She Raises Her Daughters

A poem inspired by awesome parents like my friend Sarah Suarez, who put so much thought and intention daily into the ways they raise their daughters, and by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ recent speech in response to Rep. Ted Yoho’s disrespectful comments and subsequent non-apology.

If you haven’t watched the full video of AOC’s speech (included in the link above), it’s well worth the ten minutes. One line (among many!) that I appreciated is “I am here because I have to show my parents…that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”

She Raises Her Daughters

She raises her daughters to negotiate,
push back, articulate their needs, 

to know that those who love them 
will respect them, hear them out, will not 

lash back in anger. 
She raises her daughters to say “thank you” 

and “no, thank you,” to assert autonomy,
embrace their agency, be willing to refuse 

demands upon their time, their bodies, souls,
and see authority as something not unbendable 

by strong and stubborn wills.
She raises her daughters to make choices,

to direct the courses of their lives, to not 
accept in coerced blindness 

all the things the world will tell them 
about who they are 

and what they cannot be.
She raises her daughters to stand tall

when men try to demolish them with words,
to see right through pretend apologies,

to speak truth to deaf ears until they hear,
and not back down upon intimidation.

She raises her daughters to know that they
and all their sisters are worth more 

than this.

So praise her, praise the mothers like her,
praise the parents like her―each the kind 

of hero our world does not know it needs.
They walk against the wind 

and swim up all the streams 
to teach our little girls to live as fully human,

teach our little girls to live what will not be
an easy life.

Gendered titles & getters-of-stuff-done

While reading the biblical books of Ephesians and Colossians in Greek, I have been struck by Paul’s repeated references to himself and others as διάκονος (pronounced de-ä’-ko-nos; it’s where we get the English word “deacon”):

  • Paul says that he has become a διάκονος of the good news of God’s promise in Jesus, according to the gift of God’s grace (Eph 3:6-7).
  • Paul calls his friend Tychichus a beloved brother and faithful διάκονος in the Lord (Eph 6:21).
  • Paul says that the Colossians heard the good news from his other buddy Epaphras, whom Paul describes as a beloved fellow servant and a faithful διάκονος of Christ (Col 1:7).
  • Paul says (again) that he has been made a διάκονος of the good news (Col 1:23).
  • Immediately after this, Paul calls himself a διάκονος of Christ’s body, which is the church (Col 1:24-25).
  • Paul mentions Tychichus again and calls him a beloved brother, faithful διάκονος, and fellow servant in the Lord (Col 4:7).

Different translations, in different places (the passages above as well as others), translate διάκονος as servant, minister, or deacon.

Danker et. al.’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (affectionately known as “BDAG,” which stands for the initials of the four main contributing scholars…not to be confused with a d-bag, which is something else :D) describes a διάκονος as “one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone”; for example, “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction,” or “one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior.”

So basically, a διάκονος gets *stuff* done. On someone else’s behalf. (Feel free to think of that when you read these passages from now on.)

I think I was struck by Paul’s descriptions of himself―and of other friends and fellow leaders whom he clearly likes and respects very much―as διάκονος, because it feels like such a humble term. When you are a διάκονος, you are doing something on behalf of another; carrying out another’s wishes; assisting someone else in achieving their goals, while perhaps putting your own goals on the back burner for a time. 

These are all things that have been historically, and are often in the present, relegated to women. They are things that are expected of women, often much more so than they are expected of men―however much churches and their male leaders might talk a big game about servant leadership. 

Because of this, I’m surprised and glad to see that Paul is proud to apply the term to himself and to his male friends. He doesn’t mind seeing himself as a getter-of-stuff-done on behalf of the good news of God’s promise; on behalf of Jesus; on behalf of the church.

When we call someone a “minister” these days―at least for those who hold some sort of respect for the church and its titles, and I don’t particularly blame those who don’t―it’s a term of honor, leadership, respect. Some churches balk at the idea of female ministers; others (well, more precisely, the same ones, plus a whole bunch more) balk at the idea of LGBTQ+ ministers. 

People and churches who find their place in the more conservative streams of Christianity often end up doing a great deal of verbal gymnastics to try to delineate which roles and titles are available to women (and/or LGBTQ+ people) and which ones are not. Some churches want to allow women and/or LGBTQ+ people to be deacons, but not pastors; children’s program directors, but not ministers; or teachers of other women, but not elders who make decisions on the behalf of the entire church.

