A graphically expressed third way on gender stuff in a messed up world: Complementarian? Egalitarian? Or the Cross?

Men and women are, on average, or typically, physiologically, anatomically, and hormonally different. To deny this is would be odd because the evidence is pretty concrete. Here’s a thing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 2011/12:

The average Australian man (18 years and over) was 175.6 cm tall and weighed 85.9 kg. The average Australian woman was 161.8 cm tall and weighed 71.1 kg.

This size and weight ratio, on average, means men are physically bigger and stronger. There are exceptions. But this average also means that men who throw their weight around are a danger to women, and we know this and talk about this beyond the church when we talk about violence against women, rape culture, and the patriarchy. Some approaches to gender issues want to deny or minimise this difference and the effect it has on the world assuming that equality or equity is the answer to this problem.

You might have seen this graphic.

Now. I like the sentiment there. But this other version an important corrective; acknowledging that sometimes inequality is a result of systemic injustice.

 

At the moment Aussie Christians are talking about gender equality in the church and home. And I thought of these pictures and wondered how applicable they might be. I reckon both of these graphics are a bit naive when it comes to problems of gender inequality and the solutions both in the church, and in the world.

Let me demonstrate this graphically with my own little picture. In the interests of using images that I own the rights to, let’s assume that the ultimate good, or what it means for humans to flourish, is represented by the ability to watch my old soccer team, Kustard FC, compete in a grand final (in an equal world this would be a mixed sport perhaps, but bear with me), so the ultimate expression of ‘gender equality’ is everybody enjoying the same view of the game.

An unimpeded view of the looks like this. No fences. Right behind the goal mouth.

 

 

When we talk about gender equality in the church and the world it’s worth acknowledging what we’ve said up front; the different physical strength of men and women, and a few other issues, means that over time men wielding influence and power has become systematised. There’s no fence in this picture; there’s people. Men. This is the patriarchy. A group of 175.6 pixel high, 85.9 pixel wide men using their size and weight to secure their own ultimate good at the expense of others.

Now. This is where it gets interesting for Christians.

Because we have a different sense about what the world should be to our patriarchy loving or patriarchy hating neighbours, that comes from our story, and an explanation for why, instead, the world is the way it is. It starts in the beginning.

Creation.

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:27-28

I’ve bolded them to emphasise that this is plural and the plurality in sight is ‘male and female’ people as created by God. They are blessed; not cursed. This blessing is caught up in, and enables their partnership. We Christians believe that at creation men and women were created to flourish together in partnership. To share in the task of bearing God’s image, ruling the world together, cultivating and keeping the sanctuary of God’s garden-temple and expanding it as we multiplied his image-bearing presence across the face of the earth. In Genesis 2 we see Eve, woman, created as a helper for Adam, man, because he can’t do his job alone, and the Hebrew word used for ‘helper’ ezer is elsewhere used of God in a military context coming to the aid of Israel, and means something more like ‘necessary ally’ than ‘servant’.

It was meant to look like…

Curse

But things broke. The ideal was lost in the fall (Genesis 3), amidst a bunch of curses (not blessings) in response to Adam and Eve’s sin (and the Serpent’s deception), God says:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

We were made to rule together, but now, and this is the pattern of life in the world in the Bible’s account of our humanity, man rules over woman. Over, not with.

So now, as a result. Here’s what happens when the average woman (161.8 pixels by 71 pixels) would also like to ‘watch the game’ ie flourish.

 

The ‘patriarchy’, or the problem of gender equality isn’t a problem where there’s just a fence impeding the view of the women; it’s a problem where men are impeding that view because they are bigger and stronger and it’s to their advantage. The worst form of this probably should be depicted with men trampling all over women because of their strength, not just blocking access to the ultimate good, but abusing women to secure something bad and treating it as good (eg abuse).

This ‘patriarchy’ is not what life was meant to look like; it’s not how men and women were made to live together. This is ‘curse’, as Genesis 3 puts it. This is the new ‘natural’ order of things. It is not good. It is not what God made life to be. It is not the ideal. We might think that because it is normal the best thing to do is to find other things for the women standing behind these men to do. Perhaps they could help them flourish and enjoy the game by giving them a back massage. Perhaps they could play a ‘different’ role, or find a ‘different’ sort of flourishing in order to let men rule. This feels a lot like having the curse be our norm.

So we’re left with three options to respond to this as humans, and as Christians, to deal with this patriarchy. Classically as Christians we see two options, the middle two. We reject the first (rightly), and I want to suggest we should embrace the fourth as we follow the example of Jesus.

Option 1: Embrace it (Chauvinism)

So when men like the four blokes on the right decide that they aren’t just going to secure a better ‘flourishing’ life for themselves by nature of being themselves and benefiting from the system, but rather they’ll use their strength to take advantage of others, trampling on them to secure an even better ‘view’… This is chauvinism. It’s abuse. It’s not just curse it’s sin.

The Changed Status Quo (Curse + Sin)

When sin happens on top of curse we get an even more messed up view of the world. When people take advantage of a power inequality for their own ends it amplifies the problems of a systemic inequality (a broken system). The world now looks like this. Part sinful abuse, part cursed system. Not what it was meant to be.

 

 

Christian Options

Now. Let’s for the sake of graphical clarity make Christian men and women colourful, and assume the status quo in the cursed world is part cursed system (patriarchy) and part abusive (chauvinism), that our challenge as Christians is to avoid sinful abuse (chauvinism) and overcome the curse (patriarchy) while living in this world.

Option 2. The Egalitarian Option (full equality)

Egalitarians stress the equality of all people; men and women; and our shared task in the world as God’s image bearing people. It is idealistic in that it looks back to the world before the fall, and the world as promised beyond the fallen world (the new creation) to establish an ideal for how men and women should relate.

Here’s how an egalitarian approach plays out with the status quo in place. And yes. It’s getting confusing. But let me explain what is happening. This is a set of coloured characters we’ll call ‘the church’ operating as equals, overlaid (in the main) over the status quo.

On the left you’ve a Christian man and woman operating where both the their access to a ‘flourishing’ life is blocked by a some abusers who have elevated themselves at the expense of others. The next four people are Christian men and women operating as equals in an unequal society, it’s easy for the man. He just has to be himself, and he gets to flourish without it costing him anything (he can see the game). The women notice no change, they just aren’t being abused; the patriarchy is still in their way. The last two men and women don’t have the patriarchy in front of them because those members of the patriarchy represent that proportion of the population who recognise the inequality and so have become egalitarians… it’s only when the systemic stuff is removed that that last woman on the right has access to the ‘flourishing’ life. It only works for the very privileged (particularly for middle to upper class western white women). It does offer an answer to the unprivileged, but because the diagnosis and the treatment are disconnected from (at least what the Bible describes as) the disease, it’s not totally effective in the face of the patriarchy. It relies, basically, on powerful people either being overthrown, or voluntarily giving up their power when confronted with it. This is why egalitarianism fails; in fact, it’s why I don’t think the Bible puts forward egalitarianism as a solution to the status quo.
Egalitarianism — the equality of men and women — is the world’s naive, or optimistic, solution to the problem of cursed life in the world; it’s a solution that comes without truly understanding that the problem is that life in the world is cursed, and that we can’t fix the curse ourselves just by pretending it isn’t there. It recognises a truth about our equality in dignity and value, and is less likely to accept the parameters offered to us by curse and sin. But it often settles for equality or equity as solutions, and doesn’t totally acknowledge that our difference is real, and that sin and curse have exaggerated the impact of that difference. It is an attempt to respond to a broken world by creating a new one (and in some sense, it does look forward to the new creation, but perhaps optimistically over-realises that picture in this world). So for Christians to adopt it just strikes me as missing the heart of the diagnosis, and the solution, that come with our story. As I’ve argued recently, the antidote to inequality is not equality, equality is a middle ground, a neutral, the positive antidote to inequality is service. A neutral option in a broken status quo won’t cut it (though it’s better than perpetuating or amplifying that brokenness).

Option 3. The Complementarian Option (equal but different)

Here’s one way Christians have approached the relationship between men and women in this world. Charitably it assumes that men and women are different (including physiologically) for a reason, and this difference manifests itself in different roles that do not negate our equality; and that somehow, as we operate as church and family in a fallen world, it makes sense for the stronger man to lead and the woman to help and support men in their work in the home or the church. This assumes that the best way to fight against patriarchy, abuse, or the broken status quo is to team up in a way that relies on strong leadership that challenges the status quo. Uncharitably, and sometimes in practice it assumes that the pattern of the curse is normal.

When it comes to the graph below, where the Christian men and women are in colour, it assumes that if you make a man a Christian it’s good to stand behind him and support him. That the man has a particular role to play in life in the world, as a Christian, and that the woman has a different role, reclaiming the task of ‘helper,’ only, the task looks perhaps different to the way it looked before the fall. Perhaps this difference is because the world is different, and a greater threat to the flourishing of women — but it’s possible that sometimes a Christian bloke is just as likely to get in the way of a woman’s flourishing as a non-Christian bloke.

So. Graphically, the way this plays out is that a complementarian man probably stands between a woman and an abuser (a bit like Jesus standing between the pharisees and the adulterous woman they wanted to stone), so that’s what’s going on with the the first two figures. But, in the next two figures, there’s some reasonable evidence to suggest that complementarian theology can misfire so that men are either abusive without realising it, or claim to be Christians in order to abuse women with some sort of divine support; this isn’t what is at the heart of ‘complementarian’ theology, but many Christian women escaping domestic violence say they were kept there by a theology much like it. In the next (the fifth) little vignette along, we see a complementarian woman standing behind a non-Christian patriarchal husband in order that by her way of life she might save him (eg 1 Peter), and then, in the last two, we see where in complementarian marriages and church structures (so ‘authority’ in the church), men and women model a different way of relating that is not abusive, but nor does it allow women access to the ‘full picture’ of human flourishing (unless to flourish as a woman is somehow tied to helping the flourishing of a man, not to a shared task). For many it’s hard to see the difference between this last category of relating and the patriarchy/status quo. Some though read this model back into the garden of Eden, and it’s hard to unpick then how much sin and curse have changed the way we view and experience the default.

It’s fair to say that complementarianism grapples with the physical reality of our difference and acknowledges the way sin has made that difference worse. It is a realistic response to the broken world, but it does, in the hands of abusers, perpetuate abuse, and it’s hard to argue that overthrows systemic curse or injustice to replace it with something better. There are many ways that because it is realistic, not just idealistic, it’s actually better than option 2, it also seems to assume the Bible has good reasons to argue for/create different roles for men and women that aren’t simply cultural but are a response to sin and curse, but I don’t think it’s the ideal because it doesn’t appear to challenge or change the cursed and sinful status quo.

Subvert it (The cross)

Let’s return to that image from the start of the post…

It would be nice to simply remove the fence; but in this case the fence is ‘the patriarchy’ — it’s a human fence created by the status quo which involves men using their strength for our own benefit.

The world is geared towards the success of men. We’re bigger on average, stronger on average, faster on average, less vulnerable to sexual assault on average, get paid more on average, take less time off work for family on average. We’re more likely to be in positions of authority and influence because of many of these factors. This is what the patriarchy looks like; and sure, sometimes men get into these positions because of the voluntary sacrificial love of women in their lives who genuinely want to help them flourish, and for many Christians the flourishing life looks different to most of these criteria. It’s possible to theologise and suggest that this is what difference should look like, and that this difference creates, through the Gospel, a particular responsibility for the husband to love and serve his wife (this is the best version of option 3 looks like).

It would be nice to simply remove the barrier (ala the boxes and fence graphic above); or to get boxes for women to stand on so that we enjoy equity when it comes to our access to the flourishing life. But this does not factor in the real heart issue behind the barrier; the barrier is people, not just a ‘system’…

I want to suggest the Gospel actually provides us with a third way that is both like option 2 in its idealism and option 3 in its realism. Men following the example of Jesus and laying down our strength and even our natural-but-cursed claim to power and authority is a different way forward that produces qualitatively different outcomes as men and women operate as different and equal in our world. It needs a funky name; obviously; and some friends online call it being an imagodeian (imago dei is latin for ‘image of God’). When I was talking about this with my boss (credit where credit is due) he suggested ‘imaginarian’ which is nice, because we’ve been teasing out how important imagination is in responding to the cursed and sinfully twisted world as people shaped by the Gospel.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:3-8

Philippians 2 is the background for lots of what Paul says about gender relationships (eg Ephesians 5, and 1 Corinthians 11-14). Paul is a realist about both the difference between men and women, and the way the world makes this difference harmful to women, and he is giving us the good news that in the Gospel we have an answer to abuse and patriarchy; to sin and curse. We have the start of something new that will bring us towards a new reality, ultimately. Submission, then, which gets brought up in Ephesians 5 is both mutual (Ephesians 5:1), but also a preparedness to be served, to acknowledge that difference should play out in such a counter cultural way, and that this is the best and most counter-intuitive inversion of the patriarchy/curse and challenge to sin/abuse. Authority, then, is about casting one’s vote, or using one’s strength, for the sake of those you are serving. The cross utterly inverts human patterns of authority.

