Different by Design

The message at church this morning (11/4/2007) addressed a topic that has featured significantly in my thinking as a Christian woman – God’s design for gender. Gender issues are not the gospel, so I do try not to make them the focus of my Christian life. But what we believe about gender has a lot of practical influence on our daily living, and the Bible has much to say about who we are as men and women. What Scripture teaches about gender generates controversy, and I’ve been on both sides of the debate at various times. I’ll share my notes from today’s sermon, and then I’ll add a bit of my own story and perspective at the end.

According to God’s Word, men and women have equal value and dignity before God. We share the privilege of being God’s image-bearers (Gen. 1:27). Every discussion about gender difference must start with an assertion of our absolute equality. Along with our equality, we also have differences as men and women. Scripture particularly describes the different roles we have in marriage. God established these roles as part of his created order – not as a result of the fall. The Genesis account indicates this in several ways: the order of creation (man first, then woman – re-emphasized in 1 Tim. 2:12-13), the man’s naming of woman (the role of naming carried a degree of authority), the primary accountability of the man (Adam is the first one held responsible for Eve’s sin, although she bears responsibility, too), the purpose of creation (Eve made a helper for Adam, not vice versa), and the distortion and restoration of our differences (compare the curse in Gen. 3:16 to the warning to Cain in Gen. 4:7).  The Biblical ideal for the husband is loving, humble leadership; because of sin, men are prone to errors of passivity – being shirkers – or errors of aggression – being tyrants. The Biblical ideal for the wife is joyful, intelligent submission; because of sin women are prone to errors of passivity – being doormats – or errors of aggression – being usurpers. The equality and the difference in gender reflect the equality and the differences of the Trinity (1 Cor. 11:3), where headship and submission have existed for eternity. If we dislike these things, we dislike something about the very nature of God. We can glorify God by gladly embracing the wisdom and beauty of his good design.

This teaching about gender helped me as I continue to clarify my thinking about my role as a woman and as a wife. As a teen, I took the traditional roles for granted but began to question how I fit in as a young lady always being praised for her “leadership” gift. In college, I sought and bought into a lot of teaching about evangelical feminism. But as Aaron and I prepared for marriage, I found myself confronted by a biblical text that I could not explain away as cultural or historical or part of the fall – the teaching in Ephesians 5 about husbands and wives relating to each other as a reflection of Christ and the church. Christ heads the church, and the church submits to Christ. That relationship is eternal, unchanging with culture, never to be inverted so that Christ would sometimes submit to the church. So although I still had a lot of questions about how the roles would work out practically in our marriage, I felt convicted that I needed to embrace my God-given role as a wife who submits to her husband.

Looking back, I can see that most of my reluctance to the biblical teaching about gender stemmed from two fears: one, that as a woman I would be seen as inferior, and two, that my gifts and talents would be squandered or squelched if I took on the “traditional” role. I’ve learned that being my husband’s helper does neither of those things. The fact that Aaron needs my help doesn’t mean I have a lesser part; I get the privilege of using my abilities to their fullest in service to my best friend and love. It doesn’t matter which one of us is naturally better at any one thing; we are each equal before God, and we are each given certain responsibilities by God. We serve each other – him by humbly leading, and me by joyfully helping. We’re both growing in these roles, and we’re reaping the benefits of the Lord’s design for gender equality and difference.

I know there are probably a lot of different perspectives about this issue among you blog readers. Where do you stand? What from the teaching I summarized (in paragraph two) stood out to you?

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8 responses to “Different by Design

  1. Adam

    First of all, thanks for a good lead-in to an important discussion. We’re definitely in different places on this issue, but that’s ok with me.

    I think scripture is difficult to interpret regarding gender and marriage and gender in the church (related issues). There is not a simple or clear answer (at least that’s how I feel). I think there is scripture that supports what you are proposing here but I think there is also scripture that seems to say these roles are no longer different – rather, there is a radical equality both in marriage and in the church (among others, Gal 3:28 is probably the most commonly sited). It’s hard to know what to make of this. While I am still working through these matters, I tend to agree with the so called “redemptive trend” view. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. presents this theory in Finally Feminist, (I’m sure it’s presented other places as well) and Susan Wise Bauer has a nice review/summary of his perspective online (here). I won’t rehash the whole idea because they both present it much better than I can. But basically, I think we do find gender differences at certain places in scripture. However, there seems to be a God-desired trend in scripture towards greater equality. This becomes particularly apparent with Jesus and Paul who are radically different in their view of women than the prevailing Jewish view of the time. I think this shows a movement towards greater equality that has rightfully continued since that time. I don’t think Jesus or scripture presents a once-for-all view.

