Christian Conflict Resolution

Like all people, Christians have conflict over ideas, practices, preferred traditions, and how the to spend money. Conflict is good. It helps solve problems. But we frequently handle this conflict in ways that contradict the purpose of the church and the content of the gospel message! When we value a minor thing as though it were a major thing, we let our emotional response guide us rather than truth, practicality, or ethics. And so below, I’ll explain what appears to me to be a New Testament guide to conflict resolution among Christians:

Christian Conflict Resolution

A Translation of Philippians 4:2-9:[1]

“I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say: rejoice! Let your reasonableness be made known to all people, the Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is honest, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever causes affection, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy take account of these things; and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice and the God of peace will be with you.”

Below is an attempt to give a commentary on the passage above, followed by an argument for why I think it is meant to conflict resolution. But for those more interested in the practical take away, here it is. In list form, Paul’s recommendations for Christian conflict resolution:

  1. Call to mind your calling as Christians
    If you remember, in the midst of a conflict, who you are, who the other person is, and where you are, and why you’re together in the first place, then you’ll have a foundation for productive Christian conflict. To “have the same way of thinking” in the passage hearkens back to Philippians 2:5-11. It doesn’t mean “agree in all things.” It means remember to try to be like Jesus.
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always.
    Think of specific reasons to be joyful in connection with your faith. So think of Christ’s death for sins, your forgiveness, the greatness of God’s love, answered prayers, etc. 
  3. Behave reasonably (esp.) when you have an audience
    Paul recommends that when others are present, you put extra care into being moderate and reasonable. This makes sense, as acting vindictive or angry in public exacerbates things.
  4. Recognize the nearness of the Lord
    Just like realizing you have an audience might make you circumspect, remembering that the Lord is near ought to make you more so. 
  5. Do not fret about anything
    Allowing a thought to occupy your mind obsessively can blow it out of proportion. Instead of thinking constantly about how you’re not getting your way, Paul recommends the next step.
  6. Thankfully ask God to grant your requests
    Think of specific reasons to be thankful, and in that attitude of thanksgiving, ask God to give you what is best. God may grant your request. Also, you’re preparing yourself to seek the best thing, not merely what you want in the moment. And so Christian arguments should include time for prayer. 
  7. Think about what is good in the other.
    It’s harder to hate somebody and aim to thwart their desires without reason when you sit and consider what it best in them. For instance, you’ve probably had the experience where somebody tells you a true, positive fact when you’re mad or sad and you start to laugh. That’s a sign that you’re being persuaded into a positive frame of mind.
  8. Practice the Paul’s spiritual disciplines in accordance with Paul’s gospel.
    Finally, everybody involved should be practicing self-denial, prayer, fasting, etc. Every Christian ought to be aiming their life at Christ-likeness. And in this letter and spread throughout the New Testament are the practices in accord with that lifestyle.

A Christian Conflict Resolution Commentary

  1. I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.
    Paul reminds the women and the entire Philippian church that they are co-workers in the gospel. And the gospel comes with a calling to acquire the mind of Christ. And so if you remember that you’re on the same task force, it will be easier to get along. And in fact, if you remember that your partners in conflict have their names in the book of life, you’ll remember how much God loves them too!
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice!
    In order for these women to get along, Paul challenges them to rejoice in the Lord. The idea here is that when dealing with disagreement, if both of you think about the reasons that Jesus Christ has given you to rejoice, then this will set the tone for your own approach to the issue.
  3. Let your reasonableness be made known to all people.
    The idea here is that being open to reason and dealing with a conflict in a winsome and evidence based way not is not only the right thing to do, but it goes a long way in preserving the public image of the Christian church for its members as well as for its opponents. In other words, think about the issue enough to talk about it well, have a discussion and deal with it in a self-controlled and moderate manner. Paul will go on to tell them not to let the issue occupy their minds constantly as human beings are wont to do.
  4. The Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
    Conflict has a tendency to create anxiety or annoyance. So, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is near, Christians ought to pray when they have conflict rather than letting the distress of the difficult occupy and distract their minds until it foments into a terrible argument. Instead, it is better to pray and move on.
  5. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
    Paul then says that if these steps are followed on both sides, that the peace of God, which is impossible to grasp for outsiders, will protect their hearts and minds from needless divisions, grumbling, and conflict. Do note the focus on peace in relationship to the conflict mentioned above and that it comes up again at the end of verse 9.
  6. Finally, brothers
    This address is the biggest piece of evidence against the conflict resolution interpretation (that and the fact that as far as I can tell, no commentary agrees with me). But I think it is possible for his advice to Euodia and Syntyche, to include an address to the whole church. This makes sense when you consider that 4:2-7 are already in a letter which was to be read aloud to everybody.