Now. Both egalitarians and complementarians will read this bit and say “he’s misunderstood us, this is what we’re already on about,” and to some extent this is true. There are good and true things in both systems… But this is how the Christian story gears us to think about gender relationships and flourishing in a fallen world, and it both realistically recognises that men and women are different, that the cursed world makes this difference particularly apparent for women, particularly when abuse is involved, so that it’s harder for all of us to flourish in this broken world.

The solution looks like this, because this is what it looks like for the stronger (on average, men) to use their strength by laying it down on behalf of those who sin and curse oppresses (on average, women). This is what it looks like to follow the example of Christ in all our relationships, or to love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. It doesn’t, and can’t, look like abuse and patriarchy; and equality on this side of the new creation doesn’t fight the systemic injustice (patriarchy) or sin (abuse). What this imaginarian approach looks like is perhaps more in the realm of ‘different and equal’; it acknowledges what is real, and what is ideal, and aims to recapture as much of the ideal and to live out as much of the new as possible, in marriage or church this looks like the powerful utterly renouncing the use of strength and power for personal gain or comfort, and instead using it to enable the flourishing of others as we raise them up, by lowering ourselves. This isn’t to say that women are exempt from sacrificial service (we’re all called to that in our relationships in Philippians 2), but this re-levels the playing field somewhat so that they’re in a stronger starting point in which to then give things up in their relationships too. Without us first addressing inequality by cancelling it out (giving up power that is not really ours to grasp) we actually double the ‘service burden’ on women. What this looks like concretely will be worth unpacking, but here, at least, is a visual (note, it’s a metaphor for overcoming the barrier as the strong give up strength to allow all of us to flourish, I’m not suggesting we join the circus).

The internet, the Reformation, women teaching, and the priesthood of all believers (how a ‘democratised’ platform might keep us reforming)


Image: Behind the scenes of Christian Twitter

There’s a conversation going on in the Christian twittersphere right now about the challenges posed by the internet for a sort of traditional complementarian view that women should not teach or exercise authority over men. There’s a stream of complementarianism that would extend these words from Paul to Timothy far beyond the event of the gathered church (and streams within complementarianism that see this prohibition of ‘teaching and exercising authority’ as a very particular role within that gathering; it’s a broad church).

The firestarter was this piece from Tish Harrison Warren on Christianity Today ‘Who’s In Charge of The Christian Blogosphere’, there’ve been responses (apart from Twitter flame wars) from writers like Jonathan Merritt, Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson and Rachel Miller. These are all worth a read and a mull over (and I’m sure there are plenty more to read too). I’ve been sharing a few of these on Facebook, and I suspect some of the people joining in on the discussion have perceived my obtuse quoting and introductory comments like ‘Interesting…’ as endorsements; it’s not necessarily any one piece here that I endorse (though there’s much to appreciate in many of them, and I have learned from them (or been taught by them)), it’s the conversation itself I find fascinating because what is playing out here is a new reformation of sorts; the question will be what scope and size of change this reformation brings… it’s possible that the democratised landscape where there’s already lots more diversity simply means conversations like this are a flash in a pan, where once they might have overhauled the church as we know it…

There’s an irony here that each of these writers writes from the Protestant tradition and what’s at stake is how a new communication medium makes us rethink the role of authority and who is in the ‘priesthood’. In the year where we’re marking 500 years since Luther used the printing press and a stream of fellow pamphleteers to bring down the Catholic establishment; the challenge these writers are responding to, or conversing around, is one brought about by an even more frictionless and democratised communication platform. It might seem odd that it has taken so many years of the Internet for us to get here… except that it’s not odd, because what is happening here is another reformation of sorts; another challenging of the establishment ‘priesthood’ (at least as it operates, if not as it is conceived, within some streams of the ‘complementarian’ church).

There are legitimate criticisms directed at this conversation from those who aren’t stakeholders in it; it seems wrong that the controversy only really kicked off the way it did when a woman, contributing to Christianity Today’s campaign to #amplifywomen, wrote about some of the dangers (to the establishment/’orthodoxy’) presented by this new platform, why single out a blogging woman like American blogger Jen Hatmaker to raise concerns about teaching and authority outside ‘church structures’ when we haven’t kicked up the same stink about controversy-monger/outrage-peddler Matt Walsh (who, for what it’s worth, is Catholic, so there’s a sort of double irony if what he’s doing is acting like a child of the Reformation). It feels like an attack on the ‘theological left’ when we give the ‘theological right’ a free pass; and worse, an attack on a woman, when we give men a free pass.

It’s not a mistake to make this a gender issue though, and an issue prompted by women teaching with some sort of authority; at least if we view the conversation in the schema of the Reformation using its categories; because it really is a question of whose voices are priestly, who can speak as part of, or on behalf of, the church — and what happens when these speakers depart from orthodoxy? What would Luther have done to the next generation of Luthers who out-Luthered him? If you’re a keen enough student of Reformation history you’ll know that the fighting about Orthodoxy 2.0 didn’t stop after the schism from the Catholic Church, and that the seeds of what we’re dealing with now, in terms of a very diverse publishing industry for Christian readers (much more diverse than the duplication of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) kicked off with the Reformation.

It’s easy to scoff at this conversation (as some are in the habit of doing on social media) especially when people are trying to tease out what exactly a woman’s role could or should be in the church (if you’ve already decided to embrace a more egalitarian framework). But this is a question of the sort of practical order that prompted the Reformation, presented, in part, by a very similar technological advancement. The introduction of a ‘democratising’ piece of technology in the printing press meant lots more people could read lots more stuff lots more quickly… and social media/the blogosphere with its essentially frictionless and costless publishing is the printing press on steroids, and it could (and maybe should) have a similar seismic impact on the church. For good or for ill.

And that’s why this conversation is an important and interesting one.

It’s asking what responsibility in the face of almost unfettered access to a platform should look like (which we should be asking in an age of fake news, and Donald Trump anyway).

It’s asking what role the established institutional church, its traditions and its office bearers should play in determining what teaching is orthodox or Biblical (in content and mode); an irony faced whenever the anti-establishment movement becomes the establishment…

It’s asking in what sense we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what accountability in the life of the church looks like beyond those who take ordination vows or vows that submit themselves to church discipline within established structures (cause we’ve seen some pretty heinous forms of people setting up their own platforms apart from accountability (like a church in Seattle)).

It’s asking in what sense the Reformation really happened; do we really have a priesthood of all believers and what does that look like for women, and how do we have a priesthood of all believers with a 1 Corinthians 12 picture of church life and specific roles, and a sense that some of these roles might involve gender…

It’s we’re asking how the internet and the life of the universal church beyond a particular locality is like, or different, to a community that lives and gathers together as a particular expression of the body of Christ; and where authority fits in this picture.

It’s asking all these questions in the face of this new technological age which does inherently favour a particular theology and practice. The Internet is not neutral when it comes to these questions. A democratising platform operates in favour of egalitarian practices. Australian author Jane Caro made a pretty great case for this in an article back in January that is now paywalled; but I managed to quote this paragraph from her on Facebook at the time:

“As education and knowledge spread, Enlightenment followed theReformation, and then all the liberation movements that emerged thereafter, including the abolition of slavery, child labour, and increased rights for women. After all, if every man could have his own relationship with God, why not every woman? Why not every slave?

This democratisation of the word of God led inexorably to democracy itself; predicated on the idea that all men (even, perhaps, women) were created equal. Everyone ended up entitled to not just a relationship with God but with a vote and a say. One followed inevitably, I think, from the other. As those in power understand only too well, once a few difficult questions began to be asked, a great many more would follow.”

Whichever side you land on these questions there are lessons to be learned from the Reformation; even stepping aside from which side of the Reformation had a grasp of the truth there are lessons to learn here. You could be a Catholic complementarian, or a Protestant egalitarian, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two and history would be informative here. This isn’t just a conversation that matters for those facing the reformers with a new media strategy (and as a protestant in a Reformed denomination it shouldn’t surprise you which side I think had the better material to work with). There’s a pretty compelling case to be made that the Reformation ‘won’ where it won precisely because of its media strategy, and particularly because the media practices of the reformers lined up with their theology. You couldn’t really be a Catholic and employ the techniques the reformers employed if part of your theology was a belief that somehow the priesthood was set apart from the rest of the church not just in function, but by language, to play the game of engaging with the masses in the vernacular was to cede quite a bit to the reformers in a way that would’ve started to give some credence to their broader critique; while on the flipside, believing in a ‘priesthood of all believers’ meant there was less centralised control over the messaging of the Reformation, and anybody who had access to a printing press could, and should, use it to proclaim the theology of the Reformation; the Gospel.

The media practices of the Reformation were one of the driving forces behind my thesis (which looked at the media practices of the wisdom literature, Paul, Augustine, and Luther as historic case studies of communicators who had their practice shaped by their theology), I say this to acknowledge that this is an area I think is much more fascinating and fruitful than the average person on the internet… and to acknowledge that I may well be overthinking this present conversation; I’ve done lots of thinking and writing about this stuff… and lots of this thinking was prompted by an excellent Economist article How Luther Went Viral by Tom Standage, who would later write an excellent book on ‘democratised’ communication via Social Media called Writing On The Wall that’s worth a read if any of this interests you at all (here’s a TEDx talk with some of my thoughts, and a review of the book). In the Economist piece, Standage says:

“IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.”

This is, in many ways, a summary of the current discussion (and what has prompted it), but it is Standage describing the Reformation. Here’s his description of the mechanisms of the viral Reformation:

“The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.”

And here’s where his opponents, the Catholic establishment, failed:

“Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

Another key factor behind the success of the Reformation, according to Andrew Pettegree, a scholar Standage quotes (from a book called “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”) was the sheer volume of work published and distributed, even though it was published against the weight of traditional institutional authority:

“It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.”

Standing in the practical tradition of the Reformers should mean looking at new technologies — especially ‘democratising’ technologies that level the playing field by giving all people a voice — as opportunities to share the Gospel. To embrace new technologies to share our theology is part of our DNA… and at some point sharing, writing about, and discussing the Gospel is going to feel a lot like teaching… which presents some real challenges to people whose theology and practice is to see teaching and authority in the church as the domain of men. We might talk about a priesthood of all believers; but in practice in most churches in our tradition, we’ve very much got a priestly model tied to the pulpit, eldership, and the male-dominated (or exclusively male) governance structures of our churches. This isn’t a new question. Complementarians have had to grapple with women who write books for many years, and often do make a distinction between what happens in corporate worship and what happens in the broader life of the church; this is a distinction often not recognised by people outside the big-R Reformed scene; some of us make much of ‘WORSHIP’ in the super-capitalised Lord’s Day sense (others of us are puzzled at where the idea that there’s a major difference in the life and practice of the church between the Sunday gathering and all other communal life as depicted in the New Testament actually comes from).

For the big-R Reformed complementarian types there’s a scary scenario where one might have to put themselves in the shoes of the Reformation era Catholics to figure out how they could’ve kept the farm in the face of a new media strategy and new orthodoxy, because the risk, if this group’s position is correct, is that it will be overwhelmed if the response isn’t nimble and imaginative, but also theologically coherent.

For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition but are more inclined to be ‘reformational’ (always reforming) than historically reformed, there are some opportunities here to ask ourselves some pretty confronting questions about whether our media practices actually do line up with our professed theology; a priesthood of all believers; both men and women. And this is why I, personally, think this conversation is particularly important and worth following even if some of the articles linked above don’t really nail where I’m coming from or think we should be going…

Luther was sure his words were going to be held to account by God; and in some sense his speaking was an act of attempting to hold others to account to God’s word, but also to traditions he believed the church had walked away from. We can’t simply dismiss the voices of our forbears as though we moderns are more enlightened or our pressing questions more pressing… In purely effective terms, Luther is almost without peer as a communicator and an example of someone who grasped hold of a new technology to great effect. He’s also, for all his faults, a great model of harnessing the power of new mediums to promote theological reforms he believed were necessary, and grappling with the questions of institutional authority that follow… these words from the Diet of Worms (where he may or may not have said ‘here I stand, I can do none else’) are a reasonable starting point, and perhaps ending point, in this conversation for all of us:

“I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.”

