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Living letters (June 9, 2024)

How does knowing Christ lead to boldness, asks Amanda Shanks?

In 1876, Anna Oliver became the first woman to graduate from a Methodist seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity from Boston University School of Theology. After accepting her first call to a struggling church in New Jersey, she quickly increased membership by 500 percent, only to be replaced a year later by a male-ordained minister. Anna sought ordination within the Methodist Episcopal Church but faced staunch resistance. Eventually, she was invited to serve at another struggling church in Brooklyn, New York. While there, she grew the congregation of thirteen to more than 100 by the end of the year.

Despite earning her theological degree, obtaining her local preacher’s license, passing all her ordination exams, and being approved and recommended for ordination by her exam committee and congregation, she was refused ordination in 1880. Anna later sought and obtained ordination with the Methodist Protestant Church, but chose to stay in the Methodist Episcopal Church, hoping for and advocating for change from 1880 until her death in 1892.

In 2 Corinthians 3:1-18, Paul’s authority has come under question, and he wonders why he must produce a letter of recommendation to a community he already knows so well. Letters of recommendation were often used in the Greco-Roman world to present one’s credentials or personal testimony and to establish trust. Paul’s response is most unusual, as he reframes what, or who, it is that establishes authority in ministry. Paul boldly proclaims that it is the Corinthians themselves who are a “letter of Christ” written with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are human hearts” (v. 3).

Throughout the passage, Paul contrasts the new covenant, established by Jesus Christ, and the old covenant, the law given to Moses. Paul’s argument is in no way a condemnation of the Jewish tradition. However, as a Jew, Paul had no way of approaching or understanding God other than through the Law and the Old Testament Scriptures. When Paul became a Christian, he understood God in a new way, through Jesus Christ. Paul affirms that he and the Corinthians can draw confidence from the movement of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus. As such, the lives and ministry of the Corinthians serve as a better reflection of Paul’s authority than his credentials, education, and connections.

Like Paul, Anna Oliver boldly accepted a call to ministry, serving her congregation faithfully. As a woman in seminary, I can relate to the constant questioning of her credentials and her fitness for ministry. When one’s call to ministry is questioned, it can feel discouraging and lead to doubt. A natural response to criticism or attack is to defend one’s position or to list off one’s credentials or education to establish one’s authority; however, Paul encourages us to seek another way.

Instead of providing a standard “letter of recommendation,” Paul encourages us to trust. Paul encourages us not to be dissuaded by the naysayers in ministry but to be comforted and assured of the presence of Christ in our ministries through the Holy Spirit. In ministry, our confidence does not come from within, nor from our list of accolades and successes; rather it comes from placing our trust in God.

Paul concludes that the natural and logical consequence of a life and ministry radiating the enduring glory of Christ is hope (v. 12). It is this hope, through Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, that gives us confidence and empowers us, as people of faith, to act freely and with boldness, regardless of degree, status or credentials.

Anna Oliver pressed on in ministry, with confidence in her sense of call and with Spirit-filled hope. Although she would not live to see the ordination of women in her denomination, she had a profound and lasting impact on her community. Her growing and thriving congregation, who chose to accept, address and advertise her as “Rev. Miss Anna Oliver, Pastor,” were living letters, a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Questions for discussion

  1. Paul writes that we are being transformed in the image of Christ. What does that look like for you? How does that offer us hope?
  2. Think about a time when you were criticized or discouraged in ministry but chose to continue. What gave you confidence to continue?
  3. How does knowing Christ lead to boldness? How can we be bold in our faith in our everyday lives?

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