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.

 

Meat and more: You are more, but not less than, your body… and Christmas shows why ‘meat’ matters

“People need to realise it doesn’t matter what living meat skeleton you’re born into; it’s what you feel that defines you.” — Victor (in the video below)

This is Victor. Victor identifies as non-binary, and this BBC video features Victor explaining a little bit of life from a non-binary perspective. It did the rounds on social media recently. It’s an interesting and increasingly common account for what it means to be human. Victor’s account of what it means to be human is this: you are a feeling mind with a meat skeleton; but the real you is the ‘feeling mind’ part — your consciousness — and your body might get in the way. If that happens then feelings (your choice) trump meat (an unchosen thing you’re born with).

It’s true that we are both mind and body, maybe even ‘soul’ and body… and our accounts of what it mean to be human need to reconcile these two realities in a way that helps us make sense of our experience of the world, and in a way that helps us figure out what to do when our bodies and minds seem to be in conflict.

One of the things I’ve spent this year reading about, thinking about, and writing about is how Christians can respond with love and understanding to the growing conversation about gender identity and gender fluidity. A paper our Gospel In Society Today committee (a thing I’m on for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland) has put together on this issue will be released soonish, but this video was one of the stranger and more worrying parts of what is a complicated issue where one’s gender identity is not necessarily as simple as a binary view of either physical sex and gender makes out. Being human is not quite as simple as Victor suggests. Extrapolating an understanding of humanity and what a flourishing human life looks like — what shape our identity takes — from the experience and feelings of particular individuals (or any individuals) is not a great way to do anything (this is also true from the direction of ‘cis-gendered’ people backwards too, where ‘cis’ is a pre-fix for those whose physical sex and gender identities line up). We often have a tendency when dealing with the complexity of human existence to assume our experience is both normal and should be ‘the norm’ and that’s dangerous.

The view of what it means to be human that Victor in this video puts forward is an unfortunate extrapolation from the real felt experience of the few to the many. Your body isn’t just a ‘meat skeleton’ with the real you somehow immaterially enshrined in this skeleton; you are your body. There’s something a bit appealing to this idea, not just as it applies to the gender conversation but because our bodies are limiting when it comes to what we imagine flourishing to look like. I want to be healthy and fit; but my body lets me down in that I get sick and injured. I want to be able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, but my body can only occupy one place at any given moment, and my moments are limited. I want to be immortal, but my body is on the timeline to decay. I do want to be able to escape the constraints of my body; humans yearn for that; particularly we want to escape from the bits of our bodies that are broken and dying. It’s nice to believe that our minds are somehow the real us; that the real us doesn’t decay, disappoint, or die; it’d be nice if our bodies were just meat skeletons that we could augment or change based simply on how we feel without that impacting ‘the real us’ (except as we bring them in line with the real us).

But this idea that we’re just our ‘feelings’… that our bodies don’t really matter… This is the gnostic heresy of the secular age. And it’s not necessarily a great ‘secular’ solution to issues like gender dysphoria or gender identity either (though solutions that don’t deal with us as ’embodied beings,’ the idea that our bodies are able to be ‘unbroken’ via our minds, or that someone can simply ‘think themselves’ into a solution aren’t very useful either, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time). Victor also assumes a radical disconnection between our bodily experience and our minds that doesn’t seem to stack up with modern neuroscience (which suggests what we do with our bodies impacts our minds) either, but again, that’s another rabbit hole.

The secular age is a label philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe our current western world’s grand organising narrative; its ‘myths’; its account for what human life is; and thus what a flourishing life looks like. The secular age involves the death of the soul as a concept, because it involves switching a view of the world where both the spiritual (or transcendent) and material (or immanent) are real and important for a world where only the material matters. This leaves us with an interesting account of our human experience and what it means to be really human. Our new post-soul way of understanding the world from this immanent viewpoint replaces the ‘soul’ with the mind. We now see ourselves as immanent creatures and any gap, or conflict, between mind and matter in our experience will be left for us to figure out as we come up with a story that explains how to be human.  In this video with Victor it seems this movement involves creating a new duality between mind and matter — or your feelings and your body (how you feel things apart from your senses and the chemical make-up of your brain (and how that might be influenced by the activities of your body) is something not totally fleshed out in Victor’s anthropology).  Victor’s story is a story like this; in Victor’s account human history has been oppressive because we’ve understood physical sex (matter) and gender (mind) as being things that are best held together; or understood as being a single thing when real enlightenment allows us to see them as they truly are — different — so that true freedom is somehow found in transcending our ‘matter’ so that our sense of ourselves is found in our mind. Only, because the transcendent no longer exists as a spiritual account of reality that overlapped the material so that both were true and held in tension;  this transcendence comes from making one part of us less meaningful as we make the other bit more meaningful. Victor sees the material and the mind being, at times, in competition, and as a result says “you are defined by what you feel.”

Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy built from Plato’s understanding of reality. Plato taught there is a ‘spiritual’ world of ‘ideals’ and a ‘material’ world of ‘forms’ and the truest reality is the spiritual one, and the physical stuff is broken, and non-ideal, and to be transcended. Gnostics applied this to Christianity and came up with the belief that our bodies are utterly broken and sinful and awful and dirty and to be transcended. It taught that you were a soul; and that you were lumped with a body. The soul trumped the body. The body was a meat skeleton to be escaped from.

It’s the same story Victor is telling; this idea that you’re much more than a meat skeleton, if you’re even a meat skeleton at all. This ‘meat skeleton’ phrase reminds me of a couple of passages from three of my favourite ‘secular’ stories by three secular age writers; William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer which explores what might happen if we rely on technology to replace the transcendent. In Neuromancer you can get a chip implanted in your head that allows you to jack-in to cyberspace so that your body exists in the physical world (meatspace) while your mind is in cyberspace. Prostitutes in this world can hire out their bodies while their minds are occupied in the cyber world; so they’re called ‘meat puppets’… which isn’t so different from Victor’s ‘meat-skeleton’ only in Victor’s account your mind is the puppeteer, in control of your meat, not someone else. Case, the protaganist, was a cyber-cowboy (a hacker) who lost his ability to be part of cyber-space but is given it back in order to complete a big hack; he’s torn between two worlds; two realities; the transcendent reality of cyber-space and the physicality of meat-space; without spoiling things too much this para is from near the end of the book:

“No,’ he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong and blind way, could ever read.” — Neuromancer

Somehow Gibson is convinced that the body matters. Kurt Vonnegut explores the idea that we’re both ‘meat’ and ‘soul’, and that the key to happiness (and to seeing others properly) is about understanding each, then aligning them, in his novel Bluebeard. The main character, artist Rabo Karabekian, moves from this almost gnostic belief that they’re separate and irreconcilable; but that the soul is the true self to something that sees them as working together. So there’s this dialogue, where :

“I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

“I sure hope they are,” I said. I laughed. “I would hate to be responsible for what my meat does.”

I told him, only half joking, about how I imagined the soul of each person, myself included, as being a sort of flexible neon tube inside. All the tube could do was receive news about what was happening with the meat, over which it had no control.

‘”So when people I like do something terrible,” I said, “I just flense them and forgive them.”

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

“It’s what whalers used to do to whale carcasses when they got them on board,” I said. “They would strip off their skin and blubber and meat right down to the skeleton. I do that in my head to people—get rid of all the meat so I can see nothing but their souls. Then I forgive them.”

At this point Rabo is operating with the belief that the soul is the ‘true’ self and the meat gets in the way… but he’s brought back to reality (or to real reality) in the closing words of the book; when he’s forced to see that when he makes art it’s actually his soul and meat working together (in a passage where the critique of trying to hold body and soul apart is a bit similar to some stuff Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics in the second century). His art studio is a potato barn.

”Your meat made the picture in the potato barn,” she said.

“Sounds right, “ I said. “My soul didn’t know what kind of picture to paint, but my meat sure did.”

“Well then,” she said, “isn’t it time for your soul, which has been ashamed of your meat for so long, to thank your meat for finally doing something wonderful?”

I thought that over. “That sounds right too,” I said.

“You have to actually do it,” she said.

“How?” I said.

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “ and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

So I did.

I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

Oh happy Meat. Oh happy Soul. Oh happy Rabo Karabekian.

David Foster Wallace explores the relationship between the body and something more than the body at the heart of our humanity through the lens of learning to play tennis in both his celebrated essay on Roger Federer published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times (but as the title essay Both Flesh and Not in that collection of his articles and essays), and in his novel Infinite Jest which features a tennis playing prodigy as one of the protaganists. Wallace was, himself, a competitive junior tennis player so you sense that some of his insights into what it means to be meat are autobiographical; what’s a bit different is that Wallace seems to assume that you are first your physical body; that meat matters, and even that anything more that is out there is fed and cultivated by what we do with our ‘meat’… what we give ourselves to. With tennis as a bit of a metaphor for the life well lived, he explores the idea that transcendence is found by pushing our well-trained muscle-memoried bodies to new heights via the imagination; our bodies somehow show our minds what is possible because they act as some sort of sub-conscious us. 

“Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place.” — Infinite Jest

Then when Hal, the tennis prodigy, is being coached. His coach says the key to a sort of ‘flourishing humanity’ starts with our ‘meat’; that we’re meat first:

“‘Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boys’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner, why they never give anybody the boot for insufficient progress under fourteen, it’s repetitive movements and motions for their own sake, over and over until the accretive weight of the reps sinks the movements themselves down under your like consciousness into the more nether regions, through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language. The autonomical part that makes you breathe and sweat. It’s no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play… The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways. Just wait. You start thinking a whole different way now, playing. The court might as well be inside you. The ball stops being a ball. The ball starts being something that you just know ought to be in the air, spinning. This is when they start getting on you about concentration. Right now of course you have to concentrate, there’s no choice, it’s not wired down into the language yet, you have to think about it every time you do it. But wait till fourteen or fifteen. Then they see you as being at one of the like crucial plateaus. Fifteen, tops. Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the choking-issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor. Now these start to matter. Thirteen at the earliest. Staff looks at a range of thirteen to fifteen. Also the age of manhood-rituals in various cultures. Think about it. Until then, repetition. Until then you might as well be machines, here, is their view. You’re just going through the motions. Think about the phrase: Going Through The Motions. Wiring them into the motherboard. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it right now.” — Infinite Jest

One of the more powerful things about Infinite Jest is that it explores how the addictions that shape our bodies ultimately shape our humanity; and this sort of tennis training is a sort of ‘rightly directed’ addiction (or is it); it seems better than being addicted to drugs or entertainment… two of the other pictures of meat-shaping (or miss-shaping) habits in the novel.

Somehow, for Wallace, we are inextricably embodied; our meat matters because it shapes everything else about who we are and how we flourish; and when we’re ultimately flourishing it’s because our meat and our minds are meeting; intuitively. When everything comes together in this tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing we no longer notice the ‘dual’ reality.

You’re barely aware you’re doing it. Your body’s doing it for you and the court and Game’s doing it for your body. You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. — Infinite Jest

And in a moment on the court where things go wrong; when one’s body betrays you and you slip and fall… that’s when we know that our meat matters; that it’s not something to be left behind when we achieve these magical, transcendent, moments, but part of those moments.

It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open. — Infinite Jest

For Wallace our bodies, our ‘meat skeletons’, are actually the key to transcendence; not in departure from them but in that they are the key to truly understanding ourselves. He returns to tennis as a lens for that in his Federer essay, where he explores the idea that watching a tennis player who has achieved the sort of bodily self-mastery described in the novel is actually a religious experience as much as the one that he describes in the injury-inducing slip above, but in the opposite direction. We touch something radically true about ourselves when our bodies are vehicles for something more than just ‘the physical’; when our bodies and souls are in sync.

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” — Both Flesh and Not

In the footnotes he gives us this exploration of this embodied understanding of our humanity.

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!,” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot. — Both Flesh and Not

This sort of ‘reconciliation’ he’s talking about is the realisation that we’re not simply minds who have meat attached; but rather that our bodies are inevitably part of our humanity (and part of the limits of our humanity in this secular age), and the best vision of human flourishing he can arrive at from that point is not that real flourishing is about detachment from the body, but rather the body and soul working together to make beautiful tennis. Even if those moments are only fleeting and finite.

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. — Both Flesh and Not

For Wallace, watching peak-Federer was a vision of the best that could be achieved in our material world; and hinted at something more. Wallace, more than any other secular age writer, was haunted by ‘the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as he put it in This Is Water). Somehow, in Federer and his embodiment (and go read the essay) he finds some sort of solace when it comes to questions of bodily malfunctions, like those we’re confronted with in a broken world filled with broken bodies, like the kid with cancer who tossed the coin in the match he’s writing about, somehow this glimpse of transcendence through the body working in sync with the ‘soul’ and flourishing, somehow that helps Wallace understand what being human; body, mind, and soul, looks like. And it doesn’t come from transcending your ‘meat’ but achieving some sort of transcendence ‘as meat’…  

“[Federer] looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.” — Both Flesh and Not

These writers offer a nice ‘secular’ critique of Victor’s belief that we’re minds who need to transcend our meat skeletons. But the Christmas story is an even better critique; and one that affirms the good and true things Gibson, Vonnegut and Wallace are grasping for as they affirm the importance of our ‘meatiness’.

Christmas (and Irenaeus) as the answer to this modern ‘gnostic’ dilemma

The Christmas story is fundamentally the story of God meeting us in our meatiness… in meatspace… to provide this sort of ‘reconciliation’ between body and soul, and between the transcendent and immanent; this isn’t just ‘reconciliation’ in the David Foster Wallace sense of those fleeting moments in this world where things feel right; but a permanent fix that means that feeling isn’t just fleeting. It’s the sort of change that brings the transcendent, supernatural, ‘soul’ reality and the immanent natural material world of our bodies back into harmony in a way that deals with both our impending meaty death, and the ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost the infinite.

The Christmas story was the answer to old fashioned gnosticism; and is the answer to the fears of the secular age and its searching for a way to make sense of our ‘meat’ and our feelings in some sort of ‘reconciled’ order.

The Christmas story, what Christians call ‘the incarnation’ — where the divine ‘word of God’, Jesus, a person of the Trinity, permanently takes on human flesh — has always been the answer to gnostic tendencies; to our desire to find some key to escape the limits of our dying bodies.

The Christmas story — the story at the heart of Christianity; and indeed the heart of what Christians believe it means to be human and to flourish is a radical critique of both gnosticism and this new ‘mind over matter’ vision of the human body as a ‘meat skeleton’ to transcend.

The Christmas story teaches us that to be truly human is to have a body, and a soul. In the Christmas story we meet the truest human. You’re not just a soul with a body either; despite that apocryphal quote reputedly from C.S Lewis. You’re both. Paradoxically. Always.

The Easter story promises us that one day all our Christmases will come at once and our bodies will be made new, reconciled, and paired perfectly, with our souls. We’ll be flesh and light. And we get a taste of that now as we live out, and live in, the story of Jesus. This is the promise of the Christian story, one Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:46-49

This isn’t to disparage our human bodies and the reality of life where our souls and bodies feel conflicted; but to point us to where real reconciliation is found; it’s in the death of death and in our bodies and souls being joined in an imperishable and harmonious way that lines up with the ‘heavenly man’; the one born as a meaty human at Christmas, and raised as a meaty human at Easter.

Gnosticism is actually pretty terrible news for us as humans; it leads to all sorts of awful self-hatred because being ‘meat’ is actually fundamental to our experience of the world and our ability to know things. It’s soul crushing even in its attempt to free us to simply ‘be a soul’… it isn’t a particularly helpful or possible vision of human flourishing whether it’s being pushed by Plato, or the gnostics of the early church (who denied the incarnation because their vision of God wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirty human body), or a modern day ‘non-binary’ philosopher like Victor. We can’t simply escape our bodies or pretend we are something other than our flesh, because we are actually ‘both flesh and not’…

There are very good reasons that gnosticism was viewed as a heresy; it’s actually the same reason that for many years the pre-secular age western world has seen our physical reality and a more transcendent reality both being parts of being truly human. It’s a very good reason it hasn’t been understood as being ‘oppressive’ to link our physical sex with our gender (even if our physical sex is sometimes non-binary, and some individuals do experience gender as less binary than we might). To be human was to be both body and soul; not just a soul with a body. The answer to the experience of individuals with non-binary sex or gender is not to ‘reconcile’ this divide by simply dismissing our bodies as meat to be transcended (or ignored); but rather to hope for soul and body to be brought back together; for those Federer-like moments to be permanent. This was the hope Irenaeus, a guy who wrote Against Heresies as the most substantive critique of gnosticism relied on in countering the belief that the human task was for the soul to leave the dirty body behind.

Irenaeus understood the present human condition as being one where our souls and bodies are ‘separate’ and where our impending death (and constant decay) are part of what creates this divide. His hope was for ‘recapitulation’ or a ‘re-creation’ — an intervention by God to address this divide so that our souls eventually find their right home in a re-created immortal body (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 34). We don’t reconcile this separation by denying the reality of body, or soul (or feelings), but by hoping for this re-aligning of the two where the alignment has been affected in our broken world, and the key to this reconciliation is not our own self-mastery of our bodies ala Wallace’s Federer, but the master of body and soul, the maker of our bodies and souls, meeting us in meat space and providing a path to reconciliation with the divine life. That’s the Gospel story; the Christmas story; the story that speaks into what it means to be truly human (even if this all sounds like some weird wizardry or hocus-pocus in our secular age). This was a story the western world took very seriously in understanding what it means to be human for a very long time.

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 19

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 1

Irenaeus fairly boldly declared that the Gospel story properly understood was enough to ‘ruin’ the gnostic account of humanity; and I think the Christmas story, the story of God-becoming-meat, is enough to answer Victors idea that our meat skeletons are unimportant when it comes to who we really are. You are a body. You are a soul. That these two parts of you aren’t always working in harmony doesn’t mean you need to escape your meat; it might mean that your meat and your soul need some work to reconcile them in a way that allows you to ‘flourish’…

We all feel bereft and have that ‘gnawing sense’ that these dead bodies aren’t delivering for us whether we experience that in the form of our gender not lining up with our sex, or the myriad other things that make our bodies feel like less-than-home; but for Irenaeus the answer to the gnostic desire to escape our meat was the picture of God becoming meat to meet us in our humanity and chart a way forward to our ‘meat’ being redeemed and made immortal; his hope is for the time promised by that first Christmas, when our bodies and our souls would be brought in harmony by the one who made both. Our problem is that the human default after our rejection of God’s design for us is this dying brokenness, where our souls and our matter don’t line up. Christmas, the incarnation, is the first step towards the death of death and the reconciling of our bodies and souls… it’s not tennis that gets us there; though tennis might point us there and be a taste of what’s to come.