What that looks like… well. Let’s keep talking, and listening.

 

3 other ways the church can counteract abuse by following Jesus

I’m not a huge fan of the e-magazine Relevant, for a lot of reasons but perhaps because I’m not sure self-description via a name like ‘Relevant’ is the best way to achieve the thing you’re describing. Also, I’m not totally sure that ‘relevant’ is what we are necessarily aiming for as Christians, in terms of our relationship with other views of the world (all of which are derived from other forms of worship). If I was going to run an e-mag I’d call it Plausibly Weird. But that’s neither here nor there, except to say that in keeping with the name Relevant the site has published this piece 3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse, which essentially makes a claim that complementarianism as practiced in evangelical churches is inherently patriarchal and abusive. It seems to be also arguing that the answer to this abuse is egalitarianism.

Now. I want to say that I share many of the concerns of this Relevant article; I’m certain abuse is much more prevalent in the Reformed Evangelical church than it should be (and it’s safe to say that because any cases of abuse in the church are too many). I’m certain that some theological visions which fall within the definition of complementarian theology but are actually misogynistic (so not at all complementary) are used to harm women in our churches. I’m also so uncomfortable with the desire to resolve some paradoxes about the difference and equality of men and women in God’s design for human relationships that I see at work in both complementarian and egalitarian camps as they form around this discussion that I don’t actually want to be identified as either. But I do think complementarians are right to point to the difference between men and women, and to desire that difference be on display in our communities, and I do think egalitarians are right to point to the equality between men and women, and to desire that difference to be on display in our communities. I don’t think many communities nail these desires simultaneously, because we’re bad at living in tension, mystery, or paradox. We want resolution, and often our desire to be relevant shapes how we approach these tensions, but sometimes it’s our desire to be irrelevant (or counter-cultural) that shapes our response too. And the thing about paradoxes is that you can have both. I’ve read quite a few things in the last week or so that are totally uncharitable about complementarianism, equating it with ‘blaspheming against the Holy Spirit,’ and now with abuse. I think it’s fine to suggest complementarianism as it is practiced in our churches can provide cover for abuse, and can be harmful if it isn’t built from the Gospel, and even (as I believe) that it is just as harmful to a paradox at the heart of male-female relationships as egalitarianism (which is also, I think, a well motivated, but often flawed, attempt to articulate how we should live well together as people).

The logic of this Relevant piece is to:

  1. Define abuse as the use of power and control to cause harm.
  2. Define patriarchy as systemically enabled abuse.
  3. Define complementarianism as a form of patriarchy, and so a form of abuse.
  4. Suggests that even if complementarianism is not a form of abuse, it enables it.
  5. Suggests securing equality is the way to prevent abuse.

There are several things I like in the suggestions put forward by the Relevant piece for limiting abuse within the church (especially her second and third points), and it’s worth reading and being challenged by, but I have my own suggestions for how we might fight abuse better. I have grown up around the complementarian scene (though my experience is that healthy complementarianism looks and feels a lot like egalitarianism in most spheres); I do not recognise this scene in the description from the article (though I have seen evidence of this sort of complementarianism, and I’m not going to suggest that just because complementarianism doesn’t look like this, that it’s necessarily the answer, or the right position).

This belief gives men the role of authority over the wife and children, and only allows men to be church leaders. Women are expected to submit unilaterally to men, fathers, husbands, pastors. While many churches who subscribe to this encourage men to sacrificially lead their wives, there is still a power differentiation (emphasis mine). Men are still given the final say, and it still falls on the scale of patriarchy.

Equality alone won’t solve our problems — and the heart of what’s good about complementarianism (what it aims to get right (though it often misses)) is that it realises that equality alone (in an unequal world) isn’t enough; that what is required of men in the church (and for the world) is more than equality; it’s generous service. Equality is about justice; generosity goes beyond justice to love. This is where I think the answer to the problem of abuse in the church is actually found in the bolded sentence above; I want to argue that a properly ‘sacrificial’ relationship (marriage or church) involves a power differentiation; but that differentiation falls in favour of the powerless, not the powerful. The solution is about understanding that sacrifice goes beyond equality; because that’s what we see in the Gospel (it’s also what we don’t see in abuse, or in churches where leadership is about power).

My job as a church leader, and a husband living the Christian story, at least as I see it, is to show my wife and my church that I would lay down my life for them — giving my strength for them — because I actually consider them more valuable than me. This is the burden of Christian leadership. Though they are, in nature, my equals, I’m to give my power for their benefit, to see them flourish. If I don’t want to do that, then my options were a) don’t get married, and b) don’t be appointed as a leader of the church.

If you are a man appointed as a ‘leader’ of the church, I think this is your job too (it’s also the job of anyone who has ‘strength’ or power within the context of the church, so if you’re a woman who leads in any capacity including in churches where women are ordained (ie non-complementarian churches, this is how I think the Bible depicts leadership, and orients us towards power).

1. See Jesus as the model for relating to each other; and the Gospel story as the story our relationships are meant to display

The world teaches us that power is a good thing, and evil or abuse is a twisted application of power; where one party (or group) takes that power and uses it to keep themselves in power. We see this all the time in interpersonal abusive relationships (family violence, etc), but this also happens systemically as people build institutions and processes that serve their own interests.

What we’re told by the world — and what the Relevant piece picks up as wisdom, is that the opposite of power, or abuse, is equality.

Equality is the opposite of power and control, and leaders in the anti-domestic violence movement have long been proponents of equality-based relationships. — Ashley Easter, ‘3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse,‘ Relevant

Equality is certainly better than abuse. But equality isn’t the opposite of abuse. It’s the absence of abuse. It’s the middle; the ‘mean’ between two extreme approaches to power. It’s certainly better than evil, but it’s not necessarily good. The most loving use of power is not simply to give excessive power that you’ve accumulated to others as an act of creating equality (which is important), but also to use whatever power you have left for the sake of others. That’s, for example, what it appears Zaccheus (a powerful and privileged guy, even if he was short and unpopular because of his abuse of power) does when he follows Jesus; he doesn’t just return what he has unjustly accumulated, but is generous with all that he has:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything,I will pay back four times the amount.” — Luke 19:8

If we take the story of Jesus seriously and apply it to our relationships, and to how we approach worldly power, then there’s a much better good than equality — and I’d argue this is to be the good at the heart of our relationships and systems — it should shape how leadership works in Christian relationships (and all the stuff on how these relationships are to be structured in the New Testament are reflections on what it looks like to be Christlike in these relationships).

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus — Philippians 2:1-5

The assumption of equality in our union with Christ drives Paul’s logic in this passage, but the product of this realisation that we are equal is not to pursue systems that are focused on equality; but for us to ‘in humility’ pursue inequality. I think this is particularly the task of those who have power to give up for the sake of others, not so much for those who are already considered, or experience, being beneath others. The pattern here is where the subjugated are raised up precisely because the powerful lift them up.

The world as it is — the status quo — has distributed power to particular groups of people; typically men, typically those who are highly educated, typically from dominant racial and cultural groups within a place, and we often give positions of authority to people who we perceive to be powerful (really, this means people just like me). This presents a bit of a problem in the church if there’s a sense that to be given authority or power is to be invited to lead just like the world leads; via the application of power. The challenge for people like me is not to pursue equality — but to lower myself so that my experience is not equal at all, but one of servanthood. So that I can speak of myself like Paul does as he reflects on what it means to follow the crucified king:

 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

 

2. See Jesus as the model for approaching power and leadership; and so Christianity as a race to the bottom, not a race to the top

The Relevant article argues that doing away with any difference between genders (or rather sex and gender) at the level of roles in church community and in our relationships (egalitarianism) is the way to prevent abuse; it’s certainly a way that might do what it argues, especially in terms of undoing unjust systems (though I think abuse happens when people’s hearts cause them to cling to and wield power). It’s arguably closer to getting the answer right than the alternative it critiques… but I’m not sure it is the only way, given point 1, or the best way to approach power and abuse in relationships where ‘leadership’/headship falls to one gender (and whether that’s the case Biblically is beyond the scope of this piece to demonstrate/unpack).

Inasmuch as I think the Bible asks us to be mindful of the difference in roles (and mindful of equality in personhood)it seems to me that it says in this race to the bottom, Men should aim to get there first on behalf of their wives (so that our marriages reflect something); and so we should lead in sacrificing/serving. And this is true too within the body of Christ — the church — our leaders should be exemplary sacrificers. Servants. Not power-hungry authorities who abuse, or do anything that looks like abuse. We should long for our leaders to be models of the Gospel; examples for all of us. But also, we should all want that of ourselves — the role we’re all called to play in the church is to be imitators of Jesus… and this is what Jesus does with power in the example we’re asked to imitate:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:6-8

It seems to me that this self-sacrifice — this race to the bottom, not the top — if it was displayed by men in marriage and church leadership (well, in all our relationships) would not so much be about equality but about service and love. That’s not to say women can’t also follow this example, they should, but the challenge of leadership is to use whatever the world might consider strength to provide a context in which those the world views as weak can live the lives they were (re)created to live.

I think this would be a better antidote than equality than the one the Relevant piece offers… though I share the concerns the piece raises about the current state of play in some outworkings complementarian theology, which seem to equate leadership with being elevated into a position of power and influence, rather than seeing people placed in a vulnerable position of service/sacrifice.

“Since abuse is motivated by power and control, and patriarchy is a system based on power and control, it is not surprising that abuse is prevalent in these [complementarian] circles. Even writer Jason Meyer from The Gospel Coalition (a mainstream Complementarian parachurch organization) states that Complementarianism asks women to “take the most vulnerable position,” and can “quickly become a dangerous position when [these] views get distorted.”

If it feels like those not leading Christian community, but those being led, are in the most vulnerable position — if it feels like, to use a Biblical metaphor, the sheep are more in danger from the wolves than the shepherd — or that they’re in danger from the shepherd — then something has gone very wrong with our theology and our practice.

If this is how complementarianism is described and understood in its most honest and vulnerable moments, then there is something very wrong with it as a theological system.

Christian leadership imitates Jesus, and as such it is not about power being used for one’s own benefit, but about power being given up in sacrifice for others such that it looks like (or is) the laying down of one’s life for their good. That’s what a shepherd does when confronted with a wolf (though power, at that point, is also used to turn wolves away from the vulnerable sheep, and this is why, I believe, the Bible does conceive of a role in the church for people the world might perceive as strong. To stand between the wolves and the sheep, not to lord their strength over the flock). In a world where abuse happens; and a world where feminism is required because equality doesn’t exist except in theory, we need people who give their worldly strength for the sake of the abused and the vulnerable; not to make the abused and vulnerable feel abused and vulnerable in a different pen.

3. Listen to voices that are excluded by applications of power that look more like worldly power (the sword) than like Jesus (the cross); and make sure they get heard

This is a big role for the powerful in the eyes of the world, not just all of us. We operate in a world where privilege does seem to sit with educated, wealthy, white, men. The insights from feminism and elsewhere about patriarchy and how power forms self-perpetuating systems are worth listening to; but if you’re a white, educated, wealthy man who is used to listening to other people just like you, then you’re going to be blind. And if you’re the people occupying positions that look like the positions of worldly power in our world (and so speaking), you’re going to be the blind leading the blind to more blindness. Power often blinds us to the plight of the oppressed (that’s why privilege has become such a big talking point lately, and why it’s natural for white men in leadership to be suspicious when privilege gets raised as a rhetorical device… privilege is fundamentally about bias, and bias is often unconscious and a product of systems and cultures).

If we never listen to those we’re called to serve and sacrifice our power for; and if we never give their concerns the strength of our voices, we’re not doing anything to fight the system, or doing anything to provide a safe pasture in which those we lead can grow and flourish.

