Saturday, January 28, 2012

On "Biblical" Manhood and Womanhood

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years both figuratively (on-line blogs and articles) and literally (books) on the topic of biblical manhood and womanhood. Some people seem to have this idea that there is a clearly defined concept in the Bible as to what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. These people would argue that in order to live godly lives, we need to live in accordance with these prescriptive roles.

I accept that the Bible tells us a lot about what it means to be godly. I reject the notion though that it defines what that looks like for a man as opposed to a woman. This is not to deny differences between men and women. Rather, I assert that these differences are far less significant than the things that we have in common and the attributes that we are called to develop as people of God, men and women.

Rachel Held Evans writes an excellent blog (as do many others, but Rachel is currently my primary window into the other writers out there) in which she often explores questions such as these. In a recent comment on one of her posts, she makes this statement:

My only thought on femininity is that the Bible presents us with such a beautiful range of people - women who were warriors, women who were disciples, women who were mothers, women who were widows, women (like Tamar) who worked the patriarchal systems of their day to survive, women who spoke up, women who defied orders from men, women who were apostles, women who fit right into the social constructs of the time, women who didn't. In other words, I don't believe that the Bible presents us with a single prescriptive mold for how to be women of faith (or how to be men of faith). I believe God wants to use all that makes you uniquely YOU in growing the Kingdom. There is no such thing as *prescriptive* "biblical womanhood."

I wholeheartedly agree with her. I would also state that the Bible doesn't give a single prescriptive image of what it means to be a man of God. I think that much of what some people want to define as biblical manhood or womanhood is really a very cultural perspective. They may fear that accepting men and women for who they are, rather than expecting them to fulfill certain pre-defined roles, threatens in some manner the divine order. I hardly think this is the case. Rather, we violate the image of God within us when we force a person to fulfill a certain role simply because she or he has certain chromosomes. God gifts each of us according to his (or her!) desire and I don't think he looks first to see whether the person receiving the gift is a man or woman.

One concept that seems particularly popular among advocates of a prescriptive “biblical womanhood” is the idea that a biblical woman is first and foremost a mother. But this does not hold true in the biblical stories, nor does it properly value women for who they are as individuals. A person's value should not depend on whether she (or he) has children or not, or whether she or he is married or not. Yet so many of our churches make this a litmus test and in the process devalue a large number of people, particularly those who are single and those who do not have children, whether by choice or for other reasons. There is far more to being a woman or man of God than being a mother or father.

I would like to see us move away from the concept of manhood and womanhood altogether, as if these were some static attributes that we can (and should) put on according to our chromosomes. Instead, we should encourage each of us as individuals, male and female, to develop in the godly attributes of love, compassion, grace and mercy. The true godly qualities do not distinguish between male and female and neither should we.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Women in the Church

As our home group gathered one evening recently, another member of the group asked me how my week had gone. I mentioned that I had attended a Bible study at another church in town. When I told him which church, his reply caught me completely off guard. He questioned whether there were any believers in the denomination of which the church in question is part. That alone troubled me, but then he added the question, “Don't they allow women to preach?”

This second question offended me, because I do not believe in the restriction of women from leadership within the church and para-church ministries. I certainly do not believe that the inclusion of women in church leadership, including preaching, excludes a church or a believer from the community of God's people. In fact I consider the exclusion of women from these roles to be one of the greatest sins of the Church, akin to the segregation that some churches (far too many, unfortunately) used to practice concerning different ethnic groups or races. The struggle for the inclusion of women in church leadership is a key issue for me as a feminist, particularly as a Christian feminist.

I understand that this question can provoke some highly contentious debate and I do not intend to undertake a full defense of my position in this blog. I know that there are verses in the Bible that seem to restrict women's roles within the church as well as to prescribe (and proscribe) their behavior in the worship community. I have read many articles on this question and am convinced that one can exegete these passages in a sound manner that does not result in the exclusion of women from leadership. In fact, some of the vitriol I have heard and read by certain esteemed Christian leaders concerning women offends me and displays not only a false understanding of Scripture but a highly sinful pride and attitude of male superiority. I will not name these people, but their attitude toward women causes me to receive anything they have to say with a very critical spirit.

