Friday, December 5, 2008

What Is So Wrong with the Church in America Today?

I would like to comment on Dutch Sheets’s remark (which I tagged on to my November 16 post) in which he said, “The complacency and lack of discernment concerning our real condition in America—especially by the Church—is both appalling and horrifying.” Although he may have used somewhat alarmist language, I essentially agree with his point: By and large, the American church today is complacent and lacking in discernment. But what does this have to do with biblical equality? Not a whole lot. However, I would like to observe that if, indeed, the church is in such a sorry state, it would seem rather disproportionate that there should be so little concern on this matter, yet such rigorous and tireless efforts exerted to ensure that women are kept from full use of their gifts in the Body of Christ. Even if (hypothetically) God did intend from the beginning for women to be curtailed in certain areas of life and ministry, despite God’s creating them with these capacities, what would be most displeasing to the Lord? That a woman do more for the Kingdom than God intended her to do? Or that the church carry on blithely in a state of spiritual complacency and lack of discernment?

I should also note that this blog is not dedicated exclusively to discussion of gender issues but also seeks to understand and comment on the larger picture. The “mission statement” at the head of this blog says, “This is a forum for thoughtful discussion and reflection on the state of the church in America, with a particular emphasis on clarifying and understanding the issues at stake in the long-running debate over differences between men and women in ministry and in marriage.”

Having thus made my apologetic for this post, let us consider: What is so wrong with the church in America today?

Why should anyone assert that there is something seriously amiss in the American church? Is not this the nation in which a significant majority of the population claims to be Christian? A majority, mind you! Is not this the nation in which the evangelical church wields political power even in national government? Is not this the nation where sprawling, prosperous megachurches frequently dominate the landscape? Where huge Christian advocacy ministries take their message to the populace through national media outlets? And in this great nation is there not, in every small town and city suburb, a church on the nearest street corner? (Well, perhaps not in our neighborhood, but never mind that.)

Even if there is (virtually) a church on every street corner, even given the ease, comfort, and freedom with which American Christians attend services and practice their faith, even given the prosperous industry that Christian faith has become in this nation, the question remains: What does this prove about the spiritual health of the American church? The underground church in China is 100,000,000 strong and growing exponentially, despite severe persecution from the government authorities. Yet the only churches on any street corners in China are the Three Self churches, which are highly regimented and government controlled. The true church in China does not flaunt church buildings. They meet in homes, and they believe that this is all any church needs. Their funds (such as they are) flow out toward the work of missions and evangelism, not the work of bigger and better church buildings with lots more space to accommodate various fun activities for the parishioner’s various felt needs.

The Apostle Paul speaks in 2 Timothy 3:5 of a time when the church will have a form of godliness but not the power thereof. Have we Christians in America arrived at that point?

Chinese house church leader Brother Yun, a man full of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of God who has experienced many miracles, as well as many severe persecutions, writes in his recent book Living Water, that “The Lord calls people who realize they cannot function at all apart from His grace and empowerment. Such an attitude results in complete dependence on God, and this is good in His sight. If we can accomplish tasks without God, then He will not get the glory” (p. 59-60). Paraphrasing Hudson Taylor, Francis Schaeffer makes a similar statement in his book True Spirituality: “The Lord’s work done solely in human energy is not the Lord’s work any longer. It is something, but it is not the Lord’s work” (p. 59). It’s no wonder that a pastor from Asia commented, after visiting Christian churches and institutions in America, that “it is remarkable how much they are able to accomplish without the Holy Spirit!” Yet God does not bless and empower a church or ministry that runs primarily on human will and strength.

Could it be that the lion’s share of Christian industry in America is, in God’s eyes, “wood, hay, and stubble” (1 Cor 3:12-15)?

Brother Yun’s riveting autobiography, The Heavenly Man, demonstrates how he lives on the knife-edge of obedience to God’s calling. This man—along with the millions of women and men serving in the Chinese underground church—daily live the Book of Acts. How many American Christians can say that for their Christian life? For that matter, how many American Christians have even read the Book of Acts recently? How many know what the Bible even says? (Brother Yun and his fellow Christians have memorized whole books of the Bible.)

Yes, the American church enjoys institutional power in this country, and the polls (Americans are always taking polls) show that a majority of Americans consider themselves Christians. But so much of it is only a form of godliness—only an image (in American culture image is everything). It is not the real thing. A hip, slick, with-it image is a pathetic substitute for the presence and power of God.

Has the church in America become the church of Laodicea?

We seem so often pleased with our accomplishments for the Lord. So ready with our implicitly self-congratulatory rhetoric (which we carefully cloak in God-talk). Well, we may be impressed, but the Holy One is not. God does not provide spiritual power and blessing for a church or ministry that runs primarily on human will and strength.

But perhaps we do not realize that we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. Perhaps we desperately need to buy from the Lord gold refined in the fire, so we can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so we can cover our shameful nakedness; and salve to put on our eyes, so we can see. Jesus said to the Laodiceans, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (see Revelation 3: 17-19).

Below are two posts that suggest a different, perhaps more spiritually serious approach to Christian faith. The first is from the blog of Douglas Groothuis, “The Constructive Curmudgeon.” It is a compelling exhortation to the American church to forswear the Church of Laodicea and to exchange its form of godliness with the actual power thereof. The second is a short essay in which I chronicle my reflections and observations of Brother Yun’s recent visit to Denver Seminary.

Desperation for Today

The Constructive Curmudgeon

Saturday, November 29, 2008

[I wrote this in the context of many years of frustration about the American church and my own experiences within it. It was prompted more than anything by the visit of Brother Yun to Denver Seminary about two months ago. He is a Chinese Christian who, until he had to flee China in 1997, was part of the underground church there. These comments in no way indicate doubts about the truth of Christianity; they rather concern the spiritual state of the church today.]

What can be done about the hyperactive deadness of so much American Christianity? We can enter into the desperation and radicality of the underground Chinese church, as exemplified by Brother Yun. Yun engages in strange, strenuous activities in pursuit of God’s Kingdom. As a new convert in his teens, he fasted and prayed for 100 days to get his first Bible, eating only a small bowl of rice each day. He went on a supernaturally long fast in prison, seeking God’s release and blessing. He is willing to take up the cross and deny himself in dramatic ways in search of what is uniquely from the Holy Spirit. (See his biography, The Heavenly Man.)

Why is it that God seems often to require such intense devotion before he manifests himself supernaturally? Why cannot we simply ask God for something, and then get it—even miraculous healings, mass conversions, and more? The reason may lie in the fact that because God is the superlative being in the universe, he deserves all of us. We should love him with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:37-39). We should “hate” our family in comparison with our love of God (Matthew 10:32-39). We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23-25). The cross killed people; you did not survive a crucifixion. We are commanded to take up our cross because Christ took up his on our behalf. We must die to our sinful selves and live to God, because Jesus died to sin and lives to God (Romans 6:10). This theme is everywhere in the Bible. Paul says:

14 For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Cor. 5:14-15).

How can we miss it? But we do. We look past what is right before our eyes. This is because we are stupefied by worldliness and compromised Christianity—Christianity lite and undemanding, a Christianity denatured by consumer values and lifestyle choices.

How can we press in and press through into the supernatural realm? In True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer wrote that we live in a supernatural world, but often act as de facto naturalists, thus demonstrating our “unfaith.” How can we find a faith that moves mountains in Jesus’ name? I believe it will take protracted desperation demonstrated in desperate and radical acts of obedience, especially prayer and fasting—in season and out of season. This needs to be done alone in the prayer closet (Matthew 6:16-18) and in groups of God-seekers (Acts 13:1-3) open to the move of the Spirit (John 3:8). We need open seasons of seeking God together, times of worship, Scripture reading, and earnest calling upon the name of the Lord, as David did in the Psalms. Even Jesus himself called upon his Father:

7 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:7-9).

We must pour out our hearts and souls and minds before our Maker, for he is our God and we are his people, the flock of his own hand.

In order for God to hear and answer, we must repent as never before. God cannot bless a divided and unrepentant heart. It would violate his own holiness (Isaiah 6:1-8). Yes, he saves us out of that condition—spiritual death (Eph. 2:1-7)—but those who bear his name must do all in that name. Living in the name of Jesus does not merely mean tacking on “In Jesus’ name” at the end of prayers. It means living in the entire spirit of Jesus in all we think and feel and do (Col. 3:17).

