In this first installment in my new series on masculinities and religiosities, we address the issue of the battle of the sexes. Anyone who has spent any time in the world is aware of the struggle that exists, in many cases, between men and women and between husbands and wives. It’s so common that we may ask the question, “Is this normal? Isn’t there a better way?” I have good news for us — it isn’t supposed to be this way. In this post we will look at how the Bible tells us where the problem all began and what we can do about it.
Where did it all begin?
There are only a few parts of the Bible that describe a time without evil in the world. One of them is the final chapters of Revelation when all evil has been removed. Another is the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1-2, that’s why it’s important to start there. The key event of these two chapters is creation, where God created all that exists. One key part of that creation is the creation of humanity, that God describes in this way: “So God created humans in his image. In the image of God he created them. He created them male and female” (Genesis 1:27).
Note that there isn’t a lot of description given as to what this male & female human relationship looked like. In the next chapter Eve is described using a word that is often connected with God: Ezer, which is sometimes translated as “helpmeet” or “helper.” While we might be tempted to interpret this as meaning Adam’s servant, in reality it’s a word that is most often used to describe God (Ex 18:4; De 33:7, 26, 29; Ps 20:2; 33:20; 70:5; 89:19; 115:9-11; 121:1-2; 124:8; 146:5; Hos. 13:9). In fact, of the twenty-one times this word is used in the Old Testament, only four times it doesn’t refer to God.
A popular illustration pays attention to the fact that Eve came from Adam’s rib, implying a side-by-side equality, rather than from the foot, which would imply subservience, nor from the head, which would imply dominance.
Apart from that, we can suppose that basic biological roles that men and women play in conception and childbirth existed, but beyond that we have absolutely no idea. Nothing is said about domestic arrangements, about work-life balance, about leadership or authority or submission or hierarchy. All we really know is that Adam and Eve were together in the garden and that they had daily conversation and communion with God every evening.
Lots of speculation exists, however, largely centred around the different wording of the command God gave Adam and Eve’s recollection of that command — some make much of the fact that Eve adds the phrase “and you must not touch it” (Ge 3:3). However, it’s not clear if that speaks to issues of authority or to issues of the often non-precise nature of spoken language? Who knows?
Where are we today?
Unfortunately, things didn’t stay that way for ever. The initial identification as merely human gets muddied in the very next chapter when we see the entry of evil into the world. There are lots of effects of that evil on creation, but for our purposes today we will focus on the new relationship that began between men and women. When God is discussing evil’s effect on Eve, he adds an interesting statement in Genesis 3:16 — “… Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Here we are introduced to the core of the battle of the sexes, namely the “desire” of the woman for her husband and the “rule” of the husband over his wife. While this is often cited as being the biblical rationale for patriarchy, the fact that this statement happens after the fall means that it is not the original plan for how relationships would work. Rather it’s a system grounded in evil.
What does it mean? The wife’s “desire” can best be understood by looking at another use of the same term just a chapter later. When God confronts Cain about his killing of Abel, he makes this statement in Genesis 4:7, “if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Notice that word desire? It’s the same word. That tells us that husband-wife relationships with be characterised by desire on the part of the wife — the kind of desire that sin has over us. The word used for men, on the other hand, is rule. Guess where this word appears again? Yup, in God’s discussion of sin with Cain. If Cain wants to counteract the desire that sin has for him, he must in turn rule over it. Interesting isn’t it. So then, both terms describe relationship once evil has entered the world. As such, we can not make them indicative of essential humanity but merely of sinful humanity.
Is there hope?
But there is hope. Evil doesn’t have to dominate in the world. One glimmer of hope is presented to us in Proverbs 31, that is often used to describe the woman of valour. A couple of verses, however, focus on the marriage relationship that this woman has. It says in 31:11-12, “Her husband trusts her with ⌞all⌟ his heart, and he does not lack anything good. She helps him and never harms him all the days of her life.” Isn’t this a great illustration of what Adam and Eve’s relationship may have been like before evil entered the world? And isn’t it a great vision of what things can be like here on earth?
The final chapters of the bible wrap everything up nicely. Here we read once again of a marriage relationship — this one between the world and God. This relationship is described as perfect, the bride is the most valuable part of creation and the groom and bride co-exist. Image this picture from Revelation 21:22-27:
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Isn’t that a great picture? Doesn’t it wrap up the issue very nicely?
So, what should we do now?
