Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Post Mortem on A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I'm four years too late with this post, but I just had a major, disturbing revelation about A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans last week, one that some likely had long before me. But I do think that many approached the book the way I did and had similar assumptions about Scripture that I had after reading it.

I am a student of the Bible, but I realize that I assumed much about the accuracy of the Scripture references in the book. Because I didn't meticulously read each reference, I assumed things about the Word of God that were wrong. I am disappointed in myself and feel misled by how the book referenced Scripture that didn't say what was being lived out in Rachel Held Evans' experiment. 

When I first began to interact with AYOBW, I knew that it was an attempt to show that our applications of the idea of Biblical womanhood were so varied among different groups to make the phrase virtually meaningless. The goal seemed to show holes in complementarian thought and to relieve women from the idea that they needed to be stay at home moms cooking organic meals in order to be a “biblical woman.” I existed at Mars Hill Church under Mark Driscoll's teaching long enough to accept that as a reasonable issue to address.

I also knew that much of what Rachel Held Evans was literally living out was not actually in the Bible. The Bible doesn't command a woman to call her husband master and so forth. But though I knew that much of what she was literally living out was not actually in the Bible, I didn't realize how often she put Scripture references in her book that didn't say what, in retrospect, I feel she was making the reader feel like the Bible actually did say. 

I'm going to focus on just one chapter, the one on Leviticus 15's instructions around menstruation. 

She says:
□ Camp out in the front yard for first three days of impurity (Leviticus 15: 19) (Kindle Locations 2752-2753)
The thing is Leviticus 15:19 doesn't say to camp out in a separate tent during your period. Women sometimes did that, and there is a fictional book, The Red Tent, with this as its central plot element. Later, Evans acknowledges that she gets this idea from a fictional book and not the Bible, but she spends enough time focusing on it that her disclaimers didn't stay with me as much as my impressions of Scripture from her experiment.  But that verse also never mentions the number three.  It talks about seven days, the average length of a woman's period.  I don't know where Evans got the idea of three days, but not from Leviticus 15:19 which she references.

She also says this:
Throughout the twelve days, I was forbidden to touch a man in any way: no handshakes, no hugs, no pats on the back, no passing the salt (V. 19). (Kindle Locations 3064-3065)
The thing is that the Bible does NOT forbid a man to touch a woman in verse 19, and Evans did NOT clarify this in her book. This thing she was doing was purely Jewish tradition, the kind of adding to the Law like tithing your spice rack that Jesus rebuked in Matthew 23:23.

Now you may think I am nitpicking through these examples. And maybe the book didn't affect other readers this way, but when Evans gave a Scripture reference that sounded somewhat like what the Law would say, my brain made the connection that this was actually what the Law said. Because the Law repeats itself at times between Deuteronomy and Leviticus, if I didn't immediately see the “command” in one place, I assumed it was in the other. But mostly, I was focused on other aspects of the book and didn't look up references with a fine tooth comb that I now see I should have.

An interesting thing about all of this is what happened when I interacted with Rachel on twitter this week. I finally had to stop because I'm too old to follow a meaningful conversation on twitter. I can't find the tweet to which I am replying and miss the train of thought (if there is one). So I decided to write my thoughts out here where discussion can happen with more than 140 characters a pop. Here's the basic way the conversation went.

Note: This conversation was civil and courteous, and I appreciated Rachel's willingness to have it.

Wendy: Leviticus 15 doesn't say you have to sleep in a tent during your period and it doesn't forbid you from touching a man.

RHE: “Did you see Leviticus 15:19-24? You *can* touch a man, but results in need for ritual cleansing for man...”

Wendy: “Right. Which is distinctly different than forbidding any touching at all.”

There was then some discussion about her research on Jewish traditions around this subject.

Wendy: “That's a starting data point then. But not saying that you are forbidden to touch a man, b/c that's not in the Bible.”

RHE: “God did not give us a Bible of data points. God gave us a Bible FULL of stories, letters, poetry, history, etc...”