Actions prompted by these considerations will all seem strange and silly to business-as-usual, status-quo-for-all-we-know American Christianity. We have not experienced significant renewal, revival, and reformation for many decades. We have grown cold and hard, despite our large churches, big budgets, and Christian celebrities—or perhaps because of them. Therefore, God-seeking, world-denying, flesh-hating actions—individually and corporately—will be belittled as extremism, for we are extremely worldly and lukewarm. The resurrected Jesus has an extreme word for us:

14 "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me. 21 To those who are victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:14-22).

We need to hear the words of holy and loving rebuke from the One seated on his heavenly throne. Who has ears to hear? Who will let Jesus in to take over completely? What is required of us?

I am not sure, but I care deeply to find out. The example of Brother Yun, the Bible itself, and great Christians in the past tell us to pursue God with all our being. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness and all this will be added as well” (Matthew 6:33; see also 1 Cor. 10:31). Seeking first the unshakeable Kingdom of God means forsaking lesser alignments and allegiances and entanglements. It means, as Francis Schaeffer taught us, depending on Jesus Christ moment by moment. “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6).

We need to regain a Christocentric and cruciform existence. This is nearly unknown in the postmodern world. We keep Christ at arm’s length. We try to domesticate him. We have invented a designer Jesus. We must cast aside comfort and respectability, cast aside “leadership principles” inherited from the world and the flesh (perhaps even the devil) and stop leaning on the arm of the flesh, no matter how muscular and impressive it might be (to the world). This means radical, sustained devotion to God alone. May God help us. May he shake the world again through us, yielded vessels of his transcendent power (2 Cor. 4). Apart from Christ, we can do nothing; but in Christ and with God, all things are possible (John 13-15: Matthew 19:26).

Brother Yun at Denver Seminary, September 23, 2008

It was an amazing evening. The Seminary Chapel was packed out. People were standing around the walls and sitting outside the doors. This was not a Denver Seminary crowd (although a number of students and quite a few Asians from the Seminary were in attendance). A group of young people were sitting near us; the young woman next to me said she had read The Heavenly Man twice. I told her that my niece (from whom we had first learned about Brother Yun) so wished that she could be here, that it would be like meeting Jesus or one of his disciples. “Oh, Yes!!” the young woman exclaimed excitedly. She and the others with her were part of a group from a large church in Colorado Springs who had visited China. She was so encouraged that so many had turned out for the event. “God has saved 7,000 for himself,” she declared, her eyes glowing with joy. I piped up, “Yes, like God said to Elijah.”

The room was not just full of people, it was full of the Holy Spirit. I thought to myself, “I never would have believed it possible!” It has been more years than I can remember since I’ve known such a powerful sense of the Spirit’s presence. But I should not limit God so. If Brother Yun had one central theme, it was that Jesus is alive and will do whatever he pleases to do. Mighty miracles are an easy thing for the Lord to do, and when he determines to do a thing, he does it.

Well no, that was not the central theme. Another theme was also central to his message, namely, that we absolutely must have wholehearted, unconditional love for, and trust in, the Lord Jesus. No matter what.

The best part of the evening for me was when Brother Yun recounted a time he was imprisoned and had been tortured and very badly beaten. He had been taken back to his cell and he lay there, wanting to die. The guard taunted him, saying he was crazy and would never get out of there alive (which certainly looked to be the case). Then the Lord brought to Yun’s mind a verse from Scripture (I forget what it was), and he was heartened and emboldened by this truth of God’s Word. So he determined that he would defy the guards and his circumstances and commence to praise the Lord. They thought he was crazy? So, he would act crazy! He began to sing Psalm 63 as loudly as he could. And at that point in his talk, Yun commenced to do just that. The translator was quiet as Yun sang through the whole psalm. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was just pouring out his heart before the Lord, as though he were back in that prison cell. There was no sense of self consciousness. He was not trying to impress anyone. He had no singing voice to speak of. But oh, it was beautiful. It was like stepping into the anteroom of heaven.

Both Brother Yun (which is pronounced somewhere between yun and yoon) and his translator (a middle-aged Finnish man, who also had been imprisoned in China), were so patently earnest, real, and zealous for the Lord. It was obvious that they didn’t just talk the talk, as they say. Their testimony was the real thing. It was Paul and Peter and Jesus. For two hours the audience was riveted to the podium. I found all this spiritual reality wonderful, but also rather difficult to bear, and I couldn’t help weeping slightly throughout the whole time (used up quite a few tissues blowing and blotting). I felt quite silly, when I stopped to think about it, which wasn’t often.

You don’t need power point and anecdotes and endless references to American popular culture, you don’t need to limit the length of the message to 30 minutes lest people lose interest, you don’t need loud music with subwoofers and proudly prancing “worship” leaders on stage. You don’t need any of that, if you can just have the presence of the Holy Spirit. And his presence in fullness is possible only when the Word of God abides in hearts that are sold out to Jesus, live or die, come hell or high water.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Being Both Biblical and Egalitarian

I have been haunted by a statement I came across when I was researching my posts on Sarah Palin. More than one blog off-handedly remarked that probably most egalitarians would be voting for Obama. I had to acknowledge that this was quite likely the case. But why? Why should belief in biblical equality entail left-wing political persuasions? Two possible reasons crossed my mind.

First, it may be that biblical equality (BE) is regarded by no small number of adherents as a personal/political/feminist agenda. Thus many BEs identify with the party of the left. After all, is not this the political party advancing equality, justice and civil rights for all? Well, yes, this is how it is perceived; whether this is how it truly functions is another matter. But even if the Democrats were the political party most concerned for equal rights, would this warrant biblical egalitarians aligning with this political agenda?

Consider two points:

1. Biblical equality is not equivalent to the politics of feminism (the incessant rhetoric of patriarichal-complementarians not withstanding). Rather, biblical equality seeks to understand and explicate biblical teaching regarding the mission and meaning of women and men in the family of God. The question specifically at issue is whether or not the believer’s authority in Christ is conditioned by the gender of the believer. Feminism, on the other hand, is fundamentally a political and cultural agenda. The question of a woman’s biblically-based authority in Christ is not a question that concerns culture at large, but is rather a biblical and theological concern. Thus, a biblical egalitarian is not necessarily a feminist, and a feminist is not likely to be a biblical egalitarian.

2. Both the Democratic party and mainstream feminism are wholly and adamantly committed to “abortion rights.” Obama is more committed than any previous president ever was. And he is willing to stop at nothing. It is not enough for him to permit abortion under any circumstance; he is also intent on getting federal funding for abortions. But this commitment is not consistent with a commitment to equal rights for all people. How does this respect the civil rights of the conscientious objectors who must contribute to the abortion cause with their tax dollars? How does it respect the equality of all human beings when the least and the lost of humanity are summarily disposed of? Even a baby who survives her own abortion should have no legal right to live, according to Obama. (But the Dems are the party of equal rights for all persons, remember?) The disconnect between the rhetoric of equal rights and the reality of equal rights is not a problem in an ideology that is more image than substance.

A second possible reason BEs might choose Obama is simply that many BEs—along with Americans in general—may have become accustomed to the incongruity of living in a culture of death, a culture that does not love and regard human beings as creatures who are made in God’s image and thus are worthy of being cared for until the natural end of their earthly life.

So then, given the cultural capitulation to this silent, unseen “solution” to unwanted pregnancy, let us consider afresh: What is abortion? A convenient way to make a pregnant woman un-pregnant? Well, yes. That is what abortion is. But that is not all that abortion is. Abortion is fundamentally the intentional killing of innocent human life. This is what it is, at ground zero. No one can dispute that this is what happens when abortion occurs. An innocent human life is intentionally killed. Consider: (1) There is life. That is, the thing is alive and set on a trajectory toward continued life. And (2), the thing is human. What other species of life would it be? Obviously, it is human life. And obviously, this life is killed intentionally.

Now, it would seem that a believer in Christ who has read the Bible and has at least a rudimentary sense of who God is would readily grasp that God is vehemently and unequivocally opposed to the killing of innocent human life. In Deuteronomy, a book that in many ways lays bare the heart of God for his people, God says (through Moses), “Choose life!” (Deut. 30:15, 19-20). In God’s economy, to choose life is to choose prosperity and blessing. But America has become a culture of death—in a number of ways, but most prominently and evidently in its heedless willingness to dispose of “the least of these” (those whom Jesus especially loved)—so long as nobody sees them.

