When I was in Sunday School I was enthralled by the stories of the heroic characters of the Bible: Abraham leaving his country to go to the land God told him; Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt; David and Goliath; Esther and Mordecai; Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel; Peter walking on water with Jesus; Paul’s miraculous conversion.
Then as I grew older I discovered they were very flawed heroes: to save himself Abraham gave his wife to powerful men…twice, and thoroughly abused his wife’s maid, Hagar; Moses did everything he could to refuse God’s call; David was a bloodthirsty tyrant who slaughtered entire communities, committed adultery and murdered his mistress’ husband; Esther and Mordecai plotted bloodthirsty revenge on those who had hoped to murder them; Elijah developed a narcissistic martyr complex; Peter denied Christ three times; and Paul was so pig-headed he split from his ministry partner Barnabas over taking Mark on their missionary journey.
The Bible has a very healthy estimate of our capacity to do good and ill. It refuses to divide the world into ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. Rather, as Solzhenitsyn said, the dividing line between good and evil runs through each of us.
This helps explain the Bible’s suspicion of power. Poverty, for example, is only very rarely seen as the fault of the person who is poor. More often than not the blame is sheeted home to the powerful rich, who use their privileged position in society to structure its economy and politics in ways that benefit themselves.
It explains the Bible’s aversion to the concentration of political power. When Israel asked for a king, the prophet Samuel catalogued all the ways kings use power to serve their own interests. Give someone a lot of power and as sure as day follows night they’ll abuse it.
It also explains the ubiquity of household codes across the New Testament letters. These are passages describing how household members – husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves – should behave. They are found in Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, Titus and 1 Peter. In a culture where males wielded enormous authority, it was necessary to remind them that their power was to be used to serve their wives, their children and their slaves. If they had all been doing this there would have been no need to tell them to do it. The widespread presence of the household codes suggests the widespread abuse of power.
It seems to me we need to embrace this biblical suspicion of power. This doesn’t mean a retreat into cynicism, where all we can see are the failings of leaders, but it does mean approaching power with a willingness to offer a healthy critique and creating structures and systems that decentralise power as much as possible. This is just one reason why we need economic structures to foster equity across the population rather than leaving ourselves prey to a Darwinian survival of the fittest mentality; why liberal democracy is such an effective political system; why we need unions and other labour organisations.
All this is also a reason I am alarmed by the persistence of the notion of male headship in marriage. A healthy doctrine of sin tells us that the more power you give to an individual the more likely it will be abused. No matter how committed husbands are to serving the interests of their wife, If they are perceived as someone who has “authority”, there will come times they will abuse that authority. It could be a selfish decision. It could be a poor but well-intentioned decision to which a wife feels obliged to submit. At it’s worst it could be verbal, emotional or physical violence. But as sure as day follows night a healthy doctrine of sin means these sort of things will happen in relationships where one person has greater authority than the other.
Of course sin happens in egalitarian relationships as well. Egalitarians also act selfishly, ignorantly and, in some instances, violently. But the difference is this: egalitarian structures have a built in safety mechanism. If my wife thinks my ideas are bad or selfish she will argue the case, and she’ll keep on arguing until we reach a position that is satisfactory to both of us. At no point does she say, “I’ve had my say, now it’s time to submit to Scott’s selfish/foolish decision'”.
The best way to avoid abuse of power is to diffuse power.
Three stories in the news this week raise the question of what it means to be a real man or woman. First came the story of 8-year-old Sunnie Kahl who would have been described in the past as a “tomboy”, for she enjoys things that are typical of boys her age and not so typical of girls. Her grandparents (and legal guardians) withdrew her from the Timberlake Christian School in Virginia, USA after receiving a letter that included this paragraph:
We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behaviour need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.
Then on Saturday I read an article in the Weekend Australian titled “Blessed are…the cage fighters”. It told of a documentary about half a dozen pastors who lead churches that include “mixed martial arts-a form of fighting renowned for its brutality. Bouts take place in cages, and blend more than a dozen combat sports, including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and jujitsu”. One of the pastors wins a bout by choking his opponent unconscious. The article reports that “Several of the believers in the film fear that Christianity has become emasculated, and has lost its appeal for young men.” Apparently it is masculine to engage in extreme violence?!
Finally all over the news was the High Court’s decision to recognise non-specific gender, that is, people whose sex is not clearly male or female.
What are we to make of all this? It seems to me we need to distinguish between biological sex, that is whether a person is physiologically male, female or indeterminate; sexual identity, that is, whether a person identifies as a male, a female, or intersex/transgendered; and cultural expectations around gender, that is how we believe a male or female should dress and behave. Unfortunately there is a tendency that is particularly pronounced in conservative Christianity that conflates these.