    My biggest question about all of this is what are we losing when we move towards radical equality (equality without specified differences)? I mean, what are we losing in our marriages and in our churches by allowing women and men to function equally – to function however they feel called by God? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that women will take over? I’m really being honest here. I really wonder what we are losing by allow both women and men to follow God and to live in the church and in marriage however they feel called. Does this question make any sense? What do you think? (I honestly want to know your thoughts – I have no desire to shoot you down, etc).

    Thanks again Andrea. I appreciate you and your heart to understand and follow God with a faithfulness to scripture (I desire the same).

  2. Virgie C

    The Biblical roles of husband & wife have been on my mind a lot lately. Mostly because I don’t feel I’m living up to them! My husband is a wonderful, sweet man; somehow this results in a tendency for me to be too aggressive, or the usurper. It makes no sense that my response to a kind-hearted & gentle man is to be bossy & teasing, but I do this all too often. So it is good for me to return to the Bible for instruction on my role as wife. I see these verses as solid instruction, and also sorely needed reprimands.

    The relationship between Christ and the Church is always a good source of reminders for how my husband & I should treat each other. I also like your pastor’s reminder that the very Trinity includes headship and submission. Usually if I’m having issues with submission in my marriage, it’s because I’m struggling with first submitting to Christ.

  3. andrea_jennine

    Adam, I agree that God does desire greater equality between men and women – perfect equality, in fact! One function of the gospel is to radically restore us from our sinful attitudes toward gender. But equality does not mean same-ness. One of the problems with the feminist movement was that the initial drive to say women are equal to men resulted in women trying to be like men – which really still says that male characteristics are better. I think now we’re seeing a swing in the opposite direction – feminism saying that female qualities are better and that men should be more feminine. Either way, that sort of “equality” belittles one gender and we lose the ability to celebrate the best of both sexes. In the church at large, I think we have begun to see the loss of what men contribute to the life of faith as women have taken more authority. Again, I don’t want to see women abandoning their God-given calling and abilities, but I think those gifts can be exercised to their fullest within the biblical roles. My greatest concern – and I don’t want to say fear – is that we would lose our confidence in God’s Word and the opportunities to obey in faith even when we don’t understand perfectly. During the time that I embraced egalitarianism, I found that I always had to “explain away” most of the Scriptures that address this issue because they didn’t fit my preference. Once I started taking those passages at face-value, trying to apply them rather than wiggle around them, I found that my worries – that different roles wouldn’t be good – were baseless.

    Thanks for the dialogue!

  4. Amy

    I’ve been reading a lot (okay, twice, but in two totally different contexts) about either/or vs. both/and (see how I either/or’d that?). I guess I see this discussion as a both/and thing.

    I don’t see women relating to their husbands as the church relates to Christ as opposite to, or different from, or mutually exclusive to radical equality between men and women (and maybe I don’t know what “radical” equality would look like). I do think we have a very skewed, Puritanical view of “submit” that causes an immediate block when this issue is brought up. I also think that there’s a freedom in submission that is largely missed out on. We talk all the time about how, if we submit ourselves to Christ, that is when we become all that we were created to be, that is when we are the most fulfilled, and when we are best able to live out God’s mission for ourselves and our world. This should be the same in male/female relationships. NOT that the guy is all-knowing and -powerful–NO! Half of the point of the Christ as head of the church illustration is that Christ is submitting himself to the Father! It’s not a dominating role in the least! It’s a servant role. It’s a love relationship between Christ and the church. I think because we have such a hard time understanding Christ and the church is one of the reasons we have a hard time with this analogy.

    I think the “submission” camp can go too far into the submission realm. (I do not think that has happened on this blog!!) I think the “equality” camp can go too far into the equality realm. (Again, I do not think that has happened here.) Adam asks if this is bad, or what are we losing if this happens. If God is truly leading someone to go this route, nothing. But God can lead people to go the submission route, too. I’ve lived both routes, according to what God was calling me to do. I think there is a beauty in equality that people 2000 years ago had no clue about. And I think there’s a beauty in submission that we have no clue about. I think God DID make us differently, according to gender. I do not think it makes us unequal. “Different” is not a bad word.

