Gender and ministry 3: gender in evangelicalism

A key underlying question behind different evangelical readings is how to interpret the biblical narrative. Is hierarchy and patriarchy part of the old creation, so rather than ‘fossilising it’, Christians are to live out lives of mutual participation within God’s liberating new creation?

Or is hierarchy and patriarchy rooted in the creation order and reflecting the ways things ‘should be’ at a very deep level? Back to Piper here – you can’t go much deeper than argue such patterns are founded in the nature of God himself.

Cherith Fee Nordling outlines different evangelical understandings of gender roles in her article in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.

She suggests that evangelical ‘essentialist’ understandings of gender are drawn from Aristotlelian assumptions that have remained embedded in the church for centuries. It reflects a hierarchical male/female duality based on Aristotle’s philosopy and biology.

This pervasive Aristotelian essentialism endured from early church history through the medieval Church and into the Reformation where it has a continuing influence within the evangelical tradition.

And since the 1980s especially, this tradition has been reworked into the ‘biblical’ view of male hierarchy – which came to be called ‘complementarianism’ by its proponents. This holds to divinely ordained gender roles.

It is vital to hold to such roles because biblical authority is at stake. Men are to responsible under God for church and family life. For women to hold such roles is to disregard biblical authority.

[An aside here – I blogged here a while ago how NT evangelical scholar Howard Marshall said that it is this lack of any clear reason why it is so dangerous and wrong for women to be involved in leadership that has been so hard for many women (and men) to accept the hierarchical view.]

For complementarians, women are equal ontologically in being with men, they are not equal in role – such as authority, leadership, preaching, responsibility. Aristotle believed men were more suited to command than women – although he also believed men were ontologically superior to women.

Nordling implies here that Aristotle was more consistent than modern day hierarchialists. It is hard to explain how the limiting of women from certain functions is not based somehow on ontology. She quotes Becca Merrill Groothuis

It is logically impossible for the same person to be at once spiritually and ontologically equal and permanently, comprehensively, and necessarily subordinate

Hierarchy is the result of the curse, not a normative good pattern to follow. So egalitarians argue the Bible supports equal roles and functions for women in church and family life. Leadership is a gift of the Spirit for the good of the body, not a right for any man or woman. But it is a gift given to both men and women alike.

So ultimately this debate is a hermenutical one – how to interpret and apply the biblical narrative; how to interpret contentious texts like 1 Tim 2:12-13; 1 Cor 11:3 and Eph 5:22-23 within that overarching narrative.

To sum up a difference of perspective here: the hierarchicalists tend to read those texts with assumptions about fixed gender roles and see them as setting out a universal creation-order blueprint for how the genders should relate. The concerns are for biblical authority and obedience to the way God has ordained things to be (regardless if there is no strong explanatory reason why things should be this way).

Egalitarians will interpret those texts not as intended to be universal fixed codes of male / female relationships, but as needing to be read in light of eschatological Spirit who unites all in the one body of Christ and pours out his life-giving and gifting presence on men and women alike.

In the egalitarian perspective, yes gender matters and difference is embedded in our humanity. But without each other men and women experience deficiency. They need each other in mutual relationships of self-giving love for fullness, not defined or limited by assumptions about specific gender roles.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Gender and ministry 2: heroines of the faith?

Cherith Fee Nordling has a section in her chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology that is easy to skip over. I was about to but then it stopped me dead in my tracks.

It is a sketch of famous women of faith through the history of the Christian church.

Sure I’d heard of the biblical ones – Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna … Jesus’ disciples (Joanna, Susanna, Mary, Mary Magdalene and unnamed others) .. Priscilla Paul’s co-worker and teacher, Junia ‘outstanding among the apostles’, Lydia, Nympha, Phoebe, Euodia and Syntyche and others.

and then after that I confess I know very little of many whom she lists (a selection below) …

Women  who were martyrs, teachers, scholars, evangelists, preachers, prophets and mothers: Blandina, Perpetua and Felicitas, prophets Prisca and Maximilla, Monica mother of Augustine, Paula supporter of Jerome, theologian Marcella, church leaders like Hildegard of Bingen, Hilda of Whitby, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila.