    1. whatever is honest
      Assuming the conflict-resolution-interpretation, whatever is true would mean whatever integrity and fidelity is apparent in somebody’s life. This makes sense when one considers that αληθη can mean “honest, truthful, or right.”
    2. whatever is noble
      Here, then, Paul is challenging them to think about whatever it is in somebody that is noble of character. Presumably, the focus is on character traits which pertain to achieving honorable status in God’s kingdom and in society in general. There is also such a thing as ascribed honor, but σεμνος seems to me to be focused on character traits, not offices or birth.
    3. whatever is just
      Whatever this person does toward God and man that is right.
    4. whatever is pure
      The word pure carries the weight of ancient rites of sacrifice and ceremonial washing that pertained to the difference between the realm of the gods and man. In the case of Christians this word was transformed into a word about the status of those who have been received into God’s family and into a word about morality rather than about ritual cleansing. So, think about that this person is cleansed by Christ and that this person refrains from this or that sin that they used to do.
    5. whatever causes affection
      Whatever causes you to have warm feelings toward somebody, think on these things. Think about their laugh, their kindness to others, a moment when they were pitiable before God and contrite about their sins, and so-on.
    6. whatever is commendable
      Here, the idea is concerning that which others speak highly of them about. What are they good at? What moral traits go before them? Do they dress well, manage their family well, are they eloquent, and so-on? Think about these things.
    7. if there is any virtue
      If anything in them lines up with the classical virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and self-control. Think about these things.
    8. and if there is anything praiseworthy
      Does this person have any trait that makes them a figure worthy of public appellation, not just private praise? Are they a patron, a benefactor, a broker, of good blood, do they show kindness, do they share the gospel? In the case of Christians, are they a member of a good nation or an important family (yes and yes)?
    9. take account of these things;
      Paul wants them to consider all of these factors in one another when they are having disagreements. The practical reason for this is obvious. It allows for rhetorical and dialectical charity in the leadership affairs of those who are “citizens of heaven” (3:20, cf. 1:27).
  7. and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice
    Here, Paul is using his gospel message (2:5-11) and his own example (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and 2 Corinthians 11-13) to show them how to deal with conflict with those inside the group. Paul is reminding them to that only by putting these things into practice will they make progress, since Paul is a designated representative of the Jesus whom they mutually claim to be their Lord.
  8. and the God of peace will be with you.
    The take away here is that once these habits of thought are put into practice, then God’s peace will reside with the church. 

Appendix:

The Dominant Interpretation of Philippians 4:2-9

The passage of Scripture above is often (in the majority of commentaries) interpreted as a paraenesis (a collection of general and miscellaneous ethical advice).[2]

The passage seems more specific than that to me. Philippians 4:2-9 is an attempt on Paul’s part to resolve a conflict in the church at Philippi. The passage above is Paul’s application of generally wise advice on Christian living (4:4-9) to the specific issue at hand (4:2-3): a conflict between two notable members of the church leadership. It is notable that David Alan Black suggests a similar point of view for verses 4:2-7 in his book Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul urges two women to start working together or at least to come to have “the same way of thinking” that Paul has urged elsewhere in the letter which is summed up in the humility of Jesus demonstrated in the gospel story (see especially 1:27-2:11). So, Paul rhetorically hooks this section directly to 1:27 and 2:1-5.

It may not matter, but Paul does use the present tense of the word translated above as “I am urging” which could mean one of two things:

  1. Paul is performing a speech-act (like saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife”) wherein Paul is urging, in that very sentence, for them to get along.
  2. An introduction to a new line of thought: “I am urging, in what follows, that you be of one mind.”

If we take 4:2-3 to be the end of Paul’s instruction about getting along (option 1), then the rest of the passage is simply general moral and spiritual advice. But if 4:2-3 is introducing what follows (option 2), then we have Paul’s vision of Christian conflict resolution. There are four main reasons for seeing 4:2-3 as an introduction to the material that follows all the way until verse 9.

  1. It allows this closing material to fit with the apparent thesis statement of the letter (1:27-30).
  2. It helps make sense of the fact that several of the things Paul says to “take account of” are characteristics of persons, not ideals to be contemplated.
  3. Paul’s says that following these instructions will result in peace.
  4. It is generally true that the New Testament Epistles are more concerned with group cohesiveness than individual spiritual disciplines (although group cohesion almost always relies upon the spiritual health of individual Christians).

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Liddell, Henry George et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[1] Translated from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Php 4:2–9.

[2] There are good reasons for accepting this view. Several Biblical scholars accept this view (Bruce, Barth, Cohick, O’Brien, Fee, and Witherington) as does my pastor, whose judgment about such matters is very well reasoned. The take away of this perspective is essentially that Paul wants us to think about positively virtuous and God honoring things (which elsewhere he clearly does say to do). I totally agree with the ethical idea that comes from the majority interpretation. It is Pauline advice, it is reasonable advice, it is advice that accords with the sort of meditation that has been prescribed throughout the Christian tradition for centuries, and it seems to be advice that helps people who receive cognitive psychological therapy (thinking about different things to manage bad thought patterns). So don’t hear me being mean about people who see the passage in the more traditional way.