WOW! That tweet by Evans is SUCH a great point to think about. Someone suggested that this was a Meyers – Brigg NF to NT issue, and I totally get that. I am mostly left-brained and have known for sometime that I needed to listen to my right-brained believing friends because God is both – He is engineer and artist, poet and mathematician. But Evans dismissed my data point tweet altogether. God wrote a story, not data points, she said. I recently heard a scientist on a PBS Nature special say an interesting thing. He said that when you hear more than one anecdote about a topic, they stop being anecdotes and start being data. Stories have data points, and repeated themes and phrases in a story the size of God's give us a great deal of data. My encouragement to my right-brained, poetic, story loving brothers and sisters in Christ is not to despise data and logic because your brain doesn't excel that way. God is both left-brained and right-brained, and His story to us reflects both sides of His brain.

The funny thing is that whether Evans likes my “data point” language or not, AYOBW helped me with some data points of Scripture, particularly around the fact that the Bible refers to Ruth as a virtuous woman with the same Hebrew phrase used in Proverbs 31. Two uses of the same Hebrew phrase give us data points so that we can better understand the term. We can examine the narrative around these data points and use it to draw conclusions. I totally changed how I thought about Proverbs 31 after seeing the data (for you left-brainers) and story (for you right-brainers) of the virtuous woman of Ruth. Once you see that Ruth was known as a virtuous woman when she was a barren widow from a foreign land, we understand that our ability to be a virtuous woman doesn't depend on a husband and children, which many conservatives have insinuated from Proverbs 31 over the years.

Evans was clear in AYOBW that she was doing an experiment on our applications of Biblical womanhood. But, though applications of Scripture vary greatly, the phrase Biblical womanhood denotes (not connotes) that it is rooted in the Bible itself rather than tradition. I think Evans did her readers a disservice by not distinguishing clearly between what was and was not actually found in the original text of Scripture. I argued in my tweets with her that we should at least be able to agree on what the Bible says as an objective baseline. What it means is open to debate, and how to apply it is highly subjective. But the facts of what it says are pretty straightforward. But Evans further argued that we don't even agree on what it says.

RHE: “Even what it *says* is up for debate when we're working with an ancient foreign language.”

RHE: “I spent DAYS reading various interpretations of word we translate 'unclean.'”

In one sense, I understand what she's doing, and I support such research and textual criticism. But she seems to be suggesting that the words themselves (not their meaning or application) are unknowable, that we can attach no certainty towards any of them. “It depends on what the meaning of is IS,” Bill Clinton famously said. Of course, in that moment, he was deflecting indictment over other words he had previously said. In Evans' case, I felt she was deflecting the fact that she referenced Leviticus 15 when she said she was “forbidden” to touch a man and never clarified the fact that Leviticus 15 doesn't use any word that even insinuates forbidding. In Clinton's case, “is” has an agreed upon definition. We can agree first that “is” was the word used and that “is” means what it means (an active state of being), though we may disagree about how he used it for himself.  Really, though, if he didn't mean "is," he should just clarify what word he should have used.

Similarly, even for an ancient language, we have reasonable certainty that we can translate the Hebrew tame as unclean. Which is why Leviticus 15 has been translated consistently with the English word unclean. We also have reasonable certainty that no other word in Leviticus 15's instructions around men touching women can be translated “forbid,” which is why English translations have never translated anything around the men/women interaction in Leviticus 15 as “forbid.” The word for unclean exists in the manuscript and the one for forbid does not.  This is straightforward and not confusing, even to linguists and translators.

The idea that Evans can't even agree with that baseline of data (yes, I said data) is reflective of what I think the fundamental problem of AYOBW is. A Year of Biblical Womanhood over and over and over conflates without distinction evolved religious practices with objective statements actually in the original Hebrew text.

But I realize it is an act of faith to do anything else.

Evans said in another tweet, “ 'What the Bible says' is so reductive and simplistic. You make it sound as though it were totally obvious. It's really not.”

What the Bible says. Is that reductive and simplistic? Well, in some sense it is, since the Bible says quite a number of things. But it does say some things that are actually knowable. I believe there are objective statements in the original Hebrew text that say something that is knowable, though what it means and how to apply it are regularly up for debate. That conviction of mine is based on Jesus' own words in Matthew 5:18.