Paul’s use of διάκονος―servant, minister, and all-around getter-of-stuff-done―to describe himself pushes back against these odd distinctions churches sometimes draw. 

Paul was a gifted pastor who saw himself as a διάκονος, a deacon. He was a director or co-director of many ministries who saw himself as a διάκονος, a minister. He was a man willing to be taught by women and recognize their leadership―women like Phoebe, whom Paul also calls a διάκονος in Romans 16:1.

Distinctions like deacon vs pastor, director vs minister, or teacher vs elder have been manufactured by subsequent generations of Christians; they are not part of the mindset in which Paul and others wrote the parts of the New Testament that people look to for guidance in these things. 

I’m not exactly someone who would try to make Paul a feminist by modern standards (as much as I might wish he had been), but I do think it’s very much worth pointing out the (many) places where he pushes back, even just a bit, against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in his own time and culture―in the hope that this might help us learn to push back against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in our own time and culture.

And so, I like that Paul isn’t afraid to name himself and his fellow bros as διάκονος. 

(As a bit of a side note, I’m wary of translations that make gendered choices around how to translate διάκονος in different places. For example, the KJV, ESV, and NASB all translate διάκονος as “minister” when applied to Paul in Eph 3:7, but “servant” when applied to Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Paul didn’t make this distinction; why would we?)

Here’s to breaking down the false distinctions we tend to set up in order to justify discriminatory attitudes and practices.

Here’s to powerful religious leaders like Paul learning―often slowly and painfully, I’m sure―to be a διάκονος: to get stuff done on behalf of something (the good news), someone (Jesus), and some ones (the collections of people who make up church communities) other than themselves.

Here’s to churches thinking more about honoring the gifts and the faithful service-ministry of women and LGBTQ+ people, and less about restricting them, controlling them, and limiting how they are allowed to lead or what titles they are allowed to have.

I think that Paul―the self-proclaimed διάκονος―would approve.

Elizabeth’s Pregnancy

This is not a pregnancy announcement :D.

It’s not really a full blog post either.

I was thinking about writing something about Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. After all, it’s almost Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus―and Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy and Mary’s were closely connected.

I love the story Luke tells about Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth, when Mary had just become pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy with John the Baptist:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:39-45)

I love that John’s mother was something of a prophet in her own right. The Holy Spirit filled her, and she spoke: words of blessing, words of foretelling, words of wisdom. Words of humility and wonder and hope and joy and faith.

I also love what Mary said in response:

My soul exalts the Lord,
and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
(Luke 1:46-55)

Good things happen when women speak and write and preach and make poetry! I love that Elizabeth’s words of blessing called forth these brave and beautiful words from Mary.

I also love that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months after that (Luke 1:56). These two women from two different generations showed up for each other and supported one another in a time when there weren’t too many other people who would or could understand what God was doing in their lives.

Mostly, though, I just wanted to share a link to an article about Elizabeth’s pregnancy that I thought was interesting. It’s written by Lara Freidenfelds, who is a historian of health, reproduction, and pregnancy, and has spent fifteen years writing a book about miscarriage.

I love it when people with expertise in all sorts of different (non-theology) subject areas bring all of their intelligence and years of study into their reading of the Bible and share what they think.

I also love it when women speak and write on the women of the Bible (as well as just in general).

So Dr. Freidenfelds’ article is cool. I hope you enjoy it. (If not now, because Christmas Eve and family and everything, then maybe bookmark it for later :).)

Merry Christmas Eve!

When You Can’t Win

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
-Jesus (Matthew 11:16-19)

I find this passage very relatable, and, because of that, kind of comforting.

Jesus says: John the Baptist fasted, and he gets called demon-possessed. I eat and drink, and people call me a glutton and a wino. (“Wino” is actually a pretty literal rendering of the word translated as “drunkard” above―no joke!)

For my part, I notice that sometimes I come across as kind of laid-back, or even passive (which is totally fair…sometimes, and about some things…), and sometimes people are uncomfortable with this. So they tell me that I should be more assertive. But then there are times when I am more assertive, and it turns out that people don’t actually like that. They see it as threatening, or inappropriate, or jarring.