I’m uncomfortable with complementarianism as a system in theory because it seems to emphasise different over equal (and it does this at the level of definition where it says ‘equal but different’ when it could conceivably be expressed and practiced as ‘different and equal’). My own discomfort with how complementarianism plays out in practice, in our churches come from a sense that we tend to get power wrong in ways that do fit the definitions of ‘patriarchy’ because leadership often looks like ‘using power’ in a worldly way. It doesn’t feel like the Gospel is very good news for women in some of the ways I’ve seen headship and male leadership and authority play out in churches when, for example:

  • Our practices exclude and silence the voices of women far beyond the sort of limits Paul seems to have in mind in anything he says about the roles of men and women (Paul seems to, for example, have a place for women prophesying in a church context and we have no place sense of what ‘prophecy’ is apart from a sermon in our particular circle, and yet the sermon is ‘teaching’ and the responsibility of an ‘elder’ and our system has both teaching and eldership as offices held by men, Paul also doesn’t seem to say much about the sort of church governance/decision making stuff that our ‘elders’ in my denomination do in rooms where only men speak and vote)… this exclusion also limits the ability for whoever is speaking too and on behalf of the body in preaching is a man who doesn’t listen to women such that he also speaks for them and their concerns (and this plays out in the way men speak about pastoral stuff like sex, lust, modesty, abuse, work/vocation, etc).
  • We’re not prompted, as Christians, to be leading the fight for the good of women not just inside the church and our structures, but outside the church, but instead we’re told that feminism is a dirty word and a threat to Biblical understandings of sex and gender. Especially when we take what are very limited differences between the roles of men and women in marriage and church (structures that are meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and us, and the cross) and apply those differences to, for example, the question of whether women can have careers that involve ‘authority’ (like teaching in schools, politics, the army, or the police).
  • When women aren’t given space to use their God-given gifts to serve and build up the whole body (because we’ve collectively failed to imagine church gatherings as anything more than an opportunity for the leader to speak and teach with authority, leadership as more than preaching (because of the centrality of Bible teaching (logos) in our evangelical church culture at the expense of communal life and the power of Godly example (ethos), and our limited imagination of what the logos bit is (teaching, not prophecy etc), or life as the church as anything much more than the gathering (so leadership is limited to a role, that is largely visibly exercised by a man for half an hour on a Sunday, and then invisibly most of the time while this man is shut off in his office preparing the sermon)
  • When the women we do hear from publicly in complementarian settings speaking of their ministry roles are usually the wives of a minister who are heard from when they speak at conferences or ‘ministry wives events’ about their role supporting their husbands and being mothers, and figuring out the role of the ministry wife… Many of the times I’ve been present for these moments it feels like listening to someone with Stockholm Syndrome; and no matter how benevolent a captor their husband (or church) is, they’re still a captor; and Christian authority — shepherding — isn’t about keeping sheep captive, but about giving them safety and space to flourish.

Being white and male and educated and in a position of some sort of leadership that the world might recognise as having some sort of responsibility or authority means that I, and others like me, have a voice and a platform; and to some extent the Bible seems to suggest that there is a platform that comes from leadership in the church that is expected of certain men within the church. Being a leader like Jesus, who leads by giving up power means not using this power for self-interest, or as an act of power, but using it for the benefit of others, considering them, through humility, more valuable than myself.

It means seeing the pulpit more like Golgotha than Caesar’s rostrum.

It means seeing my job as one of listening and amplifying the Gospel-driven concerns of the bit of the body of Christ I lead, and so speaking (from my ‘strength’) on behalf of this bit of the body. And this means listening to people who don’t have the power or platform to speak for themselves both in the church community, and in the community-at-large.

It means seeing church as much more than just an event I lead on a Sunday where I’m the ‘main act’, but the main act being an act of the whole body, and the life of the body being much more permanent and all encompassing than the hour the body is gathered around the talk give.

For what it’s worth, I’m a big ‘priesthood of all believers’ guy because I’m big on what Paul says about the body of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 12; there’s nothing I do as a Christian that isn’t a product of me being part of the Body of Christ, and an application of the Spirit’s power — the same Spirit that vivifies and invigorates the rest of the body. No man, or woman, in the church is an island. No leadership is exercised as an individual apart from the body, it is something done for the body, with the body, attached to the body. I also don’t think all leadership comes from holding a position or a specific role; I think we’re all called to lead each other to Christlikeness by our example, as we imitate Christ… but there are roles described in the New Testament that seem to either assume a male is doing this thing, or be explicit that a role is a role, within a particular context, for a man (ie men are ‘husbands’, ‘fathers’ and in 1 Timothy, ‘Elders’).

I don’t think the problem the church faces, when it comes to abuse, is difference, so it follows that I don’t think equality will solve the problem (so I’m not an egalitarian).

The problem is sin.

The problem is a worldly approach to power and strength.

The problem is that I, given the opportunity by birth and circumstance to wield power, or to grasp more power, will, by default, take that opportunity and use it for my own interests and the interests of my ‘system’ or tribe (the people who give me more power, or perpetuate my place in the world).

The problem is that we have normalised the cursed pattern of behaviour from Genesis 3 and haven’t figured out how the Gospel challenges that norm.

The problem when it comes to different roles in the church is that often we approach this leadership as an invitation to wield individual power apart from the body of Christ (the church), rather than as a role we play because we are given responsibility and authority by God and the church as part of the shared life of the body.

Whatever this specifically male role in marriages (Ephesians 5) and the church (1 Timothy 2) looks like it can’t look like the application of worldly power out of self interest, or to abuse others.

 

The answer to the problem is not equality, it’s not better use of worldly power, it’s the Gospel. It’s Jesus. It’s his example. It’s giving up power for the sake of others; not taking it to wield it for your own sense of the good, or for your own good.

It’s leaders and husbands who have the mind of Christ in their relationships; not the mind of Adam.

It’s leaders who follow his example.

This can’t be abusive, or even a non-abusive “benevolent dictatorship” as the Relevant article describes ‘well-intentioned’ complementarianism (unless Jesus is somehow an abusive benevolent dictator)… not all uses of power are inherently abusive; some are loving (when power is given for the sake of others), some are just (when power is used against abusers to end abuse).  Jesus does use power. He does rule, but he rules those who follow him, and he rules by laying down his life, and by taking it up again to judge those who oppress and abuse; including those who claim to be shepherds but turn out to be wolves.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

11 propositions on gender stuff in churches (and the wider world)

I’ve been asked to speak at an upcoming event on women’s ministry in our denomination with a couple of women from church, one of whom is my colleague, the other is my wife. They are both smart and pretty well thought out on this stuff, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around all this gender stuff in the church, and the world.

So here’s my attempt to articulate something like my framework for thinking through how men and women relate in the church, and what ‘gender roles’ look like. The TL:DR; version is pretty much that I think men and women are equal and different, and that this comes together, ideally, in a way that allows us to bear the image of God, as we see him in Jesus, through our relating.

1. Any attempt to define things about our humanity, including gender, must start with understanding God.

Before we get to what maleness and femaleness mean for Christians we need to look at who makes humans and why. In philosophical buzzspeak any ‘theological anthropology’ (an account of what it means to be human) rightly begins with God. This is especially true because humans are made in the image of God, and it takes both genders working in harmony for us to even begin being anything like the God of the Bible, who is three persons eternally in perfect, loving, harmony where difference (three) and unity (one) are twin poles of who God is. This isn’t to say we should shatter the creator/creature divide. But the Bible starts with the definitive claim that we are made in God’s image, which means we should look to who God is as we figure out such fundamental questions of who we are.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:26-27

One of the other distinctive parts of this claim is that the God who speaks is plural. God is an ‘us’…

2. The Triune God models difference, equality, and voluntary submission without a loss of that equality

The last clause of this heading is one that is contested by theologians. There are plenty of people who think that any submission, voluntary or otherwise, is indicative of inequality. But I, frankly, disagree. I do think the voluntary part of the equation is incredibly, incredibly, important. And our attempts to define gender relationships within the church often don’t feel all that voluntary, and sometimes watching men and women (perhaps especially married couples) relate in churches, especially where the woman is obviously gifted, feels a bit like watching someone with Stockholm Syndrome. I think people exercising their God-given gifts for the sake of the body is pretty essential to human flourishing, but, paradoxically, choosing not to exercise those gifts in a particular way, or context, voluntarily, can also be an act of self-giving love, to wit:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:5-8

Some argue that Jesus only submits to the father during the incarnation. And that’s fine. I think if we, the church, are the ‘body of Christ’ now, we should probably be modelling our human relationships on this example, like Philippians 2 suggests, and I also believe there’s an utter eternal consistency between who God is within the Trinity in an eternal sense, and who God is as the persons of God operate in creation and human history. But what’s important is that you can’t undermine the equality of the persons of the Trinity, nor their difference, without straying into fairly major problems, and while the persons of the Trinity have very distinct roles in their interactions with the world, they act according to the same unified purpose, and they’re always present in one another’s actions. The fancy Greek word for this is perichoresis. They are eternally interpenetrating. This is the union/relationship from which all their creative and loving acts flow. And we are one of those creative and loving acts, but we carry the imprint of that within our being and purpose.

There’s a degree of the paradoxical to all this. Which is important to remember…

3. Men and women are different and equal

Because here’s another one that has often, I think, been poorly expressed. Plenty of Christians focus on the ‘different’, plenty on the ‘equal’, many on the relationship whether its ‘equal but different’ or ‘different but equal’… but wherever you put the ‘but’ you’re essentially indicating a preference or priority in a tribal understanding of the relationship between these two paradoxical poles. I’m going with the ‘and’, because like G.K Chesterton, and many others before and after him, I think we run into massive troubles when we kill paradoxes.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious”

One of my fears on gender stuff is we’ve either decided there is no paradox, or kept one more furiously than the other. I think the richness of the image of God we bear in the world depends on our ability to live together, navigating this paradox together. And this richness, and thus the image bearing, is threatened when we follow broken patterns of human relationships (see below), and part of that brokenness is an attempt to deny difference, equality, or the affirm difference or equality, without holding both furiously.

 

4. Because bearing the image of God is a vocation not a description, it is tied to a concept of a priesthood of all believers.

God doesn’t look like a man, or a woman. The ‘image’ in Genesis 1, as Dorothy Sayers says, is not physical.

“Only the most simple-minded people of any age or nation have supposed the image to be a physical one. The innumerable pictures which display the Creator as a hirsute old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud are recognised to be purely symbolic. The “image”, whatever the author may have meant by it, is something shared by male and female alike; the aggressive masculinity of the pictorial Jehovah represents power, rationality or what you will: it has no relation to the text I have quoted. Christian doctrine and tradition, indeed, by language and picture, sets its face against all sexual symbolism for the divine fertility.” — Dorothy Sayers, Mind of the Maker

That last bit is interesting I think, especially given this law in Deuteronomy 4:

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully,  so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.” — Deuteronomy 4:15-20

See, this is interesting. God can’t be represented in an image of any shape, specifically man or woman. The problem with idols is that they never truly capture the nature of God. Nothing created does. Except for the idol-like images that God himself makes — first the people in Genesis 1, and now the people he has re-cast for himself, like an idol, through the furnace of Egypt. This ‘people of his inheritance’ is his kingdom of priests…

Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” — Exodus 19:5-6

And later, in 1 Peter 2, this mantle is explicitly passed to the church. We are God’s priestly people.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. — 1 Peter 2:9-10

We are his representatives. His restored, recast, image bearers. The body of Christ… This is not just males, or just females, its males and females together, in relationships that ‘have the same mindset as Christ Jesus’ on display.

To use some fancy philosophical words — our ontology (what it means to ‘be’) isn’t just functional (a job) it’s relational (our ‘being’ only matters if we’re being in connection with others (God and other people). Being truly human, according to God’s design, means males and females sharing in this task of representing God to his world. Specifically for Christians that means bearing the image of Jesus. Our relationships with one another should involve us imitating him.

Unbroken by sin we’d all be ‘priests’ in the sense Israel, then the church, are called to be priests, mediating God’s presence to the world in how we live, what we say, and especially how we live in a way that celebrates equality and difference. We, the body of Christ, bear the image of God together in a much richer way than we bear it alone.

5. Genesis 3 describes a cursed pattern of relationships that leads to enmity between the genders, and the patriarchy is a product of this, it’s not an instruction manual for Christian male/female relationships.

“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:28

We were made to rule over creation together. In cooperation. Male and female. All of us. We were equally tasked with this image bearing vocation…  but then things fall apart.

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

Sometimes the default patterns we adopt in our churches, be they from our culture or from church tradition, look more like Genesis 3 than Jesus. I get a bit worried when we read Genesis 3 like its the inevitable pattern of relationships between men and women in the church. Somehow men have authority because ‘he will rule over you’… what 3:16 describes is a loss, in our natural ‘human’ relationships, of the function we were given to, together, rule over God’s creation. It describes exactly the kind of brokenness that produces the patriarchy, which is, essentially, a system built on this pattern of relating. Men grasping power and using it to rule over women. This also produces certain broken social constructions of gender that are harmful and perpetuate the effects of the fall. That’s what our nature does without divine intervention. We play out this cursed pattern and extend it to the ends of the earth, rather than extending God’s life-giving rule, like we were made to.

It’s not just blokes who are sinful though, this is just a particular manifestation of the power struggle that replaces the power sharing of Genesis 1-2. This is broken, and  Jesus came to fix it. Relationships within the church are meant to be built on the example of Jesus not on the mess made in Genesis 3, the default mess.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5:1-2, 21

6. The men, the ‘patriarchs,’ in the Old Testament are almost universally terrible to women, and that’s evidence that they are not examples for good, upright conduct, but pointers to our universal brokenness and our need for a better model.