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 

This thing that Jesus says here is incredibly important. The only document we have of Jesus' words are the Gospels, and to doubt that He speaks truth when He says that the Word of God will be preserved is to doubt His words altogether. He is specifically promising that God would preserve the Law, and He will preserve it until God has accomplished all He has said He will do, so this is right up our alley of what we are talking about in Leviticus 15. Jesus promised His disciples that God (not us) would keep His Law intact so that we can come to it with reasonable certainty that we have something authoritative in our hands when we study it. Not the traditions that followed it not mentioned in Scripture. Not the various ways various groups apply it. But what the text actually says itself, God has promised to preserve.

Jesus gives us a baseline around the Word of God, particularly the Law, that we can trust. Debate other things if you want, but don't debate whether we can have reasonable confidence of what the Bible actually says. And if you share this conviction from Matthew 5:18, please learn from my mistake and look up every cross reference in future books you read, so that you are not misled over whether the Bible says something itself or whether an author is talking about someone else's 6-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon interpretation of it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Discipling Healthy Male/Female Relationships in the Church Part 3: Desperate Women

In Part 1 of this series, we explored what beyond sexual relationships is left for relationships between men and women in the church. We see there is quite a bit, though you wouldn't always know it in conservative evangelical churches. In Part 2, I talked about the need to practice the discipline of seeing past a woman's looks to the image bearer underneath. I think many leaders in the Church don't understand the harm done to a woman who loves God who is regularly seen as a temptation and threat simply because she is beautiful. In this post, I want to explore a particularly ugly tendency in male/female relationships in the Church, how women perceived as “desperate” are treated in the Church.

I am a diehard Clemson Tiger fan. I love our dear coach's recent response to a reporter's question about the term “clemsoning,” which the press used to mean when our Tigers fall apart and self-destruct, something that had happened on a big stage in several games years before. He said something along the lines, “I don't even know why you use that term.” And he went on to put it to rest. That's not a word we use. That's not a concept we consider. Our team plays their guts out to the bitter end, and the National Championship game in which Clemson scored with 12 seconds left in the game proved that.

In similar form, the evangelical Church needs to purposefully put away the concept of “desperate” women. It's not that there are never situations in which you could use the term, but the term is unhelpful in every way to discipling women in healthy identities or facilitating brotherly, phileo love between the genders. As much as I don't like the term and would like to simply shut down any discussion on it as Dabo did with clemsoning, I will at least give the general context in which it gets used.

In the Church, a desperate woman may be widowed, but more likely she is divorced or has never been married. She is perceived as not being sufficient in herself and looking for a man, any man, who can meet her needs physically and emotionally. Men avoid her because they think she'll take any kindness from them and misconstrue it as interest in a relationship.

Are there believing women who aren't secure in their identity in Christ? No, actually, there aren't. There is NO woman in Christ who is not secure in her identity in Christ. Now, she may not FEEL that security, but her place in Him is more secure than Fort Knox. She doesn't need a man (though it is a blessing when God gives such a relationship), and even women in our churches who don't yet understand their security in Christ still have that as their spiritual reality. If a woman doesn't live in the reality of her security in Christ, church leaders should disciple her in it, never reinforce her feelings of insecurity. When a pastor or ministry leader perceives a woman as desperate, they will treat her like she is instead of calling her to walk in confidence in Christ. They will reinforce her feelings of insecurity instead of drawing her to see all she has as a daughter of the King of Kings. 

Furthermore, there are a lot of mature single women in the Church, particularly those getting older in their singleness, who ARE secure in their identity in Christ. But men in their churches still often perceive them as desperate and treat them in really offensive ways.

I recently had an awkward interaction with a man at the church I was attending. I turned toward him during greeting time during church service and … well … greeted him. With a smile. Because he was sitting right next to me, and that's what you do during greeting time. He was clearly uncomfortable greeting me, extricated himself quickly, and darted off to greet some men. Later during the service, I noted that he had moved his chair a foot and a half away from mine (we have individual chairs, not pews). I had to laugh. That was weird and awkward, but as I said in the last post, I have worked hard through Ephesians in particular to get my identity in Christ so that moments like that don't have the power to hurt me like they once did.