As I read the Bible, it affirms that God created humankind with sexual distinction but the gospel it proclaims completely relativises the significance of this for personhood. The world of biblical times had very clear constructions of gender. Men and women were seen as radically distinct and clear expectations were placed around their dress and behaviour. The New Testament does something quite extraordinary with this. It functions from the premise that in Christ “there is no male and female” (Galatians 3:28). People are not defined by their gender/sex but by the fact that they belong to Christ. Being human is about being conformed to the image of Christ, which is focused upon character and purpose. There is not a separate set of virtues for men and women. Rather the Spirit of God works to produce a common set of characteristics within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, and the like (Galatians 5).
This provides a radical reframing of cultural expectations of “male” and “female” behaviour. For the New Testament writers these become not a mandatory part of personhood but the context within which one lives out the character and calling of Christ. Men and women are instructed to live out culturally defined roles not because they matter but precisely because they don’t. If you were a married woman in the 1st century church you were encouraged to play the culturally assigned role of a good wife, that is one who submitted to her husband, but to do so in a way that gave expression to the character of Jesus. If you were a married man in the 1st century church you’re encouraged to play the culturally assigned role of a good husband, that is one who ruled over his household, but to do so in a way that gave expression to the character of Jesus.
Jesus himself calls women to follow him just as he called men. Though it is not often recognised, the Gospels speak of women followers who left their homes and their households to follow Jesus around Israel. In doing this they radically defied cultural expectations of women.
So it would seem that on the one hand the New Testament writers affirm cultural expectations of men and women, but on the other hand feel quite free to ignore these when they stand in the way of men and women expressing the character of Christ and living out the calling of Christ. You can only do this if those cultural expectations lack any great significance to who we are. The situation seems to be the same as their approach to slavery. If you’re a slave and you can gain your freedom do so, but if not, slavery can still be the context in which you live out your full and complete humanity. It does not define you.
The gospel calls us to stop defining people in terms of their gender, social status, and race. Personhood is defined by our common humanity and calling to live as people who reflect the character and the purposes of Christ. We should recognise definitions of masculinity and femininity for what they are, nothing more than cultural constructs we can either choose to live within or to reject, and should reject at those points they conflict with our calling to follow Jesus. Consequently I don’t think there is any Christian vision of “masculinity” or “femininity”. Just the call to become like Jesus.
When Timberlake Christian school calls young girls to a particular version of being feminine it has missed the significance of the gospel. When those US pastors seek to identify masculinity with violence they contradict the gospel, for Jesus calls us to love our enemy and turn the other cheek. What matters is not the social constructions of gender that we receive, but whether or not we are living out the virtues of Christ and seeking first the kingdom of Christ.
The internet has changed our lives. It’s given us access to a world of information and allows us to communicate with people all over the planet. Thanks to the internet I no longer need to invest in a bookcase full of encyclopedias, carry a couple of hundred novels on my kindle, keep up with hundreds of friends via Facebook, blog my musings for the world to see, catch up on TV shows I missed, Skype conference with people across the country. When I visit my doctor he consults a vast online medical database; when I visit the Supermarket I can transfer funds between accounts using my smartphone; when I want to know what time a movie starts I can google the answer.
But while this constitutes a revolution in the speed and breadth of access to information and people, has it constituted a revolution as powerful and significant as the washing machine? Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang argues that it has not….at least not yet.
In terms of the consequent economic and social changes, the internet revolution has (at least as yet) not been as important as the washing machine and other household appliances, which, by vastly reducing the amount of work needed for household chores, allowed women to enter the labour market and virtually abolished professions like domestic service. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism pp31-32
And the knock-on effects were dramatic. Economic power and value changed the status of women in marriage, household and society. It saw girls now being educated, their intellectual capacities recognised, women no longer disempowered through financial dependence on men.
Ha-Joon Chang recognises that there were factors other than household appliances also contributing to these changes, and no doubt some historians would point to other factors as more significant in changing gender constructs, but whatever their precise role, without whitegoods our history would be very different.
So to the humble washing machine I say ‘thankyou’. And I stand rebuked by it, for it shouldn’t have taken technology to create an environment conducive to change.
The idea that women are to be submissive to male leadership seems to be having something of a renaissance in Australian Evangelicalism, or at least in Sydney/NSW and among those claiming to be “Reformed”. The year began with new Sydney Anglican marriage rites in which a bride promises to submit to her husband. This was followed by the disinviting of John Dickson to the Katoomba Womens Convention because of his booklet arguing women should be able to deliver sermons; and in February AP magazine, the official magazine of the Presbyterian Church that positions itself as “Australia’s Reformed Evangelical Periodical”, was themed around gender. It trumpeted the idea that there is a God ordained gender hierarchy and in the editorial Peter Barnes concluded
So overwhelming and so clear is the biblical teaching on this subject that attempts to deny it are unconvincing to the point of being embarrassing. It is a test case for evangelical faithfulness. As Wayne Grudem asserts, so-called evangelical feminism is in fact “a new path into liberalism”.
