Playing into the Devil’s Hands

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This post has been sparked by recent developments in the  conversation between Christians who hold an egalitarian position on gender roles and those who hold to a ‘complementarian’ view. In particular, I have felt compelled to write more fully on the subject than I have previously thanks to this challenging post by Tara Beth Leach, and the recent Mark Driscoll/Hillsong controversy, which sparked this response by Natalie Collins, aka ‘God Loves Women’. Whilst it was more of a laughable misfire than a decisive bullseye, this post by Grant Castleberry responding to the implementation of a gender neutral policy by the US retailer called ‘Target’, also helped to mobilise me into action. As Castleberry himself states, drawing on the wisdom of the US marines: ‘Lives depend, especially in combat, on speaking accurately and truthfully.’ Well said. It’s a shame that he didn’t do this when making this outrageous claim:

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Impassioned diatribes are seldom fruitful. As much as I may enjoy dancing with hyperbole, any writing with substance requires clarity and purpose. Thankfully, my evangelical theological persuasions leave me convinced that Jesus did not leave his Church bereft of direction (e.g. Matt 28:18-20, Mark 16:9-16, Luke 24:44-49, John 20:21, Acts 1:8). Spirit empowered Gospel proclamation and demonstration is arguably the crux of Jesus’ Kingdom driven mission, wherein the Church universal throughout history participates in God’s Divine purposes. The backbone of my motivation to study and write on subjects relevant to the Church is therefore driven by a desire to contribute to this wider endeavour. As an increasingly large number of scholars and pastors affirm, God’s expansive mission of cosmic redemption precedes the Church’s involvement in it. Jurgen Moltmann sums this up well by saying:

It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church. [1]

Context & Caveats

Context therefore, is key. Whichever historical, cultural, political, religious, ethnic, or geographical backdrop humanity may find itself in, the supremacy of Christ remains constant amidst a relentless ocean of flux (Col 1:15-23). His mission persists even when the Church falters. Whereas linear history is finite and fading way, Jesus promises that his own words will ‘never pass away’ (Matt 24:35,  Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33). Thus, I submit that whichever context we Christians find ourselves in throughout history, we are to ‘read’ our situation(s) in light of Jesus’ own words, whilst also seeking to obey them (e.g. Matt 7:21-27, Mark 8:34-35, Luke 6:46-49).

More importantly, we are also to generally interpret Scripture via the lens of Jesus Christ, with a distinctive Gospel focus, culminating in the missiological thrust described in the opening paragraph of this post (e.g. Luke 24:27, 44-49, John 5:39, 1 Cor 15:3-4). Many of these principles form the core of my own ‘integrative’ theological method, which I am developing throughout my Masters course.

Applying aspects of my theological method to current debates within Western Evangelicalism is good practice for the rest of my studies, which are about to formally recommence following a Summer break. This blog is generally a place where I post thoughts, ideas, commentary, and look for feedback to test my thinking and writing. Hence the title of my blog is a deliberate play on words: “Re:Forming Theology” is meant to evoke associations with Reformation Theology (contra Roman Catholicism), yet also suggest an ongoing process of ‘reforming’ my thinking to bring it more into line with Christian scripture. Thus, in many ways, my writing here represents evolving reflections on my own Theology, which is itself still ‘forming’. I am not claiming to have the last word(s) on any given topic.

Sinful Consequences

So with context and caveats firmly in place, I shall now turn to the matter in hand for this post. In short, I submit that by embracing a patriarchal view of gender roles, the Church is unwittingly playing into the Devil’s hands, and therefore unnecessarily clinging to one of the consequences of the fall described in Genesis 3:

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.” (Gen 3:16 NIV, emphasis mine).

Alongside the other consequences of sin initially inflicted upon our rebellious ancestors, this twofold act of punitive divine justice sets forth a pattern for future generations. Given that Eve is subsequently described as ‘the mother of all the living’, the author of Genesis arguably depicts patriarchy as an unavoidable form of bondage which fallen humanity is unable to escape (Gen 3:20). Thus, the consequences of sin are listed as painful childbirth, patriarchy, cursed ground/earth, painful toil/hard work required of humanity in order to extract natural resources, and death (Gen 3:16-19). Doubtless there are myriad other interpretations of this contentious passage with reference to patriarchy (most of which I have yet to research), yet I currently find this one compelling for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Hebrew Scripture (our Old Testament) is replete with narrative upon narrative wherein humanity is structured in a patriarchal fashion; men are repeatedly described as ruling over women. Secondly, beyond ancient Israel, human history and culture has generally operated within a patriarchal framework (granted, this is a massive generalisation). Thirdly, and finally for now, evidence abounds for the fact that patriarchy is very often functionally synonymous with words like subjugation, oppression, marginalisation, control, and enslavement. As I have written about previously, the problem of patriarchy repeatedly manifests itself in our world today. Noticing it is really just a matter of bothering to look at reality as it is; although a case could be made that though many of us have been given eyes, we need divine revelation in order to truly ‘see’ (e.g. Acts 26:18, 2 Cor 4:3-5).