But note: This practice of killing innocent but unwanted human life does not primarily hurt the unborn infant, who surely goes directly to God (although a late term abortion can cause the infant pain). Primarily, abortion hurts us. All of us. It hurts the mother of the child who was convinced she couldn’t bear to bear the child. It hurts the “doctor” who kills the innocent human being (whatever his/her rationale may be). And, as well, it hurts—yea, is slowly destroying—the entire distracted, disposable, self-absorbed, video-sated American culture. The enormous price we all must pay for permitting the heedless and willful killing of innocent human life dwarfs by comparison what it would cost simply to honor all innocent human life regardless.

Some say it is short-sighted to fixate on a single issue like this. But this is the only ethical/political issue about which we can know God’s moral will. All the other political issues are a matter of strategy: Which is the most effective means of empowering the poor? Providing jobs for people? Protecting the country from nations with hostile intent? Caring for the environment? Providing health care? And so on. While these are all important concerns, the Bible does not lay out how we should accomplish these worthy efforts. Nor are the most effective and ethical strategies readily apparent. Scripture does, however, lay out clearly the fundamental moral principle that innocent human life must be protected; to kill innocent human life is to violate God’s law. Period.

If we want to be truly biblical egalitarians, then we will care about what God cares about, namely, the least of these: his human creations who have been left vulnerable and unprotected in this world. And if we want to be biblical egalitarians (where egalitarian means fair and equal treatment for women and all human beings), we will also care about the consequences and implications of a culture in which the fruit of a woman’s womb is routinely deemed detrimental and disposable. Abortion is, after all, a “women’s issue,” and it ramifies throughout the many ways in which women regard themselves and are regarded by others.

It is interesting to note that, while feminism and biblical equality address distinctly different concerns from distinctly different perspectives, the issue of abortion is one place where the two converge. The subject of abortion encompasses both theology and culture; it bears on what the Bible teaches, and it bears on what feminism teaches. Feminism has always been concerned with abortion: initially opposing it, later extolling it. (One of the best kept secrets of the abortion agenda today is that the original feminism of the 19th century was adamantly opposed to abortion on the grounds that it was abusive to both mother and child. See chapter 24 in Discovering Biblical Equality for an excellent analysis on this.)

To be sure, this is a contentious and sticky wicket, but if we are in the business of being both biblical and egalitarian, we cannot ignore it. It is right in our face, front and center.

Following are excerpts from an open letter by Colorado Springs pastor Dutch Sheets regarding the 2008 election. While he may at times align political causes too closely with the causes of God’s kingdom, he makes many worthwhile points. I have put in boldface those comments that I thought were most compelling.

November 6, 2008

Was what happened Tuesday God's will? America was offered a very clear choice between moving further toward protecting the unborn or further away; between a Supreme Court that would move toward honoring God, life and morality or away from it. The stakes couldn't have been higher nor the cost greater. As a nation we put on blinders concerning Barak Obama's background, associations, beliefs and practices, and set these causes back years, possibly decades. And in doing so we took another step away from God and another step toward judgment.

Judgment Will Increase

This is not a fire and brimstone warning from an angry, legalistic preacher. In fact, I feel more sadness and grief than anything else. Perhaps I feel what Jesus felt as He wept for Jerusalem while announcing its judgment. I am not hoping for judgment; I am saying it is coming. I don't know where the unbiblical belief comes from that says a nation can live any way it pleases, can reject God and His ways—even mock Him—and not receive His judgments. Nor do I know when the belief came that it is always mean-spirited or judgmental to warn of these things. To the contrary, I believe it is our responsibility. In warning of judgment, I am not suggesting that God is going to intentially and directly hurt people. Much judgment is simply the absence of God's protection and provision, caused by a rejection of His laws and ways. We have been experiencing some forms of judgment in America for years, but God in His incredible patience and mercy has kept us from the level we've deserved. I believe this will change to a degree and judgment will now increase.

I have heard the argument that God cares as much about social justice issues (such as poverty and racism) as He does abortion, making a vote for Obama okay. I certainly believe God puts a very high priority on caring for the poor and I, too, have wanted to see equality demonstrated through a "minority" president. But to equate having a better income or the desire for a first black president, regardless of his positions on abortion and morality, to the issue of killing 50 million babies is not justice—it is a gross distortion of justice and a great deception. I fear that we have been desensitized to this issue of abortion. I believe it kills babies and takes innocent life. Let's not forget this in our noble attempts to be kind and conciliatory.

For African Americans I can easily see how it could bring healing to have a first black president, just as it would be for Native Americans to achieve this or for women if a woman were elected president. Again, I have wanted to see justice in this way. I am only saddened that the price for this healing ended up being Barak Obama, a man that will set the cause of life back so drastically.

What are some of the judgments we may experience on our nation from this election? Look for the following possibilities:
More economic woes
More violence in an already violent nation
Disease and death (Satan, who is responsible for these things, will have greater inroads to our nation.)
Natural disasters (weather—tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, drought, fires, earthquakes, etc.)
Acts of terrorism (they will fear us much less now)
War, perhaps on our own soil
Judgments relating to the Court. The stacking of the Supreme Court against the sanctity of life and God's influence on America will occur, which will in turn cause the shedding of more innocent blood, more rejection of God's laws and the stealing from us of our godly heritage—all of which will perpetuate a cycle of even more judgment.

How Did This Happen?

I've been asked if this could have been averted had there been more prayer. I'm not sure. I believe there was a remnant of Christians fervently praying over these elections—I don’t think there was anything more they could have done. Others, obviously, should have done more. The complacency and lack of discernment concerning our real condition in America—especially by the Church—is both appalling and horrifying. America is in serious trouble and it seems no one wants to say it. Fewer still are willing to do anything to change it.

But still, yet, since God is usually wiling to work through a remnant, I thought we had enough prayer. Obviously, God decided otherwise. There comes a time when He will not forgive or bless the majority based on the prayers or actions of only a few. America rejected God and asked for a king; I believe we now have our Saul (see 1 Samuel 8:5-7), a man who does not have God's heart for America but his own. Like Israel in scripture, our nation believes it can turn from God and still be blessed. In His mercy and justice He will show us otherwise.

Has the fact that my prayers weren't answered shaken my faith? No. I'm a little confused and discouraged. I'm also somewhat angry at the nation in general and much of the Church. Mostly I'm grieving over the nation and what this will cost us. I am not, however, angry with God and do not question His justice. And it is not true that we wasted our time, energy and money in our efforts anymore than it is a waste when we share the gospel with people who don't get saved. We must keep in the forefront of our thinking the fact that ultimately we are doing this for Him and that He will reward us for our faithfulness. And who knows, perhaps He will store up all those prayers for the next battle (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-5).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Away Again...

I will be away from “Leaders Together” for several weeks, but will check in periodically. Anyone who comes up with a question or comment during this time may leave it here or on the post below (“Responses to Questions…”), and I will respond in due time. Comments will not be moderated during this time.

See you again some time in November!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Responses to questions and comments have appeared at last!

Below are the comments and questions posted during the “Blog Holiday” of a couple of months ago. I have responded to all. Any responses to my Blog Holiday responses should (obviously) be posted here, not under the original Blog Holiday post.

I have also responded (belatedly) to the more recent comments/questions under the posts, “The Question of Consistency, Part 1” and “Adam and Eve in Genesis and 1 Timothy.” I believe this covers everything. I hope I haven’t left anyone out!

Also, please note that I have begun moderating comments so that I can keep better track of them. (Hope it works!)

Blog Holiday comments:

Jamin Hubner said...

Much has been said and written on gender..but very little on exactly what "gender" is. While I tend to think complimentarians have the upper hand in possessing a hermeneutic at allows them to say "this is masculinity" and "this is femininity," I think both sides have not clearly defined gender itself (simply metaphysical differences between sexes? What's the dif between sex and gender? How much of gender is a social construct? How much is God-bestowed? etc. etc.)
June 19, 2008 2:36 PM

RMG response:

I responded to this in my recent post, “The Question of Consistency, Part 1.” Regarding the difference between sex and gender, it is interesting to note that gender was used only as a grammatical category until sometime around the 1970s when it also came to be used in the contemporary sense. My guess is that this word was given a new meaning when the concept of sexuality was compartmentalized into the physical and the mental/emotional aspects of personality (the “hardware” and the “software,” if you will). Thus the notion of maleness and femaleness in the nonphysical realm became malleable, socially constructed. This then cleared the way for designer sexuality, as it were. Where there are no longer any givens, anything goes. Personally, I have never resonated with the sex/gender distinction, and have not based my thinking on this concept. For me, “gender” simply means male or female; so I am really using it more in the earlier sense of “sex” (encompassing the whole package of male and female difference, both physical and nonphysical aspects, not just the hard wired, physical aspects).

kparis said...

