you’re good enough,” but has set you free! There is NOW no condemnation! We are no longer debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh and therefore die, Paul continues. Like the man sold into slavery for indebtedness and then ransomed, we are free of that debt to our old master. The reason is, by the Spirit we have been made sons of God (Rom 8:12–16).

Reading through Romans and other New Testament writings that contrast slavery to sin with freedom in Christ, the reader is struck by the repeated contrast between slavery and sonship. Not only has Christ purchased us from slavery and freed us from its mastery, he has made us not merely slaves, but sons. In the ancient world, the contrast would have been well known. Even the most elevated, useful, trusted slave in a household was still a slave and well below the level of any of the sons, even if the slave might be their pedagogue. By contrasting the Christian’s sonship with their previous slavery the point was powerfully driven home. It is by the Spirit (not by our own strength) that we put to death the deeds of the body and are enabled to live. But even more, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:13–16). Even the non-sentient creation, which was also subjected to futility and bondage to corruption on our account, will ultimately obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, when Christ makes all things new (Rom 8:19–23). We currently have the firstfruits of the Spirit, who has been given us as a guarantee of our ultimate complete adoption and the redemption of our very bodies also. This will complete our redemption so that we shall be like Christ and finally “not able to sin.” Paul had earlier written on this theme in Galatians. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Gal 4:6–8). Adoption through the Spirit — sonship — no longer enslaved; these are inseparable concepts for Paul.

In related claim which would have evoked the redemptive acts of God in the Old Testament, John was able to rejoice that “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth… who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev 1:5–6). The kingdom of priests, the holy nation, (Ex 19:5–6) God’s own people, found fulfillment beyond the national borders of Israel to embrace the children of God out of every nation. The Jews could not appreciate this, for a veil lay over their hearts, “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:15–17). The Law which God gave Israel was holy and good, but because it relied on obedience, it was of no use in restraining sin. In fact, sin became amplified by being more thoroughly defined. External imposition of rules does not change the inherently sinful heart; only death to sin and a renewed heart can do that. Paul contrasts the Galatians’ former enslavement under the Law, which could only bring condemnation by highlighting sin, with the freedom of the Christian. To illustrate this, he uses the allegory of the slave woman Hagar who represents Sinai and the Law and could only produce children of slavery, with the freewoman Sarah, who represents new Jerusalem and bore the child of promise (Gal 4:7–31). Paul’s intent is to drive home the message to the Galatians, that now being free in Christ as God’s very sons, why would they want to return to slavery? How could they possibly think that performance of “works” would make them right with God? The only way to be right with God is to become his child.

“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal 4:7–10). For Paul it is not just about the Law of Moses no longer being their master, but the whole futile attempt to be saved by human works. He writes of the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” to which they would be returning if, through being circumcised they became once again debtors to the whole law, fall away from Christ and become alienated from grace (Gal 3:10; 5:2–6). We, as Isaac typified, are born according to the Spirit, children of the free. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” (Gal 5:1). Being under the law means relying on the flesh and opposing the Spirit, but the flesh can only produce fruits of corruption. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law, is produced by those who walk in the Spirit (Gal 5:17–25).

Paul takes up this theme again in Ephesians. God predestined us for adoption as his sons through Christ (Eph 1:5). In him we have redemption through his blood (1:7). When we believed, we were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (1:13–14). Once we were dead in trespasses and sins in which we once walked, following the course of this world, carrying out the desires of the body and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy “made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved…” (Eph 2:1–7). He reiterates, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8–9).