When I recounted this encounter in a private Facebook group, a mature single friend for whom I have a great deal of respect said, “Welcome to my life every day in the church.” Dang! I was hoping this was just one awkward example of a socially inept man not knowing how to interact with a woman. But I talked to yet another older single friend, and she told me of similar experiences at her church. She felt alone and isolated, longing to be in community with others her age, but finding that others her age who are mostly married seem uneasy around her. It's like she needs to wear a sign around her neck. “You're safe. I'm really not on the prowl for a man.”

Any pastors who are reading, have you ever stopped to listen, really listen, to the women in your church about how they feel treated or perceived? I want to emphasize that while this way of interacting between genders doesn't happen all the time everywhere, it does happen a lot of the time in a lot of different churches, enough to stop and consider what kind of environment your church is for the single women in it.

Ask them:

Do you feel free to smile and be kind to all people you come across in our church?

Have you ever felt your smile or kindness was viewed with suspicion from others in our church? 

Have you ever felt that you had to curb manifestations of Christian virtues like love, joy, peace, or hope because of concern you would be perceived as being too forward?

Do you feel free to greet your brothers in Christ in our church?

Do you feel free to approach your pastors in our church?

If you have the courage to ask these questions, kudos to you. Step 1 is actually realizing the problem. When we truly listen to women and give the freedom to speak honestly about such experiences, they are like the canary in the coal mine. Unhealthy interactions aren't limited to single women, and such discussions may help uncover deeper patterns of relating between genders in the church.

As I conclude this three part series, I am reminded again of the Cornerstone of our faith. The good news of Jesus is the key to getting us to better ways of relating between genders in the Church, ways that will play out in eternity.

1. Male and female, we are secure in Christ Jesus. There is no condemnation in Him, and we can face dysfunction around gender head on without being undone by our role in it.

2. In Christ, we are free from the chains of sin. We are no longer sin's slave, and while we likely all know a Christian who sinned sexually, they didn't HAVE to. Sins chains are broken, and with any temptation, there is a way of escape. We don't have to sin against a sister in Christ in our attitude in order not to sin with her in adultery or sexual sin. We have spiritual tools in Christ that make the Billy Graham rule look like a water hose in Niagara Falls. 

3. We are exhorted in the Bible to stir up brotherly, phileo love in our congregations, but we are also equipped by the Spirit to do so. We do not do this work alone.
John 14:26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 
Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
After a sermon the next Sunday on how the gospel equips us for brotherly love, I had a chance to talk with the man who had turned away from me at church the week before. It turns out he had been accused years before of something inappropriate, and it left him scarred in his interactions with women at church. Oh, the weights we cast upon each other sometimes! The good news of Jesus preached that Sunday to our congregation coupled with the practical exhortation to think through how the gospel equips us for healthy relationships was powerful for positive change. I am hopeful that little changes like this in the hearts of individuals in separate churches will snowball into big changes throughout the evangelical world for the purification of the Church.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Discipling Healthy Male/Female Relationships in the Church Part 2: Attractive Women

In Part 1 of this series, we explored what beyond sexual relationships (or sexually charged relationships) is left for relationships between men and women in the church. At one level, that feels like a ridiculous question. We all know that a TON is left. Yet, as any single woman who walks into an evangelical church knows, sometimes it feels like not much with the opposite sex is left for her at all. She has to avoid making eye contact or smiling too much with pretty much every man in the church for fear of being thought of as forward or too interested. I hear this from a lot of women and have experienced it myself. Our sex-crazed secular culture has radically infiltrated the church, and our battles against it have often made us hyper aware of sex instead of giving us a counter cultural way of thinking about male/female relationships in the Body of Christ.