I like your blog because you are really invested in this issue and have intelligent positions to put forward/defend. I would like to see more discussion surrounding culture's influence on this debate. (Historically, how has culture influenced a traditionalist interpretation of the Bible? What did 19th century "feminism" look like as compared to the women's movement in the sixties and seventies? How were the backlashes the same/different in the church and elsewhere? And what positions do we deem "biblical" that we should re-examine as merely cultural? etc.)
June 21, 2008 7:24 AM

RMG response:

Much of this is covered in my 1994 (but still relevant) book Women Caught in the Conflict. It is still relevant because, although the battle lines in this debate have hardened, they have hardly budged in the last decade. (Although I suspect that if Sarah Palin were to become Vice President, the battle lines would shift somewhat.)

One position that many deem traditional and biblical, but which in fact is a result of cultural change, is that man’s authority over woman is specifically a spiritual authority. (I discussed the problems with this notion in the recent post “The Question of Consistency, Part 2”.) But as I pointed out in Women Caught in the Conflict, male authority has been scaled down from culture at large (where male rule had been thoroughly ensconced since Genesis 3:16) to merely the realm of the church. This adjustment occurred when the larger culture began to accept women’s right to vote, to own property, to obtain an education, and so to have a measure of personal agency, all of which brought womanhood into adulthood, and rendered woman’s permanent and comprehensive subordination to male authority untenable in society at large.

Another interesting aspect here is that, according to Daniel Mark Cere’s essay in Does Christianity Teach Male Headship?, the concept of male spiritual authority was a late comer in this saga. For most of human history, male authority over woman was simply a cultural given, and it obtained in both secular and religious realms. Male authority was not considered to be specifically “spiritual” until the early modern era when the idea emerged in certain Catholic circles. This “theologization of conjugal authority,” as Cere puts it, then entered Protestantism with the Reformation.

Paul D. Adams said...

How about architecting some kind of biblical egalitarian "manifesto" of sorts, along the lines of "we affirm..." and "we deny...."?
Various statements might address:
-- commitment to socio-cultural and literary exegesis as well as grammatical-historical exegesis
-- affirm the trinue nature of God; deny subordination of the Son as theological grounds for PC view
-- Gender versus sexuality
-- God as gender-less; God as Father and anthropomorphisms
-- heterosexual marriage only w/in bounds of Scripture; same-sex marriage not part of a responsible biblical egalitarian position
-- the cross of Christ as the basis of unity for all believers; gender debate not an essential defining belief, albeit important...etc.

You get the idea.

If a manifesto is warranted, then this blog could be the draft toward possible publication somewhere, I know not where (to loosely quote Locke).

Just thinking...Paul
June 23, 2008 10:31 AM

RMG response:

This is a good idea. I will keep it in mind. I have come across a number of comments in different venues noting the rather vast difference between what the BE view actually says and what the PC view claims the BE view says. If the record could be set straight on this somehow, it would certainly be helpful. I suspect the greatest need for clarification would be setting forth what the BE view does NOT affirm!

Your list of subjects to address is all good. I would also want to add something on the matter of “abortion rights,” since that is certainly a gender issue and is routinely brought up by the PC critique as one of the many evils of feminism: a point on which they are correct; it is one of the evils of feminism—that is, radical post-70s feminism. The early feminists in the 18th and early 19th centuries were firmly opposed to abortion; it was (rightly) deemed an abuse of both women and children.

The biggest difficulty in this project would be in getting the information out there. I don’t know where it could be published, or how the information could be made widely known, especially since the PC institutions “hold the microphone” in evangelical culture. JETS used to publish views on both sides of the gender divide, but no more.

believer333 said...

I've been intrigued lately by the term "sexual orthordoxy" coined I think, by the Bayley Brothers. As far as I know there has never been an orthodox doctrine on sexuality. I guess the hard core patriarchalists would like to lay claim to one. And I would like to see it exposed as what it is, an extra Biblical insertion with the intent of hoisting up the concept of male dominance.
July 15, 2008 12:54 PM

RMG response:

I’d not heard of “sexual orthodoxy,” so I googled Bayly and sexual orthodoxy and came up with only two blog posts on the Bayly brothers’ blog where that term appeared: their September 19, 2008, post, and their March 31, 2008 post However, there may be other references that I’ve missed.

In each of the two posts, there was one comment that referred to “sexual orthodoxy,” each made by Kamilla, and neither offered any definition of the term. It is not even clear what the basic concept is here. I assume it is not mere sexual ethics, but something more comprehensive, perhaps encompassing the whole of the properly biblical PC perspective of male-female reality. Whatever it may be, it is considered to be the antithesis of Egalitarianism. “The core of Egalitarianism is a rejection of sexual orthodoxy,” Kamilla explains. At any rate, it is evident that the term, as used on the Bayly blog, carries with it a profound contempt for biblical equality, which is regarded as synonymous with feminism, which is regarded as hat in hand with the worst of the radical feminist movement (abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, men’s abdication of their responsibilities toward women, etc.)

A salient characteristic of this blog is its high pitch. Everything is writ large. There are perils at every turn. And such a thicket of rules and rhetoric!

At any rate, please feel free to enlighten us further, if you are able!

Gem said...

I wonder if you would be interested in doing some pondering and analysis of 1 Peter 3:1-6 along the lines of your analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in "Leading Him Up the Garden Path"?1 Peter 3:1-6 is another passage where I find the traditionalist approach demeaning toward women and the egalitarian approach diminishing the power and authority of God's Word to speak to us transculturally in every age.I read your brief analysis of the 1 Peter 3:1-7 “The Bible and Gender Equality.” The entire epistle of 1 Peter is dear to me and filled with wisdom, encouragement, and spiritual challenge for a modern day woman dealing an oppressive PC marriage. I pondered a great deal about the use of Sara as the role model. I found that Katharine Bushnell has some good insights about Sarah which I find quite relevant to living out the teaching of 1 Peter. (see Lessons 66-69 here:
August 27, 2008 7:42 AM

RMG response:

There are two important points in 1 Peter 3:1-7 that generally are ignored:

1. While the surrounding culture was patriarchal in NT times, the church was not bound to male authority in spiritual matters. The apostle Peter actually commended Christian women who refused to submit to their husbands’ false spiritual beliefs, yet at the same time he urged these women to be submissive to the social roles of the time (1 Pet 3:1-6). The submission Peter asks of wives is not submission to the husband’s spiritual authority. Peter approved of women who rejected their husbands’ false religious beliefs (such women were his primary audience in this text). The wifely submission Peter asked of women was cultural, not spiritual, and was based on the principle of submitting to the authority structures of the time so as not to bring reproach on the cause of Christ, but rather to reflect Christ’s humility (see the preceding text, 2:11-25). The PC view today inverts the NT situation by advocating, in essence, an inequality in spiritual rights and responsibilities for women in a cultural context in which women generally experience equality in the larger society.

2. The passage concludes (verse 7) with a clear statement of woman’s spiritual equality (equal inheritance in Christ) and an exhortation to husbands to remember and respect their wives’ spiritual equality.

These two biblical truths are certainly out of sync with the PC perspective on this text.

I also have a section on this text in Good News for Women, pp. 172-176. And there are some helpful insights in Peter Davids’ chapter, “A Silent Witness in Marriage,” in Discovering Biblical Equality.

I am curious: What is the “egalitarian approach” that you see as “diminishing the power and authority of God’s Word to speak to us transculturally in every age”? Also, what were the insights you gleaned from Katharine Bushnell regarding the use of Sarah as a role mode? (I looked at the Lessons you noted but could not discern anything helpful. But perhaps I just don’t resonate with Bushnell’s communication style.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Question of Consistency: Part 2

Both the “moderate” Christians and the ultra-patriarchs (which I discussed in Part 1) have been expressing their concerns about what they see as inconsistency in the mainstream patriarchal-complementarian (PC) organizations, which are willing to accept a woman as U.S. Vice President or President, but never as a church pastor. Permitting one sphere of leadership yet not another seems unwarranted to both the ultra-patriarchs, who believe a woman should have no leadership in any sphere, and the “moderate” Christians, such as David Gushee, who believe that if a woman is permitted to lead a nation, she should be allowed to pastor a church.

If nothing else, the controversy stirred up by Sarah Palin’s nomination clarifies that the crux of the issue in the evangelical gender debate today is, precisely, spiritual authority and not just authority in general.