If it is indeed true that men and women began as side-by-side partners, equals, both exemplary human beings, if it is also true that that original situation was replaced with a battle, if it is also true that evil’s effect on the husband-wife relationship can be overcome, how can we make that happen? What do we need to do? wouldn’t you know it but God also provided an answer for that. In Ephesians 5:21, we read, “Place yourselves under each other’s authority out of respect for Christ.” So that’s it. We need to live life today as if the evil had never impacted the world. We need to think of ourselves as being equal. We need to recognise that submission is mutual. That both women and men can act with authority in every situation. Why should we do this? Because in doing so we show our respect for Christ. And of course Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything that he hasn’t already done. He is the ultimate example of giving up everything so that God’s plan to heal the world of evil would happen. Rather than just sitting up in heaven as God’s equal hoping things would work out alright, he “he did not take advantage of this equality. Instead, he emptied himself by taking on the form of a servant, by becoming like other humans, by having a human appearance. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
Let’s imitate Christ by working at removing evil’s influence in the world.
Now I realise that all of this seems pretty clear to me but you may be reading thinking that there are huge holes in what I have just said. If so, please let me know in the comments below!
Please also click the Follow link below to get the next instalments of this series in a timely manner.
If you are like me certain things are important when making decisions. I like new ideas, especially new theological ideas. But one deal breaker for me is when new theological ideas have no basis in the bible. I want to see how the new idea interacts with the text before making my final decision on it.
I remember watching a documentary on cable one day just a month or two before the pandemic about the gospel of Judas or some other such text and what it really means. The documentary I was watching was very well put together and it led me through the process of how people first interpreted this document and how they were saying that our understanding of Bible times needs to change because of it. Just when I was starting to feel uncomfortable about the implications of this they introduced the next step of the story. All of a sudden a different expert in the languages comes in and looks at the documents, and to her surprise, and my relief, she realizes that the language had been misinterpreted and the new claims have no basis in the document. I realised at that moment that sometimes it takes someone to arise and say, “Wait a minute. I’m not sure that’s the way things should be.”
I grew up in evangelical churches. I not only grew up in them, but I even served on the pastoral staff one for a while. In fact, I am an ordained Baptist minister. So my evangelical roots and orthodoxy are strong. One thing I learned early on is that the bible teaches that there are differences between men and women, and primarily differences in the roles that men and women play in the family and the church. I suspect that you may have the same experience. For many years I didn’t think too deeply about it but from time to time the issue has raised it’s head. I tended to reject any new interpretations because they seemed to be non-biblical. One Old Testament class in seminary clearly taught us that the creation order outlined in Genesis 2 & 3 proved these gender differences. I remember even writing in on a survey distributed to our church that I would leave the church if they changed their mind on this issue 🙂 O for the certainty of youth!
Then my sister gave me the book last year. We have always been a family of readers so a new book was a good choice. I recently had a chance to finally finish the book and I must say I found it to be pretty impressive.The book is Lucy Peppiatt’s Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts and it serves as someone saying, “Wait a minute. I am not sure that’s the way things should be.”
This book makes sense biblically. Lucy Peppiatt’s book both points out things in the bible that I had overlooked as well as introduces alternative interpretations of the key passages addressing the issue.
I remember a conversation I had years ago in seminary with my professor and friend Stanley E. Porter. He was talking about a paper he had written on some aspect of New Testament studies that relied on a rather small Greek word. His lesson for me that day was that he needed to find another scholar who also had the same idea — it wasn’t enough for him to merely come up with something new all by himself. I have taken that lesson to heart when I approach the bible. That’s why Peppiatt’s alternative interpretations ring true because she is very careful to point out that she isn’t just coming up with something new on her own but that these interpretations have a long history. I should also point out that Peppiatt is very clear in indicating when multiple possible interpretations exist for a text and is very sure to not force her own views on her reader. Rather she is opening up other legitimate interpretations for the reader to consider.
There is so much I could say about this book but here are just a few things that jumped out at me. You will need to read it for yourself in order to benefit from everything she says.
Regular readers of this blog know that masculinities is one of my favourite subject. Peppiatt doesn’t disappoint in this area. Here’re a couple of great quotes that are useful in helping us move towards a better understanding of gender as a whole and masculinity in particular:
“There are few examples of the Bible narratives telling us that women are or should be like this and that men are or should be like that.”