I wrote on this back in October as well. At that time, fall out from incest in the Duggar home had me thinking.
Watching the Duggar family struggle through their scandals the last few months helped solidify this in my mind. No family had better fences against a sex-crazed culture. But the fences didn't work. Instead, sexual attraction entered the very family relationships that should have been the most immune to them. When young men are taught to guard themselves from all women, that the primary sin issue to be wary of with the opposite sex is sex itself, don't be surprised when that teaching infiltrates relationships between brothers and sisters. Josh Duggar should have learned a different kind of relationship with his sisters, a healthy one in which sexual temptation was anathema. Then from practicing healthy family relationships with the opposite sex, he would have a foundation for treating other women as sisters. Instead, the opposite happened. Hyper focus on sexual temptation resulted in temptation entering a relationship in which it should have never been named.
Brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, Paul particularly modeled treating non-biological coworkers in the Church using these models. Furthermore, he understood the difference in phileo, agape, and eros love and didn't mix them up in the wrong relationships. In Christ, we can too. In Part 1, I discussed healthy examples of non-sexual male/female relationships that I have experienced. In this post and the next, I will discuss particularly unhealthy tendencies.


I remember walking into a Chick-Fil-A with a good friend years ago. She was an attractive, happily married mom of two. I'll never forget the change in the demeanor of the male cashier from waiting on me to waiting on her. He wasn't rude to me, and he was appropriately attentive. But his entire demeanor reached another level of interest when he moved to take my friend's order. I could tell she got his attention. He was enamored. He didn't stare at her breasts or anything inappropriate like that. But he was clearly on high alert. She was pretty, and she drew his eye.

I'm not drop dead gorgeous by any means, but I am reasonably secure in my flawed appearance. Some people would think it an asset to be drop dead gorgeous, but I have also watched it be a struggle for friends and have thought a lot about this dynamic that physically beautiful women face, particularly God-honoring women who are not seeking to use their beauty to manipulate men. Men sometimes cast on these women impure motives. But I know many beautiful Christian women who draw men's eyes without any effort, even when the effort has been put in to NOT draw men's attention. They are beautiful, and as a majestic mountain draws our attention, so can physical beauty on a woman.

First, I want to say that in Christ, that is OK. It's OK to observe that a man is handsome or a woman is beautiful or a mountain is glorious or that an infant smells like heaven. But what do we do after that observation? In all of those scenarios, the one I see breaking down again and again after observation is when a man observes a physically beautiful woman. This is the one out of those scenarios that many times results in a violation of some nature, even if it's just putting the woman in an awkward or uncomfortable position.

We understand how secular culture abuses this observation of beauty. A man observes the beauty, and then he wants the beauty. If he does get the beauty, he uses, sometimes even abuses it. If he doesn't get the beauty, he resents it. We call it lust – when a man can not appreciate such beauty without wanting to take it and use it for himself. But what about such observation of beauty in our Christian culture? This is where I am burdened. Because instead of plowing a counterculture that is orthogonal to secular culture, we have often reinforced sinful tendencies by expecting men and women in Christ to default to the world's ways of relating.

Consider the Billy Graham rule, which results in pastors treating every woman like someone they need to keep their distance from. I understand why people have such guidelines – they are afraid of being accused of something inappropriate. Maybe they have even personally felt temptation toward something inappropriate in such a context. We all know of a situation in which Christians harmed their families by acting out on such lust. But this rule for the opposite sex is just the flip side of the world's sensual ways of relating between genders. Alan Noble at Christ and Pop Culture says it this way.
Evangelicals like me are terrible about understanding and promoting “modesty,” and I think a major reason for this is that men don’t know how to live with beauty without owning it. Either it’s ours, or it shouldn’t exist. So, when we see a beautiful woman, it frustrates us. ... 
We don’t want to covet, we don’t want to desire to have her, but what choice do we have except to ignore? And sometimes, probably all the time, beauty doesn’t let itself be ignored. There aren’t enough burkas in the world to hide the beauty of what God has made.
(P. S. If you have a tiny budget for good online content, I highly recommend subscribing to Christ and Pop Culture's monthly online magazine.)

There is a better way for the two genders to relate in the Church, one that isn't the negative side of the world's sensual coin but a different currency altogether.