Despite the cries of inconsistency (or the earlier cries of hypocrisy), many evangelicals are recognizing that it is not necessarily inconsistent to claim that it is biblically permissible for a woman to serve in a position of secular authority but not in a position of religious authority. After all, the world and the church are two different kingdoms, and it is conceivable that there could be different criteria for each kingdom. This is the essence of the CBMW-SBC argument, and if this argument is false, it is not because it is inconsistent. Early on in this debate, N.T. Wright wrote on the “On Faith” blog that, “There might well be perfectly coherent guidelines as to why a woman might lead in one area and not in another. It isn’t hypocritical [or inconsistent], after all, to think that the church is not just ‘another human organization’ or a society like any other; it’s Christian common sense.” Wright continues, “I happen to believe that women can and should exercise leadership at all levels in the church, but I would argue the point, not on the grounds that ‘that’s what happens in society,’ but on the grounds that from the resurrection onwards women were involved at the very heart of the apostolic ministry, telling the world the good news that Jesus was and is alive.” Whether or not this is the most compelling grounds on which to argue for women’s equal ecclesiastical authority is not the point. The point rather is that if women are called to lead in the church then it must be because the Bible permits it, not because the world permits it.

However, there would need to be a logical and biblically based reason for the different leadership standards between the two kingdoms. I can think of two logical (but not necessarily biblical) possibilities:

First possibility: The rationale currently being propounded for women’s exclusion from church leadership is that leadership in the kingdom of God requires a higher moral standard than leadership in the kingdom of this world; although women are well able to meet the standard of worldly leadership, they are not qualified to meet the standard of spiritual leadership. The CBMW-SBC rationale accepts the first clause and rejects the second. But the first clause logically entails the second. If women are inherently equal to men in worldly leadership but are inherently unequal to men in spiritual leadership, then women are simply spiritually inferior to men in that they cannot meet certain spiritual requirements that are crucial to spiritual leadership. If certain men are able to meet the high moral standard of spiritual leadership, but no woman is able to meet this standard, then woman qua woman lacks a crucial spiritual quality that men have or are able to acquire. Yet PC defenders recently have employed again and again the “higher moral standard” explanation for why they believe a woman can rule a nation but not a church congregation—all the while maintaining their claim that men and women are equal in being. Here we do not have inconsistency; we have incoherence.

The PC rationale for woman’s spiritual subordination is based on the doctrine that from the beginning, God created women to submit and men to lead. God endowed men with spiritual leadership but did not so endow women. Because this doctrine leads to the conclusion that women are inherently inferior to men, a number of PC advocates in recent decades have insisted that women do have a comparable capacity to lead, but it simply is not the “role” that God has given them. But this account of women’s subordination requires that God created not only male and female humans, but also male and female roles. The female human was created equal to the male human but the female role was created inferior to the male role. Thus, the roles and the humans must be deemed separate entities and, so, separate creative acts. That is, when God created humans he also created roles. But this is sheer fabrication. For that matter, the whole idea that the creation story speaks of man’s inherent authority over woman is made up of suppositions and “hints” in the Genesis text.

Second possibility: Woman’s subordination to man’s spiritual authority derives from the fall, not from creation. This view has been out of fashion for nearly a century, but it does have the advantage of being based in the biblical text, which explicitly states that after sin entered the world the woman would be under the rule of the man. This is the account of female submission that predominated prior to the mid-20th century. The hugely popular Scofield Reference Bible laid it all out clearly. “The entrance of sin, which is disorder, makes necessary a headship, and it is vested in man,” Scofield opined in his notes on Genesis 3:14-19. Proponents of this view—and this view has not disappeared altogether even today—differ on why, exactly, "headship” is necessary (most hold to the general notion that the advent of sin requires the rule of “order”); but they do not differ on the point that it is the man and not the woman who is to order things aright as the “head.”

So then, how biblically plausible are either of these two views of woman’s subordination to man, and how well might either view account for the specifically spiritual subordination of woman to man, such that a woman is fit to lead in the kingdom of this world but not in the kingdom of God?

Note that the “God created man to rule and woman to submit” doctrine fails to provide for a difference in female authority between the world and the church. The view that woman was subordinate to man from the beginning of her creation in the Garden points to a comprehensive creational subordination. How then may we conclude that at the time of woman’s creation God ordained that she be subordinate only (or primarily) in arenas related to the church, where specifically spiritual subordination is in view? The church did not even exist in the Garden! If it is God’s divine design for men to rule and women to submit to male rule, such that this is a creation axiom, then God’s creational decree against female leadership must pertain in all of God’s creation. That is, given the PC claim of such a creational mandate (not to be confused with the creational mandate that actually appears in Scripture in Genesis 1:27-28), there can be no tenable distinction between world and church, since both are God’s creation.

The mainstream PC view claims that woman’s subordination to man’s spiritual authority is firmly grounded in creation norms, while woman’s subordination to male rule in culture at large is evidently optional or merely advisable. Yet there also seems to be some sense in which male rule is deemed normative in all of culture (perhaps it is only lightly grounded in creation norms?).

However, if male authority is grounded in creation, and if there are two spheres of authority--namely, the spiritual and the cultural (or, alternately, the ecclesiastical and the civil)--it would seem that the cultural or civil realm would most readily be regarded as grounded in God's original creation. Culture was instituted in the Garden, but God did not establish religious institutions until after the fall.

On the PC account, the woman’s creational subordination to man’s spiritual leadership obtains not only in the church but also in marriage. Yet there is no mention or indication of such in Genesis 2. Moreover, Adam and Eve evinced no sense of obligation that the man should take the lead while the woman submits to his decisions. Quite the opposite, given how the man and woman interacted with the serpent just prior to the fall. Moreover, nothing in the NT stipulates that a man must have spiritual authority over his wife, as the PC view advocates today.

While the surrounding culture was patriarchal in NT times, the church was not bound to male authority in spiritual matters. The apostle Peter actually commended Christian women who refused to submit to their husbands’ false spiritual beliefs, yet at the same time he urged these women to be submissive to the social roles of the time (1 Pet 3:1-6). The submission Peter asks of wives is not submission to the husband’s spiritual authority. Peter approved of women who rejected their husbands’ false religious beliefs (such women were his primary audience in this text). The wifely submission Peter asked of women was cultural, not spiritual, and was based on the principle of submitting to the authority structures of the time so as not to bring reproach on the cause of Christ, but rather to reflect Christ’s humility (see the preceding text, 2:11-25). The PC view today inverts the NT situation by advocating, in essence, an inequality in spiritual rights and responsibilities for women in a cultural context in which women generally experience equality in the larger society.

But what about the internal consistency of the earlier, more historical, fall-based account of woman’s subordination? Here we again find no rationale for why woman should be subordinate in the spiritual sphere but not in the worldly sphere. If female subordination to male rule became necessary because of sin, then it is necessary wherever there are human beings—which, of course, includes both the world and the church.

The mainstream PC dogma on the purpose and parameters of “male headship” appears to be derived by plucking selected texts from Scripture, interpreting them according to a particular agenda, and then arranging them into a system of conduct.

This, then, is where the inconsistency lies. Not in claiming that there are higher standards for spiritual leadership than for civil leadership, for that is, indeed, correct. Nor in claiming that different standards for leadership can conceivably warrant an a priori disqualification of certain people for spiritual leadership, for that is likewise a logical claim.

No, the inconsistency lies in the fact that there is no biblical account of either the creation or the fall that allows for a clear and distinct separation between spiritual authority and creational authority. For, indeed, God created both realms. Moreover, God gave equally to both man and woman dominion and authority over all the earth, and there is no reason to conclude that the dominion of church (which did not exist in the Garden) and the dominion of marriage (which did) were somehow exempted from that broad and unqualified mandate by the Creator God.

For a discussion of why the PC view entails woman's inferiority, see chapter 18 in Discovering Biblical Equality.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Excursus on Ancient Patriarchy

Cokhavim commented:

“RMG wrote: ‘It is true that God did not treat patriarchal culture as intrinsically evil—as he did, say, idolatry. God regarded the patriarchy (and concomitant polygamy) of ancient Israel as simply the culture of the time. Although patriarchy was not the offense to God’s holiness that idolatry was, this is no reason to conclude that it was entirely pleasing to him.’