Hope for humanity, in Irenaeus response to ancient gnosticism, in the Gospel story, and in a response to Victor’s modern attempt to free us to be truly human by separating ‘meat’ and feelings, isn’t found in departing from our meatiness, but in both being ‘reconciled’ and made new without the presence of death, decay, and disappointment. Without the sense of us not being at home in our broken and dying bodies. That’s the hope of Christmas, where the God who made us takes the first step towards having a human body broken and dying for us…

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, “And though ye were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight.” He says, “Ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 14

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.

7 ways Christians lost the gay marriage battle, and how we should (not) fight the war

Warning // Long post. Even by my standards. I’d suggest skimming it and reading the bits under the titles that you think are interesting

It turns out #lovewins.

If you’re one of my friends, or someone I don’t know, who’s celebrating the changes to the laws in America, and anticipating those changes where you are — I want you to know three things right off the bat, before you set out on reading this post:

  1. God loves you. He shows that love for you in that Jesus dies for you (and for me) even though we didn’t ask him to, or want him to.
  2. I think all people everywhere are equally broken and we all experience a world that is equally broken through equal brokenness, whether this is in our sexuality, gender or anything we build our identity on. I hope this stops me sounding judgmental because it certainly removes any platform I might stand on to judge you (or others) from.
  3. I am hoping that this reflects God’s love for you (and thus, my love for you), and that it isn’t a judgmental, handwringing exercise that makes you feel misunderstood or hated. If you feel either of those things, get in touch. Let me know where I’ve gone wrong. Let’s have a coffee or a beer. I like both.

This post is something like a post-mortem examining where I think Christians got it wrong when we spoke about gay marriage (not all Christians got all these things wrong). It’s a reflection, at times, on what we could have said, should have said, or didn’t say as much as it reflects what I’ve experienced Christians saying, or said myself. Some of it, especially the transgender/intersex stuff towards the end, is new thinking for me. Some isn’t. I’d love to hear other ideas about where things went wrong.

But ultimately, whatever the outcome in the courts and parliaments of this world, I’m not all that worried. Because the hash tag gets it right.

#lovewins.

That’s the good news for Christians who’ve woken up to a sea of rainbows at every turn in the last few days. An iconic and colourful reminder of the victory over the (largely) Christian case for not changing the definition of marriage in the (formerly) Christian west.

The US Supreme Court handed down its judgment this weekend, and I maintain (despite this causing some angst amongst Christian friends previously), that Australia is certain to follow. This isn’t entirely a meek capitulation, I think the fight was lost a long time ago.

Anyway I keep reminding myself #lovewins.

There’s been a lot of handwringing from Christians on the Internet in the fallout to this momentous decision, but I just want to remind my handwringing brothers and sisters, that if you take the Bible seriously, which people against gay marriage typically claim to, then this is how the story of the world ends. #lovewins. It’s already written.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children — Revelation 21:2-7

#lovewins because it won at the Cross. Life now would be a whole lot easier if we came to grips with that when coming to grapple with politics and life in general. Incidentally there’s some bad news after those verses for the people in this world who don’t think God is all that important. But I’m writing this primarily for those who claim to believe in the God of the Bible and follow his son.

Stop worrying.

#lovewins.

1. We didn’t treat people the way we’d like to be treated

You might feel like the world is against you. The world might well become against you. You might deserve this. I think we’re in for a big dose of our own medicine here, and that’s what terrifies me. Because we Christians deserve what’s coming. Do you know why people think Christians are anti-gay? Do you know why until very recently in most of these countries that are changing the definition of marriage it was illegal to be gay? These questions are more complicated than the simplistic finger pointing at the church might allow, sure, there are countries that aren’t “Christian” where people are anti-gay, and where homosexuality is still illegal, but in these western countries, the church is caught up in the answer to most of the questions that lead to members of the gay community, and their friends and supporters, having a pretty big axe to grind with Christians.

It wasn’t uncommon for churches in Australia to delight in the way the King James Version rendered statements about homosexual behaviour, and apply it to the people who engaged in such behaviour. Words like abomination. Scratch below most of the arguments mounted against gay marriage and there’s an undercurrent of judgmentalism and disgust that is reserved for the particular sin of homosexuality in a way the Bible never reserves judgmentalism or disgust for one particular sin. All sin disgusts God. Including our judgmentalism.

There’s a world of difference —a vast, chasmic, world of difference — between these three ethical golden rules. The world, in my experience, typically lives by the first. Which is why we’re in trouble. Jesus famously proclaimed the second one at the Sermon on the Mount, and, in reality, displayed the third.

Treat others the way they treat you. 

Treat others the way you would have them treat you. 

Treat others the way Jesus treated you. 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. — 1 John 3:16

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. — 1 John 4:16-17

This is where I think we’ve failed, especially in the time where we’ve felt like the big kid at primary school, able to push people around to get the best spots in the playground. Only. We’re not in primary school anymore. We’ve graduated. And we’re the impish kids in the first year of high school, hoping nobody hits us up for our lunch money or gives us a wedgie behind the classroom, or something more sinister.

What would acting out the golden rule, or the example of Jesus have looked like in the marriage equality debate?

I think it would start by imagining a time where Christians were a persecuted minority in our country, where people who didn’t believe the same things we believe about the world were doing all they could to stop us practicing the thing that is at the core of our identity. Perhaps because they believe it to be harmful to us and to others. Especially children. So harmful they wanted to prevent it on behalf of the children, but also for our own benefit. That we might be happy.

Sound familiar.

You know. Perhaps we should have said: “we can totally understand where you’re coming from wanting an intimate, committed relationship, lifelong, relationship with a person you love. That seems like a completely natural thing to want. Personally, we think marriage is something God made to show us something about him, and his love for us as we experience it in the eternal loving relationship we have with God through Jesus, so we want our marriages to reflect the world as he made it, and his promises about the world, but when it comes to your own relationships, call them whatever you choose. We respect your freedom to think that through, we’d simply ask that you offer us the same freedoms.”

Perhaps, when pushed, we might have mentioned that marriage is something that celebrates the coming together of people of two different genders — male and female — and that this coming together is the natural way that children are born, and a marriage offers a stable basis for a family unit. But we’ve pushed this to the front of our reasoning far too often (and I’ll get to this below. I promise).

You know. There’s a bit of Bible oft neglected in this vein.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. — 1 Corinthians 5:9-13

I think if we imagined ourselves in this sort of situation we might have hoped that people would be tolerant of our beliefs and acknowledge that somehow at the heart of personhood is the ability to define how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. Somewhere at the heart of personhood is being able to decide the core of one’s identity. What it is we pursue as our heart’s desire. What it is, if you follow David Foster Wallace’s definition, that we worship. The Bible, I think, is pretty clear that this is what personhood involves — we either deliberately seek to carry the image of the living God, or we replace God with other gods or desires. This seems to be the choice that God sets before people from the very beginning of the Bible’s story. And yet we, in our wisdom, want to try to force people to pick God when they want to reject God. At that point, when the Church pushes to legislate against something, no matter how loving we think we’re being to people or their children, we’re robbing people of something fundamental to their personhood.

Is that how we would like to be treated?

Is it how Jesus treats people? At the Cross Jesus shows that #lovewins, but one of the ways he does that is by allowing people to be people. To pick whether or not we want to pursue life lived as God designed it, or life lived as we designed it. Even in the operations of God’s control over every event in history, even in his involvement in the decision of every person who puts their faith in Jesus, this fundamental part of our personhood is protected.

Do you think we’ve offered the gay community, and their supporters, this sort of respect? I don’t think so. I think it’s true that some people have tried to offer ‘equal rights’ in everything except the label people apply to their relationship, but labels matter. And words are flexible. And while we might follow the God who gives all words their true meaning —who spoke the world into being by true words, who speaks through words in order to be understood, and who entered the world as the “word made flesh” in Jesus— we don’t have the monopoly on words and their meanings. Especially not amongst people who have chosen to build their life around things other than this God.

We might think this is a silly choice. We might believe it’s a dangerous choice. We might even want to recommend and alternative choice, especially as we acknowledge that by rights we should be included in the number of people declared not good enough for God. But somewhere caught up in seeing a person, and treating a person, and loving a person, the way God loves people, is giving people responsibility and freedom to make a choice about their identity and personhood, mindful of the consequences — whether those consequences come here and now, or whether they’re the eternal consequences, spoken of in that same bit of Revelation, where #lovewins.

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” — Revelation 21:8

By rights, I should be in that number. Many of those words describe my thoughts, and some describe my actions.

That’s why it’s great that #lovewins.

The only reason I’m not in that number is that Jesus is none of those things. This realisation, that when we take up the challenge to treat people the way Jesus treated us, we’re taking up a new sort of identity, a new understanding of what it means to be a person, is meant to shape the way we approach the world. It’s meant to help us see the gap between our picture of reality and morality, and the way others approach morality.

This isn’t an exercise in being all high and mighty and claiming that God is on our side in a moral debate. The most we can claim is that we believe he is. It’s meant to be an exercise in humility.

There. Death. But for the grace of God. Jesus. Go I.

Too often our contributions in this debate have not been humble. We’ve simply spoken as though we’re the prophetic voice of God to our world and people are idiots if they don’t listen. We’ve given them no reason to listen because our words about love have not been backed up with actions of love.

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:18

You say you love gay people?

Show them. Not in an abstract way — though even that would be a start if you were doing something about the sorts of horrific rates of suicide and depression amongst young people who identify as homosexual.