How do we disciple toward such healthier patterns in male/female relationships? Seeing a woman's beauty may be inevitable for a man. But men and women can exercise the ability to see through the surface of physical attractiveness to the human being made in the image of God underneath. Zack Eswine talks of Jesus re-mentoring him on this when Jesus interacts in Luke 7 with a woman known as a sinner and the Pharisees who judged her.
I remember my stepgrandparents' Playboy Channel, the Hustler porn magazines under the sink cabinet in the upstairs bedroom. I think of Papaw's closet. I am crushed with a realization. I cannot see or minister to women until I learn the grace to see through her body to who she is. “Sightless, unless the eyes reappear,” a poet says. … 
So, when Jesus says, “Do you see this woman?” I'm humbled by his rementoring (Luke 7:44). 
I'm humbled because the pastors (with Jesus) only saw the “sort of woman” she was. All they saw was her body and her sexual ability in life. In this, they were no different from the men she had slept with. They too, though they were not pastors, saw only her body and her sexual ability. I should say, rather, that most of her body went unnoticed by either kind of man. The religious men and the irreligious men had this in common: they looked at the woman, but they did not see her. Edenic eyes gave way again, poked out amid the haze. The religious denounced her. The irreligious desired her. Both were blind. 
I'm also humbled because Jesus isn't looking at the men when he asks them this question. The poignancy of this escapes my words. He has been looking at Simon and his friend, speaking to him and to them. But now, before he asks this question about whether they see her, he turns toward the woman. They no longer receive his gaze. She does. He speaks to them but looks at her as he asks, “Do you see this woman?” 
I wonder what it must have been like for her in the presence of Jesus' gaze. There was no lust in his eyes, no use of her behind his smile, no flirtatious familiarity or flattery in his tone. Her given beauty was noticed and cherished; her heart and mind were understood and known. Had she ever in her life been looked at by a man with such delightful purity, the sheer enjoyment of human company? And, in turn, had these men ever known that they could learn to look at a woman in this way of grace? 
Sensing Jesus p. 220-221
Rachael Starke wrote a helpful article at The Gospel-Centered Woman that gives concrete, alternative ways to work through this issue.
When it comes to questions of how Christians should see the human body, whether our own, our neighbor’s, or a stranger’s on a screen, traditional answers have focused far more on what to do with our eyes than with our minds. ... 
Having an understanding of body image that is grounded in the gospel instead of the world is not so much about keeping our eyes closed but in having our darkened minds enlightened so we can see the One whom our bodies are made to reflect. ... 
For those who have identified with Jesus’s bodily life, death and resurrection, the Spirit of the One who dwelt first in the womb of a woman now dwells in us through faith, making us His living, working temples, as we wait for the day when our spiritual faith will become physical sight, and we exchange our own mortal bodies for eternal ones. Given His eyes and His mind, we will once again see our bodies and our neighbor’s as containers and displayers of glory – not our own, but Christ’s. We will see that the glory of our bodies is not ours to exploit, but God’s to be declared. We will feed and clothe and live and move in them as though they are in Christ’s body, because they are.
When I put these thoughts together, I see first the value of acknowledging external physical beauty. There's no way to avoid it, and in Eden I don't think we needed to. In Christ, we are redeemed and restored from the two equally troublesome choices to it – to take and use such beauty or resent it and shame it because it can't be ours. In Christ, we are equipped to see with eternal eyes, to appreciate the image-bearer beneath the beauty who will be equally precious to God when the weight of age diminishes her youthful external looks. Though the majestic mountain may crumble, the inner soul of an externally beautiful sister in Christ worships with God eternally. The great gift of the gospel is its ability to equip us to see through temporal things to appreciate the eternal things beneath, and in the case of a physically beautiful woman, the gospel calls us to see the eternal soul beneath the exterior and to desire her eternal good as a sister or daughter.