This series of illustrations from a few years ago draws attention to just a few of the different sets of contradictory advice that women in particular tend to receive. It’s no secret that, as the article points out―whether in the workplace, dating, or other settings―women are regularly told to stick up for themselves, but then get called things like “bossy,” “aggressive,” or “a handful” if they do. Women are regularly assumed to be not as smart as men, but then are considered intimidating and out of place when they do speak up with a particularly intelligent insight.

I think about this quote (of complex origins), which, to be honest, I think I first saw in an acquaintance’s e-mail signature several years ago: “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

I think the quote stuck with me because it struck a chord. I really like avoiding criticism. Or rather, I really don’t like being criticized. It’s no fun at all. The experience of feeling criticized tends to draw out angry, lie-filled (and typo-filled) tweets from some people―and self-doubting, quietly anxious introspection from others.

It’s worth saying that criticism, of course, can be very important and helpful. It’s good to listen to criticism carefully and engage with it thoughtfully―even though most of us don’t find that easy to do.

But criticism can also be paralyzing. It is easy, at least for some of us, to give it so much weight in our lives that we step back from something we are doing because of it. We quit speaking about something that is important to us, or we try to change something about ourselves that maybe wasn’t ever meant to be changed. It’s easy, perhaps, not to be critical enough about the criticism we receive.

Perhaps situations where we relate to John the Baptist the demon-possessed and Jesus the wino―where we feel like we can’t avoid criticism no matter what we do―can spur us to dig deeper within ourselves for a guiding compass more reliable than other people’s estimations. Sometimes criticism comes our way just because other people have a limited perspective. They may be like children calling to one another: we played the flute for you and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn. Their reactions and advice might not actually be appropriate for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

As someone who has now (by getting an MDiv) dipped a toe into the world of religious academia, I really enjoyed this recent podcast, where Dr. Daniel White Hodge, James Howard Hill Jr., and Jorge J. Rodriguez V have a great conversation about navigating academia without selling your soul.

One thing that stood out to me from this conversation was the idea of remembering who you are, and remembering who you’re working for. When things get confusing, and mentors and other academic/religious elders are giving you conflicting advice―or advice that doesn’t necessarily match with your own vision and hopes in life―remember who you are, and who you’re doing all this for. Remember the communities you come from. Remember your family and your spouse and their visions for what a flourishing life looks like. And if the decisions you make, based on all that, go against the wisdom of the academy, or of more experienced scholars, that’s okay. You’re not working to fuel the machine of the academy. Your life and dignity is worth more than that.

I think this idea suggests some potentially good ways to measure and evaluate the criticisms we receive. Does the person offering criticism share my vision for the flourishing of my life, family, and communities? What are this person’s expectations for me? Who do they want me to be―and is this who I am, and who I want to be?

If we’re attempting to do anything at all meaningful in this world, we can’t meet everyone’s expectations. We can’t avoid criticism from everyone. But we can learn to thoughtfully sort through the criticism we receive, learn from it, and not let it derail us.

My sense is that people on the underside of societal power structures often find themselves especially deep in the “can’t win” kind of bind that Jesus and John the Baptist experienced. Fast, and get called demon-possessed; eat, and get called a glutton. Be gentle and nice, and you’re constantly overlooked and underestimated; be assertive and set boundaries, and you get called crazy or disruptive or written off as angry.

For women in a patriarchal world, these kinds of perspectives and criticisms matter to us because they are the dominant ones all around us. We have been trained to care too much about what men think and how they criticize us―and this is because we have been trained to believe that their opinions matter more than ours. That their thoughts are more valuable than ours. That their perspectives are more accurate and objective than ours. (As a white person, I defer to people of color to speak about their experiences, but I imagine a similar dynamic often operates there, in which the white gaze dominates and it is difficult to break out of its inordinate power.)

These are not problems with easy solutions. But I do find hope in knowing that Jesus and John the Baptist would understand. They knew what it was like to not be able to avoid criticism. They were both faithful to God―and to their communities, and to themselves―and accepted the reality that not all of the results of this faithfulness would be positive. That it wouldn’t always (or perhaps even often) win people’s affirmation and praise.

I find hope in remembering that for me, as for John and Jesus, people’s criticism (or affirmation) is not where our worth and value lies. It’s not a good measure of success. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, not by popularity or avoidance of tension.

When criticism, or the fear of it, threatens to derail and paralyze us―keeping us small and timid and too hesitant to move or act for good in this world―may we remember who we are and who we are working for. And may we remind one another of these things, as often as we need to hear it.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 1 of 3)

Finally moving on from Matthew 3!