Love in a concrete way. Treat them the way Jesus treated you. Stepping in. Taking a bullet for you. Taking your burden upon himself. Being a safe place. Speaking up against those voices that offer condemnation rather than love. While faithfully pointing to the truth about God and judgment. But then offering a path to mercy and forgiveness. To wholeness. To a new identity. A better, more satisfying, place to find your identity than any part of our broken human experience — be it the things we love doing, the people we love, our job, our sexuality, our gender — all these things are broken by those behaviours that lead to judgment. Jesus isn’t. His love isn’t.

Admit you’re broken. Admit your sexuality is broken. Admit you’re both a sinner and judgmental. Admit our hypocrisy. Stop treating gay people and their friends and family like the enemy in some political fight to bring down the world.

#lovewins.

This isn’t how we lost the fight. I’m still getting to that. This is more in the “what to do now” space, inasmuch as it’s in the “what Jesus told people to do and what the Bible tells us to do” space.

2. We lost when we entered the fight expecting to win, rather than seeking to love

Here’s what Jesus told us to do when things don’t go God’s way in a couple of choice bits in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the sort of people Jesus called us to be as we follow him. His where we’ve got this fight oh so wrong, simply by fighting, instead of by treating minority groups in our community the way I suspect we’re going to clamour for them to treat us in coming years (and why should they? There have been axes being sharpened on this one for a while now).

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” — Matthew 5:5-10

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:38-45

We’ve been, I think, too strident, combative, and bombastic in our defence of marriage, and we’ve made most of our noise about marriage (a created thing) rather than about God and his kingdom.

I can’t tell if our expectation was to win this fight. That’s certainly the language that has been used in this debate by people I’ve spoken to. I can’t see what creates the expectation that we should either win, or fight, when it comes to this sort of thing outside the boundaries of our own lives and identities, and the life and identity of the church. Our job isn’t to fight and win, it’s to follow Jesus who won by losing. Our job is to faithfully be different — to love — even in the face of those who want to fight us. This is how #lovewins

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:11-16

 

3. We lost when we decided to fight for marriage, rather than speaking about marriage as an analogy for the Gospel

This has already dragged on for a while, and I’ve got a few more. God made people male and female to reflect his nature. God isn’t gendered. But marriage, in the bringing together of two persons in one flesh is a great picture of the Trinity, and the eternal loving relationship at the heart of the universe. Just as loving Trinitarian relationship gave birth to life in Genesis 1, marriage was the means, in the Genesis story, by which Adam and Eve carried on the creating of life. Marriage is about that. But because of the Gospel, marriage is about more than that.

Personhood is also about more than marriage. A person is able to be a fruitful reflection of God’s image without marriage (see Jesus, humanity of, and Paul, bachelor status in any fictional dictionary). In Genesis two people become one flesh. Two halves don’t come together as one complete thing.

Marriage (and sex) is not the ultimate human relationship (or transaction). It’s not a basis for human identity (though it changes your identity). And it can’t possibly be a fundamental human right because it takes two. Two willing parties. You’re not less human if you are unwilling to be married or cannot find someone you are willing to marry.

So many of our arguments for marriage sound like we’re worshipping marriage either as an idol, a god of our own making, or in such terms that somehow we’ve elevated this good thing God made as a thing to reveal his nature and character into this thing that completes us.

In Romans 1, Paul says the world is meant to play this role:

“since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” — Romans 1:20

And the problem with our human nature, when we’re confronted with the amazingly good thing God has made that has hallmarks of divinity stamped all over it, is that we’re so stupid we keep confusing the signature of the divine for the divine. So we get all excited about these created things and worship them instead.

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” — Romans 1:25

Whoops.

See. I think those supporting gay marriage, and the rhetoric supporting the case for gay marriage does exactly this with marriage. The case for gay marriage seizes on the goodness of marriage (and marriage is good) but applies it to relationships where the God of the Bible has already been tossed out the window. Paul would say this sort of thing is a prime example of what he’s talking about.

But lest we get all finger pointy — the “Christian” case for marriage does exactly the same thing whenever it fails to see marriage as something that reveals God’s eternal power and divine nature.

You know. When we make it all about kids. And society. And wholesome family values. And Biblical morals. And history. And… Anything but God.

And the thing that makes God’s eternal power and divine nature clearest. Love. The love that wins. The love displayed at the Cross. Marriage, ultimately, is a picture of that love — in our marriages, but human marriages also give us a picture of the relationship where we can find meaningful identity and satisfaction (see Revelation 21, above).

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. — Ephesians 5:31-32 (the whole chapter builds to this point)

4. We lost when we made marriage about children, rather than about the sex that produces them

A lot of the logic supporting this point is contained above. While according to the Biblical picture of things before and after the Fall, children, ideally, are made in marriage, marriage isn’t just made for the making of children. It’s made for intimate, one flesh, love between people whose bits fit together, and the product of this fitting together is, occasionally, children. I suspect if you tried to count the number of times sexual intercourse occurs between men and women, and put it up against the number of pregnancies in this world, you’d get the sense that there’s a lot more sex in a marriage than there is the production of children. Some of this activity might be specifically attempting to produce a child, but most of it, I would think, is for the purpose of maintaining and growing a loving, intimate, relationship.

Children happen as the result of sex. But we don’t require fertility tests before marriage (and that would be truly, truly, awful if we did). Often our arguments against gay marriage failed on this basis.

The mystery and beauty of marriage is that two somehow become one. Male and female.

While sex is a part of gay relationships, and will be a part of gay marriage, the Biblical picture of marriage revolves around two different kinds of human coming together as one.

“The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” — Genesis 2:23-24

Whatever you make of how to read Genesis, it’s clear this is part of the story that Christians build their picture of marriage from, and while it talks about fathers and mothers, there’s no mention of making babies here, but there is a sense of the bringing together something that God made to be brought together.

It’s worth noting, I think, that sex is a thing created by God, and how we use it either reveals his character or ours. It reveals something about his divine nature, or about our corrupted nature. Its one of those things where how we use it (or don’t use it) shows if we’re following God’s design or our own. This is pretty powerful. But it also means that we often misplace hope for satisfaction in sex, our sexuality, and even marriage, that these things simply can’t deliver on.

People are free to take or leave this story, and this basis for understanding marriage — and increasingly people in our world are choosing to leave it — but when we made it sound like Christians think marriage is important because “children” we shot ourselves in the foot.

Marriage is certainly a great context for having kids, and kids who know their parents are committed to one another through life’s ups and downs certainly have a solid basis for flourishing. But this sort of relationship isn’t a guarantee that a kid will flourish, nor is anything other than marriage a guarantee that a kid will get a lesser deal in life. Focusing on the nuclear, biological family, as though most people experience or desire that, because this is a “human right,” or even as though this picture was particularly Biblical, always struck me as a bit self-defeating too. It felt like we were hitting struggling single parents (and even not struggling single parents) with wild swings designed to knock out the gay marriage argument. What made it even dumber, I think, is that laws surrounding adoption and surrogacy for gay couples are dealt with completely apart from marriage anyway.

This whole line of reasoning confused what marriage is in its essential form, and what marriage is capable of producing and becoming when the debate, in terms of legislation, was simply about what marriage is. I think the fight was lost because those against the change shifted the goalposts rather than adopting a robust defence of the two words that will actually be changed in the definition (at least in the Australian case).

5. We lost when we lost the fight on gender, and didn’t think hard enough about how to include the T or I parts of LGBTQI in the conversation

We live in an age that celebrates mind over matter when it comes to identity. What you think you are and feel you are, therefore you are.

Here’s Miley Cyrus:

“I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl…I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”

It seems everything is fluid. Especially for people who are privileged enough to be able to choose to be fluid, rather than for people who are locked in to a marginalised or complicated facet of the human experience.

It’s not just sexuality that gets confused when humanity turns on God, and that turn is felt in the ‘frustration’ of God’s creation. It’s gender too. And our biological sex. While part of my point here is that maleness and femaleness are, in marriage, different and distinct. That’s not true for all people — and just as the church is grappling with how to care for same sex attracted people who want to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we need to grapple with what it looks like for transgender and intersex people to follow Jesus and carry the image of God.

Before this gets too far down a rabbit hole where this needs to be acknowledged — I’m a guy (gender) in a guy’s body (sex) and I know that there’s an incredible amount of biological complexity out there that means this sort of alignment isn’t always the case. I think we need to be careful not to exclude transgender or intersex people from our definitions of humanity, or from our consideration, in clumsy conversations about marriage. This whole issue is worthy of its own post, and I’m not entirely sure of where to go with that sort of line of thinking yet. I want to be careful, because I think there’s a sense where both sex and gender can occur along a spectrum of maleness-femaleness, and it’s important to distinguish between transgender issues and intersex issues. I’m not going to say much, if anything, about the implications of a T or an I identity for marriage, but I suspect it is tied up with helping find some sort of clarity in terms of gender and sex (and sexuality) identity for those dealing with this complexity and working carefully from there.

What does fascinate me, is the kind of democratisation of the transgender experience through people who simply choose to defy categorisation, or people who want to argue that gender is meaningless both in terms of gender identity, and sexual practice. This basically confines the ‘bits’ associated with one’s sex — the matter — into a very small part of our identity. An unchosen bit of baggage. Mind has triumphed over matter at this point, and I suspect a fuller and richer account of our humanity and a more fulfilling and healthy approach to identity sees mind and matter brought together in harmony, or acknowledged tension rather than simply denial.