This is why legalistic denominations which impose rules on their members and preach the necessity of works for acceptance by God are so harmful. “Touch not, taste not, handle not!” (Dress a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way, play a certain type of music, avoid activities that fit the denomination’s definition of “worldly”). Legalism destroys the gospel. It denies the sonship God has graciously granted and seeks enslavement once again. It repeats the sin of Adam and Eve, by grasping at a self-made righteousness by works, becoming indebted once again to the “whole law.” It says, “thanks but no thanks, I’ve got this,” to God’s grace. It demoralises and embitters Christians by setting standards to which they must aspire, and reach by the effort of “doing.” It denies the Spirit whom God has given us as his guarantee of our sonship, the righteousness which comes from God, the reassurance and empowerment. Legalism denies “that the Gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments.” (Christadelphian Statement of Faith, doctrine to be rejected #24). Sonship of God means so much more than formal titles of “brother” and “sister.” It means there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because we are no longer slaves, but sons. It means God’s Spirit indwells and testifies to that sonship and enables us to call God “Papa.” It does not mean more rules and a return to fear of not being counted “worthy.” As we contemplate the complete and finished work that Christ has done, this Easter time and beyond, let Paul and Peter have the last word, from Colossians 2: 20–23 and 1 Peter 2:16:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch,’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) —according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”

Women in the First Century Church

This blog has been provided in response to some recent discussion on the role of women in the first century church in light of 1 Timothy 2:11–14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. The original essay provided a detailed exegesis of the Greek text, which I have translated for this forum. The traditional Christadelphian interpretation of these passages (and that of many mainstream churches as well) has been that God, writing through Paul, requires all women in all ages to maintain a literal silence in church meetings and to submit to all men. This precludes them from praying, reading scripture aloud, open discussion, “leadership” roles, leading Bible studies or speaking “from the platform” in any context. Recently, many members of the Christadelphian community, men as well as women, have questioned this interpretation and believe it to be detrimental to God’s design for the body of Christ and a source of disillusionment for current and potential members.

In addressing this interpretation of these two passages, I make three assumptions fundamental to good exegesis. Verses must be interpreted in context, rather than in isolation from their place within the immediate text and within the canon. Secondly, scripture should not contradict scripture; if it seems to, we must review our interpretation. Thirdly, Jesus Christ is central, and a final interpretation must be consistent with the gospel. Initially, the exegete must establish the text, that is, look for variants in the extant manuscripts. With reference to the UBS Greek NT textual apparatus, there are no variants for 1 Tim 2:11–14. The text for 1 Cor 14:34–35 is rated as “almost certain” according to the majority of significant manuscripts, with minor variants. The following is my translation, based on the discussion below.

Let a wife (gyne) learn in quitetude (hesousia), in all subjection (hypotage), for I do not permit a wife to teach nor to dominate (authentein) her husband (aner) but to be in quietude (hesousia). For Adam was formed first then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but his wife (gyne), having been wholly deceived, resulted in (became) transgression.” (1 Tim 2:11–14)

Let the wives (gyne) in the assemblies (ekklesias) be silent, for they are not permitted to speak in/for themselves, but let them be in submission (hypotasso), just as the law says. But if they are wanting to learn anything, let them ask (eperotao) their own husbands (aner) in the home, for it is shameful for a wife (gyne) to speak in assembly (ekkelsia).” (1 Cor 14:34–35)

Wives and Husbands
Are these passages speaking about men and women generally, or about husbands and their wives? Both 1 Tim 2:11–14 and 1Cor 14:34–35 use the terms gyne (woman, wife) and aner (man, husband). Whether the words are translated man/woman or wife/husband depends on the context. The more general term for “man” is anthropos, which can also mean “human being” of either/both sexes. Jesus is ho hios anthropou, the Son of Man, in that he shares our humanity. Aner and anthropos are both frequently translated “man,” but only aner is translated “husband” in the NT. Gyne can be used of any adult woman, including a wife and a virgin. From 1 Tim 2:8 through 3:12 each mention of man/husband or woman/wife is aner/gyne. The context is appropriate oversight of the ekklesia where Timothy is an elder/overseer. It seems likely that Paul is consistently discussing husbands and wives here, certainly in chapter 3 where an overseer or deacon is to be (literally) a “one-woman man.” This is the right and proper use of sexual relations, in contrast to those mentioned in 1:10.