"I'm troubled by this. Here's my feeble attempt to explain why: Patriarchy is the system whereby men take what is not rightfully theirs (exclusive authority), and in many cases women wrongfully give up what God has given and charged them to wield (authority). The first case is theft, and the second case is disobedience. Both involve the same disregard to God's authority as idolatry, and so are sinful and inherently evil. So why doesn't God condemn patriarchy like he condemned idolatry? Worse than that, why does God spend so much time on, for instance, mould and mildew instead of condemning patriarchy? Patriarchy was far more devastating to the Israelites and the entire history of the human race than mould and mildew. So I contend: Patriarchy is evil. Why doesn't God explicitly condemn it?”

Authority and Idolatry

“In many cases women wrongfully give up what God has given and charged them to wield (authority).”

Gifted women did wield authority in the Old Testament. There was no prohibition of women teaching, prophesying, or leading. It happened rarely, largely because the patriarchal culture did not often offer such opportunity for women. Besides, “women’s work” could be rather rugged and time consuming in ancient agrarian societies, which would leave little time for public exploits. Also, women were not utterly without control of their lives, little ones, or households. Notice that when Jacob wanted to leave Laban, he first got the O.K. from his wives Leah and Rachel.

Patriarchy involves “the same disregard to God’s authority as idolatry.”

Both men and women were under God’s authority in ancient Israel. Moreover, idolatry is about God’s holiness, not God’s authority.

I have been reading the Pentateuch for awhile now, and I find it striking that God seems to be much more concerned to impress upon Israel his holiness than his power and authority. He exercises the latter as he deems necessary, but his instruction and communication to Israel (via Moses) is all about how Yahweh is holy and so his people must also be holy (in some way, to some degree). Idolatry is a direct affront to the unique and total holiness of God. Patriarchy is not.

God's top priority for his people was that they keep from idols and know that God is holy.

“Why does God spend so much time on, for instance, mould and mildew instead of condemning patriarchy? Patriarchy was far more devastating to the Israelites and the entire history of the human race than mould and mildew.”

Yes, Old Testament law does often seem to be an odd jumble of the petty and the profound. The moral law directly applies to all God’s people for all time. The ceremonial or cultic law was applicable only to the social practices of Israel, which included how to deal with mold and mildew. Much of this had to do with insuring health standards for the vast companies of Israelites. But these picayune requirements also illustrate in very concrete, everyday terms the concept of distinguishing between the clean and the unclean, or, more precisely, the holy and the unholy. It was a sort of object lesson for the Israelites. Again we see God’s powerful insistence on having his people respect and worship the Holy.

Patriarchy in Ancient Times

The Israelites had a very difficult time accepting, obeying, and worshiping a God that was never to be represented in tangible, concrete form. This was their stumbling block, because it was contrary to all the other cultures and religions of the time. Yet God insisted on this huge paradigm shift for his people, because it was essential and intrinsic to the religion of Yahweh. But what do you suppose would have happened if God had also insisted on the Israelites being organized into an egalitarian social system? They could at least understand the concept of having to worship their God (even if one could not “see” him). But the culture of patriarchy was thoroughly entrenched in ancient times. They could not have grasped and adapted to a social system as alien to them as egalitarianism would have been. Of course, this is merely a practical consideration. So let us move on to more theological considerations.

It Was Not Always Thus

God did not create patriarchy. This was not God’s original plan for humanity. The fall was a cataclysmic event that twisted and turned God’s beautiful creation into its antithesis, in many ways. But let’s not forget that in the new covenant in Christ, God has eliminated patriarchy from the company of his redeemed. New creation realities override Old Testament Law.

Between the Garden of Eden and the New Creation in Christ, God tolerated patriarchy (and the polygamy that accompanied it) as he tolerated many things that have developed from the fall. But God did not create patriarchy from the beginning. It came upon the man and woman only after they fell into disobedience and sin. Note the marked contrast between Genesis 2:24 and Genesis 3:16.

Not Like the Law of the PC World Today

Let us not confuse historical-cultural patriarchy with the historically novel PC gender doctrine that is being propounded today. Unlike the social structures of traditional patriarchy, the PC view: 1) renounces the culture of the day, 2) defines male authority as spiritual authority, 3) explicitly prohibits women from serving God according to whatever their ability and calling may be, 4) claims patriarchy is mandated by God and grounded in pre-fall creation, 5) is not a social system but a religious doctrine.

Every one of these five points issues from a perspective antithetical to that of the patriarchy of ancient Israel, which: 1) was just following along with the only social system known in the ancient world, 2) saw male rule largely in terms of inheritance law and social leadership, which necessarily included religious leadership since Israel was a religious society (theocracy), 3) had no law prohibiting women from exercising their prophetic or leadership gifts, 4) offered no rationale for patriarchy as God’s original creation order, 5) was a social system that was accepted by all societies of the time; it was not a religious doctrine that required one’s allegiance on pain of violating God’s express command.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Question of Consistency: Part 1

It appears that the major organizations promoting the patriarchal-complementarian (PC) view—namely, Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—either support Sarah Palin unequivocally or, at least, allow that voting for her would not necessarily violate Scripture. However, a number of PC voices have arisen in protest against a woman serving in any position that would have her exercising authority over men. The dissenters base their view on what they see as a universal biblical principle of exclusively male authority throughout all of God’s creation, which God established at his creation of humanity. They regard the patriarchal practices of the Old Testament—along with the New Testament proof texts—as a clear indication of God’s mandate for male rule in all things. They see the PC view that mandates exclusively male rule only in the church and in marriage to be inconsistent with clear biblical teaching.

One such dissenter speaks of this view as a “complementarian compromise,” and of certain representatives of CBMW and SBC as “semi-complementarians.” He defines complementarians as “those who believe that men and women have different but complementary roles according to the revealed will of God.” Given that this dispute seems to be about the “true” meaning of gender “complementarity,” I would like to begin by considering this fellow’s definition of such. Besides co-opting this view as the only possible account of biblical truth, he also invokes the standard euphemism of “different but complementary roles.” This phrase—taken literally, apart from the implicit coding of the language—is also true of biblical equality (BE). The PC view is not rightly distinguished from the BE view merely by its affirmation of different but complementary roles, because biblical egalitarians also recognize and affirm different yet complementary roles for women and men.

Difference in gender roles can be universally true or only generally true. The universally different roles of men and women are (a) the different reproductive functions of male and female, and (b) the creationally ordained pattern of marriage, whereby a man marries a woman and a woman marries a man for as long as they both shall live. This may seem overly obvious and thus unimportant; but the point is that these are nonetheless “roles,” which are affirmed by the BE view of gender. In our sexually confused culture, these “obvious” roles are being abrogated right and left, what with reproduction occurring in various inventive ways and, of course, the notion of marriage expanding into assorted arrangements other than one man and one woman for one lifetime.

Most of us have also noticed gender differences that obtain generally but not universally. For example, women tend to be more inclined than men to nurture young children at home. In addition, men and women typically exhibit different communication styles (women tend to process ideas in a more holistic and relational fashion, are more readily engaged in personal conversations, etc.). Also, there is a general difference between conceptual processing in women and men (women tend to have a more integrative way of thinking, while men seem more inclined to focus on single issues). Differences such as these are truly complementary, and demonstrate why it is usually beneficial to have both men and women working together in various projects, churches, and organizations, according to each one’s gifts and callings.

However, it is not possible to ascertain which of these general differences between men and women may have been established by God in the original act of creation, and which have developed as a result of the fall. PC advocates of “Mars and Venus” views of gender difference routinely confuse “what is” with “what originally was.” For example, the male inclination to pursue a woman and then, after the conquest, to hunt for someone new, has seemed so ingrained to so many that it is sometimes viewed as “the way God made men to be.” But this much, at least, we know is untrue. The way God set things up with regard to romance and marriage is succinctly but certainly set forth in Genesis 2:24.

Similarly, it is impossible to decipher which generally apparent gender differences are due to nature and which are due to nurture, or what mixture of nature and nurture there may be in these generalizable differences. Because of the powerful and pervasive influence of environment on human behavior, innate gender differences cannot be isolated and then manipulated and controlled in scientific experimentation. Yet it is evident that in every culture there are general behavioral differences between women and men, some of which seem to be more or less consistent across culture; but even this does not necessarily show these differences to be ordained by God. Between us and God’s creation there stands the fall, by which the world suffered significant disruption of God’s original desire for human life. Nonetheless, wherever there are generally consistent differences in expertise or inclination between women and men, there is gender complementarity.