This concept of personal, individual, mind-driven, fluidity has pretty massive ramifications for our concepts of personhood, and I think, like any time where we put ourselves in the driver’s seat, rather than God, there are bound to be interesting consequences.

The link between gender and sex is increasingly being torn apart, and the proposed changes to the Marriage Act in Australia simply codify this shift that happened a while back without much fuss, and, I suspect, for well-intended reasons. Other people have been much better at caring for transgender and intersex people in our community than evangelical Christians (I’m sure there are liberal Christians who have put more thought into this than we have). I’m unaware of much, if any, evangelical Christian thinking that seeks to understand, love, and serve the T or I part of the LGBTQI community, I haven’t proactively looked (though I will), but I have been part of many conversations about gay marriage where these issues have not been spoken about. I’ve seen conversations on Facebook where transgender people have been dismissed as abnormal or insignificant, and I can’t imagine that this has won us friends or favour when it comes to hearing us speak about Biblical concepts of gender and how they relate to a broken and fractured world (and our own experience of gender). Which in turn means we can’t really speak to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman when we aren’t engaging with the complexity of the human experience beyond such neat categories or within these neat categories.

On the link between mind and matter and identity, there’s actually some notion of fluidity and identity driven by the mind and our hearts (thoughts/passions/feelings) that Christians, can affirm. Our minds and hearts are where the action is at in terms of defining our identity as people. They’re where the Bible suggests that battleground is in terms of us either choosing to follow Jesus as children of God, or take up with idols. We are shaped by our hearts and our minds in a way that we aren’t shaped by our bodies (which simply act out this stuff).

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” — Matthew 15:16-20

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:2

There are a couple of things I think need to be incorporated in to this part of the discussion — the idea that God is not a male who is adequately reflected by male humans, but that maleness and femaleness operate together and separately to bear the image of God, and the sense that gender increasingly becomes meaningless as we are transformed into the image of Christ, united with Christ, as the bride of Christ. This is the ultimate form of identity for the Christian (this changes the way we approach maleness and femaleness in our human relationships, but it doesn’t do away with those concepts altogether in these relationships in this world).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:26-28

6. We lost when we made the argument about the next argument (the slippery slope), rather than lovingly understanding what the people in front of us desired and were asking for

I hate this version of the argument against gay marriage more than any other. Gay marriage will not open the door to people marrying their dogs. The arguments used for gay marriage might be used by polyamorists, but the people asking for gay marriage aren’t asking for polyamory and we’re failing to love them, understand them, and listen to them, if we treat their arguments as though someone else is asking for something else.

7. We lost when we didn’t fight harder for love to mean something other than sexual intimacy or total acceptance (not compassionate tolerance)

The tragedy of the #lovewins idea is that what we’re ending up with isn’t a really robust and beautifully messy picture of love. We’re ending up with fairytale love that can’t really handle any opposition.

What do people mean when they write #lovewins? What are people actually celebrating when they rainbowfy their Facebook profiles?

I haven’t read much beyond the highlights of the judgments handed down in the US, but it seems that they pay lip service to the idea of tolerance for those who disagree and then immediately label such positions as hateful or anti-love.

The Greek language has multiple words for love describing multiple kinds of love. We have one word and it’s context that determines the meaning.

Who wants to stand in the way of love?

Not me. Not anyone I know.

But who says what love is?

What I think people are saying when they say #lovewins is that one particular view of love has triumphed over all the others. And by triumphed over I think we’ll increasingly understand this to mean “totally wiped out of the public sphere” any alternative pictures of love, especially those from the pre-enlightened past.

Most of the stuff we watch and listen to about love basically says love is sexual intimacy with one person, or the thing you offer to your family. There’s erotic love and there’s filial love. There’s a fair bit of erotic love going on in the marriage debate, though it’s more about sexual commitment than simply temporary intimacy. Erotic love is the love that we write songs about and feature in movies. It’s boy meets girl love replaced with person meets person love. But this cheapens and limits our view of love such that we can’t believe in a platonic, non-sexual, relationship if there’s any physical affection displayed. So, for example, I once hugged one of my sisters and someone who didn’t know she was my sister, and knew I was married, thought there was something going on. Isn’t love richer if it means something more than sex, and something more than simply family ties or a commitment secured by contractual agreement?

Love, apparently, also means never telling someone you disagree with their choices. This is the new kind of filial love. Loyalty is built in networks where people offer this sort of love to each other, and this sort of love doesn’t cope well with disagreement or dissent. Even disagreement offered with loving intent. Tolerance now means believing everything is legitimate, rather than believing that people should be free to make choices that are wrong and be loved anyway. Our interactions with each other are cheapened by this vision of love. Isn’t love richer if it doesn’t seek to deny or iron out differences, but transcends those differences?

If the Revelation picture of the future from the start of this post and the end of the Bible, where #lovewins is true, then how do Christians love those around us? I think it’s about respectfully allowing people to make a choice (rather than trying to insist they make a particular choice), but it must also mean making some case for the Christian view of the world, and the Christian view of love, even if that case is unpopular, and is perceived as hateful.

This is where the medicine we’ve got coming to us is really going to hurt. I don’t think we’ve loved others very well. I think they’re about to treat us the way we treated them. I think as we become the minority our perceived pursuit of victory at all costs, rather than us having offered love and respect at our cost, is going to come back to bite us. Hard. And this will be an opportunity for us to show how love wins. This will be an opportunity for us not to fight more battles, but to follow the one who fought the battle for us, and who models what love looks like for us… this is how we might make God known in things he created, and is now recreating by the Spirit.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. — 1 John 4:7-14

 

Jesus does not abuse his bride: there is no place for domestic violence in the church

Domestic Violence is very much on the agenda in the Australian public square. As well it should be. We, Australians, have a problem. We’re not alone. It’s a problem shared by many throughout the world — across ethnic and religious lines. A problem, it seems, that is fairly prevalent within our churches.

Here are some statistics about domestic violence in Australia.

  • 23 per cent of women who had ever been married or in a de-facto relationship, experienced violence by a partner at some time during the relationship.
  • 82 per cent of domestic violence cases are not reported to the police
  • Of women who were in a current relationship, 10 per cent had experienced violence from their current partner over their lifetime, and 3 per cent over the past 12 months.
  • Thirteen women have died from domestic violence in Australia in the first 7 weeks of 2015.

It’s a problem that leaders of churches — and members of churches — must face up to, and bring to light. Especially when the Bible is used to justify violence within the context of marriage. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Julia Baird has published two recent articles in the Herald, highlighting the problem in her own patch – the Anglican Church in Sydney (Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church, and Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect). Baird is a former member of the Anglican Synod who has long argued against the Anglican approach to gender, complementarianism, so she has an agenda that is being advanced by these stories. I say this because too much of the knee-jerking about these articles has appeared to be responding to the link Baird posits between this position and violence, and not enough has unequivocally condemned any church that seems to allow, through its teaching on gender and marriage, domestic violence to continue unchecked. Often the responses have demanded ‘evidence’ of an epidemic of violence within the church. Baird’s second piece profiles a few stories she has heard in response to the first, and this was followed by this harrowing account from a survivor of domestic violence. It is uncomfortable reading, but necessary reading.

“My then husband was supposedly a Christian, a very pious, rather obsessive one. He was a great amateur preacher, very encouraging to his friends and evangelistically inclined. He led Bible studies. He wanted to train for the ministry.

He just had one little problem. He liked psychologically torturing me. And dragging me by the hair around our apartment. And punching me – hard, whilst telling me how pathetic I was. He gave me lists with highlighted sections of Bible passages about nagging wives and how I should submit to him. I was subjected to almost the full catalogue of abusive behaviour.”

This story was posted anonymously to the SMH, for legal reasons, but I know who the author is and have no doubt whatsoever that it is true.

We. Complementarians. Have a problem. If we want to continue to maintain the Biblical view of marriage relationships (because, lets face it, the Bible clearly limits ‘submission’ on the basis of gender to the marriage context, and within the church context — relationships entered into voluntarily by people of both genders — not to all relationships and social structures), if we want to maintain this view that men and women are different but equal, and when the two are united as one in marriage this involves something the Bible calls ‘submission,’ then we need to be very careful about how we describe submission, and how far we see this voluntary orientation-in-relationship extending. We need to be clear so that wives do not think submitting to their husbands means letting them physically or emotionally abuse them.

Here are some of my thoughts, working through some of the bits of the Bible that feature in this space. I’m not an expert, but I do think, as a leader of a church, I need to both speak out on this issue and work out what the Gospel of Jesus compels us to do in this space. I’d love help with this. I feel pretty ill-equipped to tackle it.

What God thinks of domestic violence, and abusers

Domestic violence, like other forms of abuse, happens in darkness. It is darkness. Sin. It is horrific. It’s a shattering of something that God created and designed to be a good gift to his people. And more than that. A picture of his steadfast, gracious, covenantal, sacrificial, love for his people. I don’t understand why Christians seem reluctant to believe that such violence and abuse happens within church communities. Communities consisting of consistently broken, sinful, people. It shouldn’t surprise us that people sin. And as people who follow Jesus — who trust in him to deal with sin — we should want to drag this stuff out into the light, rather than covering it up.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3.

That is what Jesus does. It’s what he’s on about. Bringing evil to light.

There is no possible Biblical justification for domestic violence. None. It is evil.

