Author Archives: timgombis

Refugees & the Church

Early this morning I read this article in today’s NY Times about Syrian refugees who have been settled in Michigan. After having experienced relief and being grateful for safety and some measure of security, many in this Michigan community are becoming fearful in the wake of growing anti-refugee sentiment and the reactionary rhetoric from public figures.

After our church service, we heard a powerful presentation from one of our church members who works with Bethany Christian Services to settle refugees here in West Michigan. It was exciting to hear the enthusiastic response of many in our congregation who want to get involved in providing hospitality and relief to traumatized people fleeing war-torn places.

The Hospitality of Abraham

It’s difficult for anyone to ignore the present international refugee crisis. Because I’m in the midst of studying Mark’s Gospel, I’ve been processing what I’m hearing through the lenses of the cross, commands to provide hospitality to the socially ostracized and marginalized, and Jesus’ teaching on service. I’m also nearly finished with John Barclay’s marvelous book, Paul & the Gift, which offers a compelling vision of the church as a social body that instantiates the incongruous grace of God. Because God’s grace is given without regard to worth–to the “ungodly”–the church always must struggle to identify its antipathies to those it deems “ungodly” or “unworthy” of God’s kindness and embrace others, even (especially!) those it considers threatening.

Because these are such pervasive themes in Scripture and since the implications of the cross are so extensive with regard to this pressing contemporary issue, I may roll out some thoughts over the next few weeks regarding biblical resources for Christian thinking about refugees. This crisis presents a wonderful opportunity for Christians to think and speak from their fundamental identity as Christians, rather than from earthly loyalties.

The icon above, by the way, is “The Hospitality of Abraham.” “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).

Worldliness & the Social Scandal of the Cross

One of the many benefits of John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is the manner in which he captures how for Paul the effects of the cross are seen in the social ordering of churches.

The cross is a world-shattering and world-creating event, refashioning the cosmos, effecting a new creation. This cosmic upheaval brings about a radically new social order among those communities that claim loyalty to Jesus Christ.

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Speaking for all those in Christ, Paul says that “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14), creating a community in which ethnic distinctions no longer determine social capital (v. 15).

This is why Paul reacts so strongly to communities that are still ordered socially according to worldly valuations such as gender hierarchies and claims to ethnic and racial priority that privilege one group over another. These hierarchies belong to the world that has been put to death in the death of Christ (Gal. 6:14), and if they continue to shape Christian communities, then those communities are inherently worldly.

Such communities manifest a cosmic reality in which “Christ died for nothing!” (Gal. 2:21, NIV). Such churches proclaim the death of Christ as impotent to bring about the reality that Paul’s gospel declares.

The cross is not a private reality. The cross is public and political because it calls into being a visible community that enacts in its transformative social practices the gift given without any consideration of worldly measures of worth.

This is the scandal of the cross.

The Cross Shatters All Norms

I am thoroughly enjoying John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. He has developed a unique vocabulary and grammar to articulate the shape of Paul’s theology.

Barclay, Paul and the Gift

It’s simply beautiful to read and I find myself re-reading and savoring many of his paragraphs. In his discussion of Galatians 6:11-16, he powerfully captures Paul’s argument regarding the power of the cross:

The cross of Christ shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly “natural” order of “the world” (cf. 4:3). In form (as unconditioned gift), in content (as death), and in mode (the shame of crucifixion), the cross of Christ breaks believers’ allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right. Whereas Philo took “the world” (ὁ κόσμος) to be the properly ordered gift of God, whose stable values were reinforced by gifts to worthy beneficiaries, Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm is judged and every value relativized. This single and particular event is of universal significance not because it reveals some timeless and universal principle of the cosmos, but because it is beholden to no pre-calculated system of distinction, and privileges no subset of humanity. It is the original radically unconditioned event (p. 395).

Inadvertent Servants

Commentators make much of the two massive feedings in Mark 6:35-45 and 8:1-10. The narratives are pregnant with significance. From one angle, the two episodes can be read as failures on the disciples’ part. The first comes just after their initial mission as agents of the kingdom’s miraculous power (6:13), yet they fail to imagine how to feed the large crowd. In the second episode, Jesus seems to be giving them a second opportunity by describing at length the situation in 8:2-3. It’s as if he’s saying, “Okay, boys, we’ve seen this before – large crowd, deserted place, need for food . . . , sound familiar?”

Both times the disciples fail to see how God’s provision might work out (6:37; 8:4).


I find it striking that in the face of the disciples’ failure, Jesus doesn’t feed the crowds to the exclusion of the disciples. He makes them servants despite themselves.

