Let’s talk for a moment about fear.
Fear frames the gender debate in evangelical America. You can sense it in many of the comments posted on my recent article about “The Myth of Biblical Manhood.” Fear of dissent. Fear of being wrong. Fear of entertaining the thought that someone who believes differently might be just as biblical as me. Fear of criticizing leading Christian figures. Fear of God. Fear of women. Fear of men.
Fear, fear, fear.
And fear, as we all know, is often masked by anger. That was in the comments, too. In this case, anger that I would question four well-known Christian pastors and writers. Anger that I would presume to criticize their systems without offering an alternative system to tear down. Anger that an ungrayed head would question the teachings of elder statesmen in the church. Anger that I seemingly misrepresented several of these men in my satire.
Fear. Anger. Tied tightly together to charge this discussion with emotion.
I have fears, too.
I fear the gender debate has suffered from rigid, dualistic thinking.
I fear we have applied culturally-specific systems universally.
I fear that there is a misguided demand for an absolute right, a clear wrong, and little room for dialogue.
I fear that we have often stayed within our own camp and have categorically rejected alternative interpretations of scripture which call into question our own cherished beliefs.
I fear that this discussion has suffered from the “Don’t Talk” rule of Christian celebrity, where large groups of Christians follow well-known Christian pastors or authors and subscribe uncritically to their systems. These same celebrities are often buoyed by groups of fellow celebrities who close ranks when one of their own is criticized, and by a Christian publishing complex which frowns on dissent and punishes free thinkers.
I fear that we have lost the ability to think critically and instead have farmed off this responsibility to golden-tongued champions.
I fear we have settled for certainty in an area which involves mystery, tension, and paradox.
I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he encouraged his followers to avoid rules taught by men (Matt. 15:9), or what Paul meant when he disallowed cults of personality in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:12; 3:4-7).
Is it “biblical” to endorse a man-made system and cast aspersion on anyone who questions it? Or is there a better way to frame this discussion which moves from dualistic debate to charitable dialogue? I think that there is.
When the Ground Shakes
An illustration helps. I used to think that in earthquake-prone cities, engineers would try to design buildings which were rigid and unmoving. But the opposite is true: flexibility is the name of the game when seismic shifts happen.
In June 2012, my wife and I stood gaping at Taipei 101, the world’s third-tallest building. We toured the structure while visiting relatives in Taiwan. Rain blurred the streets while scooters buzzed crazily around our yellow cab. I arched my neck back, back, back, but lost the top of the tower in the clouds.
How can such a tower exist in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone areas? I wondered.
The answer is earthquake engineering. Architects designed the building to flex with seismic shifts, and included a device known as a “tuned mass damper” in the core of the structure which effectively stabilizes against violent motion. You can look it up.
Christians can learn a lot from Taipei 101. The Bible sometimes seems to allow a good deal of flexibility when it comes to non-moral seismic shifts in culture. There is a shift between how Israel functioned in the Old Testament and how the church functions in the New. And there are examples of individuals acting in culturally-sensitive ways in non-moral issues. Paul acted differently among Gentiles than he did around Jews (1 Cor. 9:19-23); and he provides guidance for how Christians should relate to one another in disputable matters (Romans 14-15; 1 Cor. 8, 11).
Before you grab your pitchforks, I am aware that much of the heat surrounding discussion about gender roles in the church comes precisely from the fact that many Christians believe that these are moral matters. That you are unbiblical and sinful if you don’t fall within a certain camp. That the Bible is crystal clear in this matter and that only a fool or rebel could believe differently. If that’s you, I can understand your thinking, but I hope you’ll stick around for the next post which will consider this question more fully.
For now, let me offer my hope: Rather than building rigid systems of belief in regard to gender roles, Christians might be better off living in the flexibility afforded by mystery.
You know, mystery, the realm of opposites held in tension, the embrace of paradox, the acknowledgement of apparent contradictions within scripture, the recognition of a spectrum rather than either-or and black-or-white thinking. Mystery gives us the humility and charity to recognize that other believers might have viable biblical interpretations which differ from our own (this of course presumes that there are viable biblical alternatives. We’ll talk about this more in the final post of this series.)