There is no justification I can think of for Christian pastors to follow the advice of a prominent American pastor that she should “endure verbal abuse for a season”, and “endure perhaps being smacked one night”, before seeking “help from the church.” It is never loving to allow someone you love to do evil — it is loving to bring evil to light, to help the person you love to see the world as it is, to see Jesus as he is — the one who judges evil. There’s something especially serious about people who call themselves Christians who refuse to have their sinfulness brought into light —and, just to be clear again, domestic violence is sinful. It is so far removed from God’s design for his world, his character, and any Biblical definition of love, that we cannot possibly find any way to describe it as anything else.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” — 1 John 3

This is not to say there is no forgiveness from God for abusers — should they see their abusing as the sin it is, and bring it to light, turning to Jesus. The radical good news of the Gospel and the transformation God offers to those who follow Jesus, who are transformed into his image by the Holy Spirit, is real change for offenders. For criminals. Real hope. Domestic violence is a crime. A crime according to our laws, a crime against the abused, and a crime against God. But if the abuser truly hears the Gospel there is real hope for forgiveness from God, and for real changed behaviour. Abusers can become people who love like Jesus loves. That is what being a follower of Jesus looks like.

 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” —1 John 3

 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. —1 John 4

Real love. Real love in the real world is love that reflects the real living God. This is a profound critique of false versions of love. But this sort of real, sacrificial, others-centred, love is what love is. And it couldn’t be further removed from perpetrating abuse or violence in a marriage.

What marriage is

 

Marriage is meant to be a picture of God’s love for us in Jesus. This is from the end of one of the most contentious passages in this space — one that is occasionally (wrongly) used by abusers to justify their abuse (and we’ll get to that).

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” — Ephesians 5

Over and over again God’s relationship with us is described as being a marriage — God’s people are his bride. He loves us. Sacrificially. He submits himself to abuse on our behalf. But he is not the abused spouse, in this picture, he is acting from a position of strength to protect his beloved. The abuse is from those who would see him killed. Scandalously, we, his bride, were once amongst that number. The bits of Bible I’ve quoted so far have all come from John, which is deliberate, because John explains this shocking truth at the start of his story of Jesus’ life, and I reckon his prologue is the key to understanding everything else John writes about Jesus, the Gospel, his letters, and even Revelation. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… 

 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” — John 1 

See how this links his words about Jesus bringing light into darkness, defeating darkness (like in John 3), see how this idea that through him we become God’s children (like in 1 John), but the thing that blows my mind a bit is the idea of his own not receiving him, what happens to Jesus is violence from people who should love him. In John 18 and 19, Jesus is slapped around by the religious people who are meant to be the ones receiving him with love, he is denied and abandoned by his disciples, who are meant to be the people who love him, Jesus is flogged, and then the crowd — the people he came to save, yell “crucify, crucify,” and he is put to death.

Ignoring, for a moment, domestic abuse involving the abuse of a husband by a wife — and I’m not denying that this happens, or that it’s a real problem — the Bible paints a picture of Christ being the loving, faithful, husband of his wife — the church, and he does not dish out abuse on his bride.

If we take accept that marriage is ultimately designed be a reflection of God’s self-giving love — both within the Trinity and displayed in his love for his people in Jesus — then we can’t possibly see any reflection of that love involving abuse within a marriage.

Jesus, the husband, does not abuse his bride. He suffers abuse for her sake as an act of love. He does not abuse. He submits to be abused, so that his bride is protected. The bride does not protect him, or submit to abuse in order to save him.

Whatever Christlike submission to abuse looks like — and this is sometimes (wrongly) invoked to encourage abused wives to bear with their abuse — it involves someone operating from a position of incredible strength, wilfully not exercising that strength for the sake of others. It is not a physically weaker person allowing themselves to be abused by someone stronger. It is a strong person taking the blows of people who think they are strong, for the sake of the weak and oppressed.

And just to be clear— abuse is sinful, and it is never ok for a Christian spouse to abuse their partner, and it is never ok for abuse to continue, and allowing abuse to continue is not submission to your spouse but allowing them to remain in darkness. 

In John’s logic, Jesus is not abused by the church —who in believing in him become his children, not the baying crowd.

But he is abused on their behalf.

He uses his strength to shield his children from death and judgment. His submission is an act of love and it is never at the cost of those he submits for  In John the whole time we read what he’s saying about Jesus we’re meant to remember that this is God’s powerful creative Word, in the flesh, this is light and life. This is power. On display.

The Gospel doesn’t make sense if Jesus doesn’t have the power to come down from the Cross whenever he wants. If he is not fully God. As Philippians 2 describes his submission:

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!”

Verbal abuse. Physical abuse. These are not simply a violation of the wedding vows, these are the wilful destruction of the marriage relationship, and everything that it stands for. Domestic violence is especially pernicious because of what marriage is — a committed, one flesh, relationship between two people. Marriage is an expression of the oneness of God and the love of God. It’s not the be all and end all for humanity, but it is a special human relationship that expresses something good and true about God, and about love.

On ‘headship,’ ‘submission’ and abuse

And this, I think, is where ‘submission’ and ‘headship’ — those words Baird has turned into pejoratives in this space — actually should function to prevent abuse ever happening in a Christian marriage if it is understood as a relationship that God intends as a metaphor of his eternally enduring sacrificial love for his people, which is displayed so powerfully at the Cross.

Here’s the really contentious verses from Paul in Ephesians 5, and Peter, in 1 Peter.

In 1 Peter, starting in chapter 2, Paul explores what it looks like to submit like Jesus did — to live in a way that displays the Gospel.

“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives” — 1 Peter 2-3

While these verses have been weaponised by abusers to justify their abuse, I don’t think submitting to your husbands means allowing them to sinfully abandon and destroy their marriage vows. And I think it’s absolutely clear from the logic of the passage that this ‘submission’ is for the sake of winning people to Christ, it assumes that the husband in this case, is a non-Christian, and there’s a strong suggestion that any particular abuse Peter is referring to here is caught up with first century husbands not being especially happy that their wives have abandoned their household gods — religion was typically a family matter — in order to follow Jesus. Peter, at the start of this series of injunctions to live like Jesus says “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,” and then provides a series of examples that apply this principle to people in their existing relationships. The other thing to notice in Peter comes a few verses after the wives bit, it makes it clear, I think, that Peter isn’t calling for any difference in behaviour based on gender, Christian husbands are also called to adopt the same approach as Jesus…

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” — 1 Peter 4

The idea of mutual submission being at the heart of a Christian marriage is pretty strong — I’d say it’s linked to the nature of the self-giving, mutual, eternal, love of the persons of the Trinity towards one another. But this sort of love also allows for voluntary roles in which submission looks and feels different, without the equality of the persons being undermined. And this is at the heart of true complementarianism.

So here are more of Paul’s words from Ephesians… I’ve bolded the bits that I think we often miss when we try to use these as justification for abuse, or the weaponising of ‘headship’ or ‘submission.’ (It’s interesting, isn’t it, how similar Paul is to both Peter and John here).

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved childrenand 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.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talkor coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light…

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for herto make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—  for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

Some implications

Here’s what I think are some of the implications of the above — I’m keen to hear if I’ve missed any, especially if people have experience in this area, these are simply what I think are necessary implications of what the Bible says.

  • We cannot possibly, as the church, desire to keep domestic violence in the darkness.
  • We cannot possibly, as the church, desire stories like the one in the Herald, or in our own churches, stay untold or hidden, for the sake of protecting our brand.
  • We cannot possibly side with, or be seen to side with (even by our failure to condemn) the perpetrators of violence, rather than the victims. Christians will have no fear of their sin being brought into light, but rather will welcome it as a chance to repent and be transformed.
  • There is no possible justification for domestic violence in the Bible and we need to say that clearly, over and over again, until people believe it.
  • The first step for people experiencing domestic violence is to get out of the situation where the violence is occurring. To separate. And to seek help. This will involve the police — because domestic violence is a crime. If seeking help involves speaking to leaders of a church they have a responsibility to report abuse, as is the case in any situation of abuse. In the case of one or both of the spouses being Christians, these situations will involve the church dealing with both parties, especially to care for and protect the abused, but with the hope that the Gospel will result in real change for the abuser.
  • Separation isn’t divorce, and divorce, as a response to persistent, unrepentant, domestic violence is something that the Bible allows because it is such a clear abandonment of the wedding vows (1 Cor 7) and represents a complete destruction of the good thing God has made.
  • What the on the ground reality of these implications looks like will be different based on how much transformation occurs in the relationship — and the key to this transformation is the Gospel of Jesus, and the love of Jesus, which creates people who love like Jesus.  There is no real blanket rule on how this works beyond bringing the abuse to light, this doesn’t necessarily mean publicly broadcasting the abuse, but it does mean making it known to those who are in a position to end it.
  • It is clear that Christians should expect our approach to domestic violence to be, somehow, different to secular approaches — the example of Jesus is, somehow, to be brought to bear in our broken relationships. For both the abuser, and the abused. The Gospel, as it is accepted and as it becomes the basis for transformation of people and relationships (and people in relationships) will change the way we approach brokenness. The Gospel, as it is accepted and as it transforms, does not really allow such brokenness to remain in the dark, or to remain unaddressed. The profoundly challenging part of the Gospel is that when we submit like Jesus (not in a way that enables ongoing sin or abuse) we expect it to change those abusers who follow Jesus, and those who are victims of abuse. Submission, from the abused, does not mean staying in abuse, but it might mean a loving and longing desire for one’s abuser (Jesus even calls us to love our enemy) to be transformed by the Gospel, forgiven by God (and an offer of forgiveness), and for restoration and reconciliation to occur. Christlike submission means seeking this transformation and being committed to some form of this at one’s own cost (forgiveness, itself, is costly), even from the safety of separation — let me be clear again, it doesn’t mean staying in an abusive situation. Where this transformation does not occur it doesn’t mean persistence with this broken relationship beyond abandonment. But the Gospel does offer the hope of real change in the heart, and actions, of the abuser.