Here’s a story about John the Baptist from the book written by another dude whose name was also John:

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

I’m going to sit on this passage for a minute―and by a minute, I mean this post and the next two as well. I particularly want to stew on the last sentence. John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, says, he must increase, but I must decrease.

I could probably spend a while waxing poetic…or just preachy…on the virtues of humility, of decreasing our own power and need for control so that Jesus might increase, of laying down our own rights and needs and very lives so that the gospel might go forward and flourish.

I could say these things, and I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

But I also think it’s very complicated. And so, over the next three days, I want to share three personal stories that relate to John’s statement and (I hope) might help draw out some of the complexities that come up as we think about it.

Here is story number one:

I used to lead the college ministry at the church that I was a part of for a long time in the Bay area.

At this church, there is a pastor―whom I like, respect, and look up to a lot―who sometimes makes self-deprecating comments and jokes, in staff meetings or otherwise. I appreciate his quick wit and his humility, and I think others do too.

This pastor is also male, about ten years older than me, and much more well-established in the structures of institutional power at the church. Given all this―his social location, if you will―I think his self-deprecating humor helps people feel comfortable around him rather than intimidated. It helps people see that he is relatable and human.

At some point, I realized that sometimes I would make similar kinds of comments and jokes―but for me, they weren’t really working in my favor.

I was young, female, and not at all well-established in the church’s leadership structures. And I had to deal with things my male, well-established pastor colleague didn’t have to deal with.

For example, I would be surprised if my colleague has ever had a conversation with a male stranger in the church parking lot that went like this:

Male stranger (seeing me getting food out of my car, about to head toward the college breakfast meeting): “Hey, could you tell me, who’s leading the college ministry these days?”

Me (with a friendly smile): “I am!”

Male stranger: “No, no. Who’s leading the group?”

Me (the smile starting to fade a bit): “Right, that would be me.”

Male stranger: “No, I mean, who’s the college pastor?”

Me: “Oh, well, Scott is the pastor who supervises me, but I’m the one responsible for leading the college group. Did you have a question about the group or anything?”

Male stranger: “Ah, okay, it’s Scott. Great. Thanks!”

My unfortunate reality was that, no matter how much I might have wanted to make self-deprecating jokes, and how appropriate they might have been for my colleague, it wasn’t the same for me. When I said self-deprecating things, people would take them at face value. I knew that I was more capable than I was speaking about, but that wasn’t always obvious to others. 

As a young woman, fairly new to my job, with a lot of responsibilities but without the title of pastor―and all this in a church that did not fully approve of women in leadership―I was in a situation where I didn’t really need to “decrease” any more. I didn’t really need to be any lower than I was already.
I needed to step forward and step up, bringing the best of my talents and passions into a challenging role. I needed to confidently embrace my own belonging and appropriateness in that role. I did not need to try to “decrease” myself by downplaying my gifts or abilities. Doing so―through self-deprecating humor or otherwise―only hindered my ability to do my job, using my gifts fully and freely to lead the college ministry.

I think this is a common tension, and an important one. John the Baptist’s words about decreasing and increasing don’t always apply in our lives and communities in straightforward ways. In fact, the ways in which they do or don’t apply has a great deal to do with social location and power. And, on top of that, the amount of power and kinds of power each of us has can be very different in different contexts and situations.

Tomorrow I’ll share a second story that keeps exploring these kinds of thoughts, from another angle. 

Spiritual Heritage

And you should not think to say among yourselves, “We have Abraham as father.” -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9a)

The Pharisees who came against John’s baptism thought that they did not need to “make fruit worthy of repentance,” because they could trace their lineage back to Abraham. They claimed Abraham as the forefather of their religious and ethnic identity. They saw themselves as the ones who had things right, who had God figured out. And John the Baptist’s life and message did not fit into their paradigm.

When I think of the Pharisees claiming Abraham as their forefather, I think of some of the people who might be claimed as forefathers by different groups of Protestants today. John Calvin could be claimed as a kind of forefather for Presbyterians; Martin Luther for Lutherans; John Wesley for Methodists.

Some churches claim no particular forefather other than Bible itself; these churches too, of course, have their own forefathers. Many evangelical churches, for example, stem from the US revivalist tradition―a tradition that spans, over three centuries, from George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, to Charles Finney, to Dwight Moody, to Billy Graham.