Against such strident claims I want to push back strongly.
It is nonsense to claim that “So overwhelming and so clear is the biblical teaching on this subject that attempts to deny it are unconvincing to the point of being embarrassing” let alone to argue “It is a test case for evangelical faithfulness”. Yes, there are biblical texts that argue for the submission of wives to husbands and that prohibit women teaching men. But there are also just as many texts calling for slaves to submit to their masters. We don’t use those to justify slavery – Christians have been at the forefront of antislavery campaigns past and present. To work out a biblical ethic on any issue we need to ask why the Bible provides a particular instruction and determine if the rationale is transcultural.
Those arguing for female submission argue that male leadership is transcultural, that it is a principle of creation, and suggest 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and 1 Timothy 2:12-14 teach this. The meaning of these passages is the subject of great debate among Evangelical scholars. They are filled with difficulties. In the case of 1 Corinthians 11 the issue Paul addresses is head coverings worn by women during prayer and prophecy. We don’t know whether he is talking about an item of clothing, such as a veil, or hairstyle, nor do we know the cultural significance of these. The passage opens with the claim that Christ is head of men and husbands head of their wives. In the first century “head” could be used metaphorically to speak of origins or authority. Which is intended here? Verses 8-9 speak of woman as the “glory of man” and point to the creation stories to substantiate the claim (woman was created out of man and for man). Nowhere else in Scripture or extrabiblical literature are women described as the glory of man and Paul doesn’t explain what he means. Scholars make educated guesses, but that is all they are. And given we don’t know what Paul means by woman as the glory of man we are even less certain how Eve being created out of Adam and for Adam shows this. There are a myriad of ways these can be interpreted.
And if 1 Corinthians 11 is fraught with uncertainties, a survey of commentaries reveal 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is no easier. The church is wracked by false teaching, with many of the women taken in by it. To what degree does this inform verses 11-12? The term translated “have authority” is different to that used elsewhere in the New Testament and often has the connotation of domineering. To what degree does this inform verses 11-12? Verse 15 speaks of women being saved through childbirth, a phrase that has perplexed interpreters. To what degree does this inform verses 11-12? Yes Paul uses the creation texts to buttress a claim that women at Ephesus should not teach or have authority over/domineer men, but is the creation principle that of authority, partnership, honour, or some other thing? Is the sense, “Women should never teach or be in authority over men because God created men to be the leaders” or “The women at Ephesus should stop trying to domineer, because God created men and women to be in partnership” or “Given female public speech is regarded as shameful to a woman’s husband wives should avoid it, for God created us to honour one another” or something else? All these are plausible.
So the claim that the biblical teaching is clear is demonstrably false. Indeed, given the only two texts where a creation order is supposedly taught are so unclear and open to diverse interpretation, the creation hierarchy argument is thoroughly discredited. If the supposed creation hierarchy is so central to human relationships it is strange that God chose to say nothing about it in the Old Testament, nothing about it in the teaching of Jesus, but left it to very short, cryptic lines in two of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.
A cogent case can be built that biblical commands around submission should be treated in the same way that we treat commands around slavery. Both patriarchy and slavery were social systems that were sub-Christian, standing in opposition to the creation story that tells us that all people are created equal, called to share rule of the earth not rule of each other, and the gospel story that tells us we all stand before God as equals, sharing a common call to the kingdom, a common purpose of being shaped into the image of Christ, and a common empowerment by the Spirit. Nonetheless, patriarchy and slavery were the social systems in which the first Christians lived. How were they to do so? By infusing their relationships with the virtues of Christ. Thus the call for wives and slaves to submit gracefully and husbands and masters to rule considerately. This should not be mistaken as laying down a God ordained model, but guidance on how to live Christianly when the social system is sub-Christian. Eventually we would be in a position to challenge the systems themselves. How tragic then that a resurgent voice within Evangelicalism is calling us back to those sub-Christian systems.
Moreover we ought to be clear that societies where men have authority over women are societies where women are systematically abused. A visit to the “developing” world should be enough to cure anyone of an aversion to feminism. Societies that place power in the hands of men see women less likely to be educated; less likely to eat during times of food scarcity; more likely to do most of the work of the household; more likely to be beaten; more likely to be forced to do things they don’t want to do. In a sinful world this is what happens when cultures embrace the principle of male authority. It should not surprise us – whenever you place power over one group in the hands of another it turns out badly. It’s no use arguing that this is not what God intends, for we live in a sin-stained, not a sin-free world. Were our society to embrace the hierarchical gender systems urged by some Evangelicals, this is what we would end up with.