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 politics and gender and stuff

I’ve tried to move away from talking about politics in a partisan way here – for a few reasons.

Firstly, I’ve moved away from thinking about politics in a particularly partisan way, I’m one of those people who feels largely disenfranchised by our adversarial political system (at least as our media reports it). Secondly, the differences between our major parties are greatly exaggerated – they’ll both do a reasonable job at the majority of policy setting in our country – and both have hugely problematic approaches to big issues that mean neither gets the “Christian vote” automatically. Thirdly, there’s a tired old trope I’m prone to reacting against that says something like “Real Christians should vote conservative, so must therefore eschew the Labor Party (and can’t possibly think the Greens are anything other than extreme).” But what is conservative anymore? And this seems to place some sort of odd moral issues on a pedestal above stuff like looking after the poor, and the marginalised, and the people that our so-called “left” focuses its energy on. I think the suggestion that to be Christian is to vote a particular way is patently ridiculous.

I’m also not all that concerned that our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is an atheist. She’s either up for the job of governing, or she isn’t. Governing a secular democracy with a relatively nominal attachment to a “Judeo-Christian heritage” doesn’t take a theologically orthodox Christian. In fact, in a democracy, Christians might be forced to compromise their views to a degree where standing apart from the political sphere is a better way to contribute to society and love people than being elected to represent a swathe of people they fundamentally disagree with.

I’m especially not concerned that our Prime Minister is a woman. I know there are some from my complementarian camp of Christianity who have problems with women in leadership roles. But I think that any “submission/authority” relationship dynamics happening in the context of Christian relationships (marriage, church, or otherwise) are to be voluntary from both parties, and only really make sense if your thinking is being shaped by the relationship dynamics modelled in the Trinity and some notion that they’re created by God. Women might feel otherwise – but I have grown up without any major awareness of different capabilities of men and women when it comes to the corporate, business, or political sphere (I’d rather watch men’s sport – but that’s because part of the watching sport is the vicarious “I’d like to be out there” thing). I was taught predominantly by women at primary school, and high school, and there was probably a 50-50 split in the classes I bothered going to at uni. My first CEO in my professional job was a woman, as was my line manager (and my managers in my part time jobs while I was at uni were women too). Most of my colleagues were women.

I don’t feel particularly enlightened on the basis of these aspects of my history – I think they’re pretty normal for people my age. I wrote a speech last year for a young professional (about my age) for a women’s function she was speaking at, and she said this was pretty consistent with her experience in the business/corporate world too. I’m not saying it’s universal. It’s probably a generational thing. I hope. I love that my wife has the same opportunities to study that I have, I hope that we’ll continue to make decisions that allow her to use her gifts and abilities to serve others. I hope my daughter grows up in a world where she has the freedom to make choices about her life, where her gender isn’t really a factor. I pray that she’ll grow up as a follower of Jesus, and be prepared to make sacrifices of some of her freedoms for the sake of others – but I want those sacrifices to be voluntary and driven by love, and her convictions about the world God has created and the way he created people – not chosen for her.

Which is why the rhetoric in Julia Gillard’s speech during question time today plays into a world I wish we could just leave behind a bit. Here are the words she said today that are echoing around the media, as I’m sure they were intended to…

“Let me say very clearly to the Leader of the Opposition – it will be a contest, counter intuitive to those believing in gender stereotypes, but a contest between a strong, feisty woman and a policy-weak man and I’ll win it.”

I’m still trying to parse this statement. I’ve been staring at it for quite a while. She has a go at people who believe in gender stereotypes while reinforcing gender stereotypes by making gender an issue (she also called Abbott a misogynist again).  I think there’s a real danger that despite her intentions to the contrary – this sort of frontending of gender is perpetuating a dangerous form of cultural misandry. In rejecting one stereotype, the Prime Minister is creating, or buying into another.

She may as well label Tony Abbott the dumb/incompetent/bumbling man we’re familiar with thanks to so many TV sitcoms and advertisements (more here). Here’s what TV Tropes says about this cultural meme:

Often used as an enabler of several Double Standards. Sometimes, on the rare occasions that a mom does something dumb, she’s cut more slack than she otherwise would be, since the Bumbling Dad is there to make her look better by comparison. On the other hand, if everyone just gets used to tolerating Dad’s incompetence, they might still hold Mom to the standards of a competent adult – in fact, she may end up being held responsible for fixing his screw-ups. After all, somebody’s got to be the grownup in a family, and you can’t hold Dad accountable for not acting like one if he’s just an idiot. The frustrating and stagnant sexual roles enforced by this trope are often pointed to by feminists as a sign of how sexism hurts men as well as women.

This trope is still mostly seen in sitcoms and cartoons, along with many commercials, especially ones aimed at kids. In anime, this type of character is taken more respectfully, since it usually consists of a goofier dad, more involved with his family than the stereotypical Salaryman. This is even more common when his children have no visiblemother.

This is an example of how a Subverted Trope can end up becoming the norm. Back in the day, fathers were assumed to be wise and in charge, and the Bumbling Dad was something fresh and unusual. Today, sitcoms have made Bumbling Dad an Undead Horse Trope, and consistently competent fathers are a comparative rarity.

In the political sphere this guy would be the “policy weak” man. Which makes Gillard and Abbott a pretty odd couple. If politics is a comedy. There’s the related “Man can’t keep house” trope…

“It doesn’t matter if a male character is a globe-trotting super-spy, a hyperintelligent genius, or a Millionaire Playboy — according to this trope, any male who’s responsible for maintaining a home, apartment, or regeneration pod will inevitably fail in the most spectacular way possible.”

You could add “country” to the list of domestic situations a man can’t possibly be responsible for and you’re, I think, tapping into the kind of image Gillard is trying to paint for us.

I have no doubt our Prime Minister is a capable and articulate woman – and I’ve got no doubt she has fought through barriers created by her gender so her feelings on this issue are genuine.

But surely the time has come for gender not to be part of the public conversation like this. It feels like a political trope “pandering to a constituency on the basis of what you are not what you stand for” that is ultimately unfulfilling.

Making the election a contest between a “feisty leader” and a “policy-weak leader” regardless of the gender of the leaders involved is doing a disservice to the electorate. If its an amuse bouche for the election campaign that’s about to be forced down our throats then I’m kind of hoping the media regulation legislation gets amended to provide some politics free zones in our media or I’m going into some sort of self-imposed media blackout.

Gender is a huge issue for us to think through. Not just in the church – where how we think of gender as created by God, and the implications we see that having for how we structure our church community as a testimony to that created order – but in society where there’s a push to do away with gender distinctions altogether. The big question in both cases is whether or not the genders (and gender identity) are “essentially” different, not just constructed differently by different cultural forces (be it our culture, or the culture operating when the relevant bits of the Bible were produced). This is a huge, defining, landmark, watershed, pivotal, and important discussion that flows through to myriad social issues from marriage, to abortion, to education, to defence, to toymaking, to sport, to how we do democracy, and most importantly to how we conceive of what it means to be human…

Gender issues are still big issues – I’m not trying to play down the way women are mistreated by certain people in society – there are all sorts of industries where glass ceilings exist. There are serious policy questions surrounding gender, just as there are serious theological questions about gender for the church to continue answering well. There are serious cultural imbalances to be addressed – we see that as we speak up against violence against women (perpetrated by men), or when we recognise that an Oscars host has been incredibly unhelpful in his objectification of women and identify an ugly sub-culture that underpins that, or when TV reporters talk about a sexual assault in a way that blames the victim or tries to sympathise with the perpetrators (there’s a significant trigger warning on that article)… All of these are issues – big issues – gender issues. But they’re not the sort of gender issues that Julia Gillard is using to whack Tony Abbott with – I don’t think he’s blameless here, I’d say there’s merit to more than half of the criticism she levelled at him in her famous misogyny speech. The “gender issue” at play there is that there seems to be genuine antipathy between Abbott and Gillard, which has unfortunately, at times, involved terms that have been a little loaded when it comes to gender (but seriously – have you heard many men describe themselves as “feisty”?).

It’s great that we have a woman as Prime Minister. It’ll be greater still when we don’t really care what gender our Prime Minister is, when that’s completely unremarkable. It’s a tragedy, I think, that gender is being used to score cheap political points. It saddens me that her legacy, gender wise, will be making an election campaign about gender stereotypes, using her gender in such a cheap way for cheap votes.

That is all.

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.

Continue reading

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.

The no-gender agenda

It’s a strange time to be a person. Apparently the solution to all of our sexism problems is to remove the gender distinction. We are all the same. Now, I’m going to take my Christian hat off for the moment, and ignore that the Bible suggest gender is part of the created order (male and female he created them…). And I’d like to open this post by acknowledging that there are disparities in the way men and women are treated that are wrong.

I don’t even care that much if women want to fight on the front line. If a woman is big enough, and strong enough, and is able enough to take the place in a unit that would otherwise have been held by a man, on merit, then who am I to tell them they can’t. I just don’t think that’s particularly likely, and I think it opens a Pandorah’s box of issues within a unit, which isn’t, of itself, a reason not to allow it. Do I think women should be on the front line? No. But if some want to, then that’s their decision, not mine. This whole push to revolutionise the military’s gender agenda off the back of some demonstrably shoddy sexual ethics seems like the symptom of a broader social push to mimimise the difference between genders. I think this move is driven by good motives – but it’s just incredibly stupid.