Just as Genesis 3:16 is not a pattern for ideal male/female relationships, the characters we meet living out this cursed arrangement are not role models. Name one major authority figure in the Old Testament who does not have a fraught, or abusive, relationship with women. And it’s a downward spiral. We’re not meant to imitate David’s approach to Bathsheba, or Abraham’s treatment of Sarah, or Judah with Tamar, or any of the horrible interactions we see. We’re meant to get the sense that the world isn’t safe any more. The nakedness without fear in the Garden of Eden has been replaced with something much more sinister. Jesus is different. His relationships with women are very different. They’re safe. He doesn’t use his power to abuse, but to protect. He doesn’t view women as ‘less than’ him, but consistently, throughout his ministry, defies social conventions (like, for example, the convention that judged an adulterous woman or a prostitute but not the men in her life, he refuses to buy into that model, and, as another example, his unconventional dependence on women as witnesses to the resurrection).

7. Gender is socially constructed, but the Kingdom of God, as we see it in the church, is a society. A society holding out an alternative construction of life in the world built on the foundation of Jesus. This society has its own construction of gender that must celebrate difference and equality.

Eden had a social construct. No person exists in isolation from society, in fact, we can’t. We will if the picture of being outlined above stacks up with the Biblical data, always ‘be’ caught up in a purpose that requires us to be in relationship with others, and be as a function of those relationships. Our sense of being, our identities, are caught up and defined in a society, or many societies. This is especially true if our created function, as image bearers, includes developing human societies and cultures where people exist in loving, others-centered, self-giving, relationships built on the example of Jesus. It seems odd to think that ‘social construction’ doesn’t extend into the society of God’s people, his kingdom, or that God is ambivalent to the shape our relationships with one another take, given that he made us equal and different in order to reflect something of the divine nature.

We’re not going to get this right, and there’s a sense where we’re always defining ourselves, in God’s kingdom, against the ‘kingdoms of this world’ — worldly conceptions of gender, especially those from our culture, will always have a ring of truthiness to them because they’re part of the air we breathe. We’re also navigating between two poles of the difference/equality paradox and most people, and church structures, seem to be pulled more strongly towards one pole than the other.

It can be hard to extract the social constructions from the ‘divine design’, especially with that cursed fall, or the fall’s curse, playing around with our experience of gender in our relationships.

There are some basic biological building blocks of anatomical sex when it comes to males and females that mean not every ‘gender role’ is entirely constructed by an individual. There are obviously spectrums within maleness and femaleness when it comes to issues like hormonal and reproductive function, but like all males, I’ll never get pregnant, and there’s a certain amount of social freedom (and thus constructed identity) that comes from knowing this. But there are also sweeping social changes that have occurred through different periods of history that have rewritten gender norms over and over again, which means it’s not good enough for the church to just to adopt the unquestioned assumptions or constructions of gender from previous generations — there’s a great piece by Ellen Mandeville on Christ and Pop Culture exploring some of the dangers faced when we do that, which is absolutely worth your time. She demonstrates, I think pretty convincingly, that much of what we think of gender is socially constructed. But she stops well short of suggesting that this truth means we need to eradicate ‘difference’ between male and female. Instead, we’re to keep navigating between those two poles — equality and difference.

I think the way this difference and equality plays out is in a shared function, or telos, for God’s people — a shared sense of belonging to the body of Christ. A shared understanding that all the parts of the body are equally important, while playing different roles. And, as unpopular as this may be in a world where gender is constructed differently, or deconstructed, or where equality trumps difference, I think we need to be open to the possibility that just as different persons of the Trinity play different roles, so too must different persons of the church play different roles, but, just as the persons of the Trinity are ‘perichoretically’ linked so that they never act alone, this is true for the body of Christ as well; we are all united by the same Spirit. Well, that’s how Paul puts it anyway… he’s talking about how men and women — all members of the body — operate together as the church.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” — 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-14 

Paul talks about a bunch of specific types of gifting for specific people in the body. Now, as is the case any time I write about this stuff it’s worth acknowledging my ‘privilege’ up front when it comes to roles within the body. I’m not just a male, I’m a member of the body with a fairly prominent role that some might desire because it seems to carry a degree of authority. But Paul says that role as ‘impressive’ as it may be in a worldly sense (in a world that values oratory), is just as God-given as any other role in the body, and no more valuable. While there are these particular roles, some of which Paul seems to suggest are distributed according to gender, Paul seems to play down their value against one particular kind of gifting he wants to see thriving in the body. The greater gifts. The most excellent way. The gift of Christ like love. That’s what 1 Corinthians 13, where he goes next, is about.
“Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” — 1 Corinthians 12:31. 

I’m pretty sure Paul isn’t departing from the body message he’s just been labouring up until this point in order to flatly contradict everything he’s just said. I’m pretty sure the ‘greater gifts’ aren’t the sort of prominent teaching roles we tend to attach value to in conversations about gender. I think we may, in fact, be importing worldly pictures of authority and value, our own social constructs, into the mix at that point. Paul has just said:

But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

So I’m pretty sure he’s not turning around to turn people against one another as they compete for top spot. Whatever that is. If we want to pursue equality in the church, which we absolutely should, I don’t think it comes at the expense of difference, and I certainly don’t think it’s about picking roles that the world holds in high esteem and suggesting that if they’re gendered that we’re necessarily a product of the patriarchy… it might mean that, it has happened before (see the Old Testament)… I think we need to think quite differently about authority, power, and roles within the church — and, so, quite differently about our understanding of gender; particularly what benefits real equality and difference can construct for males and females if we construct our understanding of humanity — and the relationship between males and females on the love of Jesus, and his example, not on broken patterns of humanity. But part of this thinking differently means protecting both equality and difference when these poles are challenged by worldly constructs (or deconstructions) of gender.

But then I’m a man, in a position the world would hold in high esteem, so take my position with a grain of salt and read me according to my potential cultural biases.

The next four points are a little shorter because, hopefully, they build on what has come so far and sit more in the realm of implications than framework.

 

8. We model a different pattern best when we deliberately bear the image of God, voluntarily submitting autonomy, while navigating that paradox of equality and difference, in particular God-given contexts (church gatherings and marriage).

These two contexts are deliberately designed to reflect something about who God is, especially and specifically geared towards reflecting who Jesus is as he relates to the Father during his earthly ministry, and as he relates to the church (so Genesis 2 sets up marriage as a ‘perichoretic union’ that makes the male/female relationship a specific parallel to the Trinity and a place where fruitful multiplication of the sort envisaged in Genesis 1 happens, but I don’t think it’s the only way people contribute to such fruitfulness, we’re fully human in any human community. Then Paul specifically talks about marriage relationships as a picture of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5).

 

9. Leadership/authority in a church where every person is a priest/image bearer looks much more like being a model worthy of imitation than standing in a spot and speaking for a while.

The patterns of life brought about by the Gospel are caught, not simply taught. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed James K.A Smith’s insights into how we are formed as people, and how we are formed as image bearers/disciples specifically, and his emphasis on the power of a sense of telos/purpose/direction that pulls us along and orders our habits. He articulates this framework in a number of book and talks you can fond on Youtube. His latest You Are What You Love is a great starting point.

According to Smith, we learn these habits through ‘liturgy’ and I think one of our strongest liturgies is Christian community where the members of the body are using their gifts, throughout the week, to serve Jesus.

 

10. Our church structures and how we divvy up subsets of our role as the body of Christ should navigate the paradoxical tension between equality and difference.

Paradoxes are a good and necessary thing if you’re made in the image of the God who is both three and one. Both the ‘egalitarian’ and ‘complementarian’ positions as they play out in the modern church run the risk of attempting to resolve a paradox. I have been increasingly frustrated with the camp I most naturally belong to — the ‘equal but different’ complementarian camp, because they seem to constantly define themselves against the egalitarian position, which is a position that, in its extremes, also flattens a paradox. Paradoxes don’t produce certainty, they invite us to apply wisdom and to tread carefully. Rather than picking one equal/different pole to stand on — and appointing individuals within the body according to some pattern, gender, or giftedness — why don’t we aim for a more perichoretic/priesthood-of-all-believers style model of ministry where whoever stands up to speak is meaningfully and actually speaking for the whole body, such that there is no sense of misplaced authority or belief that any body part is greater than another. You could argue that simply letting everyone do everything is an answer, but I don’t think that lines up with the particularity of God’s design as described in 1 Corinthians 12.

Flattening paradoxes robs the Christian community of the richness of multiple voices and perspectives, and so produces an anaemic body, a poor society, and thus terribly constructed understandings of maleness and femaleness that damage all of us. Nobody wins if the men in our churches look and sound like the patriarchy of the Old Testament or the modern world. We win if the men and women in our churches are following the example of Christ as we seek to work together to bear his image, and if our bodies are shaped richly as we let the message of Christ dwell among us richly by hearing that message from as many Spirit-shaped voices as possible.

 

11. Whatever the church does to construct an alternative ‘cruciform’ picture of relationships between men and women in the church we have a vitally important opportunity to model relationships built on the example of Jesus to those outside the church, and opportunities to speak against the damage our fallen nature does to male-female relationships in the world around us.

Any of these constructions of gender, revolving around mutual, voluntary, submission, are occurring within the context of the church where we are, together, trying to model an alternative social construction — the kingdom of God. It’s ridiculous when we do what some people have done and still do, taking difference that expresses itself in voluntary application of roles within the context of these specific ‘social relationships’ and, in the name of discernment, applying them to secular gender roles where the meaning of this voluntary submission is lost, or interpreted through a fallen, worldly grid. There are popular examples of this like suggesting that women can’t be police officers, politicians, or anything that involves the wielding of worldly authority. This pattern of thinking reinforces the ‘patriarchy’ (in the systemic sense, not the Old Testament sense). It’s dangerous. The world isn’t a fun place for women because it is cursed and fallen, and, at least at the moment, men wield the power — on a systemic level, and often on an individual level. This is especially true because of some of the physical differences between the sexes — like, as I mentioned above, the universal truth that I do not have to live in fear of being impregnated by rape. But it’s not just what’s been called ‘rape culture’ — it’s also a product of building cultures and structures built on unchecked bias. This isn’t always malicious, it can simply be a product of nobody, especially the ‘privileged’ reading or listening to voices and ideas beyond our bias or comfort zone. We too easily assume we’re wisely navigating paradoxes without listening to voices that challenge the status quo. I have found recently that I’m significantly more likely to quote a white male as an authoritative source than any other category of person, and this isn’t because I don’t think women, or people from other cultural/racial backgrounds can write, it’s just a product of my bias. I haven’t really looked. This sort of bias robs women who write of the chance to be heard, but also robs any community I speak into the chance to hear voices from other perspectives. It is a failure to celebrate difference. Challenging these default patterns inside the church, and outside it, is a pretty significant job for God’s image bearers. Together.

We’re citizens of God’s new kingdom, we’re not people who just sit on our hands and take the fallenness of male-female relationships as a given. We have the pattern for their restoration, but we also know that the curse that came with our rejection of God’s design is real.

For C (and other women of Brisbane)

Tonight, just before church, I met a woman named C. Her name is not really mine to share – but I’ve tried to set up a targeted Facebook campaign in the hope that she’ll see this.

C wanted to know if our church is progressive or conservative.

I tried to tell her that we were both – I’m not a big fan of sticking to either label. As a church we aim to stick to what the Bible says, and who it says Jesus is, which means we’re conservative – but we also think Jesus is for everybody, and that rather than giving people a rule book about how to live, we want them to meet Jesus, hear the good news about the radical sacrificial love displayed at the cross, and live in response. Which I hope means we’re progressive – and frees us to be genuinely progressive, and radical, on all sorts of social issues, as we choose approaches that open up the opportunity for people to be truly transformed for the better.

C was particularly interested in our position on men and women in leadership, and on homosexuality (especially gay marriage), I’m not sure how interested she was in hearing the rationale for these positions – she decided that our church wasn’t for her when she heard that the Presbyterian Church of Queensland limits eldership and preaching to men.

C had been part of churches in the past – even working for a mega church in Sydney – but left because she has not found a church suitable to her progressive needs. If this sounds like any woman you know – please send her this link. The church needs women like C who are passionate about people and equality, and progress.