 

Think Rightly About Yourselves

[This is a repost from 2013 with an additional translation added to the list below]

Text

Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως. (Rom 12:3 BGT)

Translation

Upon first glance the obvious translation/meaning is, “For, I say to all of you through the grace which was given to me, do not think about yourselves more highly than it is necessary to think, but rather think [w/respect to yourselves] in a manner that leads to temperance; each one as God has given a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Other Common Translations:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3 KJV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Rom 12:3 ESV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone who is among you not to think more highly of yourself than what one ought to think, but to think [sensibly], as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each one. (Rom 12:3 Lexham English Bible)

 

For by the grace given to me I ask every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should think, rather to think of yourself with sober judgment on the measure of faith that God has assigned each of you. (Rom 12:3 International Standard Version) [Here, they catch that ‘thinking of yourself’ is implied due to the nature of the contrasted modes of thought.]

 

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.
(Rom 12:3 NET)

Syntactical Comment

Every translation takes the Greek preposition εις to mean “with” and they translate the stative verb (verb about a state of being) adverbially. I’m going against a trend in translations here, but εις rarely means ‘with’ and not ever, that I can think of, with an infinitive. But εις το + [infinitive] often (always?) connotes purpose.  

Paul is contrasting to ways of thinking about yourself. One is haughty, the other is a form of self-reflection that leads to sober-mindedness or temperance. 

Reflections

Paul wants Christians to think about themselves so that they can judge their own capacities soundly. But it’s not just that he wants them to think soundly. It’s that he wants them to think about themselves in a way that leads to sound judgment in interpersonal matters. What this means, if you go on to read the rest of Romans 12, is that we consider just what our gifts are and we use them in a way that is in line with unhypocritical love (Romans 12:9).

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Be utterly realistic about how wretched, weak, and malicious you are (Romans 1-3). Also, be utterly realistic about what God’s grace has done in you (Romans 7-8). Realize that God has a plan that uses even the most dire of circumstances to bring his will to pass (Romans 9-11). Now, use your gifts with circumspection and confidence. That’s what he’s saying, or something like that.

A Recent Translation That Got Things Right

David Bentley Hart Translates the verse:

“For, by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to be more haughtily minded than your thinking ought to be, but rather to let you thinking conduce to sober-mindedness, as God has apportioned a measure of faithfulness to each. (Romans 12:3 DBH NTT)

Abba Joseph, Beetle Kings, and Jesus

This little piece from the desert Fathers helpfully illustrates Matthew 5:14-16:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do?” “What else,” Abba Lot says, “can I do?” Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Jesus, in the passage mentioned, challenges his disciples to be the light of the world. Abba Joseph above tells Abba Lot, “If you will [desire to be a light], you can become all flame.”

But to will the destruction of our most cherished unnatural impulses can be hard.

I want comfort. I want my way. I want my space to myself, my time to myself, my feelings to myself, my whatever.

But Jesus is already the light of the world. So, why not become all flame? Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou asks that question in his song, “The King Beetle on the Coconut Estate.

Marcus Aurelius, Dallas Willard, and New Testament Salvation

Text
Aurelius Salvation[1]

Translation
Salvation, which is a life,[2] is to examine each thing entirely [with the following questions]:

  1. What it is in itself?
  2. What is it made of?
  3. What is its purpose?

[It is also] from the whole soul to do righteousness and to speak truth. What more is there except to enjoy life by joining one good thing to another so as not to leave even short intervals between? (Meditations XII, 29, my translation)

Thoughts
One of the most striking claims in the writings of Dallas Willard is that Christian salvation is a life that is entered into by faith. It is not merely a gift to be passively received but rather a sort of life one begins (eternal life) upon becoming a disciple of Jesus.

In terms of the overall theological meaning of salvation in Christian thought, this made perfect sense to me. But I’d never really considered that it could be the case in terms of the usage of σωτηρια in the New Testament era. But right here in the meditations, Marcus Aurelius (who is certainly not thinking of a future salvation or an intervention from a deity) speaks of salvation as a kind of life.

Btw, while the life Aurelius describes is not the Christian life, nothing in it is contrary to what Christ enjoins us to do and everything in it is Biblical. So even if you don’t read Dallas Willard, I hope you learned something from the meditations.

References

[1] Marcus Aurelius and Charles Reginald Haines, The communings with himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, emperor of Rome: together with his speeches and sayings (London; New York: W. Heinemann ; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916), 338

[2] I take the genitive to be an appositive or an epexegetical here.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:38-42

Writing about this passage is something I often do with great trepidation because it sounds like I’m deradicalizing it. But here I am, rock you like a hurricane, I guess.

Text
38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα, στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ’ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δόςκαὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς.

Translation:
38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I am telling you, to not resist by means of evil. Instead: whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other, 40 and to any who desires to sue you to receive your shirt, release to him also your coat, 41 and whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 and give to him who asks of you and concerning him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.