1 Corinthians 14 is also discussing appropriate behaviour in the assembly (ekklesia). Here it is possible to be more definitive; the women/wives are to ask tous idious andras, their own men/husbands at home, which is clearly a marriage context. Elsewhere, when aner and gyne appear together, the meaning is invariably husband and wife (1 Cor 7, 1 Cor 11, Matt 1:16–19; Mark 10:12; Luke 2:36; 16:18; John 4:16–18; Acts 5:9–10; Rom 7:2–3; 2 Cor 11:3; Titus 1:6; Rev 21:2). So we’re on pretty safe ground regarding 1 Timothy 2 to be speaking of husbands and wives and it would be straining the sense to argue otherwise.

Headship and authority
This helps make sense of another controversial passage, 1 Cor 11:3–15. The word for “man” is aner throughout. The passage is speaking about husbands and wives in the assembly, not men and women generally. Christ is not only head of the ekklesia (Eph 4:15–16; Col 1:18) but is head over everything (Eph 1:10, 22; Col 2:10). The husband covering his head would be symbolically covering Christ, his head. Man and woman were both created in the image of God so it is not a superiority-inferiority issue (Gen 1:27) although only Christ fulfils this image and truly glorifies God. Conversely it is appropriate for the wife to cover her head, which represents the husband. This passage, with its reference to “authority (exousia) on her head because of the angels” is difficult to understand today, but presumably made complete sense to the first century Corinthians who were a predominantly Gentile assembly (and probably didn’t have many Nazirites who, of course, had “disgraceful” long hair). Graeco-Roman matrons wore a kalumma, a type of veil, on their head. This signified that they were not a mistress, prostitute, pagan priestess, slave or adulteress (the latter having their heads shaved). There are strong cultural elements here which obviously had a great bearing on the interactions between the sexes in this strife-ridden, schismatic congregation. This whole section from chapter 10 through 14 is a taking to task of the Corinthians for all manner of indecent and disorderly community activities, from turning the fellowship meal into a bun-fight, to undisciplined exercise of spiritual gifts, with chapter 13 a reproof against their lack of love. This lovelessness lay at the centre of their competitiveness, greed, showmanship, and partisanship. In contrast, their behaviours should have been kind, patient, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on their own way, etc.

So when in 1 Timothy 2:12 the wife is instructed not to govern or have authority over her husband, it would seem to be an appropriate reflection of decency and order in the marriage relationship as exhibited in the assembly. The word translated “govern/have authority over” is not the usual word for authority, exousia, but authentein, which is used only here in the NT and nowhere in the canonical books of the OT. It is found twice in the LXX apocrypha, in 3 Maccabees 2:29 and Wisdom 12:6. The lexicon meaning covers a semantic range of having autocratic power, or absolute authority over, to dictate to, give orders to or even (as in the apocryphal references) to have the power of life and death over someone. With no other NT usage we need to dip into its secular usage to understand it, but also appreciate that it is a hotly debated word. A good rule of thumb in such instances is to not build a major doctrinal point on a word or phrase whose meaning no one can really agree on. However, it does seem that Paul is forbidding an overbearing sort of authority of a wife over her husband, bossing him around, dictating to him, perhaps overriding and contradicting him. That is not the way a wife should treat her husband (nor, incidentally, how a husband should treat his wife if he follows Eph 5:25, 28–29). Christ is our supreme ruler, our head, and he has every right to tell us what to do, and has the power of life and death — all exousia in heaven and on earth in fact (Matt 28:18). However he doesn’t wield this as authentein type power, but “while we were still sinners, he died for us” (Rom 5:8).

This passage is surely commending a state of “decency and order” in the assembly, where no one is shouting anyone else down (in tongues or otherwise) and everyone takes turns. It certainly doesn’t preclude the wife saying anything, nor from praying or prophesying.

Quietness and subjection
So, rather than exercising independent authority, dominating her husband, the wife should be “in hesouchia and learn in all hypotage.” Hesouchia means a state of quietness without disturbance; rest, peacefulness, saying little or nothing. It may mean silence, but not necessarily. Hypotage is a state of submissiveness, subjection or subordination. Note that the passage does not specify that the woman must be in subjection to men generally, in fact it just says “in subjection.” It could mean to her husband, or to whoever is teaching at the time. In immediate context, it presumably means the husband, whom she is not to rudely contradict or dominate. (Picture the scene in Bible class; George is leading and his wife Mabel yells, “That’s not what it says, George, you idiot! Don’t listen to him, brothers and sisters, my husband has no idea! Here, let me explain the passage…” Rather, Mabel should hold her peace and query George politely at home, or find a way of exploring the meaning without putting him down or exercising a greater authority. In fact, by tactfully steering the discussion Mabel might actually save George from an embarrassing mistake!)