Parking the Problem Texts

At this point, many obvious objections can be made. For instance, some proponents of patriarchy, such as the council for biblical manhood and womanhood (see “Affirmations”, point 3), believe that it is part of God’s plan for humanity and rooted in creation, which is why biblical literature is seemingly saturated with an overwhelmingly patriarchal worldview. A litany of biblical charges are generally brought against a non-patriarchal position on the grounds of various “problem” texts. There are many ‘apparently plain’ instructions in New Testament literature wherein the original authors seem to expect women in the 1st century A.D. to be functionally subordinate to men, both within the home and the church (e.g. 1 Tim 2:12, 1 Cor 14:34-35, Eph 5:22, Col 3:18 1 Peter 3:1-6, etc…). Solving the riddle of what biblical gender roles are really meant to look like today will require serious, sustained exegetical engagement on texts like these. Needless to say, such an endeavour is far beyond the confines of this blog post, so whilst I recognise the issue with texts like these, I am temporarily parking them until such time as I can give them proper attention. I am not simply dismissing them out of hand.

Instead, I shall share some brief thoughts to expand my opening ideas, before raising a few necessary tensions which believers must wrestle with in order to do justice to the biblical texts in question. Without further ado, I shall return to my thesis.

Divine Origins?

A heinous legacy of physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse which causes women to be effectively dehumanised is, to my mind, definitely not part of God’s original design. Since patriarchy is a consequence of sin, those determined to sustain and promote it within the Church are effectively siding with the serpent in the creation narratives, as it is this character who questions God’s integrity (Gen 3:1-4). To illustrate how reinforcing patriarchy beyond the Christ event misrepresents God’s creative masterpiece, we might rephrase the serpent’s subterfuge by asking “did God really create humanity in his own image and likeness, making them male and female with no reference to any kind of functional hierarchy?” (Gen 1:26-28). Or perhaps “did God really say that the man would rule over the woman as a punitive result of their collective disobedience?” The burden of proof rests upon complementarians to unpick the inherent exegetical problems with claiming that patriarchy is part of the created order, as opposed to one of the consequences of sin in a fallen world.

Following on from the creation and fall narratives, the remainder of the Old Testament shows us how the consequences of sin (which must include patriarchy) gradually corrupt God’s intentions for humanity. As the subsequent biblical metanarrative unfolds, even God’s chosen people cannot escape the devastation of their fallen nature. This raises another difficult question for complementarians, since if patriarchy was part of God’s good creation, why did ancient Israel stumble and fail to remain faithful to God? An immediate, obvious answer from a New Testament perspective might be the issue of unavoidable sin (e.g. Rom 3:9-26). Unfortunately, this is extraordinarily problematic as if humanity is bound to sin and it’s consequences, then patriarchy is included as one of those consequences.

Thus, to point to the broader historical legacy of patriarchy as grounds for affirming it as part of God’s good creation is a self-defeating argument. Instead, the ongoing sins of humanity ensure the persistence of patriarchy. The presence of patriarchy throughout biblical literature proves that God’s original design for humanity remains corrupted by the fall. As Paul himself writes, Adam’s disobedience bound humanity to all of the consequences of sin, ostensibly including patriarchy (Rom 5:12-21, Gen 3:16). By contrast, believers in Christ are set free from the curse of the fall and the consequences of sin, which suggests that new covenant humanity is also freed from the necessity of patriarchy (e.g. Rom 6:5-14, 8:1).

An obvious objection at this point in my thesis could be that since Christian women have not generally been set free from the pain of childbirth, that there are no legitimate grounds for banishing patriarchy due to the Gospel; rather, the promise of a renewed creation is confined to a distant, post-resurrection future. I would counteract this concern since whilst it is legitimate in one sense, the manner in which men and women relate to each other is changeable prior to Jesus’ return, whereas the created order is somewhat more fixed and beyond our individual control (scientific advancements aside for a moment). Relationships involve choices bound up within the realm of morality, whereas the fabric and nature of the universe we inhabit does not.

Men are therefore no longer bound by God’s judgement to rule over women in a patriarchal fashion, but are instead set free to enjoy the fruits of truly biblical equality in Christ. Perhaps this is why one of the contentious “problem” texts listed above, which is routinely leveraged by complementarians, actually begins with the phrase ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph 5:21 NIV, emphasis mine). Tellingly, many complementarian citations of the subsequent verses in Ephesians 5 which instruct wives to submit to their husbands, conveniently omit or gloss over this opening sentence. They also frequently fail to adequately convey the extraordinary nature of the command that husbands are to mimic Christ’s sacrificial death when loving their wives. If anything represents an act of outrageous submission, it is surely the humble stance adopted by Jesus on the cross (c.f. Phil 2:5-8)?