The Gospel – the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial love for all people – including his enemies – expressed through his death on the cross in our place, and his resurrection to bring us new life – lives changed and defined by this love is the key to any true progress in our society. It’s the key to fixing the sort of gender issues that plague the church and society at large, where men cling on to power and authority – weaponising leadership, rather than leading like Jesus (the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock). When we put our trust in Jesus, we’re all called to take up our cross and follow him – this cross-shaped life transcends gender, and it changes how we think of, and use, all aspects of our identity and person to love and serve others.

I told C she was more than welcome to join us even if she disagreed with us on these (or every) issues, and invited her to check us out. But she left.

This made me sad.

I’m still sad.

It breaks my heart that C did not feel welcome to join us tonight. That she came to another church that ultimately disappointed her. It breaks my heart that she didn’t stick around to listen to us, to meet the remarkable women in our church community, and the men.

It breaks my heart that this ‘conservative’ stance on women might get in the way of people meeting Jesus because it stops them even coming through the doors to see how such a stance plays out on the ground, in real lives. Our church – and every church I have been a part of – is home to strong women, thinking women, gifted women, who wrestle with what the Bible says, who Jesus is, and how that should play out in their lives. I’d love C, and others, to meet these women, hear their thinking, and see how even grappling with this question can help us understand more of who God is.

It breaks my heart to think that C, and others like her, think that by being part of the system I am part of I am robbing my wife and daughter of the opportunity to fully be the people God made them to be (a paraphrase of her words about what this sort of church does for women generally, not the woman and girl in my family specifically). C was strong, kind, and polite. She didn’t make this observation to offend me – or belittle the women in our church (or my family). She was motivated by her passion for others. She’s just the sort of woman the church needs.

It breaks my heart that it might be true (and that I think it often is). It breaks my heart that she might be right that ‘conservative’ churches might stop women meeting their full potential. It worries me that our churches – my church – might be places that value being conservative over constantly progressing, always reforming, always growing to become something closer to the church the Bible calls us to be, a church full of people shaped into the image of Jesus.

This progress and reform doesn’t mean throwing tradition under the bus. It doesn’t mean reinterpreting passages that we don’t like because they speak of particular customs in particular times. There are certain things we must conserve – certain things we are called to hand on from generation to generation so that the good news about Jesus continues to be told.

The Gospel calls us to be counter-cultural. To live lives different to the people around us. To be remarkable. And this call – this cross-shaped call – needs to transform the way we approach gender. And leadership. Sometimes this will mean we’re more conservative than the society we live in, other times it will mean being more progressive than the society we live in. The dichotomy is ultimately unhelpful.

Let me be clear – when it comes to gender stuff I think part of being counter-cultural is structuring our churches in a way that communicates something about the God who made us, telling the story of humanity as the Bible tells it. Which is why I think both Jesus and Paul, when speaking of gender and marriage, speak of Genesis as providing the structure for our relationships as Christians. Structuring our relationships according to the story we’re trying to live out – the story of the Bible – is part of telling that story.

Our gatherings, and the way we structure them, communicate something about our beliefs. And, like it or not, the Bible’s story of redemption of people – both male and female – equally – begins with God creating male and female. Both in the image of God, both valuable to God with equal dignity, but in the story Adam is created first, then Eve. This doesn’t make Adam more human than Eve but the Genesis account is comfortable suggesting Adam and Eve are completely equal, and completely able to bear God’s image, while performing different functions.

Again. This is easier for me to say as a man, especially as a man who ‘leads’… but the day I don’t see my ‘leadership’ as being called to lay down my life for others is the day I should be booted out of my job.

Our gatherings should communicate that every human has equal dignity and value in God’s eyes. Regardless of the role they’re playing in the gathering. I think Jesus is serious when he talks about the first being last. I think he models a counter-cultural approach to value and importance when he launches his kingdom by dying on a cross.

What our gatherings don’t currently communicate is that we hold women in such high esteem (and all people) that we would lay down our lives for them in a heartbeat.

Our gatherings don’t really communicate that any Christian submission echoes the submission of the Son to the Father in the Trinity, the Son who says ‘not my will but yours’ and goes to the Cross.

This submission is voluntary – an act of the will of the Son (perfectly united with the will of the Father).

This submission does not make the Son less than the Father. It can not. That would break the Trinity.

It is, therefore, possible to voluntarily submit (and be honoured and celebrated for this submitting), without being lesser in nature.

It is possible in the Trinity, so it is possible in our churches.

I know all this is easy for me to say – as a man, in a position of privilege, from a position of leadership.

But hear me out.
I want the church to do better in this space.
I want the church I lead to do better in this space.
I want this to come at cost to myself.
I want us to be always progressing. Always reforming.
I want a church full of men who love women so well that ‘Christian’ is synonymous with feminist.
I want a church where ‘leadership’ is synonymous with ‘sacrificial love.’
I want, if possible, a church where ‘conservative’ is synonymous with ‘progressive’ – because what we’re really holding on to is the Gospel, and what we’re really living out is the love of God as displayed in Jesus Christ.

That’s a lot of wants. Interestingly, one thing I would like to suggest to C, and others who are disgruntled with the church, and disenfranchised as a result, is that church is ultimately not about us. We’re never going to find the perfect church for us, especially if we’re assuming we’ve got a perfect grasp on truth.

What’s important is what God wants. What’s important is that our churches are made up of people – men, women, and children – being transformed by the Holy Spirit, always progressing to be more like Jesus.

There is no space for inequality in the church (but, again, lest you object that a complementarian approach is inequal, there is a space for those who want to voluntarily be part of a community that wants to voluntarily structure itself in a way that communicates something about the Triune God, the world God made, and the way God redeems the world at the Cross, to voluntarily submit to others, for the sake of others).

Here’s a couple more wants.

I want to be part of a church that celebrates women and their gifts, and gives space for these gifts to flourish, and to be used for the flourishing of others.
I want a church where women feel safe to speak, where they know they’ll be listened to, and know their contributions will be heard and valued.

I want to lead a church like that.

I don’t think leadership comes from a title (or with a title). The title I have is not something that marks me out as different to the people at church, or better than them. There has been no upwards shift in my value. I’m deeply and profoundly committed to the priesthood of all believers – men and women. Christian leadership comes through sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice. For the sake of others.

We’re all called to do that – every person in our church who wants to follow Jesus is called to lead this way. Regardless of your title, your position, your gender.

Again, I know it’s easy for me to say this, I have a title, I have a position, I am a man.

I know the approach to gender known as ‘complementarianism’ comes at a cost to women.
I know it has been used as a weapon by men in positions of authority.
I know that we (men, or complementarians) have, at times, tried to take this approach to gender beyond the boundaries of church communities so that men believe they are superior to women and should hold on to all positions of power.

I don’t think there’s any good reason for a woman not to be Prime Minister, or hold any position outside the church. How we structure stuff in the church is different because of what we’re trying to do as the church – point people to Jesus, and his sacrifice.

Submission is costly. It always comes at the expense of the one doing the submitting. There’s no escaping the truth that women in the church are being asked to pay this cost. But for this cost to have value it has to be voluntarily paid – as a result of people wanting to imitate Jesus.

Imitating Jesus is the key to real progress – and the key to real, eternal, flourishing (it’s also the key to short term pain and cost).

My wife is incredibly gifted. I have no doubt she could do most of the things I can do, and many things that I can’t, if she were in my position. The fact that she isn’t, and doesn’t seek to be (because she wants to uphold the Bible’s teaching on gender) is a testimony to the Gospel. It teaches me about Jesus. She leads me towards progress in this way. Her approach to life, and her sacrificial use (and non-use) of her gifts, shows me that she wants to imitate Christ.

It teaches me daily.

Every day I am grateful to God that I get to be married to such a gifted woman who is eager to use her gifts, but also eager to forgo using her gifts, for the sake of others.

I pray that both my children – my daughter and my son – will grow up in Jesus, to reach their full potential, to use their gifts to serve others, to submit to others and to lead others.

I want them both to be like their mum. I want them both to be like Jesus. I don’t think my daughter is any less able to do this than my son. I know that in many ways it’s going to be harder for my daughter to live in this world than it is for my son. I want him to grow up wanting that to change.

We’re not going to be truly progressive as a church without conserving the good news of Jesus and building our churches around his story – and being prepared to hang on to that when the world around us wants to move us away from it. We’re not going to progress as a church – to allow the women in our churches to truly thrive – without hearing from women like C who are strong, passionate and prepared to speak. Without them being passionate about Jesus, and passionate about the Church. Which is why it really is a tragedy that C, and others like her, are not joining churches like mine. Which is why I’m still sad. Hours later.

On Church gathering: preaching, rights, the sacraments, and authority

Hopefully this is the last in a series of long posts responding to John Dickson’s book “Hearing Her Voice.”

The other posts include:

If none of this interests you – have you watched this lip reading of NFL players? It’s funny.

A tl:dr;* introduction/summary of what follows

*too long, didn’t read

In what follows I argue that if the sermon is preaching (not teaching), and preaching, in the context of the gathering (not preaching outside the gathering – essentially to non-believers), is:

  • a piece of cross-shaped persuasion proclaiming the crucified Lord Jesus and the message of the gospel,
  • something of greater magnitude than the sacraments, in that the sacraments support the preaching,
  • where God speaks through those he provides with gifts,
  • so long as they too submit to the authority of Scripture, and their sermon is based on the authority of God’s revealed word.

If these points are true, then the sermon is the ultimate act of authority in the church, and at the center of preaching – which is a corporate activity of the church (not an individual act).

So if one is a complementarian the sermon should be:

  • a clear proclamation of the gospel,
  • based on the authority of God’s revealed word,
  • given by a man who meets the Biblical ethos guidelines for a preacher (assuming they’re the same as those for an elder),
  • who is appropriately gifted to carry out the logos and pathos elements of the delivery of a sermon,
  • which sits in the context of a church gathering where all the members sacrificially exercise their gifts, as one body,
  • to preach the gospel, corporately (in an act of worship).

And therefore, those who preach should be:

  • Sacrificial in their approach to preaching,
  • not speaking as an ego exercise, but a genuine act of service to others,

which means being mindful of who they are preaching to, and how their preaching style and content relates to and serves those in the gathering.

While the structure of the gathering, and the life of the church outside the gathering, should be such that all members of the church can function as part of the body and use their gifts in the preaching of the gospel (outside of the context of the gathering).

If you disagree with any of that, and want to tell me about it – feel free to jump to the comments and tell me why – this is another pretty big post. I feel like I can justify most of these positions from the Bible, and from various “authorities” throughout church history – but I haven’t always done this because some of the points assume things I’ve argued previously, and other times it’s just too hard to list all the proof texts, and I prefer proof vibe, and theological coherence and cogency, anyway.

Thinking about this issue has been fun because it has forced me to consider some things that appear to be contradictory in my thinking about church and ministry. I’m trying to reconcile the beliefs that all people are equal, but genders are inherently different, and all believers are “priests,” while some specific roles exist, and some of these roles aren’t available to sets of equal people.

On a simplistic level – if you’re comfortable with the idea that somebody who is tone deaf but passionate about singing shouldn’t be leading the singing at church, and that they might willingly forgo this role because they understand it’s for the good of others without losing any sense of their own value or the value of their singing to God, you’ve already started reconciling these tension.

Want to read more. Like 5,000 words more… then click the “read more” link…

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Hearing her voice: teaching, preaching, and a complementarian ethos

If you haven’t been following along on the interwebs, a hornets nest has been kicked and then ignited with the release of three Zondervan e-books about women and preaching, and whether or not they should do it.

I’ve read one of these, Hearing Her Voice, by John Dickson, the following review should come with the same caveats I included when I reviewed Promoting the Gospel: the best kept secret of Christian mission – I think John Dickson is excellent, I love his published body of work, and have found him helpful at just about every step of the way on my journey from Christian kid to theological student.

In this book we get more of Dickson’s very solid hermeneutical model applied to a pretty tricky question, and particularly applied to a verse that creates quite a few difficulties for the modern church. Seriously, he is, I think, the model of what being a careful interpreter of Scripture looks like, there’s a great para in the book that outlines his approach to using history as a tool for exegesis, and I commend it to you.

I was going to include quotes from the book – but this post is already almost 6,000 words long.

The question at the heart of this book – well, there are two questions, I think – and perhaps three – is what is “teaching?” Is preaching teaching? And if not, can women preach in church?

What’s not up for grabs for Dickson is the real strength of his work – he’s big on the authority of Scripture, big on consistently reading and exegeting it with the original readers and meaning in mind, and big on the principle that while male and female are equal in God’s sight, we are different.