To whom are women to be subject? Well, to the same people as men; the governing authorities (Rom 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13) to fellow-labourers in the gospel (1 Cor 16:14) the Father of spirits (Heb 12:7) to our masters, if we are house servants (1 Pet 2:18) and to our elders (1 Peter 5:5). All these use variants of hypotasso (a related word to hypotage, meaning to submit or be subordinate). Paul in Ephesians 5:21 says that wives and husbands are to submit (hypotasso) to each other and further emphasises that for the wife this is to be as to the Lord (vv22, 24). The reason being, that within the family, the husband represents Christ. 1 Peter 3:1 likewise says that wives should hypotasso their own husbands (tois idiois andrasin) — not just any man or all men, but to their own husbands. 1 Peter 3:1 is interesting in that it is discussing the specific case of a believing wife with an unbelieving husband. Doubtless she wouldn’t learn much by asking that husband at home (!) but God requires her to submit to him (unless it conflicts with God’s principles) even if he’s no better than a servant’s master or a secular authority. The object being that the unbelieving husband might be won over by the conduct of the Christian wife — surely a form of teaching?

The appeal to Creation
1 Timothy 2:13–14 gives the reason for the woman’s quiet, respectful behaviour. Adam was formed first, then Eve. This takes us back to creation, predating the Law and any particular culture or custom. This fits with the “husband as the head of the wife” principle; she was made a fitting helper for him (1 Cor 11:3; Gen 2:21–24). The man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh, submitting to each other, loving each other and modelling Christ and his ekklesia. The problem was, the woman was deceived by the serpent, and she influenced her husband and that caused “transgression.” It’s interesting that Adam always cops the blame for the first sin and the entry of sin into the world. 2 Cor 11:3 mentions Eve being deceived by the serpent’s cunning (as a warning to both men and women) but apart from that, Eve doesn’t rate a mention in the NT; the blame for the sin is laid on Adam; in Adam we die. I don’t think the Bible is saying Eve didn’t sin; she did. She disobeyed. But she was deceived. And in her state of deception she exerted inappropriate authority over Adam; she gave him the fruit, and he ate. Why? Because she — and he — wanted to be like God, making their own decisions about good and evil (Gen 3:5–6). Ultimately, sin comes down to humans trying to be God, exercising autonomy. But Adam, as her husband, should have exercised authority over her and he didn’t, he went along with the disobedience (Gen 3:17). That same sort of inversion of the husband and wife relationship can lead to the authentein, the inappropriate dominance of the wife over the husband. That is the problem, not the wife “speaking,” per se. Eve wasn’t told to be silent, after all. One consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was the corruption of their relationship. The pendulum was to swing back the other way, and husbands would thereafter tend to rule over and dominate their wives (Gen 3:16) sometimes with violence and humiliation, contra the model of Christ. This sinful behaviour is a consequence of the fall and it is not the ideal.

No talking!
So we come to 1 Corinthians 14:34. This passage doesn’t just require the wife to not dominate her husband, but not to speak at all. The immediate context is, again, wives and husbands in the assembly (ekklesia) and the wider context is everything being done decently and in order. Paul wrote these instructions specifically to the Corinthians because of their dreadful behaviour. While we have to be careful not to haphazardly or selectively relegate passages of scripture to a particular cultural context, we do need to be aware that we do not now meet and worship in the first century Corinthian ekklesia. Otherwise we would have issues with food sacrificed to idols, master-slave relationships and be prophesying and speaking in tongues. We would be recent converts from paganism and be struggling with significant class issues and behaviours that pagan society regarded as normal. Our problems today might be similar, but they aren’t identical. So, is Paul’s instruction to wives to keep silent meant to be normative in all ekklesias in all ages? That’s the $64 question. We have already discussed the issue of subjection (it’s the same word hypotasso). Note once again that the verse does not specifically state to whom the wives are to be subject, but logically it would seem to be their husbands. There is certainly no case here for them to be subject to every man. The word for “speak” is lalein, which means regular speaking and does not necessarily mean prophecy or tongues; Paul uses the specific words for those. The wives are not permitted to speak in (or of/for) themselves (dative case) which could suggest they should not speak autonomously from their husbands, that idea of independent authority again. Instead, they can ask their own husbands. In fact, the word “ask” here is quite assertive; it can mean to interrogate or demand!

