This interview originally appeared in the October 6, 1978, issue of Christianity Today. It was posted June 15, 2015, to commemorate the death of Elisabeth Elliot.
Elisabeth Elliot is a writer who lives in Hamilton, Massachusetts. She is adjunct professor at Gordon-Conwell seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
The following is a condensation of a lengthy discussion Elisabeth Elliot had with Harold Lindsell and Harold Myra.
You have been fiercely attacked by women who have not agreed with some of your views, such as the subordination of wife to husband. How has that affected you?
Whenever I’m attacked I am emotionally affected. I’m not at all thick-skinned. However, I try not to allow people’s opinions to dictate my behavior or color my doctrine. Instead I try to get my beliefs directly from the Bible. And if I feel that what I believe is biblical, I can’t pay a lot of attention to people’s feelings.
Are you saying then that in the women’s liberation controversy you are convinced that you speak from a strictly biblical perspective?
Yes, I am. I often refer to Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12, which says don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold, but let God remold your mind from within.
Do you think that the evangelical church today is being molded by the world rather than by Scripture?
I wouldn’t limit it to our day. The fact that Paul wrote Romans 12 indicates that it has always been a difficulty and something to fight against. Swimming against the stream is always hard and today’s mass media makes it even more difficult.
Describe your daily schedule.
I like monotony and routine, like C. S. Lewis. Usually I read my Bible and pray before breakfast and do some light cleaning afterward. By 8:00 I’m almost always at my desk and stay until noon. This doesn’t mean I write for four hours. If I can’t concentrate on writing, I might look out the window, sharpen pencils, or clean typewriter keys. If inspiration should strike, I will be at my desk instead of somewhere else.
What do you think is the ratio of inspiration to perspiration in writing?
I never experience inspiration. For me it’s always work. Actually writing is a matter of processing data from many sources.
What contemporary problems require attention?
There is something dangerous, in my opinion, about this modern tendency to think of everything in terms of problems. I think that as a result of technology we assume that everything is a problem and, therefore, has a solution. That’s just not true.
If your denomination should ordain self-confessed homosexuals, what would be your continuing relationship to that church?
I am a member of such a church and I’ll continue to be a member.
How can Christians justify continuing membership in such a situation?
That raises the question about ones view of the church. I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. And it doesn’t belong to me or anyone else. It’s Christ’s church and it’s been in worse conditions than it is now and God ultimately gets glory for himself through it. Although I deplore and abhor what the Episcopal church has officially done, I don’t think it gives me the warrant to withdraw. I just don’t believe that is the meaning of being separate.
So you will bear your testimony within that church in hope that you might change it?
I am not optimistic about the possibility of officially changing the church. All I can do is be a Christian and live in obedience within that framework, hoping that my obedience may bear witness to Christ.
In the course of your talking with students, you have seen a good cross-section of American life. How do you regard today’s young people?
I’m disturbed by the fact that kids are unwilling to accept authority. When I get up to speak to a group of kids, I feel that their attitude is “I wonder if she has anything worthwhile to say and if she does, she better prove it.” I wonder if this skepticism has something to do with conditioning. Because of television, they have learned to tune out almost everything except an occasional something that really grabs their attention.
Then in your judgment there is a crisis of authority?
What is your perception of the usefulness of the pulpit today?
There isn’t any substitute for it. I am upset to see the strong move from pulpit ministry to counseling. Everyone wants to go into counseling, which is easier and vaguer, with much less at stake.
If counseling is not necessarily the answer, what should the church be doing about the tremendous number of divorces?
I think people must realize that we don’t operate on feelings. This idea that feelings are paramount and love is a feeling is one of the most diabolical notions that has entered the church. As long as you love, you stick together. And when the feeling dissipates, a couple has every warrant to separate. There just isn’t an understanding of commitment. Traditional marital vows have been eliminated and people are writing their own. What they actually are writing is a description of feelings. The reason the church had vows was that people need to publicly declare the course they intend to follow, not the feelings they expect to experience. To get divorced because the marriage isn’t working anymore is a total misunderstanding of marriage. When a woman marries and doesn’t take her husband’s name, she has no idea of the real meaning of marriage. At a feminist convention I heard a woman say that marriage and motherhood are like deaths. She deplored this. But that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. When a woman marries, she dies to her past, her name, her other commitments, her identity, and herself. Because of love she takes her husband’s identity. When she becomes a mother, she goes down into death to give life to another person. Jesus says he that loseth his life, shall find it.
You enjoy order in your life. As you enter into another marriage, isn’t there some risk that your life style will be altered?
I’ve had long thoughts about this since my marriage in December. I traded my comfortable home in Massachusetts for a rented, furnished house in Georgia, a small house that’s not decorated according to my tastes. And I’m alone much of the time. However, there is no question in my mind that this is God's next step for me. Every door that has opened has involved conscious risks and losses. But, by this point in my life, if I don’t believe that gain comes from loss, I’m in trouble.
If I ask that the Lord teach me then I must be willing to pay any price for that knowledge. So marriage is a kind of loss. You lay down your life for someone else. That’s true for both husband and wife. The husband is exhorted to love his wife as Christ loved the Church, which means self-giving. And certainly a woman can’t give herself to her husband without renouncing everything else.
Has relocating disturbed the pattern of your work?
Of course my work has been disturbed but I have been able to adjust. Actually it hasn’t been disturbed as seriously as it will later on if my husband is home every day. The fact that he’s gone five days each week means that generally the pattern is the same.
Wouldn’t it be easier for you with your missionary background to adjust to changes than for someone who has never been exposed to a foreign culture, learned a foreign language, or served on a foreign mission field?