Married to the Church?

Mutual submission within marriage may indeed be a difficult pill for complementarians to swallow, yet even by discussing this particular passage in Ephesians we run into another substantial elephant in the corner of the debate. Namely, do so-called complementarian biblical patterns for the household necessarily transfer to church governance? If so, why? Does Paul clearly state this in Ephesians or Colossians? Does the author of 1 Peter 3 or 5? Is the hotly disputed passage in 1 Timothy 2 even directly applicable to how Church leadership is structured, since the original Greek for ‘men and women’ in this text can also be translated as ‘husband and wife’? Is the potential ambiguity here problematic? If not, why not?

The Body Politic & Mission

The crux of the matter here is simple enough to investigate. When Paul describes his view that within the Church God has appointed ‘apostles’, ‘prophets’, and ‘teachers’ in a kind of functional hierarchy or order (1 Cor 12:28, c.f. Eph 2:20, 4:11-13), how does his alleged prohibition of all women everywhere (for all time) from Church leadership align with Phoebe (a Deaconness, presumably entailing leadership), Junia (potentially an apostle), or Priscilla (teaching Apollos) (Rom 16:1-7, Acts 18:24-26)? More importantly, if gender is the defining restriction on leadership roles within the Church, as some would determine from various aforementioned passages (e.g. 1 Tim 2:12 1 Cor 8:1-16, 14:34-35), how do we reconcile such a view with this “problem” text for complementarians?

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. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise
(Gal 3:26-29 NIV emphasis mine).

To clear, I do not think that Paul simply flattens out the distinction between men and women in this passage. I affirm that (by and large) there are natural differences between the sexes which are divinely ordained, and that this is in fact part of God’s original design for humanity. One of the straw men attacked by the council for biblical manhood and womanhood, is that egalitarians seek to remove or dismiss all differences between men and women, thereby denigrating God’s image and leading to ‘increasingly  destructive consequences  in  our  families,  our  churches,  and  the  culture  at  large’ (see “Affirmations”, point 10).

Some egalitarians may wish to neutralise the distinction between men and women, however I do not subscribe to this position. Rather, I do not see the logical necessity of any hierarchy emanating from our physiology. The fact that I have male genitalia dangling between my legs does not mean that I must assume a culturally conditioned gender role, such as that suggested by Grant Castleberry at the beginning of this post. My body does not grant me the authority to assert my leadership credentials over and above women in the body of Christ. Neither does it put me in a position to restrict those whom God has called to ministry based upon their sex or gender.

Might I submit at this point, that in order for the Church to effectively participate in Jesus’ mission, she must first achieve ‘unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:13 NIV). If Jesus gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in order to make this lofty goal possible, and the Spirit of God assigns such gifts within the body of Christ according to his will (1 Cor 12:4-11), limiting women who may have such gifts to roles which stifle them into arbitrary submission is devastatingly unhealthy for the Church.

Given the cryptic portrayal Paul paints of the Church being caught up within the cosmic struggle between darkness and light, it is perhaps unsurprising that egalitarian attempts to remove the shackles of patriarchy have been met with fierce resistance (Eph 6:10-18). By stirring up division within the wider body of Christ on any number of issues, all participants are potentially to blame for playing into the Devil’s hands. Or has the influence of enlightenment naturalism made us naive enough to think that we are merely wrestling with flesh and blood during debates such as these? I may not be able to offer a concrete solution to the problem of patriarchy within the Church, but I hope that this post at least contributes to the conversation in some small way by highlighting some of the broader issues.

Jesus, Jews, and Gentiles?

In closing, some final thoughts. Did Jesus explicitly prohibit women from leadership roles? More importantly, did he affirm patriarchy as part of the created order, or was his hearkening back to the creation narratives regarding marriage suggestive of the idea that God’s original good intentions have been marred by human sinfulness (Mark 10:2-12)? Additionally, to contrast with the above quote from Galatians 3, does Jesus suggest that the Old Testament law remains binding on Jewish people until the end of history when Christ returns (Matt 5:17-20)? If so, does the Old Testament law explicitly enshrine patriarchy as a non negotiable aspect of obedience to God?

Now here’s the rub: In any case, are Gentile Christians bound to the same requirements laid down in the Old Testament Jewish law, or have things significantly changed in light of Jesus, and the Jerusalem council recorded by Luke (Acts 15:19-29)?

Finally, to leave you with something to chew on: if you self identify as an evangelical Christian, and are not of Jewish descent (thus, not a ‘Messianic’ Jew who believes in Jesus), have you ever eaten black pudding, rare steak, or checked that your meat has not been strangled (see above passage in Acts)?

Too much to swallow?

J

1. Moltmann, Jurgen, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, London: SCM Press, 1977, 64.