“What I, and many others, find fascinating is that this male Saviour offers us a unique picture of manhood. This is what God looks like when he becomes a man — at once powerful, authoritative, secure, holy, angry at injustice, and also broken, vulnerable, isolated, and weeping He is both acquiescent and resistant in the face of violence, but never retaliates like for like. This is a challenge to what is traditionally viewed as masculine and feminine traits.”
“And so we end where we began, with gendered language for God and for the church that turns out to be symbolic, figurative, and resistant to stereotyped views.”
If Peppiatt is right about these things, then current conversations that define Christian or biblical masculinity as THIS or THAT need to be reexamined. Apparently the bible is not as clear cut as we might like. But then again, nuance is a key part of contextual theology and appropriating faith, isnt’ it?
Peppiatt also spends a good amount of time addressing key bible passages surrounding the debate. One of them hits rather close to home for me. Earlier I mentioned how a close study of Genesis 2 & 3 in seminary convinced me about the reality of the creation order that places men in authority over women. What Peppiatt so ably points out, and what I so clearly missed, is that Genesis doesn’t start in Chapter 2. Rather, we need to go back to what Chapter 1 says when theologising. Realising that male and female are described together in that Chapter puts a whole new spin on things.
I also appreciated the focus on understanding that describing Eve as a “fit helpmate” means that she has “a power equal to man.” This means that she is not subordinate at the time of creation but is in fact equal.
The centrality of Genesis 3:16 is also key for me. I have touched on this here. It seems to me, and perhaps I figured this out before reading Peppiatt but it is certainly ably reinforced by her, that we need to read this verse realising that its position post-fall requires us to understand it as describing the way things will be from now on. Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, their relationship will be marred and as such will be characterised by “desire” and “rule” rather than the mutuality that existed pre-fall. That means that anything that reinforces either “desire” or “rule” between men and women is sinful and needs to be redeemed. Peppiatt says it much better than I:
“Genesis 3:16 is a sign of both female and male disorder and tragedy. A woman, in her brokenness and vulnerability, turns to a man rather than to God to meet her needs, and instead of kindness and compassion she encounters his broken and disordered need to dominate her, a tragedy played out with sickening regularity throughout history.”
Peppiatt also enters into a very in depth and thorough discussion of what headship means. These verses are notoriously hard to understand with more questions being raised than answered. I wrote a little bit about this here. Here I will just quote Peppiatt:
“My conviction is that these verses reflect Paul’s opponents’ ideas and this this very Greco-Roman view of creation has infected the church at Corinth while functioning as the men’s rationale to put the women int he congregation in head coverings for worship.”
This conviction is based upon the idea that in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is addressing a series of questions raised by the church(which he directly quotes) and giving his answers. It is no means an interpretation unique to Peppiatt. What is clear from the text, however, in spite of the vast variety of interpretations offered, is that “Paul, the apostle, releases women to pray and prophesy in public along with the men, as he has just explained. They are not to sit in silence but participate equally with their husbands.”
Peppiatt addressed male and female participation in marriage by entering into a fascinating discussion of household codes and how important they were in the early Near East. I would encourage you to read this but let me just say that according to Peppiatt, Paul’s use of these codes is actually an adaptation that begins to undermine traditional understandings of family roles and allows change to be incorporated into the family for the better. She says, “In a culture where wives were often regarded as both chattel and easily expendable, Paul redefines a husband’s responsibilities toward his wife in terms of enduring covenant faithfulness, monogamy, and self-sacrifice.”
Another area addressed in the book is how the doctrine of the trinity has been undermined of late by those who want to insert hierarchy into it. One can’t simply redefine trinity to include a hierarchy between Father and Son so that a hierarchy can be created between men and women. Peppiatt says, “I hope it has become clear that the idea that the male represent the Father in his authority and the female represents the Son in his submission as a way of trying to lock in male-female relationships.”
Peppiatt has so much more to say but you will have to read that for yourself. I will end this by pointing out that if you want to see great example of contextualization in action take a look at the final chapter, which is a fabulous look at 1 Timothy 2. Peppiatt, relying heavily on Hoag and Glahn, gives a detailed account of how Paul did contextualisation based on the early novel Ephesiaca. Wow! Stuff like that is so cool!
Suffice it to say I highly recommend this book. However, I suspect that some reading this book feel I may have fallen off the deep end. Let me tell you that I get where you are coming from. I was there myself. I was happy to live in my beliefs without considering any new arguments or evidence. Why not take a leap and read Peppiatt’s book? It may provide some answers that you have been looking for.