Sometimes different kinds of churches and faith movements can also function as our forefathers. For me―for better or for worse, and usually some of each―the Presbyterian church is my forefather, InterVarsity is my forefather, the nondenominational Bible church movement is my forefather.

It can be good to claim our heritage and traditions, to remember the people who shaped these traditions, to declare whom we have as predecessors in the faith. Naming these things, as the Pharisees might have named Abraham, can help us understand where we come from. It builds a more secure sense of identity. It helps us wrap our minds around why our practices and beliefs are what they are. It can even aid us in imagining how we might continue to form and re-form our traditions to carry their best gifts into a new time with its new experiences and new issues.

After all, every forefather was only human. None of them was right about everything. And each of them needs to be re-examined and re-framed anew each generation, to make sense in a changing world, to offer insights that are life-giving for a new group of people in a new situation.

On top of all this, all of the Protestant forefathers I have named so far―and I’m sure we could name many more―were white men. All of them. What perspectives, insights, and knowledge are we missing if these kinds of voices are the only voices we acknowledge and invite to shape our sense of faith?

Fortunately, we live in a time when female scholars and scholars of color are many and their work is accessible. Unfortunately, seminaries do not always include much of this work in their curricula, and churches do not always include much of it in their Bible studies, preaching, book recommendations, etc.

For those of us who tend to dwell in white-male-dominated church-y spaces, expanding our sense of our spiritual forefathers to include foremothers and people of color can help us have a broader and fuller view of God. It can help correct some of the blind spots and prejudices of our white spiritual forefathers―which, in most of their cases, is sorely needed.

Ultimately, Jesus says that we are not to call anyone on earth father, because we have one Father, the heavenly one (Matthew 23:9). God in heaven is our parent, the one in whose image we are made. God, not Abraham or Calvin or Luther or anyone else, is the one we are meant to reflect. The one whose heart and mind we are to seek to embody.

God in heaven is our parent. We are all children of God, and therefore siblings to one another. We belong to each other and are responsible for one another. The Pharisees thought of religious family very narrowly, and so (often) do we―but for John, and for Jesus, family proves much broader and deeper than a claim to any particular human predecessor.

There must be a way, however elusive, to claim the gifts and strengths of our own various spiritual heritages without devolving into tribalism, without seeing others from different traditions through a competitive lens, without letting these lineages cause us to forget that at our core we are all part of one human family.

This is not to diminish the differences between faith traditions, or to say that they are all equally good. There are movements within the Christian faith that work toward justice, and movements that work against it. Not all forefathers and foremothers are equally worth claiming. Not all traditions are worth keeping alive―and even those that are worth keeping alive need to be updated and adjusted over time.

So, as we think of John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees, may we remember our forefathers and foremothers, but also remember that no predecessor in our spiritual heritage is our parent in the same way that God is our parent. 
May we remember that spiritual predecessors are not grounds for superiority but sources of strength and courage. 
May we expand our openness to being shaped by female voices and voices of color as important parts of the spiritual heritage we choose.
May we keep alive traditions worth keeping, and re-think traditions that need re-thinking. 
May we, as John wanted the Pharisees to do out in the wilderness, drop all of our various claims to holiness via association and instead come to God humbly and directly.
And, as we do these things, may we find our place within God’s family.

Brood of Vipers (Part 1 of 2)

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7, NRSV).

When I first read this verse, I wasn’t sure what to make of the thought that a bunch of Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism, just to be turned away rudely. It seems kind of wrong, kind of disturbing. Isn’t John’s message of repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven for everyone who wants to take part in it? Sure, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the groups of religious leaders who ended up opposing Jesus in various ways throughout the rest of Matthew’s book…but we haven’t gotten there yet. This is the first time Matthew has mentioned them.

Sometimes when Bible things are confusing, I find it helpful to look at some different translations. And, regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees in this verse, different translations say some pretty different-sounding things.

Were the Pharisees and Sadducees coming “for baptism,” like the NRSV says? The CEB and The Message sound similar: they were “coming to be baptized by John” (CEB); or, more dramatically, they were “showing up for a baptismal experience” (The Message). The way these translations tell it, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John with an honest desire to be baptized. And their reward? They got called a brood of vipers!