The first feeding takes place in Jewish territory, and Jesus multiplies the food and gives it to the disciples who then set it before the people like table-waiters. In the second feeding, in the region of the Decapolis, Mark stresses the disciples’ inclusion in serving the people. He notes that Jesus multiplied the bread and gave it to the disciples “to serve “ to the people, “and they served them to the people” (v. 6). After he multiplied the fish, Jesus gave it to the disciples “to be served,” too (v. 7).

Even though they are hard-hearted, slow to understand (6:52), and failing to faithfully discern Jesus’ identity and mission, Jesus is transforming them into servants to Israel and to the nations.

A Markan Mystery

“Mark wants to insist on two things: Jesus does not want to be known in his true identity until it will be clear that suffering rather than power lies at the core of that identity, but Jesus’ charismatic accomplishments are so great that they cannot be hidden. There is an inevitable tension between those two claims, and it is Mark’s style just to say both, lay them beside each other, and not worry very much about explanations. Karl Barth says that this is often a good way to do theology; it is what he calls theology’s inevitable brokenness. If we know X and we know Y, but X and Y seem inconsistent, better to say them both and leave a mystery than to try to make a coherent system and in the process lose sight of one of the things we knew in the first place. The ‘ultimate word, however is not a further thesis, not a synthesis, but just the name Jesus Christ'” (W. Placher, Mark, p. 108, quoting Barth).

Mark’s Offensive Messiah

Clifton Black on Mark’s subversive presentation of Jesus:

The deeper question with which Mark’s readers must come to terms is whether she or he can follow a Christ so offensive as to die by crucifixion (15:22-41). An inescapable dimension of this Evangelist’s Christology is the Messiah’s repulsiveness. Jesus flummoxes everyone who boxes him into conventional expectations: the pious (2:1-3:6; 7:1-23), his family (3:19b-21), his disciples (8:33), and even some petitioners (7:24-30). If Mark’s reader is not also abashed, it is a safe bet that its Jesus has been domesticated and his gospel as been neutered (Black, Mark, 181).

Pastors & the Cross

While the cross is the freest possible place from which to minister, there are endless reasons to avoid cruciform pastoral ministry.

William Congdon, "Crucifixion #2" (1960)

William Congdon, “Crucifixion #2” (1960)

It feels so terrifyingly vulnerable, so threatening and precarious, so foolish and irresponsible, so unproductive and inefficient, so pointless and inconvenient. The cross is not manipulable, it demands death, calls for complete surrender, is immune to demands for rights or even bargaining. You can’t leverage it, negotiate it, hedge it, dress it up with lighting. It is blunt and ugly. It will give you splinters. It’s not romantic or sentimental, and there’s no silver lining.

The cross is the power of God, the location of resurrection life, and yet we try by all means to stay away from it.

Evangelicals & the Republican Party

In American Apocalypse, Matthew Avery Sutton gives an account of the gradual alliance of American evangelical Christians with the Republican Party. An excerpt:

As fundamentalists reacted to labor unrest and the communist menace, they evolved from occasional critics of monopolistic corporations into apologists for free market capitalism. For Billy Sunday, securing the nation’s Christian foundations meant a return to small government and laissez-faire economics. “There are two schools of thought in our land,” he preached. “One is that each individual man and woman shall have his or her right to determine what shall be your happiness. . . . There is the other school where the individual effort, my friends, and initiative is controlled by the State or by force.” He made clear that Jesus was no parlor pink. “No man, he preached, “who thinks as Jesus thought can ever be a socialist. No man who thinks as Karl Marx thought can ever be a Christian.”

Sunday’s perspective mirrored that of the majority of fundamentalists in the 1920’s. While earlier generations of premillennialists had little interest in defending the rich and powerful, the Red Scare put the fear of a communist revolution into the souls of fundamentalists. They no longer stood apart from labor-capital conflicts as neutral voices calling for workplace justice but instead became mouthpieces for the wealthy. Amid the shifting social mores that left few traditional customs untouched, fundamentalists sought less conflict, more stability, fewer questions, and more certainty. Nor were they the only Americans to move to the right in the post-World War I years. Their political evolution represented widespread changes under way in the United States as Progressivism died a slow death, changes the Republican Party began to masterfully exploit (pp. 189-90).

It seems to me that the church is a political entity that is loyal to the Lord Christ alone and stands apart from all other political entities. How might the political evolution of evangelicals be understood in biblical and theological terms? What are the dangers of an uncritical alliance of the church with any earthly cause?

Smartphone Addiction

Yesterday’s NY Times carried this very interesting article, “Addicted to Your Phone? There’s Help for That” (“Put Down The Phone” in the print edition) pondering smartphone addiction and attempts to overcome it.