Doesn’t this just seem completely loopy to everybody else. Boys and girls are obviously different. They don’t just have different parts. They have different hormones. Hormones that produce different emotions. Gender is predominantly a “nature” issue, sure, there are “nurture” aspects to it – but the social side follows the natural side in this case.

I’ve held off saying anything on this topic for a while. But events in the last few weeks are tipping my hand. I just feel annoyed as I watch this issue have bizarre and dangerous outworkings.

A few months ago a Christian student in the US sparked a massive furore in the blogosphere, and probably on talkback radio, when he refused to wrestle a girl on religious grounds. The Friendly Atheist thinks he should have grappled the girl into submission (and a follow up). Angry commenters there suggested it is wrong to recognise differences between the genders. And in many cases it is. I’d say issues of physical strength aren’t one of those cases – the world records in every athletic event out there are pretty clear.

Now. I was told, all my life, not to hit girls. It didn’t stop me bullying my sisters, sometimes physically, until I was old enough and big enough that the physical disparity was clearly unfair. This happened when I was about 15. It should have happened earlier. In hindsight I feel pretty bad about the way I treated my sisters. The older me would beat some sense into the younger me in a number of areas. This would be one of them. Hitting girls is wrong. Guys are stronger. It’s just facts. There are some girls who are stronger than some guys. I’m not denying that there exist myriad women who could beat me in a fight. A girl in my grade 9 class beat me in an arm wrestle. And I was trying. It wasn’t humiliating. She was strong. But there would have been 30 guys in my year who would have beaten her.

I’m sorry, but boys and girls are different. I would have thought that was pretty clear.

It seems that gender is now a fluid concept (unlike sexuality, which you’re apparently stuck with, if recent furores surrounding gay-to-straight conversion apps on the Apple App Store are indicative). Some have suggested that gender is the new frontier post the gay marriage debate. It’s post-modernity meets feminism. And it’s weird. A Swedish couple made headlines in 2009 when they refused to apply a gender label to their child Pop. Or, at the very least, they refused to tell people if Pop was a boy or a girl. A Canadian couple followed suit with their thing, Storm. Part of the problem, I think, with de-genderising a child is you end up dehumanising them as a by-product, in terms of what options are left.

“In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in March, the parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction. “

A behavioural psychologist pointed out that this exercise was almost entirely pointless.

Pinker says there are many ways that males and females differ from birth; even if gender is kept ‘secret,’ prenatal hormones developed in the second trimester of pregnancy already alter the way the child behaves and feels.

She says once children can speak, males tell aggressive stories 87 per cent of the time, while females only 17 per cent. In a study, children aged two to four were given a task to work together for a reward, and boys used physical tactics 50 times more than girls, she says.

Now, a Swedish preschool is doing its bit to destigmatise gender by refusing to describe boys and girls as boys or girls. Because we wouldn’t want to assign anything to a child that they haven’t asked for – this post was actually prompted by rumours of a similar thing going on somewhere in Australia, but I can’t find it anywhere.

Few would argue that gender stereotypes aren’t in some way the product of social conditioning – stuff like boys wearing blue and girls wearing pink, or even skirts being girls clothes, are products of particular cultures operating in particular times and particular places. Ads for boys and girls toys demonstrate a sort of circularity here where culture reinforces natural differences and essentially amplifies them (some have suggested these ads are essentially symptoms of a disease rather than simply a reflection of nature), that’s what I reckon is going on. I don’t feel like I was manipulated to want to hit stuff with sticks, or to enjoy fire and explosions. I had plenty of opportunity, with three sisters, to play with girls toys, but they were boring, and I was much more interested in more combative play with sticks and glove guns. It was all my choice. Back in my day we had to make our own fun with bits of wood we picked up in the yard. But all the brainwashed people say that.

Boys’ toy ads look like this:

Girls’ toy ads look like this:

Boy, oh boy (or person, oh person) this whole issue is stupid and it makes me want to pull out my Playstation and shoot some bad guys (or people).

That is all.

PETA wants animal inclusive Bible

Let me just start by congratulating PETA for sinking to a new low with the name of their blog. The PETA files. Because we all think animal rights should be associated with child abuse, for the lols.

Then, let me move on to highlighting PETA’s latest ridiculous campaign.

“When PETA heard that the Committee on Bible Translation had revised the New International Version (NIV) of the Christian Bible to use gender-inclusive language, such as replacing “men” with “people,” we thought, wouldn’t it be great if the new NIV showed consideration for female (and male) animals too? So we wrote to the Committee on Bible Translation and asked them to use “he” or “she” rather than “it” to refer to animals in the next edition of the NIV.

“Language matters. Calling an animal ‘it’ denies them something,” PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich told CNN. “They are beloved by God. They glorify God.”

Since God loves all His creation (and if you’re not convinced of this, try reading Matthew 25:40, Isaiah 11:9, or Luke 6:36), it’s only fitting that humans do the same by showing respect to every living being. Maybe Psalm 50:11 says it best: “I know and am acquainted with all the birds of the mountains, and the wild animals of the field are Mine and are with Me, in My mind.” Perhaps if we change the way we speak about animals, our thinking will follow.”

Here’s the CNN piece referred to in that post

There are some more stupid quotes from PETA in that article, here’s the meat of their argument.

“God’s covenant is with humans and animals. God cares about animals,” Friedrich said. “I would think that’s a rather unanimous opinion among biblical scholars today, where that might not have been the case 200 years ago.”

Now, I’m not sure that PETA has even a rudimentary knowledge of Greek or Hebrew – but they may be interested to learn that their beef is with the languages themselves, not with the Bible translators. Because the languages have male, female, and neuter nouns – and you’d have to bring gender to the table by your own agenda, to suggest that animals are anything other than an it. You’d have to create a bias in the text. Which is exactly what translators shouldn’t be doing.

David Berger, a Hebrew scholar lets them have it on this basis in that CNN article:

“In Hebrew all nouns are gender-specific. So the noun for chair is masculine and the noun for earth is feminine. There’s simply no such thing as a neutral noun,” Berger told CNN. “It’s unusual to have a noun that would indicate the sex of the animal.”

Another scholar, from Baylor University, David Lyle Jeffrey, disagreed with the rest of the nonsense from PETA’s suggestion…

“I agree with their contention that God cares for all of creation,” Jeffrey said. “It is true that we have a responsibility to reflect that affection.

“In gender-inclusive Bible translation the generic terms for humankind, let’s say, are then replaced with an emphasis on he or she. Instead of the generic he, you say he and she. I don’t quite see how that would work with animals,” Jeffery said.

“Do we need to know the gender of the lion Samson slew? What would it give us there?” he said. “You could try to specify that, but you would be doing so entirely inventively if you did. It’s not in the original language. … Nothing is made of it in the story.”

“When you get to the point when you say, ‘Don’t say it, say he or she’ when the text doesn’t, you’re both screwing up the text and missing the main point you addressed.”

Tall tales

It seems everybody is talking about Usain Bolt. He’s pretty awesome. Groundbreakingly awesome because he’s so tall. Tall people are the superior species. We all know that.

From the SMH – reporting on a study by a Duke University Research team.

“While the average person has gained about five centimetres since 1900, the height of champion runners has increased 16.2 centimetres, say Duke University researchers, Jordan Charles and Adrian Bejan, who studied the heights and weights of 100-metre world record holders.”

“Speed races might eventually need to be divided into weight categories, like boxing, and weightlifting, if smaller athletes are ever to have a chance of making it onto the podium again.”

This seems much more credible than some older research by Oxford’s Department of Zoology. Everybody knows tall men will inherit the earth.

“In 2004, a research team led by Dr Andrew Tatem, of the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, predicted that if the record-breaking trends continued men would sprint 100 metres in 8.098 seconds at the 2156 Olympics. Women would run even faster, taking just 8.079 seconds.”

Men are better at…

Music. Apparently. Cop this playa haters… Triple J run a competition to track down the best 100 songs of all time. They make the process democratic… and bam. No female artists. In fact, very little female presence at all.

The SMH is running a left-wing fuelled paranoid condemnation of the countdown (or the voters… well not really, it’s more an opinion piece bemoaning the results) – and yet the facts don’t lie. Males are superior.

However, as the countdown progressed, something sinister emerged: of the 100 tracks that ended up comprising the list, there were no female artists. Not even “equal but different”. Lets see you artsy lefties trying to condemn the church on gender roles now…

The only women to appear in any notable capacity were The White Stripes’ drummer Meg White (Seven Nation Army, number 20), Massive Attack guest vocalists Elizabeth Fraser (Teardrop, 22) and Shara Nelson (Unfinished Sympathy, 93), Pixies bassist Kim Deal (Where Is My Mind, 29), Smashing Pumpkins bassist D’arcy Wretzky (1979, 35; Bullet with Butterfly Wings, 51; Today, 78), and Pulp keyboardist Candida Doyle (Common People, 81). And that’s it. Female artists with a history of solid Triple J airplay disappeared from the proceedings: Frente, P. J. Harvey, Tori Amos, Hole, Missy Elliott, Garbage, The Mavis’s, Bjork and Missy Higgins. They were all, to borrow Maya Arulpragasam’s stage name, M.I.A.