Reflections:

  1. I’m very nearly a pacifist, in the sense that I am almost entirely convinced that violence does not solve problems, but I do not think that this passage teaches out and out pacifism. For instance, Jesus does not say to let violence happen to others on your watch or to take a pummeling when your children are in danger.
  2. The passage is not turning over the judicial principles of the Old Testament because those passages (eye for an eye) are about court room settings and only one place in the passage above is court mentioned. Jesus, instead, seems to be correcting the use of those passages to justify revenge or a refusal to go along with superiors (Roman soldier who could demand you carry his pack for a mile, an apparently superior man challenging you to an honor duel, or somebody rich suing you for something they don’t actually need). The final illustration is for the Christian who is in a superior position: show mercy.
  3. The passage is not a carte blanch check from outsiders to abuse Christians or for Christians to accept interference with their lives. Jesus himself refuses people who ask him for things several times in the gospels, he does not always go along with demands people make of him (although when he does, his death atones for the sins of humanity), and when verbal disputes happen sometimes Jesus hits back twice as hard. So Jesus is not saying that Christians are to never respond to criticism, insults, or outrageous requests. But he is apparently using the examples of generosity in the face of such actions to illustrate his point that he wants his followers not to seek revenge.
  4. One of my favorite interpreters, Jerome Neyrey overstates the case that in these verses Jesus is telling his disciples to stay entirely out of the honor-shame game (see Honor and Shame in Matthew’s Gospel). It seems more coherent to say that Jesus is prioritizing honor with God by means of generosity over honor with man, but he does not seem to be saying that honor with people is always bad. It just constitutes it’s own reward. Again, see Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees in the gospels. Jesus often wins with rhetoric rather than careful argument. This is presumably because he needs to maintain his status as a public teacher until the time of the crucifixion.

Conclusion

Overall, I find that the approaches to this passage often taken make the rest of Matthew’s gospel incoherent. Essentially it is either taken as a list of impossible commands to show how evil we all are and compel us to ask for forgiveness or it is taken as a highly unrealistic social program that Jesus himself only selectively follows. I think it is better to take it as a correction of a misunderstanding followed by illustrations of how to do it. This explains how there are exceptions in Jesus’ own behavior and teaching elsewhere in Matthew.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:21-26

NA 28
21
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐ φονεύσεις· ὃς δʼ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει. 22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δʼ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δʼ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός. 23 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, 24 ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου. 25 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχύ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετʼ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ· 26 ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν, ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.[1]

Rough Translation
21
You heard that it was said to the ancients, “You will not murder. Indeed, if anybody should murder, the same will be liable to judgement.” 22 But I am telling you that everybody who is raging against his brother will be liable to judgement. Indeed, if any should say to his brother, ‘You doofus!’ the same will be liable to the council. If any should say, “You idiot!” the same will be liable to the fiery valley of Hinnom. 23 Therefore, if you offer your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has anything against you, 24 leave your gift before the altar and go first to be reconciled to your brother, and then go offer your gift. 25 Become friendly with your accuser quickly, while you are yet on the way with him to court, lest the accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the guard, and the guard throw you into prison. 26 Amen, I am telling you that you cannot come out, until you repay the last cent.

Reflection:
Glen Stassen argues persuasively that the best way to see the units in the Sermon on the Mount is by triad.[2] Here is how his outline would apply in Matthew 5:21-26[3]:

  1. Traditional Righteousness: Do not murder.
  2. Cycle of judgment: If you hold grudges against or insult your brother you’re still liable.
  3. Transforming Initiative: Be reconciled to your brother and be friendly with those who would take you to court.

The normal interpretation of this segment of teaching sounds like this, “You think murder is bad, you ought to meet my friend Jesus, He thinks even feeling angry will send you to hell.” But if we break things up into three parts, we see that the emphasis is on the way out of the cycle of judgment. Jesus doesn’t just say, “It’s really bad to insult and feel angry, folks.” He says, “Anger and insult will lead to judgment, therefore reconcile with your brother even before you worship and make friends with people who try to shame you in the courts.” His teaching here is, on this reading, not a guilt trip but a way out of anger and insult for the family of God.

It is also worth noting that there is some dispute about whether or not verses 25 and 26 are literal (Jesus giving advice about lawsuits) or figurative (Jesus talking about purgatory or hell). In light of the cycle of judgment, it makes sense to see the advice as neither. It is, rather, exemplary advice. There are not only two ways out of anger (reconciling before church and becoming friendly during lawsuits). Those are examples. So while the examples are literal, they are not literally the only option. Instead, their rhetorical purpose appears to be similar to somebody giving priorities by means of illustration. The priority is: be first to reconcile when you commit an offense.

Another, lesser explored, angle here is that Jesus seems to be giving advice that would improve the quality of life of those who put it into practice. When somebody wants to take you to court befriend them and offer to make amends before it goes that far. It may not work, but on lesser offenses it may. The thought behind it is, “pay for any damages you cause willingly, don’t let it even go to court.”

So, what can you do when you find that your actions lead to anger amongst others? While there are limits to how far this goes (Jesus didn’t care when the right thing upset the right people), most of us can think of the sorts of things meant here. Think of the remarks made out of anger or with the intention to cause harm rather than building up. Or, think about making somebody want to sue you. So I ask again: What can you do when you find that your actions lead to anger and offense amongst others?

Comments:
I translated τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός as “the fiery valley of Hinnom” because in my mind that’s the immediate referent. If you want background on that, read Jeremiah and think of Jesus’ hearers as people awaiting God’s rescue from national exile. Jesus says that little things like not being kind to one another can instead lead to the results and judgments of Jeremiah’s preaching.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:21–26.