If you feel like sharing your journey with this topic why not leave a comment below?
Not gonna lie. Any book that includes The Usual Suspects as part of its organising motif is pretty good. But that is only a minor reason why I enjoyed reading this great book. I love how it jumps straight into discussions of structural evil in relation to patriarchy because without a complex theology of evil we can’t successfully address issues like this. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Beth Allison Barr’sThe Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth paints a picture that combines her own personal journey with her expertise as a historian of medieval times. Barr’s argument is that church history, particularly medieval church history, shows that modern understandings of bible passages regarding the status of women haven’t always been interpreted to support patriarchy. Barr looks at how certain bible passages have been variously interpreted throughout the ages, how women’s roles within the church have shifted, and how bible translations have muddied the issue. I had the opportunity to read it after borrowing the ebook version from the Saskatoon Public Library. What follows is not a review, per se, but rather a series of reflections that emerged as I read the book.
Reflection #1: Positionality.
My area of expertise is in the realm of social sciences, more specifically in gender and ethnography. One key aspect to doing research of any kind is to determine where the researcher fits into the research. The two words are used to describe this process, Reflexivity and Positionality, basically tell us that researchers and the subjects they research are intertwined. Reflexivity is “taking account of itself or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.” Positionality is “the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status. Positionality also describes how your identity influences, and potentially biases, your understanding of and outlook on the world.”
Positionality is important in any study and this book is chock-full of it. Barr clearly states her positionality in relation to the topic: She is a woman who has been a member of evangelical churches in the USA since birth; she’s a pastor’s wife within the same movement, an accomplished Medieval historian with a couple of graduate degrees, and a professor.
As a comparison and contrast to this, let me show you my positionality: I am a white man, who has been a member of evangelical churches since birth (as a pastor’s kid and a missionary kid), I am a pastor, I have a couple of graduate degrees, and I am a professor.
Each of us is positioned in this conversation but are different in two important aspects: I am a man and my evangelical experience is shaped by my life in Canada and the Philippines, while Barr is a white women who is shaped by her life in the USA. These differences mean that we have different perspectives when it comes to understanding the matter at hand.
Positionality is important because it identifies our place in the conversation, reveals our connections to the subject, and allows us to see our advantages and biases. My positionality has blinded me to the truths that Barr’s positionality has revealed to her. Barr’s positionality makes this book more trustworthy.
Reflection #2: Sources of truth.
Apprehending truth is complicated. One of the first systems of determining truth that I learned as a child is that God is a God of truth and Satan is the father of lies. While that statement may be true, one aspect that I overlooked was God’s sovereignty over all. I had divided the world into neat categories of secular and sacred. I connected God’s involvement in the process with seemingly holy things only: Bible, church, religious people, etc. I rejected things — the example that springs to mind is psychology — that were seemingly unholy.
I was talking with a friend yesterday about the time I began to see cracks in my process. I was taking a class on religious perspectives on death and dying from Dr. Robert Kennedy at the University of Saskatchewan. We were assigned to read and comment on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I thought I was being pretty smart by saying that Tolstoy had nothing to say about death and dying because his was a work of fiction and therefore was not true. Fortunately Dr. Kennedy was a nice guy and kindly showed me how works of fiction can also contain truth. It’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten.
A few years later I went to seminary where I learned the shocking reality that all truth is God’s truth. This means that regardless of the form of inquiry — social science, critical theory, hard science, literature, history, psychology, etc. — if it leads me to the truth then I have discovered something that is from God. This means that Barr’s study of the history of how the church has interpreted passages that seem to support patriarchy is a necessary way to help us apprehend the truth. As a historian her voice needs to be heard.
Reflection #3: The very nature of Scripture.
Dean Flemming gets it right when he talks about the New Testament as contextualisation in his Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. When we shift from thinking the New Testament is a doctrinal document towards seeing it as a guide for contextualisation, it opens up a new framework of interpretation. It allows us to move from seeing the bible merely as a series of truths to be believed (or a series of proof-texts to be memorised) towards a series of examples on how to live out our faith in our own unique cultural contexts. From Moses, in Deuteronomy, reframing the law to a group that hadn’t personally experienced the exodus from Egypt, to Jesus reconciling what we have heard with what he really wants us to know, to John recounting a view of history that shows us what is happening behind the scenes, the bible is full of making the gospel understood in different contexts.