I think it would be easier. However, it isn’t my personality or temperament to make changes all the time and my personal preferences haven’t been changed by experience. I’m not the kind of woman who rearranges furniture or changes decor all the time.
You have said your life is not what you expected and that God has surprised you. In what ways?
Many ways, again and again. I’ve often thought of the verse in Isaiah, which says that the blind will be led by the way that they don’t know. If I ask the Lord to be my shepherd, he chooses the path. I have my notions about how it’s going to work, but it just has not worked that way. For instance when I married Jim Elliot I considered myself a one-man woman. And when he died, my first reaction was, Lord, how could you do this to me?
Breaking up my categories is one of Gods methods of bringing me to maturity. I think of Wayne Oates who said the process of giving up false gods to worship the one true God is Christian maturation. This is part of what I was trying to say in No Graven Image. At that point I realized that every experience of life is a breaking down of some image and replacing it with God. But we keep making new graven images and they must be shattered. That’s what experience is. Sometimes it’s the image of ourselves, the image of the way our lives are supposed to work that has to be destroyed in order for us to worship the one true God.
When people speak about making love they are usually talking about sexual relationships. Isn’t that missing the major point of agapé?
Yes. It is.
How can we convey this to young people before they marry?
We have to teach them First Corinthians 13, which describes the behavior of Christian love. It's action. They have to understand that romantic feelings are ethereal. And obedience to the objective truth is what will carry them through life.
How can we put feelings into their proper place?
Paul said we should have a sane estimate of our capabilities and importance. The individual’s importance is exaggerated by our whole educational system, which teaches a kindergarten child that his opinion is equally valid with everyone else’s. The idea is that when he expresses himself, he is learning to think. But the opposite is true. If a child is asked his opinion of the sand table, homework, and supervised study halls, he is going to face the world believing that everything is a matter of taste or feelings. Of course, this isn’t true.
Lewis’s Abolition of Man points out the heart of the problem in our educational system, doesn’t it?
Yes, marvelously. If we could get people to read Lewis, we wouldn’t need theological seminaries.
Isn’t it remarkable that a man who was not a theologian in a technical sense could speak in a way that most theologians have not spoken?
It is quite meaningless to me to say that he’s not a theologian in a technical sense. What do you mean by technically? One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in theology to be a theologian.
Could it have been an advantage to Lewis not to have had theological training?
Certainly. I think that anyone who seriously studies the Bible and prays is going to have a training that institutions can’t possibly give. A shining example is Luis Palau. With a missionary he trained on his knees for three hours a day, three days a week, for three years. Palau doesn’t have a theological degree, but look what he has done.
There is a tendency to consider Lewis a saint with an aura that he himself would probably reject if he were alive. What do you think?
He was a saint with an aura. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. I’m not saying that he was sinless. But I regard him as a man taught of God with a genuine and unarguable humility in the face of truth.
You wrote a controversial book on the Middle East. Do you believe that few people in the Christian world are hearing the Arab side?
Yes, I think what I observed when I was there in 1967 is still true—that it’s difficult to learn the truth about the Arab side. There is some kind of Jewish media control. I experienced it when the publisher that commissioned my book didn’t dare print it. The book simply raises questions but was interpreted as damning. I discovered that certain questions are taboo in this country. For instance, we can’t question the morality of Israel. And although Israel is militantly a racist political state, we wouldn’t be allowed to call it that in print. Americans who are most vociferous about racism in this country seem to be in favor of a racist nation.
How do you feel about the law passed against proselytizing in Israel?
When Israel claimed to have religious freedom, it was a contradiction. The truth is there is no such thing. And now they’ve admitted it by outlawing proselytizing. When I visited Israel the anti-God feeling of most Israelis shocked me. I understand that less than 10 per cent of the Israelis are religious. And they get furious when American Jews visit expecting to find religion. They ask “What has Israel got to do with religion? Absolutely nothing.”
In other words, Israel is basically secular with little commitment to historic Judaism?
The Israelis don’t know what historic Judaism is and they don’t care. It is not a linguistic or religious category. If you ask them what a Jew is, no one can really answer.
So they view the Old Testament simply as a historical book?
They don’t even know it. In fact, the religious Jews that I talked to knew nothing beyond the Pentateuch. That is the Bible. So, they don’t even know prophecy.
Would you say that the Arabs are more religious than the Israelis?
Yes. This is generally true.
It’s been said that previous to the establishment of Israel the Arabs were the only ones willing to allow the Jews to share their land. Do you feel that the Palestinians have been “kicked out for their kindness” and that evangelicals haven’t listened to the Palestinian cause well enough?
It hasn’t been listened to at all. Back in 1948 when Palestine was partitioned, it was an arbitrary decision on the part of everyone but the Palestinians who were not consulted. There is no ethical basis for Zionism whatsoever. Imagine what kind of reception there would have been if it had been proposed that New Jersey be the homeland for the Jews.
Why do you think that evangelicals have accepted this situation?
They have an imperfect and naive notion of the fulfillment of prophecy.
Does God have a purpose for Israel?
Certainly. The ultimate purpose would be Israel’s redemption. But how that’s to be fulfilled and what signs we see of it in the nation of Israel today, I am not prepared to say. The promises of the Old Testament hinge on obedience. I don’t see that obedience at all.
Do you think the consummation of history could be upon us in the foreseeable future?
Well, I certainly think it could be. However, all through history Christians have felt it was the last times. I don’t have any more reason to believe that this is more like what the last times will be like than in any other era.
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