With the Reformation were reformers and preachers like Argula Von Stauffer, Katherine Zell, Margaret Fell Fox (Quaker), Susanna Wesley (mother of the brothers), Margaret Davidson, Sarah Crosby, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher.  Later in North America preachers like Ann Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, Phoebe Palmer. And in Britain and North America were evangelists and preachers like Lucretia Mott, Lucy and Angelina Grimke, Antoinette Brown, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, the Blackmore sisters; social reformers and church leaders like Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightengale and Josephine Butler.

and on the list goes up to the 19th century.

Nordling asks a simple but searching question.

‘How have evangelicals managed to miss or dismiss these women for so long?’

And what can be done so that women are not ‘missed or dismissed’ today?

Gender and ministry 1: what is gender?

I want to come back to Cherith Fee Nordling’s article on Gender in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology. I think it is one of the best short treatments of the issue of gender and women in ministry that I’ve read anywhere.

She asks what is gender?

And argues that it is “one’s bodily and cultural identity as male or female”. In other words, it is one’s sex (male or female) AND “assumed gender expectations regarding that person’s behaviours, personality, perceptions, motives, reactions, activities and attitudes.”

Here’s a key point: certain understandings of gender have dominated evangelical debates about men and women in ministry.

A ‘premodern’ view (which she locates as prior 1960) sees sex and gender as a natural given. There is a fixed natural order of things, a core way of being a man or a woman. There is a divinely ordered ‘essence’ of being male or female. (sounding familiar?) This is an essentialist approach that assumes a male and female nature that is universal and constant across all cultures and times.

A modern (post 1960) perspective rejects this. Gender is seen as more of a social construct, reflective of underlying cultural power structures. Gender and sexuality in this view are constructed according the values of those who have the power shape those structures. So those concerned with equality will work to change the structures to level the playing field between men and women.

Postmodern gender debates go further to stress the endless diversity and plurality of cultures, personalities, people, values and ideologies so as to show the impossibility of any universal values or meta-narrative – including the biblical narrative. Everything is local and contextual. Difference is stressed and any innate hierarchy is rejected.

So what to make of this?

Studies across cultures seem to affirm bits of all three views. People do learn very different ways of being feminine and masculine in different contexts globally. Yet these studies do show that there are at least three consistent things about gender:

The first two are rather obvious and universally agreed in all cultures : gender matters and there are two genders. The third is that there “are certain ways that males and females think, feel and act.” Yet this is this one that is hardest to pin down.

What are specifically male ways of thinking and feeling and acting? What are specifically female ways of doing the same? [sounds like an invite for some bad jokes]

The more you push this the more it becomes clear that there is no obvious or easy way to define what are ‘male’ ways of thinking, feeling and acting as opposed to ‘female’ ways of thinking feeling and acting.

Go on – have a go at trying! Are males uniquely ‘decisive’? Women uniquely compassionate? Males uniquely strategic thinkers? Woman uniquely networkers? This is where Piper’s ill defined supposed ‘masculine’ Christianity begins to fall apart. It is a subjective arbitrary set of assumptions and a model that is without biblical warrant. The Bible just does not set out to define ‘masculinity’ and then propose it as an essentialist model for the Christian faith.

Have you noticed that where Christians try to do this their version of ‘biblical masculinity’ or ‘biblical femininity’ ends up mirroring the assumptions of their own sub-cultures? So, for example, you get middle-class 1950s American assumptions about gender roles presented as the ‘biblical’ model of manhood and womanhood.

Instead the Bible celebrates that in Christ there is no male or female.  Men remain men. Women remain women. But in Christ deep religious, social, power, and cultural differences are overcome through common faith in Christ and the subsequent reception of the Spirit of God for all believers whatever their gender [Galatians 3-4].

Nordling puts it this way: men and women represent two hugely overlapping forms of humanity. It is impossible to draw clear lines between nature (sex) and nurture (experience). Such dualisms do not work. Being a man or a women is both having XY or XX chromosomes AND learning to be masculine or feminine [cultural constructs].

What God does call all his people to live in right relationships with each other and with Him, whatever their gender.

To be continued …

Comments, as ever, welcome

‘God’s preferential option for the man?’: an invitation to women

The debate about John Piper’s ‘masculine Christianity‘ raises all sorts of questions about gender, biblical interpretation, evangelicalism and so on.

But underneath this are questions of what such theology does to women. I’m grateful for Ruth’s comment a couple of posts ago in being willing to share her response to the idea that God is somehow more predisposed to masculinity (not sure how else to put it].