[2] Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12),” ed. Gail R. O’Day, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 268.

[3] Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12),” ed. Gail R. O’Day, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 270.

Translation Tuesday: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

This is a rough, few minute translation to practice Greek and keep up with my syntax text books. I read my GNT and use for lesson prep, but I rarely work at translating out loud or in written format. So, I’ll try to do this every Tuesday for practice. The italics are added words to help the translation make more sense. I left the verse numbers out today because I was busier and didn’t get to this until late. But normally I’ll do it prior to work in the mornings.

25 Διὸ ἀποθέμενοι τὸ ψεῦδος λαλεῖτε ἀλήθειαν ἕκαστος μετὰ τοῦ πλησίον αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἐσμὲν ἀλλήλων μέλη. 26 ὀργίζεσθε καὶ μὴ ἁμαρτάνετε· ὁ ἥλιος μὴ ἐπιδυέτω ἐπὶ [τῷ] παροργισμῷ ὑμῶν, 27 μηδὲ δίδοτε τόπον τῷ διαβόλῳ. 28 ὁ κλέπτων μηκέτι κλεπτέτω, μᾶλλον δὲ κοπιάτω ἐργαζόμενος ταῖς [ἰδίαις] χερσὶν τὸ ἀγαθόν, ἵνα ἔχῃ μεταδιδόναι τῷ χρείαν ἔχοντι. 29 πᾶς λόγος σαπρὸς ἐκ τοῦ στόματος ὑμῶν μὴ ἐκπορευέσθω, ἀλλʼ εἴ τις ἀγαθὸς πρὸς οἰκοδομὴν τῆς χρείας, ἵνα δῷ χάριν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν. 30 καὶ μὴ λυπεῖτε τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον τοῦ θεοῦ, ἐν ᾧ ἐσφραγίσθητε εἰς ἡμέραν ἀπολυτρώσεως. 31 πᾶσα πικρία καὶ θυμὸς καὶ ὀργὴ καὶ κραυγὴ καὶ βλασφημία ἀρθήτω ἀφʼ ὑμῶν σὺν πάσῃ κακίᾳ. 32 γίνεσθε [δὲ] εἰς ἀλλήλους χρηστοί, εὔσπλαγχνοι, χαριζόμενοι ἑαυτοῖς, καθὼς καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν Χριστῷ ἐχαρίσατο ὑμῖν. 5 Γίνεσθε οὖν μιμηταὶ τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς τέκνα ἀγαπητὰ 2 καὶ περιπατεῖτε ἐν ἀγάπῃ, καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς καὶ παρέδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν προσφορὰν καὶ θυσίαν τῷ θεῷ εἰς ὀσμὴν εὐωδίας. Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Eph 4:25–5:2.

Translation:
Therefore, putting off the falsehood, speak the truth, each one with his neighbor, because we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin; the sun should not set on your anger, neither give ground to the devil. The thief should no longer steal, but instead he should labor, doing good work with his own hands so that he might have supply to give to those with need. All rotten words should stop coming from your mouths, but if anything is good for building up the needy let that come from your mouths, so that it might give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, rage, wrath, boisterousness,  and insults be removed from you along with all wickedness. Be kind to one another, compassionate, showing each other grace*, just as God in Christ has graced you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and walk in love, just as the Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and sacrifice to God for a pleasing aroma.

Comments:

Practical:

putting off the falsehood – The idea here is not lies in general (though this is a good idea), but false ideas about God, “the truth” is a shorthand for “the gospel message” in Ephesians. Protip for modern Christians then: Go back and reread the four gospels and use the stories of Jesus to build up yourself and others.

if anything is good for building up – This is a good mindset change. It doesn’t mean to always be Mr. Rogers, but it does mean to think carefully about what will nudge somebody closer to God, to goodness, and to personal development and away from sin, despondency, and flippancy about life.

be imitators of God – the litmus test for imitating God is “walking in love.” This is the same thing Jesus says in Matthew 5:45-48, and that John says in all of 1 John. Again, this isn’t just niceness. Elsewhere Paul says to expose works of darkness.

Personal thoughts – Much of what Paul says here is about Christian counter culture (speak the truth, etc), but interestingly a great deal of what Paul says here would make somebody more likable and charismatic if they really put it into practice. The way of Christ often puts those who are on it at odds with the world (Matthew 5:10-11), but Jesus himself grew steadily in favor with God and man as he grew up (Luke 2:52). It’s sad that prosperity gospel preachers could train people in the way of Christ so that they could A) achieve success and use it for good and B) live with Christ even if they experience severe suffering. Instead, they preach that God merely wants to give you stuff and will do it with magic rather than simple cause and effect and accumulated wise habits like in the Psalms and Proverbs. Ephesians 4 is a good test case for Christian behavior that is also commendable to outsiders.