I believe that God gifts all of his children. Those gifts different for each individual, but are not segregated according to our sex. There are not certain gifts that are appropriate for and given to women and others that are not. I believe that we hinder the in-breaking of God's kingdom, we hinder the spread of the Gospel message and the transformation of lives when we refuse women the right and opportunity to exercise their callings. We lose the talents and abilities of half of God's people. I no longer consider this acceptable. It is time for us to affirm the full equality of women within the community of God's people.

Some, many in fact, argue that men and women complement each other by their differences. I do not argue that women and men are exactly the same. In fact I'm beginning to question the whole social construct of gender, but whether men and women are different is not the issue. These “complementarians” claim that the Bible teaches that women are equal, but that God has given them different roles from men, roles that complement men in their roles as leaders, husbands, fathers, etc.. This sounds a lot like the old doctrine of “separate but equal.” Most of us have long ago recognized that separate is not equal. We can affirm the value and equality of women all we want, but if we are unwilling to accept them as equals in every area, then we effectively deny their equality. This is not acceptable.

Churches that do not want to reconsider their position on this issue may well continue along in their status quo. I think there will always be some people willing to accept this segregation of the sexes. Unfortunately despite progress within our culture on this issue, the Church in general, especially those portions of it that label themselves “evangelical” lag quite a distance behind in this area. But I think that such churches will find that they increasingly alienate the younger generation. If I were a woman, I would not be eager to attend a church where I was told I could not fill certain positions simply because I had two X chromosomes. Those who understand and affirm the equality of God's children, male and female, will increasingly abandon those churches that do not. Some may find a home in other Christian worship communities. I fear though that some may reject the faith altogether because of this lack of love on the part of their brothers (and, yes, some of their sisters as well). That would be a tragic loss, all the more unfortunate because it is entirely avoidable.

Monday, January 9, 2012

I am a feminist

I am a feminist. Perhaps more accurately I should say I am becoming a feminist, because I have only begun to become aware of what this means and the implications it holds for how I live. But I have come to recognize and decided that I will no longer be ashamed to declare that I am a feminist.

How can that be? It it even possible for a man to be a feminist? The succinct answer is: yes, it is. Consider the basic definition of feminism, as I've read it on several good blogs recently:

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

Another definition, this one pulled from the dictionary and posted on this site, states that feminism is:

the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.

I wholeheartedly affirm the first definition above and only reluctantly affirm the second due to the use of the word “theory,” which I suppose is obligatory because of the -ism at the end of the word. I certainly don't consider the equality of men and women to be a theory, although in practical reality it often remains only that. So I am a feminist because I believe absolutely in the equality of men and women. Women are people and worthy of the same treatment that men receive in society. I believe that the equality of men and women is a fundamental, universal truth that should be expressed and upheld in every culture.

I first became interested in feminism after living overseas and seeing how women are still so severely subjugated in so many places. I felt angry, frustrated and grieved to see women I know treated as second-class, inferior beings by the men around them. I become angry when I see a woman's identity defined solely by her role as mother, wife or daughter and her value determined primarily by her ability to bear male offspring. I believe that such behavior should result in outrage in any human. The marginalization and dehumanization of women is not a minor, peripheral issue in our modern world. It is a central, key issue. As Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn state in their profound book Half the Sky:

We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

As I have begun to delve more deeply into the discussions of the feminist community, I have come to realize that the equality of women and men is not only the paramount moral challenge in the developing world, it remains a (the?) significant moral challenge in the developed world as well. Previously I would have argued that women in the Western world have it pretty good. Compared to women in the developing world, this is largely true. But having it better than a severely oppressed group of people is not the same as enjoying equality and I have begun to understand this better.

I have been awakened to examine more carefully how women are portrayed (and often not portrayed) in media and to make my choices about entertainment more carefully in light of this. Someone (I must confess that I do not have the link ready at hand) pointed out that in the recently released movie Tin Tin, there are NO significant female characters. While acknowledging that the movie is a flight of fantasy, what does it say to those who watch it that this fanciful world contains no meaningful women? While watching the TV show NCIS the other day I realized that, although there are a couple significant female characters, they do not fill half the roles in the show, although women make up roughly half the population of our world. Would men be satisfied if they were given only a quarter or less of meaningful roles in movies and television? I think not. Yet NCIS is by no means the exception, unless it is exceptional simply for having at least one decent female character.