I feel like I should throw in a few disclaimers at the start so you know where I’m coming from…

  • I’m aware of the dangers of being a “privileged” and unoppressed class speaking out on this issue – a white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant voice in this debate needs to be pretty mindful of his cultural background and relative freedom to make proclamations that appear to come at a cost to others. (UPDATE: If you’re reading this post in the present day, post 2014, I’m also a guy who occupies a pulpit — even more ‘privilege’ to account for in this conversation).
  • I love the concept of a priesthood of all believers – it goes without saying that this includes men and women – I think it’s biblical, I think we’re all called to be on mission together, and equipped by God to serve as part of the body of believers as we serve and love one another and try to reach people together.
  • I think there are lots of women who are gifted preachers, teachers, and evangelists. I don’t see any gender specific traits that make being able to show someone else that Jesus is the Christ a particularly male act. This isn’t an “innate” issue, or a “masculinity” issue, men are not innately more competent in this area than women.
  • I’m also a complementarian – I think our different genders are a good and necessary part of what it means to be human. I think we’re different but equal.
  • I agree that there are lots of roles open to women that we’ve essentially closed because we’re scared of transgressing in this area – including prophecy, exhortation, partnering as “gospel workers,” etc.
  • I think the gender stuff at the fall is pretty interesting, and is certainly something Paul has in mind in this verse. While this is pretty absent in Dickson’s book, it is something Mike Bird, who wrote a second book in the series, spends some time considering – but I haven’t read that yet.
  • I’m wary about tossing out 2,000 years of church tradition, particularly the interpretive traditions from people who took the Bible seriously – though I’m also aware that all interpreters are fallible, and texts, and interpretations of those texts are the product of different cultures. I’m interested in a tendency, beyond Dickson’s book, to pit current movements of the Spirit through female preachers against historic movements, through tradition. I’m also pretty sure the Spirit of God is able to speak, and point to Jesus, through all sorts of wrong things we might, as humans, adopt. Our fallibility has never been an obstacle to the Spirit moving people to faith.
  • I’ll also presuppose that how we do church – including who preaches – is part of our ethos, so that the decision about who preaches is, in part, a decision we make about our presentation of the gospel.

What is a sermon? Teaching? Exhortation? Preaching?

I have some reservations about how Dickson approaches the Greek language (and how others do too) – but this is probably because they are experts at Greek and I am not. I think word studies have some merit, but I think assume too much about the deliberation that goes into the use of particular words, rather than paying heed to the vibe of a paragraph, or whole letter. I think words often have a broad semantic range that overlaps with other words, and you kind of use those ranges together to create new concepts – Dickson thinks this happens with “teaching” and “authority” in the verse in question… So I don’t really like arguments based on word studies – and most of my response won’t really engage with the question of whether or not “teaching” or in the Greek, didaskein, is a technical word for a particular act, or a general word for the passing on of knowledge – this is where the debate is being fought out on the interwebs by Lionel Windsor, and Dickson himself (in a great model of how you can disagree with people without calling their character into question…

Like I say – I’m not an expert on Greek, and don’t pretend to be, and I’m fairly sure that words can also be used technically to mean very narrow things – but I do think literary context guides interpretation… and I think one of the concerns of Paul’s letter to Timothy is to help Timothy, and the church, think rightly about questions of pastoral leadership – including the establishment of a role that seems to be for men and includes carrying the responsibility of preaching and teaching, within the church.

I don’t think Dickson necessarily disagrees with this approach to language – though his treatment of “teaching” here is very similar to his treatment of “evangelism” in Promoting the Gospel. He allows for general  use of words, while suggesting we need to pay heed to the technical meanings that may have been in operation in the first century.

He spends significant time making the case that “teaching” isn’t directly transferrable to what we do in the pulpit of a modern church each Sunday – and his argument seems to have some merit. I don’t think preaching is the teaching, in the technical sense, that Dickson identifies. So I’m almost happy to cede his whole argument, on one level – if the Sunday sermon is exhortation, as he suggests, or prophecy as the Puritans suggest, and not teaching (as Lionel Windsor suggests it is) – then I think he’s right – women should be able to exhort, prophecy, and do all the things that Paul specifically or implicitly allows, and even all the things he doesn’t forbid.

Anyway – here’s the passage in question, with a bit of context. From 1 Timothy 2…

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In 1 Timothy 3, when he’s establishing the qualifications of a deacon, and an overseer he gives a set of ethos heavy principles, like being “above reproach” – which presumably has something to do with not undermining his leadership of others, and “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” It is assumed in these verses that the person in question is a man – building off his argument in chapter 2.

In 1 Timothy 5 it appears he assumes these elders will be the people doing the “preaching and teaching”…

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Then, in 2 Timothy 4, he kind of spells out what Timothy is called to do, under the umbrella of “preaching”…

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teachingFor the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced by the way Dickson groups “teaching” and “authority” into one command, rather than two separate but related commands based on the same Old Testament/created order principle… and I think there’s another reason, an ethos reason, when it comes to how we persuade people about the message of the gospel that means we should think carefully about how we use, or emphasise, gender and authority in church gatherings… which I’ll get to below. Somewhere. I think what is done from the pulpit is an act of authority – and listening is an act of submission.

Where I think Windsor is right to go (but slightly wrong in where he lands – I think), and where I think Dickson is wrong – is on what the sermon actually is. In sum, Windsor thinks it’s teaching, and Dickson sells teaching short, Dickson thinks the sermon is exhortation, or something analogous to that – and thus thinks women can give sermons.

What Preaching is not…

I’d argue, along with Dickson, that preaching is not teaching, we’ve hastily drawn an analogous line from the Bible’s use of teaching to our modern equivalent, and that’s come at a cost.

  • Preaching is not simply teaching – though it may involve the transmission of information from someone with knowledge to someone without.
  • Preaching is not strictly exhortation though it may encourage.
  • Preaching is not simply prophecy, though it may speak God’s word to people at a particular time… though in a sense a good sermon is all of these things. 

This is one of the areas I think Dickson’s argument breaks down – you don’t have to look much past Paul to find someone who exercises more than one of the “offices” of word ministry that Dickson seems to suggest are in operation… Paul also suggests all of these things are part of Timothy’s job as a preacher (2 Tim 4).

It’s quite possible that there’ll be an overlap of different styles of speaking in any particular speech, much as there was in just about any form of first century oratory. Where Cicero, in Brutus, bags out some orators for being too specialised in one area, because the idea was that public speakers could adopt a wide range of styles, from the boring didactic history lecture, to the witty declamation of an opponent on the election trail.

What a sermon (preaching) is…

Preaching is preaching. It has a New Testament equivalent – and an Old Testament equivalent. It has a Greek word – kerusso – which had a pre-existing technical meaning, and a meaning that developed through Christian usage, and it appears to be something like being a herald and proclaiming good news, with authority.

I’d argue that if one:

then our sermons are not “teaching” in the sense identified by Dickson – but “preaching”… in the sense that the word is used throughout the New Testament.

Our sermons should point people to Jesus and the kingdom of God, attempt to persuade people to accept the message, and declare that, Jesus is Lord – This essentially does nothing for the gender question but move the goalposts, so the question is not “can women teach?” but “can women preach?” – so Dickson’s insights, while useful, are potentially irrelevant to the question.

I would say that I think preaching is an act of authority – but the ultimate authority rests in the same person it rests in when Jesus is challenged about the authority behind his preaching – God and his Christ. When we preach faithfully we are simply pointing to the authority of Jesus. The way authority is exercised over the church is ultimately in the preaching of the word (and the faithful passing on of the apostolic traditions) as they relate to Jesus, not the appointment of humans who have particular gifts in particular areas. We judge a preacher’s authority on their adherence to the divine logos, Christ-made-flesh and Christ-crucified — the message of the Bible, not on their particular ability as a speaker. And I want to make the case below that we should ultimately profoundly be assessing a preacher on their ethos — their willingness to have the truth of this logos shape who they are and how they preach. I want to make the case that this isn’t a new way of thinking about what preaching is – first from the Reformers, and then, after a little ethos excursus from the New Testament (though the order should be reversed – the NT stuff is pretty long).

Preaching in the Reformed world

Both Luther and Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.5) put a pretty high value on preaching , if preaching involved the gospel – so much that preaching was more important than the sacraments in terms of constituting Christ’s presence in the gathering of the body – this was a big deal in a time where people were killed over what they thought happened at communion.

Calvin says:

“We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.”

Both (Luther Large Catechism (PDF, p 72), Calvin Institutes 4.1.1, 4)  saw the church as the “mother” of believers – responsible, ordinarily and under God, for giving birth to new believers and nurturing the faith of existing believers – and it did this, for both groups, in the same way – by preaching the gospel of Jesus. Not legalism. Not morals. Not ethics. Not just words of encouragement. But the gospel.

The gospel will have necessary implications for our morality and ethics – and it will necessarily be encouraging as we consider that the creator of the universe sent his son to earth to buy us, for a relationship, to make us his children. But our sermons that do all these things do these things because they first declare the truths of the gospel, and these things are part of the persuasive case the gospel makes for those who hear it.

The preaching of the gospel is one of the “marks of the church” for Reformed people.

The Westminster Confession of Faith essentially follows both Calvin and Luther on this point – it says the church is responsible for the “gathering and perfecting of saints” (WCF VII, XXV), and that the preaching of the word is one of the two marks of the church (along with the administration of the sacraments).

“And particular Churches, which are members thereof [the universal, visible, church], are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

In XV the Confession says ministers are to preach: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ,” and in XXI it says faithful preaching is part of worship. This preaching is conducted by these “ministers of the gospel”…

I like this quote from Calvin that Justin Taylor shared last week:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Biblical, expository, sermons will point people to Jesus Christ in a way that declares his kingdom has come at the cross. It is preaching, not teaching.

An argument from “authority” – an ethos consideration

I think a case can be made that Paul’s prohibition on women exercising authority in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to what is going on in the gathering, and works a bit with the similar prohibition in 1 Corinthians, to establish a principle, rooted in creation and the fall, for what happens when the church meets and the gospel is preached… as an authoritative act.

But even if that case is weak – I wonder if there’s an ethos driven, cross-shaped, argument for women letting men preach, if sermons are preaching, and preaching is an act of persuasion where both pathos and ethos are as relevant as what we say… even if they are more gifted than their male counterparts, which is surely often the case.

A willingness to submit is part of the testimony of the gospel of the cross – as is a willingness to sacrificially not use our gifts for the sake of others… I’d argue Paul is essentially doing this in Corinth when he avoids using his full rhetorical prowess, that he demonstrates in Acts, in order to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” as he teaches them, knowing what he does about their culture and context – and the sinful desires they have to place value in their abilities or flashy man made idols. I reckon its possible that gender equality is a bit of an idol in our culture – I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing, idols are good things turned into ultimate things… but I wonder if a refusal to give in to cultural pressure on the gender front, voluntarily, might be a hugely important part of our testimony.

This is where a little bit of trepidation kicks in on my part – because I recognise that I’m a guy telling gifted women they can’t do what they’re gifted to do.

But, I think it’s possible that If we believe that:

  • genders are different, but that people are equal in value,
  • that the gospel does away with inequalities that people might establish on the basis of differences (Gal 3:28),
  • that submission isn’t a statement of inequality, this is where some smart egalitarians like Miroslav Volf depart, but it must be true because if we believe that the Trinity is made up of three parties who are equally God, we need to be able to say that Jesus can submit to the father without calling this equality into question (in academic terms this is a question of whether you can have functional subordination alongside ontological equality, I think the answer has to be yes, if the submission is voluntary, an act of love, offered without coercion),

then we should be able to sacrificially let men do the preaching… even if there are women out there who are better equipped to do the job… because this is part of our testimony, and our act of testifying – to the sacrifice of Jesus, for his church – just as it is in marriage (Ephesians 5).

The act of preaching is an act of authority – but this authority isn’t establishing an inequality – and if it does create such an inequality, then questions have to be asked about whether or not the guy is doing his job – just like in a marriage. Because a cruciform preacher who humbly uses the gifts God has given to build up the church and point people to Jesus through the persuasive preaching of the gospel won’t, if logos, pathos, and ethos stack up, be in a position to create any inequality except the inequality created by considering everybody else better than yourself…

Our value to God isn’t caught up in our ability to serve him – with the gifts that he has given us, nor is our testimony – I would argue our testimony is caught up in our ability to live cross-shaped lives where we imitate Jesus, who despite having all authority and abilities in his grasp, and being equipped to do otherwise gave himself up for us, as an example, here’s Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, anyparticipation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselvesLet each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersHave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps the way we testify to our unity, our like mindedness, and avoid promoting our gifts, interests, and selves, is to be prepared to not do things we could do, as part of our testimony to Jesus, and to the creator who sent him, and made men and women different.