By Matthew Bourel


I don’t have a smartphone (and didn’t realize it was one word until yesterday), and my family think it’s because I’m somehow anti-technology. I’m not, actually. I just prefer to think through whether or not I actually need a certain tool or need to make use of a technology before I get one. And, more importantly, I’d like to think critically about the sorts of dynamics that any technology initiates. There’s much to be said about all of that, but I found this article interesting, especially this paragraph:

But smartphones are a potent delivery mechanism for two fundamental human impulses, according to Paul Atchley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas: our quest to find new and interesting distractions, and our desire to feel that we have checked off a task.

The Racist Roots of Evangelicalism*

I’m currently finding it difficult to put down Matthew Avery Sutton’s excellent work, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Among other things, he traces the movement’s strong anti-Semitism and racism in the early 20th century. Shockingly, fundamentalists had an ambivalent relationship with the Ku Klux Klan, which Sutton documents through debates and discussions in the editorial pages of Moody Monthly magazine.


Fundamentalist leaders did not hide the reality that they were forging a segregated movement. They did not merely marginalize African-American Christians, but purposefully excluded them. Black church leaders, of course, recognized the systemic evils at work.

These dynamics are reflected in the practices of fundamentalist revivalists:

Segregation was so prevalent in churches around the country that it rarely provoked comment. Short-term revivals featuring celebrity evangelists, however, often forced the issue. People of all races and colors flocked to see famous preachers. In most cases in the South the nation’s leading revivalists offered segregated meetings. During a revival in wartime Atlanta, for example, Billy Sunday had held a special service for “Negroes” since they could not attend the regular services. At that meeting he acknowledged “his lack of familiarity with the colored race,” but that did not keep him from offering what the Atlanta Constitution praised as “some of the finest advice that was ever given to a crowd of colored people by any man from the north or from the south.” What was Sunday’s advice? He told his black audience that “southern whites are Negroes’ best friends” and that they should not migrate north, and he admonished the North to keep its “hands off” the South. The white southern press saw his self-serving counsel as a breakthrough and called the evangelist a “promoter of interracial harmony.” When he followed up the meeting by inviting a thousand African-American singers to serve as the choir for the next white service, Current Opinion concluded that nothing like it had ever been attempted before. “Both races felt that an important step had been made in the right direction.” That journalists interpreted the appearance of a black choir at a Sunday meeting as a novelty illustrates the customary nature of strictly segregated revivals.

While Sunday’s efforts may have delighted some white southerners, they did not impress African Americans. After a long Washington, D.C., campaign a local minister noted that Sunday “was brought here by the whites for the benefit of the whites.” Over the course of a multiweek revival, Sunday denounced dozens of different kinds of sins, yet he ignored “the devil of race prejudice, rotten, stinking, hell-born race prejudice,” which would “be just as strongly entrenched in the white churches and in the community as it was before he came.” Sunday, the minister concluded, “at times, seems to be a little courageous judged by his vigorous denunciation of many sins; but when it comes to the big devil of race prejudice, the craven in him comes out; he cowers before it; he is afraid to speak out; at heart he is seen to be a moral coward in spite of his bluster and pretense of being brave. What are you afraid of Mr. Sunday . . . ?” The National Baptist Union Review leveled a similar charge. “It will not suffice for Mr. Sunday to invade the Southland,” the paper editorialized, “and denounce adultery, fornication, liars, hypocrites, bums, hobos, rascals, scoundrels, crap shooters, tramps and loafers, and leave untouched the lynchers, the ballot box thief, the segregator, the discriminator, the Negro hater, the promoter of racial strife and the mob leader, who burns human beings at the stake because they are black.” White fundamentalists simply proved unable to recognize race prejudice as a real problem. For them, inequality most often reflected God’s order rather than the sins of humanity. For African Americans the equality of all people represented an essential component of the fundamental gospel (pp. 131-32, emphasis added).

These sorts of dynamics, perhaps in subtler form, persist in many evangelical institutions. Sutton’s work can bear fruit, it seems to me, if it sheds light on the historical roots of the contemporary shape of American evangelical culture and how far short it comes from faithfully embodying the kingdom of God. Such exposure can lead to the creation of new and life-giving practices and postures toward one another.

*Update: In Sutton’s work, fundamentalism in the early 20th century is in continuity with evangelicalism in the decades following the second world war. I’m updating the title of this post to reflect the reality that the roots of contemporary evangelicalism’s racial issues lie in fundamentalism’s intentional racist ideology and strategies.


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