Rather than God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ in Liberation Theology, we seem to have ‘God’s preferential option for the man’ in Piper’s theology.

I thought it well worth re-posting here and inviting others, especially women, to share their responses …

So if you are woman reading this, I’d love to hear from you – and feel welcome to invite your friends too!

I’ve been personally devastated by the John Piper comments.

I’m so deeply grateful for you, Patrick, and others who have presented a more balanced view (along with calls for unity which I greatly appreciate) but I continue to be “cast down” when I read the tone and weight of comments.

Some seem to be far more concerned about the threat (??) of feminism than the terrible blow that has been dealt to sisters in Christ by the implication that Christianity (and therefore God) is somehow more exclusively masculine… thus implying a special relationship between God and man or a greater value of a man in God’s thinking. (I wonder how people would have responded if John Piper had said Christianity was “white” or “American”? The early church could have as easily said Christianity was essentially “Jewish” – and some did!)

Overall, this leaves me feeling silenced. How can I respond when the instant reaction is to condemn me as a feminist, as somehow seeking self-aggrandizement???

Yet Proverbs 31:8 says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves…” (I love the context – two verses later there is a beautiful description of a woman who lives as her Creator intended).

I hurt for my daughters if they are to grow up in a church that does not value them fully and completely as I KNOW that our Lord Jesus values them!

For me this goes much, much deeper than the secondary issue of women in leadership (over which I’m content to differ and, where necessary, to respect and defer to those with other views) but it goes to the heart of a woman’s relationship with God.


A follow up on ‘masculine Christianity’

I was chuffed when The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology arrived in the post the other day. Not least because it costs £95 (!) and it was a review copy 🙂

In it is a chapter on Gender by Cherith Fee Nordling.

Her opening section speaks right into the furore of John Piper’s call for a masculine Christianity.

What do you think of what she says here – especially her description of ‘oppositional dualisms’ running deep within some evangelical theologies of male-female relationships?

‘All things are yours,’ writes Paul to the women and men of the church at Corinth, be it ‘the world of life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God’ (1 Cor 3:21b-22). Paul reminds them that because of God’s self-giving generosity, there is no longer any need or place for division over leadership that would limit the gifts of the Spirit poured out equally on women and men alike. To do so would be to go backward, to live as ‘old creation.’ Rather, these diverse women and men, reconstituted by the Spirit, are ‘new creation.’ They share eschatologically in all that belongs to the Son, who has guaranteed an embodied inheritance that does not prioritize gender, class, ethnicity, or anything else.

This expansive offering of life together, grounded in the generous life of the Triune God, offers a challenge to evangelical traditions and theologies where oppositional dualisms run deep, especially in terms of being female and male image-bearers of Jesus Christ. These dualisms take multiple forms. One is that of prescribing and proscribing roles according to gender and sexuality. Authority, hierarchy, tradition, and head/leadership are biblically interpreted through a set of assumptions that essentially prioritize men’s being and function over that of women. In this dualism, biology is a God-ordained destiny.

On ‘Masculine’ Christianity

The Christian blogosphere is all abuzz with John Piper’s call for a masculine Christianity in an address about J C Ryle.

There was a big and lively (!) discussion over at Jesus Creed.

Daniel Kirk, has an excellent two part response here proposing a very different, and to my mind a much more convincing, way of reading the NT that gets beyond hierarchy and institutionalised relationships between the sexes.

This debate ain’t new. Male leadership is a defining mark of Piper’s ministry over the years. It is insistent, theologically central and hugely influential, especially in America.

But reading Piper’s talk, the whole edifice rests on a purely subjective idea of masculinity that even has nothing to do with J C Ryle (apart from the fact that he was once called ‘manly’!!). It seems closer to a 1950s Marlboro man ideal than any description of a Spirit filled Christian in the NT (who shows the fruit of the Spirit: love joy peace patience kindness gentleness faithfulness and self-control].

To me Piper’s construct is frankly bizarre. Nowhere is ‘masculinity’ endorsed as a model for Christianity in the NT.

I’m also appalled by the implications of what he says for women. If Christianity is innately ‘masculine’ and ordained so by God, whatever qualifications follow about women being made in the image of God and being encouraged to use their gifts within the church etc etc, the implication is inescapable that women are second best citizens within the body of Christ.

Sorry sisters, femininity just isn’t and will never be as good as masculinity and there’s nothing you can do about it.