So while I respect the integrity of my fellow Evangelicals who believe that God teaches a principle of male authority/leadership, applaud their desire to honour Scripture, and admire their concern for healthy relationships, I will resist their call to return to a patriarchal way of living as surely as I would resist calls for a return to slavery. Today is International Women’s Day, a good day to be reminded of these things and reaffirm our commitment to gender equality.
In 2010 the US based Pew Forum surveyed over 2000 Evangelical leaders present at the Lausanne Conference, seeking their views on issues of faith, church and ethics.
When asked whether “a wife should always obey her husband” fifty-two percent said “yes”, either fully agreeing or mostly agreeing. Think carefully about that. Not only do half the world’s evangelical leaders believe a wife should obey her husband, which is shocking enough, but they believe that she should always obey.
Does this suggest a fifty/fifty split on the idea of the husband as “head” of the home? No. Seventy-nine percent of leaders agreed that “men have a duty to serve as the religious leaders in marriage and the family”. This means eight in ten evangelical leaders have a view of marriage that is either a hard version of patriarchy – ie wives must obey their husbands – or a softened patriarchy – ie husbands should be the spiritual leaders. These beliefs were particularly strong among leaders from more traditional nations, but even in industrialised countries were still significant. In the Global North (Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) thirty-nine percent agreed a wife should always obey her husband.
Surprisingly, these attitudes don’t flow through to roles in the church, with seventy-five percent of leaders agreeing women should be able to serve as pastors. Attitudes here were similar between the Global North (77% agreeing) and Global South (73% agreeing). The caveat is that the survey didn’t ask about types of pastoring. Many who would be happy to see a woman serving as a children’s pastor may not be happy to see a woman as the lead pastor.
The survey results suggest that:
1. Evangelicals have, in part at least, liberated themselves from patriarchal views of ministry but remain firmly wedded to patriarchy in the home.
2. Patriarchal views are strongest in the “Global South”, the very area Christianity is growing fastest.
I respect those who believe honouring God in the home and church requires male leadership. They include some of the most godly people I know. But I think they have got it wrong. And I believe it matters. This is not an ivory tower theological debate. At its best patriarchy robs women of significant opportunities to flourish. At its worst it leaves women exposed to abuse. A theology of sin and power should remind us that it’s all very well to teach men to love their wives, but when social structures give one group power over others that power will frequently be exercised to the detriment of the less powerful.
Gender debates raged in the churches of the Global North in the 1980s and 1990s. The focus was predominantly the role of women and men in the life of the church. The statistics suggest that for those of us committed to the full equality of women and men the ideological battle was largely won. But perhaps we naively assumed this would translate to gender relations in the home. It hasn’t. It’s time we addressed this.
On the flight home from Perth yesterday I found myself choking up while watching the movie The Sapphires. The part that really got to me was the removal of one of the characters, an aboriginal with light skin colour, from her family. I’d like to say it was my finely tuned empathy for victims of injustice that was at play, but I also found tears forming when another of the lead characters found love.
I never used to cry, but something changed when I had children. From the day our first child was born I became a bit of a weeper. Sometimes I find myself crying over deep injustice. At the end of the movie The Rabbit Proof Fence I was a heaving mess. Sometimes I well up at the most soppy, saccharine piece of romance, hoping desperately that I can wipe away the tears before the lights come on. At a friends wedding on Saturday I found myself choking up at different points in the speeches.
There was a time when it was not considered manly to cry. I remember the ridicule heaped upon Bob Hawke after he broke down when describing the drug addiction of one of his children. These were the days when men were supposed to be in control, masters of their fate, not vulnerable to anything. But it seems that we are moving past this. These days it is far more acceptable for men to cry.
I suspect that having children awakened in me a deeper sense of the vulnerability in the world and in myself. Here were these wonderfully formed little human beings, such a marvellous gift, yet so dependent on Sandy and I and the goodwill of others. But how frail and imperfect we are that they should depend on us. Maybe this awakened me to the fact that we are all vulnerable in one way or another and somehow this resonated deeply in my emotions.
Ever since then I have felt much greater empathy for people at their points of vulnerability – the child who doesn’t get picked for the team, the spouse who is rejected by her partner, the young adult nervously declaring his interest in another, the child whose parents cannot afford medicines, the woman caught in a war zone. Of course, these vary dramatically in their seriousness and impact, but they each are an expression of vulnerability.
And I think that in the midst of that I have a much greater appreciation of joy. We are in many ways so vulnerable that it is all the more wonderful when we experience joy. Watching the sunset, finding love requited, accomplishing a task, seeing my children succeed at something, all these things seem much richer to me than they once did.
I am thankful that I have learned to cry, even if it is a little embarrassing at times. Compared to some others I know, who ooze empathy, I can still be a bit of an unfeeling bastard, but those tears I cry do, I hope, signal the abandonment of a manhood that is about control and mastery and the embrace of a manhood that is about compassion, empathy and celebration in a world of vulnerability and joy.