Translation Comments:
The asterisk above is an interesting case (Ephesians 4:32), most translations translate that as “forgiving one another.” While I see the merit in this based on the word usage in Luke, 2 Corinthians, and Colossians 2, I think that the word’s more basic meaning “showing grace” or “being gracious,” is salvageable even in those contexts. Paul actually uses the word for forgiveness elsewhere in Ephesians, so it’s not like it wasn’t available to his mind when this sentence came about. I think that showing grace fits the context of all those passages better because the graciousness mentioned clearly extends beyond forgiveness into replacing tradition concepts of reciprocity.

Romans, Debt, and Obligation

Introduction
A feature of Paul’s letter to the Romans that I’ve never noticed being explored in depth is the concept of obligation or indebtedness. I am interested in this topic because there is a great deal of hand wringing in modern Christian thought about the notion of debt or obligation to God.

John Piper, for instance, thinks that the language of obligation in the context of the Christian life and worship is akin to telling your wife that you bought her flowers out of obligation (Desiring God, 97-98). Piper even calls obligation the “mortal enemy” of worship. Similarly, Greg Boyd (Piper’s opposite), in his book Seeing is Believing seems to say something similar, “striving to be holy, loving, kind or patient means nothing if these attributes are sought as ethical ideals, or to fulfill a rule, or to meet an obligation (Seeing is Believing, 53).” These attitudes toward obligation are psychologically confusing to normal people who don’t have doctoral degrees to help them keep silly things straight. When Jesus says, “train them to do everything which I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19),” we rightly feel obligated to do what he says and to tell others of the obligations Jesus lays on them.

My sense is that both of these thinkers are trying to claim that there is an ideal to be met. The ideal is having a relationship with God wherein our emotions/passions and automatic habits line up with the commands in Scripture. I agree with that this is the ideal. But in the Bible, the ideal is not the litmus test for true spirituality. In Scripture, there is tremendous dignity ascribed to those who do the hard thing that they do not want to do (see all of Proverbs).

In fact, there is no contradiction between doing your duty always and sometimes finding it to be a delight and even spontaneously discharging that duty out of pleasure. Incidentally and contra Piper’s point, Paul sees sexual encounters between husband and wife as an obligation in (1 Corinthians 7:3), but I doubt that the obligation does not carry pleasure with it. I hope that what follows gives a picture of the nature of duty/debt/obligation in Paul’s thought. In so doing, I hope that it clarifies some of the confusion that might even make people feel guilty about following Jesus out of duty or obligation.

Thesis: Obligation and duty are central features of the Paul’s picture of being a disciple of Jesus in his letter to the Romans.

Probatio and Exposition
Paul utilizes the word ὀφειλέτης in several passages:

(Rom 1:14-15 BGT) Ἕλλησίν τε καὶ βαρβάροις, σοφοῖς τε καὶ ἀνοήτοις ὀφειλέτης εἰμί, οὕτως τὸ κατ᾽ ἐμὲ πρόθυμον καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ εὐαγγελίσασθαι.

I am a debtor to the Greeks and to the Barbarians, to the wise and to the ignorant, thus I am willing also to proclaim the gospel message to you who are in Rome.

Here Paul seems to be noting that his wish to share the gospel in Rome and (as we’ll find later) to receive assistance from the Roman Christians for a trip to Spain (15:26-30) is based on a sincere sense of obligation, not on a desire for money or public acclaim. Paul sees himself as obligated to those who do not know the gospel. Obligations carry negative connotations these days, but in reality obligation is a positive concept and in the ancient world it was certainly seen that way. The obligation Paul sees laid upon his person is such that he is able to show tremendous love and care toward people of a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and to introduce them into the Jesus movement and thus to the God of Israel.

(Rom 4:4-5 BGT) τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ ὁ μισθὸς οὐ λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν ἀλλὰ κατὰ ὀφείλημα, τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην·

To the one who works, the reward is not accounted according to principles of grace, but according to principles of obligation, on the contrary, to the one who does not work, but places his trust in He Who Justifies the Impious, his faith is accounted toward righteousness [or “his faith is accounted/credited for the purpose of righteousness” which would carry the meaning in English “his faith is counted as good as righteousness”].

Here Paul uses obligation in a strictly financial sense to bring a notion of ancient patronage that all auditors would know and understand into his discussion about justification. The idea is that an ancient patron could pay you justly for work or in order to boost his own honor, provide a grace/gift with no expectation (or possibility) of remuneration. The correct response to this gift would be to show loyalty or trust toward the giver (See David DeSilva, Honor Patronage Kinship, and Purity (IVP, 2000), 121-156). In this case, the gift is the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 4:24-45) and the show of loyalty is faith and entering into this patron-client relationship with He Who Justifies the Impious leads to justification/righteousness. As Robert Jewett notes: “faith was the response of converts to the message that Christ died for the impious, and it led to their joining small communities of faith in which righteousness became a social reality as the dishonored were restored to honor, that is, to “righteousness.”*

(Rom 8:12-13 BGT)  Ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν, εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε ἀποθνῄσκειν· εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε.

Therefore now, brothers and sisters, we are obligated, not to the flesh in order to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you will die; if, by means of the Spirit, you put to death the practices of the body, you will live.