That’s how Barr interprets the idea that Paul is addressing specific cultural issues of the day & providing a framework for how to contextualise the gospel into those situations. To assume that all cultural situations are the same as ours — and to assume that our cultural context has no impact on how we interpret texts — is doing disservice to the text & is leading us to false conclusions about what Paul (& other New Testament writers) are saying.
Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul addresses specific issues apparently raised by the local church. In these interactions, Paul directly quotes issues that have been raised in the church and then comments on them. Included among these quotations are the following:
6:12; 10:23 – “I am free to do all things” but my freedom is limited by my relationship to others. My freedom is not an excuse to cause others to sin.
6:13 – “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food – but God will destroy them both” is actually talking about Corinthian sexual mores. The body does have a specific purpose – that purpose being “for God” and “not for sexual immorality,” because in the end God will “raise” the body and not destroy it. Therefore, the Corinthians were to stay away from sexual immorality.
6:16 – “The two of them will become one flesh.” When one commits sexual immorality, in this case with a prostitute as an act of worship in a pagan temple, then that person is united with the prostitute. The basis for Paul’s argument is from Genesis where when a man and a woman are united sexually then they become one. Paul would much rather that we were united “with the Lord” than be united with a prostitute.
6:18 – “Every sin which a man does is outside of the body” was another Corinthian saying that identifies the body as being less important that the spirit. Paul counters this argument by saying that in fact our physical bodies are now and will always be important because it is here where the Holy Spirit dwells. This any sins that we commit against our bodies are in essence sins against the dwelling place of God.
7:1 – “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Paul connects this aphorism with the issue of marriage. Should married Christians abstain from sex? Paul’s answer is to get married (7:2). There are, however, other implications to getting married: 7:32-34 that says those considering marriage should carefully weigh the pros and the cons so that in the end they can remain pure but also dedicated to the work of the Lord.
Since this is the structure of 1 Corinthians, it’s not a stretch to expect the same thing to happen when we get to the 14:33-35 bit about women’s silence. Paul begins by quoting the issue and then comments on it.
14:33-35 – “As in all the churches of God’s holy people, the women must keep silent. They don’t have the right to speak. They must take their place as Moses’ Teachings say. If they want to know anything they should ask their husbands at home. It’s shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Barr’s contention here is that Paul’s actual beliefs begin in v 36: “Did God’s word originate with you? Are you the only ones it has reached? Whoever thinks that he speaks for God or that he is spiritually gifted must acknowledge that what I write to you is what the Lord commands. But whoever ignores what I write should be ignored.” In her explanation, Barr brings us into her classroom and allows us to feel what it’s like to have a eureka moment when trying to understand scripture. It’s a powerful description!
Some may bristle at idea that structural sin exists. They prefer to see sin as being entirely personal with the solution being merely a restored relationship with Jesus. Regular readers of this blog will know that I subscribe to a more complex theology of evil that includes personal evil, natural evil, and structural evil. If you are interested in a more detailed explanation take a look here and here.
Barr says, “Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.” I tend to interpret the famous phrase in the second part of Genesis 3:16 as negative for both parties — a turning away from God’s original intent. “Desire” — the same word used later on to describe sin’s attitude towards Cain (Genesis 4:7) — and “rule” being the key words. For me, both of these words reflect a change that happens after the fall. While they were not a normal state of affairs prior to the fall they have now become normal — a new normal as it were (with all the negative implications that term has taken on). As Barr says, “after the fall, because of sin, women would now turn first to their husbands, and their husbands, in the place of God, would rule over them” and “Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.”
The reality is not only that patriarchy exists but that it is an example of how structures created by God — namely the relationships between men and women — can be twisted into sinfulness. Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven,” which means not only do we pray it but we work to make sure that it’s true. Patriarchy then becomes an enemy that need to be defeated.
Reflection #5: Women’s rooms.
Sometimes we think that all that needed to be done theologically happened in the Reformation. It becomes the basis for how we decide if people are real Christians or not. It even seems as if all of our theology is centered around the Reformation. But obviously not everything that happened in the Reformation was enough. Barr points out that the situation of women in the church took a turn for the worse as their space became smaller. Why? Because of Reformation theology!