What seems to be happening, especially in America, is an increasingly deep polarisation over men and women in ministry in the church. And for Piper to argue that Christianity is innately ‘masculine’ is to ‘up the ante’ significantly in this already polarised debate.

Why do you think he is being so insistently and unnecessarily divisive?

For it’s one thing to be ‘complementarian’ and argue that certain roles within church leadership are for men, it’s quite another to say ‘masculinity’ is, in effect, closer in some way to who God is – and I think that is a fair conclusion of what Piper says.

Now I’m well aware that those on the God ordained hierarchy side (complementarians) are equally appalled by the egalitarians’ rejection of what they see as clear biblical teaching on the particular roles for men in leadership in the church and home.

What is needed is careful language and a willingness to seek out areas of agreement. A willingness to seek unity and think the best of each other. I confess that I find it hard to do this reading Piper’s talk.

But then I read these marvellous words in the wonderful 2010 Cape Town Commitment from Lausanne III.

Do read what it says below  …. and unless evangelicals on both sides of this argument take heed of these wise words, the gender issue, and the vitriol it is unleashing,  will increasingly eat away at the already weakened notion of unity around gospel essentials and liberty in matters of adiaphora (secondary importance).

This isn’t to say such adiaphora are unimportant – they are vital in shaping what sort of local church you and I end up belonging to. I would not choose to belong to a church which did not encourage and release women in leadership and ministry for example. But I  also would want to affirm as fellow evangelical Christians those who, for reasons I am unpersuaded by, do so choose. I hope that they would do the same for me.

To answer my own question above – it seems to me that Piper and others are deliberately attempting to shift this issue from the adiaphora category to essential category by rooting it in the nature and character of God himself.

So there are close parallels here with recent attempts by complementarian evangelicals to locate women’s subordination to men in the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father within the Trinity.  An attempt that Kevin Giles has argued is heading in the direction of Arian heresy. See here and here.


3. Men and women in partnership

Scripture affirms that God created men and women in his image and gave them dominion over the earth together. Sin entered human life and history through man and woman acting together in rebellion against God. Through the cross of Christ, God brought salvation, acceptance and unity to men and women equally. At Pentecost God poured out his Spirit of prophecy on all flesh, sons and daughters alike. Women and men are thus equal in creation, in sin, in salvation, and in the Spirit.

All of us, women and men, married and single, are responsible to employ God’s gifts for the benefit of others, as stewards of God’s grace, and for the praise and glory of Christ. All of us, therefore, are also responsible to enable all God’s people to exercise all the gifts that God has given for all the areas of service to which God calls the Church. We should not quench the Spirit by despising the ministry of any. Further, we are determined to see ministry within the body of Christ as a gifting and responsibility in which we are called to serve, and not as a status and right that we demand.

A)    We uphold Lausanne’s historic position: ‘We affirm that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed to all God’s people, women and men, and that their partnership in evangelization must be welcomed for the common good.’ We acknowledge the enormous and sacrificial contribution that women have made to world mission, ministering to both men and women, from biblical times to the present.

B)    We recognize that there are different views sincerely held by those who seek to be faithful and obedient to Scripture. Some interpret apostolic teaching to imply that women should not teach or preach, or that they may do so but not in sole authority over men. Others interpret the spiritual equality of women, the exercise of the edifying gift of prophecy by women in the New Testament church, and their hosting of churches in their homes, as implying that the spiritual gifts of leading and teaching may be received and exercised in ministry by both women and men. We call upon those on different sides of the argument to:

  1. Accept one another without condemnation in relation to matters of dispute, for while we may disagree, we have no grounds for division, destructive speaking, or ungodly hostility towards one another.
  2. Study Scripture carefully together, with due regard for the context and culture of the original authors and contemporary readers;
  3. Recognize that where there is genuine pain we must show compassion; where there is injustice and lack of integrity we must stand against them; and where there is resistance to the manifest work of the Holy Spirit in any sister or brother we must repent;
  4. Commit ourselves to a pattern of ministry, male and female, that reflects the servanthood of Jesus Christ, not worldly striving for power and status.

C)    We encourage churches to acknowledge godly women who teach and model what is good, as Paul commanded, and to open wider doors of opportunity for women in education, service, and leadership, particularly in contexts where the gospel challenges unjust cultural traditions. We long that women should not be hindered from exercising God’s gifts or following God’s call on their lives.