I think that the debate about gender roles in the church has far more mystery surrounding it than most of us have been led to believe.
What’s at Stake: Why These Systems Can Hurt Men and Women
A number of commentators have asked in good faith what harm John Piper’s views have caused. How has John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart, damaged some men? Yes, they say, Mark Driscoll is edgy, but really, who has he hurt? Isn’t each Christian responsible to follow only what is biblical and not allow a Christian author to hurt them with their teaching? Surely we can’t hold these authors responsible for the abuse of their ideas, can we? And if hundreds of thousands of men have (presumably) benefited from their books, is it fair to negatively compare that benefit with the hurt of some few thousands who may have misread the books and allowed themselves to be wounded? Come now, what harm have these systems of “biblical” manhood caused?
These are great questions, and they help to further this discussion.
Here are five reasons I believe that “biblical” manhood systems can hurt people—both men and women.
1.) They can caricature people. By universalizing culturally-specific expressions of gender roles, they create caricatures of men and women. Many men who try to follow these 300- or 500-page books end up acting in stiff, stylized ways, always second-guessing their behavior and secretly wondering if they are measuring up to the standard. They may feel that God is displeased with them, that they can’t do anything right, that they are living in sin because they just can’t seem to match the image of a man found in Wild at Heart or defined exhaustively in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Women, for their part, are ordered in some of these systems to crucify their own desires when they conflict with the standard portrayed in these books. They must forsake certain giftings in order to remain at home in quiet, supposedly submissive ways. They must let their fathers choose their husbands. They must avoid any occupation which would take them out of the home, or any job which would place them over a man. They must refrain from questioning their husband.
By caricaturing men and women into certain gender roles, these systems can make people less than God intended them to be.
2.) They can elevate the rules of men into commands of God. The best example comes from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Piper writes the first chapter. In it, he offers two criteria by which all men and women everywhere should relate to one another in order to avoid the sin of offending their God-given manhood and womanhood. The two criteria he offers are in regard to how women may exercise authority in modern culture both inside and outside of the church. The criteria are on a spectrum from personal/non-personal and from directive/non-directive. Insofar as a woman has non-personal, non-directive authority, she does not offend a man’s manhood, Piper says.
These criteria are Piper’s own invention. By laying as a foundation for a book on “biblical” manhood and womanhood his own criteria for how men and women should relate, Piper puts his own cultural interpretation ahead of what the Bible teaches. This is similar to what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. This hurts both men and women who mistake the opinion of a man for the heart of God and who live in bondage to these man-made constraints.
3.) They can impoverish the church. When 50% of the population at church is categorically denied the most influential positions of leadership based on gender rather than on Spirit-gifting, the church may not always receive its best leadership. Men who are not gifted as leaders may be shamed into taking on leadership responsibilities while women who are gifted leaders and administrators may be excluded. In these systems (some more than others), men who fail to lead–and women who choose to lead–are labeled as rebellious sinners and are either cast out of the church or ostracized.
4.) They can impoverish families and may lead to abuse. Hard Complementarianism is also known as Christian Patriarchy, where men fulfill all leadership positions in the church (excepting certain Sunday School teachers or women’s group leaders) and are told to lead their families spiritually. Wife and children are usually told to submit to the man in everything (excluding direct sin). This can result in a spiritually-weak man or a physically abusive man “leading” a family with a wife who is rendered powerless. Unfortunately, the stories of abuse coming out of the Christian Patriarchy Movement are numerous.
5.) They can block truth-seeking. By stating explicitly–or inferring–that their system alone is truly biblical and that it is God’s model for everyone everywhere, the creators of these systems disallow people from thinking critically about what they say. To do so is to become a sinner, a heretic, or–even worse–a “liberal.” These are thought-stopping terms used to intimidate detractors into silence.
These are the stakes.
In the next post, we’ll talk about some important questions which help to frame the discussion on gender issues. Then I’ll offer some possible alternative interpretations of the relevant passages about gender roles in the Bible.
What you won’t find in any of these posts is an alternative system to follow. I believe that the Bible encourages us–both men and women–toward Christlikeness, and doesn’t spend much time defining gender roles.
My plea is that each person hold fast to scripture and to a good conscience, and have the charity to give fellow believers the same grace.