Although the points of difference between men and women can vary from time to time and culture to culture, the consistency of complementarity (in the true sense!) is indicative of God’s creationally ordained differentiation of male and female humanity. This we can know to be God’s design! What is not warranted from either nature or Scripture is a flat-footed stance on what men and women ought and ought not do in terms of ministry and vocation in order to be truly feminine or truly masculine in accordance with what God “clearly” ordained at creation.

This issue of nurture and nature—or, more to the point, culture and creation—bears on the question of mandating unilateral male authority on the basis of the patriarchy of Old Testament culture and social structures. Those who consider themselves fully complementarian invoke the universal expectation of male rule in ancient Israel as proof that God explicitly commands civil leaders to be men.

Yet the idea that we can derive God’s ideal for human culture and behavior from a world in which sin is imbedded in every social structure is na├»ve at best. The fact that God did not directly rebuke patriarchal culture, but rather worked within it, does not indicate that these structures were his ideal for human culture. No, God’s ideal culture would have to be discerned from pre-fall culture—of which we have little information (although we do have God’s pre-fall account of marriage in Genesis 2:24, which exactly reverses patriarchal culture).

In patriarchal culture, a woman leaves her parents’ home and is taken into the extended family of her husband. She becomes a part of her husband’s family, under the rule of her husband and the family patriarch (typically her husband’s father). But in Genesis 2, after God created the woman and before the man and woman fell into sin, God decreed a very different picture of marriage: the oneness between woman and man would come from the man leaving his own family and cleaving to his wife. The two would then become one unit, one flesh.

It is also telling that nowhere in the OT is male rule specifically mandated. It is simply assumed, given the culture of the times. In ancient agrarian societies, patriarchy was the only game in town. This was the culture of all societies, including the heathen nations.

Because God is sovereign, he orders and directs all that occurs in this world. However, this does not entail that everything that occurs is in accordance with God’s specific design and perfect pleasure for his people. This is a fallen world, and sin pervades every aspect of human social structures this side of Eden. We cannot conclude that patriarchy was ordained by God simply because it was there.

It is true that God did not treat patriarchal culture as intrinsically evil—as he did, say, idolatry. God regarded the patriarchy (and concomitant polygamy) of ancient Israel as simply the culture of the time. Although patriarchy was not the offense to God’s holiness that idolatry was, this is no reason to conclude that it was entirely pleasing to him. God regulated the culture of the Israelites, reforming it in various ways. God certainly regards some cultures as more sinful than others, and he also desires his people to seek to renovate culture according to biblical ethical principles. However, God’s rule in this world is not directed primarily to transforming human culture to his divine standard, but rather to transforming the hearts of his people.

A number of the dissenting PC commentators intoned the argument that the OT prophets saw the rule of women as God's judgment against Israel (Isa.3:12), and that the example of Deborah (Judges 4 & 5) was actually an anomaly that highlighted the failure of Barak to lead. So let us look specifically at these instances.

In Isaiah 3:12, the rule of women is presented as an indication of God’s judgment against Israel. Why was this seen in such a light? Fundamentally, it is a picture of the total breakdown of ordered society (by the standards of society in the ancient near east). Reference is also made in Isa. 3:4 to boys and children in official governing positions. In the entire near east—including the pagan and idolatrous nations—government by women or youngsters was an indication of extreme political instability and social disarray. By definition, patriarchal culture is ruled largely or entirely by men. When there are no men in leadership in such cultures, it is an indication that the social structures are disintegrating. This is precisely the situation described by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 3. The allusion to boys and children and women ruling is a telling metaphor (they were not actually ruling) of the ruinous state of anarchy that the prophet was predicting would come upon the nation of Israel.

If Isaiah’s picture of Israel’s ruin in 3:12 were indicative of the errors and terrors of female leadership, then this would flatly contradict the account of Deborah’s godly, beneficial, and victorious leadership of Israel (Judges 4 & 5). The biblical narrative here offers only praise for Deborah. The nation of Israel cried out to Deborah, their national leader, and she delivered the people from twenty years of being oppressed by a Canaanite king. Deborah, who was also a prophet, began her military campaign with a prophetic word for Barak: God was commanding him to take the troops to Mount Tabor. This was not just a clever idea that Deborah had come up with; it was the word of the Lord. Barak should have recognized it as such and offered unconditional obedience to God’s call upon him; but he did not. He was willing to obey God’s command only if Deborah went with him. Barak evidently did not believe that God would go with him unless Deborah—upon whom God’s hand obviously rested—would go with him as well. There is no indication in the text that Barak was rebuked because he failed to exercise his God-given male leadership. There is not a hint of even the concept of God-given male leadership. What is quite evident from the text is that God had commanded Barak to do a thing, and Barak had agreed to it only under his conditions. This is not wholehearted faith and obedience; this is faint heartedness—a failure to trust wholly in the Lord. And this is a sin whether it is committed by a man or a woman.

In the end of this story, everyone is a hero—Deborah, Barak, and Jael—but God alone is given credit for the victory. What a lovely picture of men and women serving God as leaders together!

Rather than being an object lesson on the failure of male leadership, the remarkable story of Deborah’s leadership of Israel single-handedly refutes the notion that God has ordained that leadership authority is the sole province of men. As I noted in Good News for Women, page 190, proponents of male-only leadership “often try to explain that a ministry of such power and prominence as Deborah’s was an exception to the rule of male authority in the Bible. But exceptions to rules occur in the natural and social realms; they do not occur in the realm of God’s moral law. If God called Deborah to her ministry, female leadership cannot be said to violate moral principles ordained by God.”

This can be boiled down to a simple modus tolens argument (the argument form “If P then Q; not Q, therefore, not P”). The following construction of the argument is taken from notes by Doug Groothuis. (1) If men have universal and God-mandated authority over women in the church, then we should find no divinely authorized woman leader in the Bible. (2) Deborah was such a leader in both spiritual and political capacities. (3) Therefore, there is no universal and God-mandated authority by men over women in the church (by modus tolens).

So then, who is the true complementarian? And which sort of “complementarity” is the most consistent?

More to come in Part 2.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Feminism and Sarah Palin

As Sarah Palin burst onto the national political and religious scene, I at first wondered if there would be an across-the-board shifting of political alignments. Palin, a pro-life conservative, has clearly been speaking and acting in some definitely feminist ways. Indeed, she has been riding on the coat tails of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which encouraged women to utilize their talents and abilities outside the home in vocational fields previously reserved largely for men. Will conservative, staunchly patriarchal evangelicals support a woman who holds some feminist views (“This is America; a woman can go through any door”), and who is a member of Feminists for Life? While she evidently has been a good mother to her five children, her executive responsibilities would necessarily require her to assume a “man’s role” in the world while her children are attended to by others. And what about the secular feminists? Will any of them come over to Palin’s side? After all, if she and McCain win the election, she will be the first female Vice President in the White House. Now that would definitely be a “feminist” accomplishment!

Before proceeding further, we need to make a distinction between feminism and biblical equality. Feminism is and always has been rightly applicable to culture at large. It has to do with how men and women should interact in society. Feminism has wrought many changes in society; little by little restrictions placed on women have been chipped away—sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. (Restrictions are not always bad; some are necessary for a good and godly society.) On the other hand, biblical equality has to do with exegeting, theologizing, and applying the truth of Scripture to male-female relationships in various arenas, especially in the church and marriage. Thus, to assert that someone who defends the view of biblical equality is ipso facto a “feminist” is a category error. On this blog we have not previously addressed or defended feminism, but only biblical equality—namely, how best to understand Scripture on the question of spiritual authority between women and men. But now we are discussing…feminism!

So then, how have the various culture warriors responded to Sarah Palin, whose behavior and beliefs seem to fall into both conservative and feminist camps, yet cannot readily be defined by either? As it turns out, the old alignments have for the most part remained intact, yet with some subtle shifts, and the priorities of the right and the left regarding the women issue have been clarified in some surprising ways.

Actual feminists hate Sarah Palin. With one voice. There is no accommodating her in that camp. These are the left-wing, non Bible believing, abortion “choice” fanatics. Adherence to abortion “rights” is their litmus test, and it is enforced as rigidly and religiously as the patriarchal-complementarian (PC) institutions enforce adherence to “male headship,” and by the same means: censuring and ostrasizing all who do not pass the litmus test. This, then, is why feminists in the current culture refuse to acknowledge Feminists for Life as truly feminist (an organization of which Palin is a member)—even though abortion is the only significant point at which FFL breaks ranks with current, orthodox feminism. (There are a number of feminist issues that they don’t directly address, since their main focus is on saving unborn babies from destruction.) Albert Mohler says he cannot understand why feminists (such as Sally Quinn of the “On Faith” blog) are critical of Sarah Palin. After all, isn’t Palin demonstrating distinctly feminist proclivities? Well, Dr. Mohler, this is why.