What law?
Paul adds by way of explanation, “just as also the law says.” When Paul uses the unqualified term “law,” nomos, throughout his writings, he means the Law of Moses and he is absolutely adamant that the Christian is free from that (Rom 3:27–28; 6:14–15; 7:4–6; 8:2; 10:4; Gal 2:19; 3:11–12; 3:24–25; Eph 2:15). Creation principles and promises are not “law.” However, the accounts of Adam and Eve and the establishment of marriage are written in the first book of Moses, which in Jewish parlance constituted “the Law” (e.g. John 1:45). So Paul is referring to the Genesis  creation ordinance of marriage and the disruption of it due to the fall, but that is not “the law of sin and death” or any other aspect of the Mosaic commandments and ordinances. Jesus made the point that the marriage covenant predates and supersedes the Mosaic Law (Matt 19:4–8).

Is Corinth normative?
So we are left with the clear imperative for wives, in the context of this passage, in the assembly with their husbands, to keep silent. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the command transcends first century Corinth and is normative and universal, and overrides the lesser “restriction” in 1 Tim 2. This must pass the test of being consistent with the rest of scripture and here the problem lies. Even in Corinth women were permitted to pray and prophesy (provided it was orderly and with the culturally appropriate signification of their married state by the wearing of a kalumma). In Eph 5:19-21, in the very context of husbands and wives in assembly, Paul encourages them to address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is an admonition to non-silent mutual submission! Exactly the same association occurs in Colossians 3:16-19 where they are commanded to teach and admonish (exhort) one another!. So there’s at least two other ekklesias where Paul positively encouraged verbal communication between and amongst husbands and wives in the ekklesia. So no, the “complete silence” interpretation of Corinth’s special restrictions cannot be considered normative and applicable to all ekklesias in every age.

Women as servants and fellow workers
One final point; whatever one’s stance on whether women should lead the Sunday service or Bible studies, or “teach” in any situations, or have positions of “authority” in the ekklesia generally (and for the record, I think Timothy and Titus are clear that elders/overseers and “ordained” deacons should be male — and married ones at that, so they can demonstrate leadership in their households) there is certainly scope for women in the ekklesia to do a lot more than catering. The “assembly” is not necessarily restricted to one particular organisation with its constitution and arranging brethren, nor to Sunday morning memorial meetings. I said “ordained” deacons because the word diakonos simply means “servant” and Paul also used it in a more general sense for service in the ekklesia, including service by women (Rom 16:1). Although the eldership and episcopacy of the NT ekklesia were male, it seems that women played a role as hosts of house churches and their associated communities, in organisational and service roles (Rom 16:1; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15). Women prayed and prophesied (1 Cor 11:5) and ministered (Rom 16:1, 6, 12, 13, 15; Phil 4:2–3; 2 Tim 4:21) and, at least as husband and wife teams, taught and evangelised (Acts 18:26).

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). If “prophecy” in its simplest form is speaking God’s word, then women should read the Bible in public. They aren’t reading their own words, they are reading God’s. If and when an ekklesia recognises the appropriateness of a sister giving an address or leading discussion, it behoves that sister to do so in such a way that she will not dominate, belittle or exert independent authority over her husband. She will not be quarrelsome or arrogant or present herself as superior, but “restful,” with a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:4) because by God’s grace she has much to offer. A virtuous women (Prov 31) is worth more than jewels, the heart of her husband trusts in her and she does him good and not harm. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.


Lexicon definitions are taken from Danker, FW, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG) University of Chicago Press, 2000.