    So what am I saying? I guess I’m saying there’s a balance. I think that this analogy speaks to a balance of equality and submission. And I don’t think it’s either/or.

  5. Amy

    And then a question comes up (I’m questioning myself) about whether Christ is equal with the church, or whether the church is equal with Christ. My first thought is NO! I will never be God, and Christ is.

    But then several verses come to mind of us being co-heirs with Christ, of him as our brother, and our friend. Of him being made like us in every way, and of us being transformed into the likeness of Christ. So are we equal? I don’t know. It’s confusing.

  6. Adam

    Andrea (and Amy-indirectly),

    I agree about the problem with same-ness. I think it is easy to fall into the problem of elevating male or female characteristics and then forcing those characteristics on the other gender (with good intentions). Maybe we should stop using the word equality because I think it does imply same-ness. Maybe a better way to put it is that I am desiring a greater freedom (a freedom for obedience to the Spirit) for both men and women. I think men and women should be free to express themselves in marriage and in the church in the way that God created them. I don’t think there should be boundaries or restrictions that apply to one gender and not the other. We shouldn’t place men and women in separate boxes telling them what characteristics they are allowed (or not allowed) to have and express in marriage and/or the church. Both men and women should avoid passivity and aggression. We should submit to one another in love – always placing the other’s interests before our own. There can be male and female forms of nurturing. There can be male and female forms of leadership. And not all males (or females) will lead and not all females (or males) will nurture (of course there are many other characteristics I could have used here). So I guess what we are disagreeing on is the idea of “biblical roles.” I don’t think there are specific “biblical roles” for men and women – in marriage or in the church.

    You wrote, “I think we have begun to see the loss of what men contribute to the life of faith as women have taken more authority.” Can you give some examples? My experience has been the opposite. In my current church, I think I have begun to see some of the wonderful growth that has come with less specific distinction in roles. I have seen men learning from women and really gaining insight into God. I have seen women with more freedom to express what God has given them. I have also seen men who are loving their wives by loving and caring for their children in more equal measure with their wives. I’m still interested in better understanding what we lose in our marriages and in the church when we move from specific roles towards greater freedom (freedom in the context of obedience to the Spirit). I’m really interested to know what your experience has been with this. On the other hand, I have seen a negative side to the view of there being specific roles. I have seen this lead to a male dominated church that does not respect or value women as having equal spiritual value.

    Lastly, I want to address the idea of biblical roles and the need to “explain away” certain scripture passages. I actually had a similar experience as you did with having to explain away certain passages to support egalitarianism. I actually became really frustrated with this because I did not think the answer to every non-egalitarian scripture was that it was simply a matter of culture (however, I do think some are). However, I think the complementarian view (is that what you would call your view?) also has to explain away certain scripture. The first ones that come to mind are Eph 5:21, Gal 3:28, Rom 16:1, 7, and 12, 1 Cor 11:5, and also everything related to Priscilla and Lydia (these are just the ones off the top of my head). That’s why the redemptive trend perspective has been helpful to me. It’s the only view I have come across that does not attempt to explain away passages. It does not pretend to find one clear view present in scripture.

    Thanks for “listening.” I want to be open to listening to your perspective as well.

  7. Amanda

    Dear Andrea,

    Thanks for posting about this hot topic — it’s one that’s been on my heart for a while now.

    It’s hard for me to leave a comment here because my ideas on this have been changing; writing thoughts down into a public forum seems sort-of permanent. With that said, here goes…

    Wait, one other disclaimer! I feel like when a woman says the sorts of things I say & am about to write here, she comes across as trying to twist Scripture to fit what she wants to do so she can seek out a position of power or just to make life a little easier on her. That’s not true (in this case, at least), I assure you. When I wasn’t struggling with working through these issues (alongside my husband), it was because I was trying my hardest to ignore them. One of the verses I try to be most mindful of is “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! OBEDIENCE IS BETTER THAN SACRIFICE, and submission [interesting] is better than offering the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). My point in including this is that I am being absolutely honest in telling y’all it would be much easier for me to pretend to “get it”, make the sacrifices I need to in order to submit to the traditional view, & move on. However, I need to say that I truly sense that’s not obeying God’s call to me. I guess what I’m asking is that the following be read in the spirit with which it was intended, that is, one of love & not of division or taking sides or know-it-all-ism or anything nasty like that. Okay, so enough whining…

    I’m not really sure where I stand regarding Biblical roles of husbands/wives, so I’m not going to say anything about that, even though, I realize, that’s what the original post is about.