What seems to be going on here is that the Christian has an obligation to fulfill as a debtor, but not as a debtor to the flesh (because though Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh and was raised bodily (Romans 1:1-5, 4:24-25, 5:1-11, 6:1-4 8:1-11), it was the Spirit of God who raised him (Romans 8:11). Thus, though the body is important, not everything we do in it is good. There is sin in our members (Romans 7:5), but we are not obligated to that way of life. In fact, if we paid off our debt to the flesh, it would be like nothing other than working as a servant of Sin, who pays his workers with death (Romans 6:23)**

(Rom 13:7-8 BGT) ἀπόδοτε πᾶσιν τὰς ὀφειλάς, τῷ τὸν φόρον τὸν φόρον, τῷ τὸ τέλος τὸ τέλος, τῷ τὸν φόβον τὸν φόβον, τῷ τὴν τιμὴν τὴν τιμήν. Μηδενὶ μηδὲν ὀφείλετε εἰ μὴ τὸ ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν· ὁ γὰρ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἕτερον νόμον πεπλήρωκεν.

Give to all what is obligatory: to whom you owe tribute tax, give tribute tax; to whom you owe customs tax, give customs tax; to whom you owe reverence, give reverence; to whom you owe honor, give honor. In no way be obligated to anybody except to love one another. For the one who loves the other fulfills the Law.

Here Paul’s point is that being mindful of the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8) is not pie-in-the-sky-ism. It is rather a very practical way of life that involves making way for the gospel to influence all peoples in all nations. In this respect, the Christian is to live in appropriate relationships with the legal customs of the surrounding world precisely so that there is freedom to love the other, namely the Christian who is not yourself (note that the main idea is to love one another, elsewhere Paul clearly expresses A) his debt to all men and B) that Christian love extends beyond the in-group.

(Rom 15:1 BGT) Ὀφείλομεν δὲ ἡμεῖς οἱ δυνατοὶ τὰ ἀσθενήματα τῶν ἀδυνάτων βαστάζειν καὶ μὴ ἑαυτοῖς ἀρέσκειν.

But, we who are capable, are ourselves obligated to bear the weaknesses of the incapable and to not please ourselves.

Here the main point seems to be to the effect that Christian of serious scruples about dietary laws and Old Testament customs should be showed dignity by Christians who are capable of not participating in those customs. In this case, Christians who have an advantageous perspective should show due deference to their brethren of weaker conscience. This principle is based partly on the honor accorded to all for whom Christ died (Romans 14:6) and partly upon the example of Jesus in bringing Gentiles into God’s people in the first place (Romans 15:7-9).

This might also be explanatory for Paul’s reminder to non-Jewish Christians that they should not, in arrogance think ill of Jewish folk because in their arrogance they may abandon the gospel (Romans 11:15-23). Thus, within the church, Christians are to regard each other (when disagreements about Christian ceremony come up) with humility and respect, treating one another as people with burdens to bear. Paul expects this, I think, of everybody. The rhetorical move may very well be to get any Christian to think of themselves as a capable person and thus to bear his own load and that of his brethren so that everybody might be built up and that there might be peace (Romans 14:19 and Galatians 6:2-5).

(Rom 15:27 BGT) εὐδόκησαν γὰρ καὶ ὀφειλέται εἰσὶν αὐτῶν· εἰ γὰρ τοῖς πνευματικοῖς αὐτῶν ἐκοινώνησαν τὰ ἔθνη, ὀφείλουσιν καὶ ἐν τοῖς σαρκικοῖς λειτουργῆσαι αὐτοῖς.

For they were pleased to do this and they were debtors to them. For if they shared their spiritual blessings with the nations, they are debtors with respect to material things to those who thus served them.

Here Paul’s point, that I said I would get to earlier, is that the other gentile churches were pleased to offer financial aid to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. The idea here is that the gentile Christians not only served the poor out of obedience to Jesus (which would make sense to do), but in this case, served the poor Jewish Christians out of a sense of reciprocity. The Israelite nation had given them the gospel of Christ, therefore, it was fitting for the gentiles to offer material assistance during the famine.

Conclusion
The overall picture is that Christians should see themselves as being to other Christians, debtors (in imitation of Paul) to outsiders who need the gospel, and as non-debtors to the flesh. Paul also uses the term “placed in service” in Romans 6:22 to refer to the relationship a believer has to God. Certainly there is an element of joy in that in Paul’s mind, but there is also an element of obligation to God. This is naturally due to God’s nature as well as due to God’s revelation to us in Christ. It appears that being obligated toward God and others is not only a part of Paul’s conceptual world, but it is an important part that is exactly part of the process of learning to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). It is also important to note that Jesus thought that the notion of having a servant-self-image was part of the process of becoming great in God’s kingdom (Mark 10:45). Thus, it’s okay to do Christian things out of a sense of obligation. Not only that, but it might even be freeing at times because you don’t have to be in control of your feelings to know whether or not your doing the Christian life the right way.

*Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 315.