Perhaps this seems insignificant. After all, what does it really matter how women are portrayed (or not) in the media? In answer to this question I refer you to the website If possible, watch the film because it gives good insight into the significance of this issue.

There are many other compelling arguments demonstrating that equality of women and men remains an unreached goal in the West and in coming blogs I hope to explore some of them, although there are many great blogs out there that are doing so even better than I could hope to. I have added a few of them to my blog list at the right. (As a disclaimer, I do not necessarily affirm everything each of these writers/bloggers posts, but their arguments are still worth considering and taking into account. I do not have to fully agree with someone in order to be able to learn from her or him.) For me the most central reason to stand up for women is that they are created equally in the image of our Creator. Unfortunately, those who call themselves by his (her?) name are often the least willing to put this equality into practice. But more on that in my next post.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Two Cathedrals

Some years ago I along with my family had the opportunity to spend a few days in Helsinki, Finland (a lovely city to visit, should you ever have the chance). Among the various sites we visited were two different churches that left two very different impressions on me.

First we went to a Russian Orthodox church, the Uspenski Cathedral. (The Russian tsar ruled over Finland for a number of years and left traces of Russian influence behind, such as this church.) While the outside of the church was not stunningly attractive, the inside really captured my attention. As with many other Orthodox churches I have since seen, every interior surface was covered with some type of artwork. These paintings (perhaps mosaics, I couldn't get close enough to see) depicted various scenes from the Bible as well as icons of different saints. While we were visiting (quietly in the background) some type of service was being enacted which involved chanting, incense, genuflection (kneeling) and other behaviors. The atmosphere drew all of my senses into this act of worship and even though I did not understand the event, I was entranced.

Uspenski Cathedral
After leaving the Orthodox church, we walked a bit across the city to the central Lutheran church, the Helsinki Cathedral. This imposing building is entirely white and sits at the top of a broad set of steps on a central square, as seen in the picture. We entered this cathedral and encountered—emptiness. The interior space was very open and filled with light. But the walls and ceiling were all painted stark white. Not a trace of color anywhere. In the four corners at the center of the cross-shaped nave(?), where in Catholic churches one would find the four writers of the Gospels depicted, this church had statues of Luther, Melanchton and a couple others whom I do not remember. Aside from what I consider the inappropriate exaltation of ordinary men, I found the whole cathedral quite lifeless and uninspiring.

Helsinki Cathedral
I understand the background that led the Protestants to reject the imagery and iconography of the Catholic and, by extension, Orthodox churches. However, my visits that day made me wonder if the Protestant churches didn't lose something valuable in rejecting the excesses of the period. We lost the recognition that worship is more than an intellectual exercise. Worship involves more than simply hearing the Word of God and an explication thereof. It even involves more than singing a few good songs (whether you prefer traditional or contemporary is irrelevant.) Should not worship draw us into a wholistic experience of God? What captivated me at the Orthodox church was the all of my senses were drawn into worship. You may object to the theology or specific practices of the Orthodox church (that would make for a good discussion in its own right) but I think they have retained something important. They recognize that art, that beauty, is part of what draws us into the divine.

I know that some churches and fellowships are beginning to recapture something of this lost aesthetic. I am acquainted with people who understand that beauty comes from God and our worship of him should include a celebration and exploration of beauty. But I think our Protestant baggage still hinders us from fully embracing this. After all, art, beauty, poetry, music and other forms of artistic expression are viewed in our Reformation-rooted culture as being frivilous, extravagant, non-productive and even distracting from the most important thing (although we have become quite confused as to what exactly the most important thing is.) I am only beginning myself to rediscover (or perhaps to truly discover) the fulness, the wonder of encountering God in various expressions of beauty. Does music have to explicitly mention God, Jesus or salvation to be worshipful? Does a novel have to include explict references to these, or have the characters making explicit (and lengthy) prayers to Jesus, to capture truth? One of my favorite novels, one that most powerfully depicts redemption, is Les Miserables, which is by no means a “Christian” novel.

I want to encounter God with my mind, but I want to encounter him with more than that. God didn't create us only as intellectual beings. Let's not impoverish our understanding and experience of him by limiting ourselves to a dry, colorless, lifeless worship.