Friday, 18 May 2012

Gender Identity II – More Questions than answers

“In this world you will have trouble…” John 16:33

God didn’t promise us that Christianity would bring an easy life. Indeed, just being a Christian brings its own set of troubling questions. God, I am sure, meets people at all levels of their Christian faith. I never shy away from thinking about the things I read in the Bible, reflecting and questioning them. I may not have all the answers, but I truly believe that the Bible is infused with such divine inspiration that it will never cease to challenge and continually enlighten those who love it and seek to understand it.

  • What does the bible mean for me as a woman?
  • What does church life mean for me as a woman?
  • What is my role within a marriage?
  • Who determines these things?

I was fortunate to be a teenage girl in the 1970’s. It was a time when the feminist movement which accelerated in the 1950’s and 60’s had already gained much for young women.  We were encouraged to pursue any career path that we desired. We had the expectation of equal pay for equal work. The availability of contraception enabled planned parenthood.  The window of opportunity for equality appeared to be widening, until the onslaught of the internet forever changed our culture.  Feminist writers such as Naomi Wolf, who had challenged cultural stereotypes in her groundbreaking work “The Beauty Myth” were faced with a completely different set of  influences such as internet pornography, that impacted greatly on the way that men and women viewed themselves and their relationships.

My personal commitment to God began when I was 22. I was already married and was saved in a Pentecostal church. In my thirty year experience as a Christian I have attended four different churches. Such is the irony of life that during the time when I attended a church which did not have women as pastors, board members, or deacons, I considered the role of women in relation to scripture far more than when I attended churches where these were a given.

  • Should I hold a complementarian or egalitarian view of male/female relationships?
  • Do biblical precepts relating to male/female roles within marriage automatically translate to male/female roles within a church community?
  • Why should the rights of women within a church be constantly linked to the acceptance of homosexual behaviour by churches?

A cursory glance at some Bible passages is enough to generate a little insecurity in a woman. For starters, all three personages of the Godhead are male – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all referred to as “he”.  Eve is tempted by satan, sins and tempts Adam to do likewise and is therefore considered as the cause of the downfall of humanity. Solomon, wisest of the wise, states in the book of Ecclesiastes (7:28) that in his experience he has found only one upright man in a thousand, and “not one woman.”

When I get to heaven, I’m going to join the long line of women waiting to have a word with the apostle Paul. He is responsible for penning the oft-quoted line “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). What is often overlooked is the fact that this verse appears in a paragraph regarding husband/wife relations. A little further down the passage, the verse “Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” appears, yet this is perhaps not so often quoted. Is this a license for a husband to dominate, control and dictate? Similarly is it an excuse for a woman to abdicate all responsibility? I think not. Most certainly I do not read these lines as “all women submit to all men.”

Perhaps the most hotly contested chapter in scripture as far as gender identity and church processes are concerned is the second chapter of Paul’s first epistle to Timothy:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man: she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (New International Version of the Bible)

Personally, I have felt great anger when reading these verses. I have also actually wept over them. Perhaps some men do not yet understand how powerfully they affect some women. I have thought and prayed about them. I have certainly read many interpretations of their meaning. I still don’t understand them.

  • Is this merely cultural?
  • Why should a woman not teach a man? Are they not capable? Are men incapable of learning anything from a woman? Don’t we all teach each other incidentally anyway?
  • What is meant by authority? Responsibility to teach, yes. Care, yes. Shepherding, advice, fellowship – these happen in a church. But what authority do adults have over other adults who attend of their own volition?
  • In the Genesis account Adam was formed first. God said that it was not good for him to be alone so he created an ezer for him. Ezer in the original Hebrew is a word which implies equal partner, or a part, which, with another part completes a whole; yet the word is usually translated into English as helper or helpmeet giving the connotation of a subordinate. In the Genesis account of the fall, granted Eve sins first, but both she and Adam sin. This is recognised when God punishes both. Because Eve was created second, does this imply inferiority? Because she sinned first, does this imply that women are more sinful? More likely to fall into temptation?
  • Women will be saved through childbearing – whoa! I’ve read numerous interpretations of that one, but I can’t escape the suspicion that Paul is continuing his Genesis connection with the idea that women should bear their original punishment, which was submission to the male and sorrow in childbearing. (If I am correct in this interpretation, it then follows that men should continue to bear their original punishment too, which was hard toil. Perhaps Paul never did enjoy his job.)

How does all this stack up in the light of the cross? As a woman, I am saved by repentance and faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am justified and brought into right relationship with God through the shed blood of Jesus.  Am I still cursed or living in the grace bestowed by Christ?

Jesus challenged the cultural norms of his time in relation to women. At a time when women were not educated, he commended Mary for choosing to learn, rather than serve with her sister Martha. In scripture Jesus first proclaimed himself the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well. He instructs Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb to go and tell the disciples that he has risen. Paul, too, has many commendations at the end of his epistles where the contributions of women in the various churches are mentioned.  I am rather fond of Priscilla, who along with her husband Aquila, instructed the misinformed Apollos regarding some elements of doctrine; Phoebe, a deaconess (Romans 16, some Bibles use the term messenger or servant) and the contentious Junia “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16. Some translations have completely changed her gender into that of a man.)

There is no doubt that women were, and will continue to be active in the life of the church. There is no more affirming place for a woman than in fellowship with Jesus Christ.  We, the church, are the body of Christ on earth. We share the priesthood of believers. Yet we live in a fallen world and this is perhaps where Christian women need to extend their utmost discernment.

We still struggle with sin. The consequences of the fall are all around us – death, strife, physical and relational breakdown. There is no perfection, other than that of Christ. A quest for equality can turn into female chauvinism, just as hurtful to the opposite sex as the male variety. Committed Christians, both men and women, still sorrow over their children and find work tough. In this world we have troubles. We also have the faith, hope and love that only Christ can bring to our lives.

A final word about the Christian men I’ve known. I consider myself fortunate in that just about all the Christian men I know, starting with my husband and sons and many others in my church community, some of whom are complementarians, are exemplary in their faith and conduct. They truly reflect Jesus’ example of leadership with love, gentleness and respect. I’ve no desire to dominate any of them. They too have many questions about their role as Christian men, husbands and fathers. My husband and I, after three decades of marriage are just about as equally balanced as any couple could possibly be, but on the rare occasions of an impasse on an important issue, I defer to him. So I guess that’s my take on submission.

So many questions in relation to gender, the bible and church. Thank You God, that You’ve given us minds to reason and question. Perhaps some others will share their thoughts and answers.

Lord, I bring You all the praise and honour that is Your due.
What are the cares of this world in comparison to all that You are?
What are the burdens of responsibility to Your precepts in comparison to the freedom and grace so richly bestowed on us?
What is the worth of our own strivings in comparison to Your suffering, Your sacrifice, Your blood shed on the cross for us, while we were yet sinners?
Lord, I pray for humility. I pray for hope. I pray for my brothers and sisters in Christ, for loving understanding of one another.
To You, Father God be all the glory. Amen

For more information regarding the apostle Junia, I would recommend “The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth about Junia” by Rena Pederson, published by John Wiley and Sons, 2006.

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