Here is where Barr’s positionality as a woman who has grown up in the evangelical church is especially helpful in opening my eyes to things that I am blinded to as a man. The first surrounds the idea of women’s rooms that get bigger and smaller throughout history as things change. Barr’s argument is that the current state of affairs that keep women from certain roles and activities in the church hasn’t always been defined in the same way. Rather throughout history the spaces that women are allowed to inhabit have at times been larger and at other times have gotten smaller. As Barr says, “When political and social structures are less centralized and less clearly defined, women often experience greater agency; their rooms are bigger” (pp. 113-114).
When discussing “Official preaching space,” Barr tells the story of Anne Askew who argued that since “Preaching only took place behind a pulpit, and since she wasn’t behind a pulpit, she wasn’t preaching” (p. 116). This is is a clever use of logic to thwart a technicality — a technicality that doesn’t actually exist in scripture but we assume that it does. I am familiar with this idea but from a different angle. It relates to a different theological problem that we have here. There is an oft-cited idea that to be a pastor is to have the “highest calling.” It results in pastors being above reproach (even though people may have reasons to reproach them). Part of this “highest calling” is that only they are allowed inside the “official preaching space” — an area defined as being behind the pulpit.
What is interesting is that this “official preaching space” is an entirely social construct. No where does the bible mention any form of official preaching space. Looking at Jesus alone, we can see that he preached anywhere and everywhere — on a boat, by the seashore, on a mountain, on the plain, in the Temple, while walking down the road. Of course let’s not get into the idea that even “pastor” is highly constructed and bears little resemblance to what we see in the bible. (Should I point out here that one of the few people mentioned by name in the Bible as being a shepherd — another word for “pastor” — is Rachel in Ge 29:9?)
Reflection #6: Gender-inclusive language.
The final reflection that I will discuss relates to how we use language. The issue at hand is translating passages of scripture that do not specifically refer to gender in an accurate way. Barr discusses two ways that society has chosen to deal with this issue: Using gender-inclusive language or using a “universal” language.
Gender-inclusive language is language that allows latitude when referring to gender. When related to scriptures it refers to translating the original languages to accurately reflect it’s sometimes gender-neutral nature. Of course the topic of gender-neutral language is one that larger society is also facing for a variety of reasons.
The other option that society has chosen for addressing gender-related linguistic issues is a “universal” language. What this means is using male pronouns as the default even when the original is not gender specific. You can see where this would lead to problems. What I didn’t realise before reading this book is that this is a “False universal language.” This hit home for me because at least in the past I advocated for understanding words like “he” and “his” as referring to both male and female. Where this falls apart, as Barr so ably points out, is that this belief is not implemented in practice. “Words for men were used interchangeably in reference to kings, politicians, preachers, household heads, philosophers, and even to represent all ‘mankind.’ while specific words for women were used exclusively for women and mostly regarding the domestic sphere. ‘Man’ in early modern English could represent humanity, but the humans it described were political citizens, decision-makers, leaders, household heads, theologians, preachers, factory owners, members of Parliament, and so on. In other words, “man” could include both men and women, but it mostly didn’t. It mostly just included men” (p. 146). What this means is that in practice we assume “men” means “male” but look for evidence to prove that it also means “female.” Unfortunately, as Barr so ably points out, bible translators have not been as faithful at reflecting gender inclusivity in their work as is warranted by the text.
What is interesting is that Gender-inclusive language is completely linguistically-based. While that may seem like a rather obvious statement, what I mean is that different languages treat gender in different ways. Take for example one of the languages spoken where I live and work — Tagalog. Tagalog pronouns have no gender. Whether one is referring to a male or female person the pronoun is the same: siya. That means that even if I include the pronouns “he/him” in my Twitter bio, if my bio were in Tagalog it would say, absurdly, “siya/siya.”
All that to say if we take issue with making language more gender neutral we are probably focussing on the wrong things. We miss the forest by focussing on the trees.
The next step.
What if the theologies that I believe are also manufactured by others? Or what if they are based on misconceptions or misunderstandings of the text? Or what if they are based on theologies developed during a time of immaturity rather than maturity — milk rather than meat, so to speak? Or what if the narrative is not based on reality but instead on a limited understanding? The issue is how we understand something to be true or false.
Just before he went public with the truth about his involvement in the cycling world’s doping scheme, Lance Armstrong apparently said to his son. “‘Don’t defend me anymore. Don’t.’” He was believing a lie that had been repeatedly stated was a truth.
