Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 8, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 14: Bias)

Beginning tomorrow, I plan to undertake a series of articles on the New Testament teaching on authority.  My study of this topic was prompted by a discussion about gender theology with a complementarian colleague.  Although we had discovered that we shared a surprising amount of common ground, we reached an impasse and decided that the best next step was to put our dialog on hold and go back to the Scriptures to check our understanding of authority in general before trying to continue to discuss authority in marriage.  The things I discovered in that study revolutionized my understanding not only of marriage, but the church as well.  So before we migrate from gender to the church, I would like to touch on bias.

In many of the texts we have visited in our study, I have argued that perpetual male authority cannot be drawn from the text, but rather, that the text must be read with that assumption already in place.  Many men claim that they have no such bias.  In fact, the friend I just mentioned earnestly insisted that he was completely unbiased, and that he stood to gain or lose nothing with respect to the outcome of our discussion.  The reality is that gender and what we have been taught regarding identity and expectations as men and women is fundamental to who we are as people.  If you doubt this, think about it for a minute.  What’s the first thing everybody wants to know when a new baby arrives?  Even before we inquire about the health of mother and child, the first words out of our mouths are:  “is it a boy or a girl?”  What’s your reaction to sex-change operations or cross-dressing?  Although it’s not politically correct to admit it, most people are pretty uncomfortable with these things.  How do you feel when you cannot immediately determine someone’s gender?  (Anyone remember the Saturday Night Live sketches featuring “Pat?”)  When you give it any thought at all, it’s obviously absurd to claim that one would gain or lose nothing by embracing a significant shift in gender expectations.

Complementarian leaders assert that phenomena like the ordination of women and egalitarian marriage represent secular thought seeping into and polluting the church.  I propose instead that it is hierarchical gender theology that represents the influence of secular attitudes upon Christians, by providing men with a means to save face as they attempt to answer the call of Christ in a culture that has radically different expectations for them.  In Wild at Heart, John Eldredge laments that Christian men have become feminized, that the Church has somehow failed them for calling them to virtues such as kindness and integrity.  But is this biblical?  Consider what is prized as masculine in America:  assertiveness, power, competitiveness, accumulation of material goods, sexual conquest, success, independence.  Does Christ call us to any of these things?  No; for men and women alike, the Bible teaches virtues such as meekness, self-sacrifice, generosity, purity, interdependence, and deference.  These are characteristics that are typically considered feminine in our culture.  For men, there is very little overlap between what God wants and what our society expects of them.

While other men enjoy promiscuity, Christian men aren’t even supposed to look at women lustfully (Matt 5:28).  While other men strive for wealth and recognition, Christ calls us not just to give, but to do it secretly (Matt 6:2).   While most men tend to approach personal interactions as a competition for enhanced social status at the expense of others, Christian men are called instead to a life of submission, humility, and deference (Phil 2:3).  While other men amass power and influence, Jesus said we “must be the very last, and the servant of all (Mark 9:35). For men to fully embrace Christianity represents not only bypassing “the pleasures of sin for a season,” but a radical denial of much of what our culture holds out as the very definition of maleness.  This represents a profound dilemma for men.  It’s not hard to understand how the power conferred upon them by a hierarchical gender theology would help them feel as though they might be able to salvage a little self-respect.  After all, isn’t it more dignified to be a “servant-leader” than a servant?  And wouldn’t it be comforting to know that God officially put somebody beneath you on the pecking order, so you’re not really last?   A dear friend of mine likes to say we need to be willing to come before God naked; in other words, without the things we want to hide behind in order to preserve our dignity.  I submit that gender hierarchy is just such a fig leaf.


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