**I still don’t know why people interpret Romans 6:23 to mean that the penalty for sin is death when the passage seems to be indicating that Sin, when you treat it like a master and live for its purposes destroys you rather than gives you the life it promises. Romans 1:18-32 does note that death is a punishment for sinning or at least it is potentially the just-dessert of sinning. But Romans 6:23 just doesn’t say what it is often portrayed as saying. I think the common interpretation is based solely on the simplification it offers for gospel tracts.

Where are you staying?

In John’s gospel there are themes that relate to root words and concepts that reappear throughout the narrative and in various discourses of Jesus and rejoinders by his opponents. 

στραφεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος αὐτοὺς ἀκολουθοῦντας λέγει αὐτοῖς· τί ζητεῖτε; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ· ῥαββί, ὃ λέγεται μεθερμηνευόμενον διδάσκαλε, ποῦ μένεις; (Joh 1:38 BGT)

Then, when Jesus turned and observed them following him, he said to them, “What do you seek?” Then they said to him, “Rabbi, (which translates teacher), “Where are you staying?” (John 1:38)

Now, the obvious meaning of this passage in context is that the two men who decided to geographically follow Jesus (perhaps not even as his disciples yet) just wanted a private place to talk to the guy. But John, in his characteristically ironic manner, makes the passage mean a great deal more. 

λέγει αὐτοῖς· ἔρχεσθε καὶ ὄψεσθε. ἦλθαν οὖν καὶ εἶδαν ποῦ μένει καὶ παρ᾽ αὐτῷ ἔμειναν τὴν ἡμέραν ἐκείνην· ὥρα ἦν ὡς δεκάτη. (Joh 1:39 BGT)

He said to them, “You should come and see.” Then they cam and saw where he stayed and they stayed with him that day. It was the tenth hour. (John 1:39) 

Later in the gospel, these two disciples (Andrew and probably John), come and see Jesus’ identity. That’s another story altogether though. The import for this post is that Jesus tells them he’ll show them where he’s staying and he does (in terms of his physical house), but as the gospel continues Jesus uses the same Greek word to indicate that people should “abide in me,” “abide in my love,” “if you abide in my word,” etc. 

By chapter fifteen this happens:

9 Καθὼς ἠγάπησέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ ὑμᾶς ἠγάπησα· μείνατε ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ τῇ ἐμῇ.
10 ἐὰν τὰς ἐντολάς μου τηρήσητε, μενεῖτε ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ μου, καθὼς ἐγὼ τὰς ἐντολὰς τοῦ πατρός μου τετήρηκα καὶ μένω αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ. (Joh 15:9-10 BGT)

Just as the Father loves me, so also, I love you; stay in my love. If you keep my commands, then you stay in my love just as I have kept the commands of my Father and I am staying in his love. (John 15:9-10)*

I intentionally translated the Greek word the same way throughout, though it normally is translated, “abide.”

The idea I’m getting at is that when Jesus answered their question, “Where are you staying?” with “Come and see,” John, with his penchant for irony, points out that all along Jesus’ answer was, “In my Father’s love.”

Jesus is the one who, in a unique way lives in God’s love. He does so in such a way, according to John, that he makes God’s love available to all. 

*Note: I translated the aorist here ἠγάπησέν and here ἠγάπησα as gnomic aorists (contra ESV, ISV, and others). I didn’t mistake them for present tense. It just seems that Jesus is stating a constant fact using the aorist, whereas he uses the perfect idea in the very next verse with “I have kept.” If the aorists were meant to convey the perfect idea, then it seems John would have just put them in the perfect.

Meekness and Such

I think Christians often struggle with the word “meek.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” Paul says that the fruit of Spirit is 1/9th meekness flavoured. The word, in common English usage means “quiet, gentle, and submissive (Concise Oxford English Dictionary).” Christians certainly are to be those things in certain contexts. But, the issue of Christians learning meekness becomes particularly vexing when Jesus says, “Learn of me because (or that) I am meek and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29).” But Jesus is not usually very submissive to others, he’s not always quiet, and sometimes he is not particularly gentle.

But, a bit of research to the rescue, and BDAG (a lexicon of ancient Greek) defines the word which we translate meek below and then gives potential translations of the word: 

Πραυτης – the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, meekness*

So I wonder if Jesus’ meekness and our own is closer to the idea of being unassuming and not self-impressed. The word doesn’t mean flippant or not taking oneself seriously. Jesus was deadly serious, “Learn of me…I will give you rest.” But he did not take personal insults with seriousness except insofar as they infringed upon the truth. He even noted, “Every sin against the Son of Man will be forgiven…” Jesus was willing to associate with anybody who was willing to hear the gospel. That was meekness. His considerateness was not limited to those he considered honorable enough. It was for all. This is how he was meek, yet simultaneously able to be very harsh. Meekness, for the Christian, appears to be the virtue of taking others seriously enough to give them time, tell them the truth, and make amendments to your life to improve their lives. It is, in that respect, one aspect of love. Meekness is not submitting to any and every unjust authority, accepting every insult that is injurious to good causes, and sitting back while evil is done against the weak.

The end.

* Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.