Some translations are more ambiguous. According to the NIV, the Pharisees and Sadducees were just “coming to where he was baptizing”; in the NET, they were “coming to his baptism.” In these translations, the Pharisees and Sadducees were just showing up, and we are not really sure what their intentions were. Maybe they wanted to be baptized; maybe they wanted to lay down the law and put a stop to the madness; maybe they didn’t know what they wanted.

Alternatively, in the NLT’s words, maybe the Pharisees and Sadducees came “to watch him baptize.” Maybe they were curious spectators, standing back, arms folded, looking on to see how things would unfold. Maybe they had been instructed to bring back a report to their Pharisee supervisors so that the religious bigwigs could decide among themselves where exactly John fell on a scale of one to dangerous menace, and what to do about it.

As it turns out, the original Greek is about as ambiguous as some of the more ambiguous English translations. Very literally, it says something like this (with the ambiguous word left untranslated): “But, seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming ἐπὶ his baptism…”

The ambiguity is that ἐπὶ could mean “to”―as in, they came (with unclear purpose) to the place where John was baptizing. It could mean “against”―as in, they came with the intention of opposing John’s baptism rather than receiving it. (It also could mean “for”―as in, for the purpose of receiving John’s baptism―but this would be an unusual use of ἐπὶ; there are other words Matthew uses all the time to express a meaning like this.)

So, in my pondering about whether there may have been whole groups of people who came hoping to be baptized by John but instead found themselves being called some choice names, it was helpful to realize that the language of “coming for baptism” is actually a bit of a stretch―“coming to his baptism” is perhaps more faithful to the original text, and “coming against his baptism” is a very reasonable possibility.

The point of all this being, I don’t think John turned away anyone who came to confess and receive baptism. And this is a good thing to think about whenever we might feel justified in manufacturing boundary markers that place whole categories of people―even if it’s the religiously obnoxious, self-righteous ones like the Pharisees―outside the lines of who can confess and be cleansed, who can turn toward God and receive forgiveness.

I think John only spoke against the Pharisees and Sadducees because they had not actually come to receive baptism, but, more likely, to oppose it.

They may have stood silently in their fancy religious robes at the side of the river, looking down with judgmental frowns. They may have mumbled things among themselves. They may have even spoken out loud to John.

Maybe one muttered to another: “He says the kingdom of heaven is near to who, now? I don’t know…”

Maybe a bolder one called out: “John, have you met these people? Don’t you know that they have not been tithing and fasting and following the religious rules, like we have?”

The Pharisees and Sadducees must have been unnerved to see this uncredentialed, unauthorized, weird-looking preacher, drawing such a big crowd out there in the wilderness, so far from the religious power centers in the city of Jerusalem. John the Baptist was enacting an important religious ritual without bothering to ask for their permission, and they didn’t like it.

Here I think of John MacArthur’s recent quip that Beth Moore should “go home.” MacArthur is an influential pastor, and Beth Moore is a popular Bible teacher and women’s ministry leader (with whom no one seemed to have a problem until she started speaking up in recent years against sexism and sexual abuse in the church).

I’m not sure why people are still taking MacArthur seriously after all of the ridiculous things he’s said and done over the years―including fabricating an elaborate set of lies about having been in an office with civil rights leader Charles Evers on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered)―but MacArthur and other male pastors seemed to be just fine with Moore’s ministry as long as she more or less played by their rules. But as soon as a woman starts speaking “out of line,” giving the powers-that-be any reason to fear that their sense of control over women might possibly be tenuous and shrinking, they turn against her.

Fortunately for Moore―and for all of the other women doing their best to preach and teach faithfully, and for everyone else who falls outside (or on the wrong side) of the structures of institutional church power in various ways―we do not need the sanction of religious power structures, dominated by a handful of white men, in order to do and keep doing what God calls us to do. As my brilliant friend Joyce put it so well, “I’m not asking for your permission, Piper” (referring to John Piper, another prominent male pastor who seems to think he has some business trying to weigh in on what women can and can’t do).

John the Baptist did not ask for the permission of the religious power brokers, and he did not need to―even when those powers lashed back against him like a brood of vipers. They saw him as a threat to their authority, but he kept doing what God called him to do. Unlike the religious leaders who tried (and continue to try) to draw lines around who was in or out, John offered baptism for anyone who wanted it, and he had harsh words for those who opposed this practice. (More about the “brood of vipers” tomorrow!) May God’s Spirit fill us with courage to do the same.