    I have actually been doing a lot more thinking along the lines of Biblical roles in the church. It seems to me that in the church, the roles & relationships of men & women could be compared more appropriately to brothers/sisters in God’s family, which doesn’t have any automatic implication of authority, rather BOTH are submitting TOGETHER to their Father. I really like that you bring out that “headship and submission have existed for eternity. If we dislike these things, we dislike something about the very nature of God. We can glorify God by gladly embracing the wisdom and beauty of his good design,” & I think Amy does a great job in her comment of relating this to how we, as members of one body, must submit to & be servants of our head, Christ.

    One thing I can’t help but notice are the examples of Biblical female leadership that God gives us. Adam named a couple, & Deborah comes to mind, as well. Especially in their historical setting, to commend women for their contributions in this way was extremely counter-cultural, & that has to mean something, as if God’s sending a message that it’s not His ideal, but that these (admittedly rare) examples will have to do for the time being. The purpose that these Biblical women give to me is that the Lord was including those women in His story way back then to give us women today hope that He has a real & powerful purpose for us today. NOT TO SAY that support-roles are not “real & powerful” (I’m a stay-at-home wife & mother, for goodness’ sake, & find a lot of purpose in my helper roles here)! Frankly, I find it embarrassing that instead of our modern church leading in this arena, we’re way behind the times (I know that phrase sounds horribly secular) when it comes to the radical proposal for equity amongst men & women that Jesus seemed to show with His life.

    Not trying to explain anything away, it also strikes me how we so willingly dismiss certain commands due to cultural/historical factors (women covering their heads, for instance), but others we don’t allow to apply only because of the situation of the prevailing culture. The Bible also speaks to how slaves should behave toward their masters. I don’t know of any church today that would argue slavery was right, but the Bible, the inspired word of God, gives instructions on it because that was the reality at the time.

    Another mental note I’ve made in this discussion: in the same way we shouldn’t require “sameness” between genders, it doesn’t make sense to me that God would have all-encompassing expectations of “sameness” among genders (i.e., He should have made me for the same roles as for every other female ever made). In fact, God’s creation shouts to me that He has an incredible propensity to make each individual unique & special. (Please know I’m not reading anyone here saying this isn’t true, it’s only that I want to throw in the idea that just as God didn’t intend males & females to be the same, He does not intend for all males to be the same, or all females to be the same.) We ALL have different God-given talents & abilities. Do I think that there are some patterns among men & some patterns among women? Definitely. But I definitely don’t think that there aren’t exceptions to the trends that can be found for male/female characteristics. In fact, it’s my opinion that a lot of us are really missing out because of our insisting (with good, honest intentions) that women are only allowed to contribute according to certain limitations. I really like the “freedom for obedience to the Spirit” that Adam talks about — while I am certain that God did not create me to be a pastor, if He did choose to make some other person for the purpose of church leadership & He chose to make her a woman, it’s sad, even sinful, that she has to undergo so much judgment & pressure to live out that call.

    Thank you, Andrea, for beginning this whole thing by reminding us that this is not the Gospel, thank goodness! One thing I’m sure of is that where I’m way off base here, God will extend His grace to cover me. Now that’s good news!

  8. andrea_jennine

    Sorry for the long delay in replying to some of these comments; NaBloPoMo keeps things moving along a bit too fast sometimes! I’ll try to be brief, but here are a few quick thoughts.

    Adam, my experience with male contribution being lost was seen more at college than in my own church experience. But I really meant that as a side point. I just really don’t want to see the authority of Scripture jettisoned or minimized. And I think that the times when we have seen specific roles lead to male dominated churches is not an effect of the roles themselves, but an effect of the sinful tendency of men to twist God’s design into tyranny.

    Amanda, thank you for being willing to commit your thoughts to writing. I agree that we should not expect sameness among the sexes, either; the roles are really not about personality types, but about responsibilities. So a really laid-back and more emotional, sensitive guy (like Aaron) is still called to loving, humble leadership. It may look different than the leadership of a guy who is driven and ambitious and “logical” – but he is still responsible to lead. We are all free to pursue our gifts and callings, but we do so under the authority of God and his design.

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