We need to face the reality that sometimes we end up defending things that aren’t really true. It’s looking more and more like the so-called traditional understanding of the passages supporting Christian patriarchy aren’t in fact all that traditional. The traditional interpretations, as so clearly delineated by Barr, are quite the opposite to what many of us have grown up believing.
I highly recommend reading this book. If you are already moving in this direction, this book will encourage you. If you are still weighing the issues, this book will help provide balance to make an accurate measurement. Regardless of your position on this issues discussed, you won’t be disappointed. And who knows? You may be led to reflect a little on your own. In fact, you may already have some reflections of your own. Please feel free to leave them in the comment section, below.
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Image is a screen shot from the cover of the ebook I read and is copyright by Brazos Press.
“When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came to these people. This was the same thing that happened to us in the beginning. I remembered that the Lord had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit.’ When they believed, God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. So who was I to interfere with God?” When the others heard this, they had no further objections. They praised God by saying, “Then God has also led people who are not Jewish to turn to him so that they can change the way they think and act and have eternal life.” Acts 11:15-18 GW
In Acts 10–11 some incredibly significant changes happen in the early church. Here we read that the good news of Jesus Christ is expanded to include proselytes to Judaism and non-Jewish peoples.
In Acts 11 some people complain about Peter’s encounter with Cornelius saying, “You went to visit men who were uncircumcised, and you even ate with them.” Peter then goes into a lengthy explanation of what had happened, repeating every detail of the events of Acts 10. He says, “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came to these people. This was the same thing that happened to us in the beginning. I remembered that the Lord had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit.’ When they believed, God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. So who was I to interfere with God?”
Once the complainers heard this “they had no further objections. They praised God by saying, ‘Then God has also led people who are not Jewish to turn to him so that they can change the way they think and act and have eternal life.'”
The argument seems to be based on shared experiences. Jesus promised that they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit and so if anyone else shares in that baptism then that is a good thing.
It got me thinking about issues that we face today. Issues where we know that we are right, not simply because of our opinions but because the Bible tells us that we are right. Is it like that for us today, too? Is this a model of how to make determinations in these issues? Are there things we are absolutely convinced about that the HS may have a different opinion on? How would the HS make that known to us?
In Acts 10-11 we see two ways that these kinds of changes happen:
1. Sometimes God intervenes directly and tells people where they need to change. God directly tells both Cornelius and Peter that change is coming.
2. Sometimes people act on their own and God blesses their actions. One could argue that the people from Cyrene who first shared the good news with the Greeks of Antioch were simply following Peter’s example. But we also read that there was another discussion held in Jerusalem about the issue that resulted in the statement of Acts 15 regarding how non-Jewish followers of Christ needed to act.
Andrew Walls, in The Gospel as the Prisoner and Liberator of Culture, says of theology, “It is therefore important, when thinking of African theology, to remember that it will act on an African agenda. It is useless for us to determine what we think an African theology ought to be doing: it will concern itself with questions that worry Africans, and will leave blandly alone all sorts of questions which we think absolutely vital. We all do the same. How many Christians belonging to churches which accept the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith could explain with any conviction to an intelligent non-Christian why it is important not to be a Nestorian or a Monophysite? Yet once men not only excommunicated each other, they shed their own and others’ blood to get the right answer on that question. The things which we think are vital points of principle will seem as far away and negligible to African theologians as those theological prize fights among the Egyptian monks now seem to us. Conversely the things that concern African theologians may seem to us at best peripheral.”
What Walls is saying is that theology is developed around questions that are important for people in societies and because there are a variety of societies in the world, sometimes the issues in one society are unintelligible to the people of another society.
For example, clearly the NT people saw no problem with the prominent role that women played in the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ. From the women who supported Jesus and the 12 financially, to the women who first announced the resurrection, to Saphira who, with her husband Ananias, taught Apollos the ways of the gospel, to Junias who was numbered among the apostles, there were many women who were involved in ministry at the highest levels! If this is indeed the case, why do many have such big issues with it today?
Justice is also a key biblical issue. When Ezekiel says, ”Put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan about all the disgusting things that are being done in the city” (9:4) he is telling us that it’s a sign of connection to God to complain about injustice. If justice is so important to God, why is social criticism that is a part of movements such as Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo often rejected by the church?
When writing this post I had a lot of issues in my mind that I think others get wrong. But the real question I need to ask myself is where am I getting it wrong? Where do I need to hear the voice of God and change my deeply held convictions and move into conformity with his will?