Communicating why we’re doing this, and valuing, affirming, and giving avenues for gifted women to be effective members of the body and servants of the mission of God is obviously pretty tricky – and one of the great strengths of Dickson’s work is that it’s motivated by exactly this concern.

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Biblical life by the books: AJ Jacobs and Rachel Held Evans, and how to pick and choose.

I read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible last year. I think I meant to review it. But I forgot. Now, Rachel Held Evans, a Christian blogger, has set the blogosphere atwitter with her A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” The two are essentially related.

A Year of Living Biblically

Here’s the YouTube trailer…

And a TED talk author AJ Jacobs gave on the experience.

Despite a bunch of hermeneutical problems – I really enjoyed his book – it was well written, honest, and good humoured. It wasn’t a great picture of what Christianity is – which is particularly fair enough, given that Jacobs is a secular Jew. You can’t necessarily expect him to have a good grasp of a hermeneutic that incorporates the New Testament.

He had this idea that taking the Bible “literally” and taking it to its logical conclusion meant “taking the Bible literally, without picking and choosing”… he was inspired by his “crazy ex-uncle,” Gil.

He started out by writing down every single law that he could find in a couple of readings of the Bible, then set out to apply them as literally as possible. Though he gave himself some wiggle room right from the start:

“I will try to find the original intent of the Biblical rule or teaching, and follow that to the letter. If the passage is unquestionably figurative – and I’m going to say the eunuch one [Matt 19:12] is – then I won’t obey it literally.”

He gave eight months to the Old Testament, and four to the new – which is generous, because as a Jew he could’ve been consistent and just stuck with the Old.

He says in the TED video that he was amazed by how his behaviour changed his thoughts – rather than his mind changing his behaviour. Which is an interesting insight.

It’s a pretty interesting read, it’s thought provoking, it’s full of great stories that will become good sermon illustrations of his meetings with various people, including a group who are dedicated to breeding unblemished red cows for the purpose of sacrifice once the temple is restored in Jerusalem.

He asked some really honest questions of the Bible, and was honest about how it impacted, and didn’t impact, his life. He ended the year as a “reverent agnostic” who thinks that there’s something important about sacred stuff.

One of his big take home lessons was “though shalt not take the Bible literally,” which is interesting. But very few Christians do what he suggests is the “literal” reading of the Bible. Because the Old Testament is changed by the New Testament. It’s a fun game – but Christians should know better. Shouldn’t they?

Now, I’m not going to suggest that all Christians read the Old Testament well – there are plenty of people who draw weird allegorical interpretations from the Old Testament, or who don’t mind the gap, and take the promises of prosperity that are time and place bound – to Israel, in the land, and apply them to life now. That’s a real problem in many circles that take the Bible seriously. As is reading any Biblical text – from the Old or New Testament – “literally” – taking text at face value without considering context, genre, and what the original meaning might have been.

So there’s a legitimacy to critiquing that approach to reading the Bible – and I think that’s where I’m prepared to cut Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood some slack that others aren’t.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

She isn’t doing the hermeneutical work (hermeneutics = principles of interpretation) that she should, as a Christian, be doing – but precisely in not doing it, she’s making a point about some other approaches to the Biblical text. She’s made some people, like Kathy Keller, a little bit upset in doing so. On one level, Keller has missed the point. But on another, she’s right – Held Evans has been on the media circuit promoting this book, using an almost identical rationale to Jacobs, who’s a Jew. Held Evans is a Christian.

We should, I think, expect Christians to have a better grasp of the Bible, and speak from that point of view, most times, lest they undermine the most consistent way to read it – which is as a grand, unfolding, narrative of God’s plan for salvation in Jesus – that’s why we keep the Old Testament, without jettisoning the superseded laws.

This exercise would be problematic if Held Evans is making an in-house point, that is being lost in media coverage of her book. The reception has certainly focused on the controversy and reaction to her book – here are two examples from an American Newspaper I’ve never heard of, and Slate who focus on some controversy surrounding Held Evans using the word vagina in the book – which means some Christian book stores won’t sell it. But most people seem to be getting the joke. Most secular media outlets understand that she’s not applying a hermeneutic she agrees with. The Huffington Post ran these pieces that recognised Held Evan’s point (and this one). It seems most of the in-house furore is from people who don’t get that Held Evans “literal approach” is ironic, or don’t think she should be being ironic. Which is a shame. But there are plenty of readers who won’t get the irony either. This review seems to suggest that because not all evangelicals read the Bible like Held Evans is demonstrating, her being ironic is not enlightened, but adds fuel to the fire.

Evans writes,

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives. (294)

And yet, amazingly, scripture is clear enough to Evans that she can determine it has been misread and misapplied by the evangelicals who advocate for a biblical view of manhood and womanhood.

That review, like Keller’s, provides a pretty stellar overview of a consistent way to read the Bible and create a category of Biblical womanhood, but the fact that pages like this one, about Proverbs 31 “Christian mom/entrepreneurs,” and that some of the books featured in this post, exist is a testimony to part of the problem Held Evans seems to be engaging with.

Keller calls Held Evans out for “picking and choosing” – an echo of one of Jacobs’ conclusions to his experiment – that one needs to “pick and choose” if they’re going to live Biblically in modern life.

Here’s what Keller says:

Yet you, who surely know this as well as anyone, proclaimed at the start of your book: “From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Levitical code to the letters of Paul, there [will be] no picking and choosing” (xvii, emphasis mine). To insist that it would be “picking and choosing” to preclude the Levitical code from your practice of biblical womanhood is disingenuous, if not outright deceptive.

In making the decision to ignore the tectonic shift that occurred when Jesus came, you have led your readers not into a better understanding of biblical interpretation, but into a worse one. Christians don’t arbitrarily ignore the Levitical code—they see it as wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus. In him, we are now clean before God. I doubt if you had given birth during this year you would have made a sin offering after your period of uncleanness (Lev. 12:6-7). I doubt this because you know that in Jesus the sacrifices, as well as the clean laws, are fulfilled and therefore obsolete.

She’s right. Christians shouldn’t “pick and choose” – we should read the Bible through the lens of Jesus – but that doesn’t always happen. And I suspect that’s the point Held Evans, if not Jacobs, is making. Jacobs isn’t ignorant of other hermeneutics either – he spends time with Christians of different denominational ilks in his experiment. He hangs out with snake handlers – and acknowledges that most Christians are able to distinguish a disputed verse in Mark as being descriptive, rather than prescriptive, so that we don’t go picking up poisonous snakes every Sunday morning…

Keller makes the point in her review that there are times that Held Evans isn’t as generous to the writers of the Bible as Jacobs was – there are a couple of points where she misattributes views that Paul is quoting to Paul himself, or applies something in a humourous and literal way when it’s clearly figurative. But again, I’m willing to cut Held Evans some slack, because if, at the heart of her premise, is the idea that other people pick and choose how they read the Bible, then she’s right – and her point is well made. Bad readings of the Bible that are inconsistent, and bring bizarre modern hermeneutical gymnastics to the table, produce bad results.

I’m with Keller though – I think the best results, and the best hermeneutical method, involves thinking about how a passage relates to the Lordship of Jesus, and passages should be interpreted as products of their time, place, purpose, and genre – before making any jumps to the present.

Here’s how Keller rounds out her review…

“Rachel, I can and do agree with much of what you say in your book regarding the ways in which either poor biblical interpretation or patriarchal customs have sinfully oppressed women. I would join you in exposing churches, books, teachers, and leaders who have imposed a human agenda on the Bible. However, you have become what you claim to despise; you have imposed your own agenda on Scripture in order to advance your own goals. In doing so, you have further muddied the waters of biblical interpretation instead of bringing any clarity to the task.”

The question is, is this judgment warranted. Does A Year of Biblical Womanhood muddy the waters?

Most Christian readers I know won’t find her titular definition of “Biblical Womanhood” particularly resonates with their experience. Robyn just told me if I told her to call me master she’d laugh, and if I was serious she doesn’t know what she’d do. We’ve been married five years, and the issue has never come up before. But it’s not really written for me. It’s written for people across a much broader spectrum of Christianity than Held Evan’s fellow evangelicals, perhaps even feminist non-Christians.

Much like Jacobs’ work, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is an enjoyable read – it’s funny. It’s occasionally poignant. Whether Held Evans is sitting on a roof, in contrition, trying to cook like Martha Stewart, or calling her husband “master” – there’s something to savour, and get annoyed by, and be challenged by, in every chapter. It’s frustrating. It’ll no doubt mislead some people. But it makes a serious point about wrong ways to read the Bible. And for all the frustations I felt at Held Evans misrepresenting the “evangelical” line that I’m familiar with – she grounded her accusations in reality, she talks about a group dedicated to the Biblical concept of patriarchy, and some “biblical polygamists.” Her criticisms might be of extreme groups, taking extreme positions – but they’re not so absurd that they don’t exist.

Like Jacobs, Held Evans doesn’t give a great answer for how to read the Bible, running the we have to “pick and choose” line – but it goes closer. Here’s what she says:

“Philosopher Peter Rollins has said, “By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.

For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it.”

Like Keller, I think this is fairly weak. I think we can approach scripture with an essentially “scientific objectivity” through historio-critical hermeneutics that have been demonstrably popular, at the very least, since Calvin, Luther, and Erasmus (basically since humanism), and with various figures throughout church history before that, with varying degrees of consistency. The criticism that we each bring an agenda to the text doesn’t warrant coming up with a blanket interpretive rule that we have to shoe-horn every text into, it means being careful to treat every text on merit, using a consistent method. But more than that – I think “love” is objective too – not a subjective thing that requires creativity. The Bible reveals God’s love to us in Jesus, from start to finish. We interpret a passage with justice when we realise that the Old Testament laws, and prophets, are fulfilled in Jesus – even if it’s true that the Old Testament laws should originally have been interpreted through the lens of “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbour as yourself” – and a Christian ethic should do the same – if Biblical interpretation isn’t dealing with the question of how Jesus changes things – it’s not truly “Biblical” – that’s the criteria by which most readings fail.

The real strength of her critique is in the power of the negative:

“Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own. Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.”

She’s right. Most of us selectively read the Bible. Most of the time. We all have a tendency to want God on our side – supporting our football team, cause, or institution – and I’d argue that there’s an objectively right answer in most of these cases, but a lack of wisdom, ability to make complex decisions with omnipotent clarity, and the effect of sin means we’re all equally unlikely to land on it.

Her methodology is very similar to Jacobs’, only less charitable.

“This quest of mine required that I study every passage of Scripture that relates to women and learn how women around the world interpret and apply these passages to their lives. In addition, I would attempt to follow as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding women as possible in my day-to-day life, sometimes taking them to their literal extreme.”

For me, one of the interesting parts of the book is the way the online conversation on her blog, about the process of writing the book, becomes part of the book itself. There’s something meta about that that I appreciate, the commentary becomes the content. The conversation is about the conversation.

By this point I’d been reminded about a million times that the Bible didn’t explicitly command contentious women to sit on their roofs, and that rooftops in the ancient Near East would have been flat and habitable anyway, but I was determined to engage in some kind of public display of contrition for my verbal misdeeds… I spent an hour and twenty-nine minutes on the safest corner of our roof, reading over my list of transgressions, practicing a bit of centering prayer, and watching a small herd of cats mill about the neighborhood.

My biggest frustration with Held Evans’ exegesis of narrative came in her discussion of polygamy – where she makes the blanket claim that the Bible assumes, rather than condemning, polygamy. I don’t think that’s a particularly sensitive reading of any of the New Testament passages about marriage that either assume a marriage is between a man and a woman (so Jesus in Matthew, Paul in Corinthians), and the qualifications of an elder state that the leaders of churches are to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy, Titus). But the biggest grievance here is that it’s a poor reading of the Old Testament narrative – especially as she holds Solomon up as a Biblical hero – when his propensity for marriage was what caused the end of Israel and the spiralling into exile…

I’m as complementarian as they come – I’m ok with gender forming a different flavour of identity for men and women, and want to affirm, lovingly, and with equal value when it comes to personhood, the distinction between genders. My reading of the Bible resonates with Keller’s, and Flashing (who wrote the second review I linked to), rather than Held Evan’s slightly more post-modern approach to the text, and I’m pretty convinced we’ve got it right – but that’s not a reason not to criticise readings that we all think are wrong – readings that don’t pay attention to the context – which we’re all trying to do, just with different results, and thus, different conclusions. So I’d recommend the book – it’s funny, it’s interesting, it makes some strong points against those it critiques – but I’d not recommend the conclusion – which replaces Jesus as the hermeneutical key with “love,” when surely it’s the love of Jesus that gives all people the most hope, and a life lived following King Jesus is surely the most biblical type of life.