On the other hand, staunchly PC mainstream evangelicals love Sarah Palin. But not quite with one voice. They offer diverse and somewhat inventive rationales for why a woman may be fit to lead the free world but never a small church congregation. I have surveyed numerous PC responses to Sarah Palin’s candidacy for Vice President. Diverse though the rationales may be, there is one consistent thread: A woman can be as competent as a man in high-level political leadership. Whatever the God-given “difference” may be between male and female, it is not the ability to govern in secular leadership positions. Whew! That is certainly a huge reversal of the traditional view of the difference between men and women. What, I wonder, have become of the PCs who believe that women just don’t have the gift of leadership? That God has not equipped women to rule, and especially not to rule men?

So we now see clearly that the primary concern of both the PCs and the secular feminists is the issue of “abortion rights.” The secular feminists would really like to have a woman in the white house—but not unless she is there to promote the alleged “right” of a woman to kill her in utero child for the sake of her personal convenience. The PCs really want all women to be subordinate and domestic—unless a woman is ready and willing to serve as a pro-life advocate in the White House.

Among the various PC rationales for why women are fit for civil leadership but not spiritual leadership, a few posts noted that church leaders must meet a higher moral standard than leaders of the secular world. The CBMW statement posted on the Gender Blog by David Kotter on September 3 (followed by a similar statement on September 5) says that “A president is not held to the same moral standards as an elder of a church….Even though the Bible reserves final authority in the church for men, this does not apply in the kingdom of this world.” This comment comes the closest yet to an admission of what I have often averred is logically entailed by the PC gender agenda: women qua women are unqualified to serve as spiritual leaders. Women may be in authority over men only in the lower realm of civil leadership. Women cannot meet the higher moral standard of church leadership. Women are fit to exercise authority in the kingdom of this world (which is under the power of the “prince of this world”), but are not fit to rule in the kingdom of God.

From whence comes this across-the-board spiritual inferiority of women? Could it be that the new covenant in Christ Jesus didn’t quite take where women are concerned? Could it be that women are still just a tad “unclean”? No, that is contradicted by the Cross of Christ and the blood of his sacrifice. Could it be that God created woman spiritually inferior to man? No, that is contradicted by the first chapter of the Bible. Could it be that fallen human beings fail to see the inevitable implications of their own fallen ways of thinking regarding the vexed question of the meaning of humanity created male and female? Yes.

Kotter, I am sure, does not intend to imply women’s spiritual inferiority, given CBMW’s oft repeated insistence on their “high view of women” and the “unbelievably high calling of being a wife and mother,” as reiterated in both of Kotter’s statements. My point here is simply that this perspective seems necessarily to entail women’s spiritual inferiority.

Another perspective repeatedly voiced in my survey of PC views was that of “the clear teaching of Scripture” on male leadership in the church and in marriage. Woman’s subordination to male authority is, it seems, patently obvious; only heretics and morons could think otherwise. (At this point I cannot resist “just a little news flash” for those who are so certain. When all the relevant considerations of the biblical text are carefully and honestly considered—i.e., the possible word meanings, the literal and cultural contexts, the entire rest of the Bible, the logical entailments of the “clear teaching”—things turn out not to be so very clear.) However, teaching can be clear if one is willing and able to connect the dots and respect every word of Scripture in one’s interpretation of specific texts in Scripture.

A literalistic perspective of Scripture accompanies and encourages the simply clarity that they profess. PC pronouncements on what women may and may not do are not derived from a theologically and philosophically integrated worldview of creational gender realities. Rather, they seem to be drawn from specific and isolated facts located at various points in the Bible. Since the Bible does not specifically say women may not exercise civil leadership, it should not be prohibited. (The fact that Deborah’s leadership was both civil and spiritual—she was a prophet—seems to have escaped their categories.) Since 1 Tim 2:12 says that a woman must not teach or have authority over a man, they conclude that the Bible denies the exercise of all high-level spiritual/religious authority to all women for all time despite the other indications in Scripture that would strongly suggest otherwise. And, since the Bible says women are the spiritual equals of men, they affirm that this is true, yet claim—simple logic notwithstanding—that women are still unfit to render spiritual service to the church alongside men.

In the end, it seems that the “clear teaching” and literal meaning of Scripture on “complementary roles” for manhood and womanhood—which up to now has fairly consistently meant that God created men to be leaders and women to be subordinate to male leadership—is not such a consistent and comprehensive perspective after all. Rather, when push comes to shove, it simply means that in the church and home, for whatever reason, men must be the boss and women must be subordinate to male authority. Outside of these two realms, gender “complementarity” is either moot or nonexistent. What, exactly, God did at creation is immensely unclear. Evidently (on the PC view), God did not create man and woman with certain different propensities inherent to the nature of manhood and womanhood, such that men were created to rule and women to submit. For indeed, outside the church and home, in the secular culture, such “differences" seem largely to disappear. There is definite confusion in the camp of the complementarians.

But what now will become of the f-word (i.e., feminism), which has been so frequently and reflexively invoked by those of the PC persuasion to encompass all kinds of “feminism” from the mildest to the wildest? For many years, the f-invective was used to refer to any female behavior that transgressed the bounds of subordinate wife and mother tending to children at home. Within PC circles, the conceptual content of the term has been of far less interest than the rhetorical wielding of the term to invoke fear of heresy and thus to shut down rational thought on the subject. For at least a couple of decades the f-word has been the default category for biblical equality, and it has been a winning strategy. Call it “feminist,” and the rank and file of church-going evangelicals will not go near it.

In my short-lived, ill-fated book Women Caught in the Conflict, I carefully explained the significant differences between the various species of feminism—from the simple and sensible notion of a wife and mother having a vocation outside the home (if circumstances reasonably permit), to the radical feminist personal/political agenda, to goddess worship and the divine feminine. These crucial distinctions all were lost on those of the PC persuasion. The one-size-fits-all view of feminism prevailed and my clear and careful categories went summarily out of print. (The book was reprinted by Wipf & Stock, see the publications page on my website) Painting all feminism with the same brush was a quick and easy way to cut off all constructive dialog, lest there be opportunity to consider the possible merits of biblical equality for women.

But now we have SBC leader Richard Land speaking favorably of the same type of feminism that I cautiously and provisionally endorsed in Women Caught in the Conflict. A Christianity Today online interview reported that: Richard Land is "ecstatic" over Sen. John McCain's decision to pick Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as vice president, and the women in his office are just as excited. They were absolutely giddy, and saying ‘I’m going to volunteer’ after Sarah Palin was picked," said Land, who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "There’s something going on in the conservative independent sisterhood that I can’t tap into….I can’t comprehend it, but it’s there. Clearly, her nominations tapped into something, which I can observe as a white male but can’t experience. My wife says, to her, Sarah Palin is what the feminists’ movement was all about. You can have a family and a husband and a career, that you can do it all. My wife has a Ph.D. in psychology, she’s in private practice as a psychotherapist. I find these questions about ‘how can she take care of her children and be vice president’ sexist. Nobody asked that question to any of the male candidates.”

The Sarah Palin phenomenon seems to have given some PC women permission to express their suppressed yearnings for freedom, opportunity and significance outside the home (yet without dismissing their domestic duties).

Indeed, one must endorse the basic, early concept of feminism—that a woman should have opportunity to serve in a vocation outside the home—if one is to endorse Sarah Palin as a good choice for Vice President of the U.S. This is logically entailed and evidently readily recognized as such by those of the PC perspective.

So, it seems we’re all feminists now. No longer may “feminism” universally serve as the f-word. Its meaning now must be qualified. Sarah Palin is a feminist and a Bible believing Christian and is radically (that is, she lives it out) pro-life. No longer can PCs insist on labeling biblical egalitarians “evangelical feminists”—by by which they have meant “feminists who ‘purport’ to believe the Bible.” Feminism can no longer be snidely and categorically dismissed as “liberalism.” It must finally be recognized that there are strongly pro-life Christians who also want to see women break out of their conservative evangelical subculture and take up their freedom in Christ to speak to and influence the world and the church with the wisdom and talents God has given them.

But for this to truly and fully occur, women must see that they are equally endowed not only with ability to lead nations, but with the ability and the authorization from Christ—by virtue of the new covenant which he instituted by his blood—to serve and to lead in the church and the world with spiritual authority as well as civil authority.