Some might think I'm encouraging men who have successfully avoided temptation from women in their churches to engage them and open themselves up to temptation. But if this avoidance by such a man has resulted in ignoring or shaming a woman, then I don't call that successful at all. Some men in the church have no concept of the deep damage such ignoring/avoidance does to the woman at the other end. You may have successfully avoided eros temptation, but you have done so at the expense of brotherly, phileo love, which is disobedience too.
1 Peter 1:22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart,
Practically speaking, let us exhort each other to practice the discipline of seeing others as Jesus saw the woman of Luke 7 – seeing through the external to the eternal underneath. And as we see to the eternal soul underneath, let us exhort each other to treat sisters in Christ as sisters in Christ. Let us encourage one another in the differences in phileo, agape, and eros love and to stamp down eros with anyone that is not our spouse. But as we discipline ourselves against eros temptation, may we continue to stir up phileo, brotherly love. THIS is a countercultural response.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Discipling Healthy Male/Female Relationships in the Church Part 1

God created two genders when He made humans in His image, and He clearly intended these two genders to work together in His Kingdom. I have been burdened for some time about problems in male/female relationships in the Body of Christ, particularly about how evangelical ministries disciple the two genders to work out this truth. I have experienced healthy relationships across genders, but I've also experienced unhealthy ones. Unhealthy relationships keep the Body of Christ from working as God intended, and I would like to spend the next three posts on this blog discussing this. I hope you will consider my points and enter the discussion with me or with others in your area of influence. 

This first post will set up a simple Biblical foundation for male/female relationships in the Body of Christ and then look at healthy ones. The next two posts will focus on two particular disabilities, the first between men and pretty women and the second between men and “desperate” women. These are broad generalizations, but I hope they'll get us to start thinking through male/female interactions in the Church so we can affect change with a discerning eye. Though we have some ugly defaults we go to in male/female relationships in the church that need to be explored, I hope that starting off with a look at good and healthy relationships will be encouraging.

What was God's purpose in creating two genders to work together to image Him out into His kingdom? For a time, conservative evangelicals simplistically set up marriage as the ultimate purpose for the creation of two genders, particularly around Genesis 2:18.
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
However, if you embrace Jesus as the key to understanding all of Scripture, then Jesus' words on marriage in eternity give us necessary clarification on the purpose of the creation of two genders in Genesis 1 and 2. God's purposes for interactions between the two genders in this first sinless perfection in Eden is informed by glimpses of the second. In Luke 20, the Sadducees ask Jesus a question about whose wife in heaven a woman would be if she had multiple husbands on earth. In His answer, Jesus is clear that in heaven we do not marry. (Actually, we do marry, but Jesus is the groom.) Jesus teaches us that the ultimate goal in perfection for men and women is not human marriage to each other.

But then, what is left for perfect male/female relationships if not human marriage? Well, a TON is left. But we are warped as a society away from valuing the vast wealth of human male/female relationships that don't involve sex. 

Man and woman were created for a variety of relationships – marriage is certainly one primary form of relationship, but it is not the only one. What is clear in Genesis 2: 18 is that it is not good for man to be alone and isolated. Man made in the image of God needed others. Married or single, we do too. God created us for community with both Him and others – others of the same gender and others of the opposite gender.

If you believe that Jesus' words on eternal perfection give insight on God's design for the first perfect relationship between man and woman, then marriage isn't the end of all gendered relationships. We know this in reality, right? Sons have mothers. Mothers have sons. Brothers have sisters, and sisters have brothers. Daughters have fathers, and fathers have daughters. But think beyond biological family relations. Paul had Phoebe, Euodia, and Synteche, none who were his biological sister, mother, or wife. Jesus had Mary and Martha, as they had him. Paul relied on Priscilla as he did Aquila. There are many gendered relationships in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament, that are not marriage or biological family based. But they do seem more like biological family relationships than marriage relationships, and this fits the whole of Scripture. We, male and female in the Body of Christ, are brothers and sisters called to work together for the family kingdom under our pater familias, God Himself. Paul even instructs the church at Rome in Romans 16:1 to greet his “sister Phoebe.”

There is one singular gendered relationship in the life of believer that has a different bent, that of husband and wife. In our evangelical covenant view of marriage, that happens with one person. Period. All other relationships within the Church are to have biological family undertones to them. We are brothers and sisters in Christ.

I have been in churches where this family dynamic is the tone of relationships. In fact, the vast majority of my experience over the last few years has been dominated by loving, serving brother/sister relationships in Christ. I will start with this healthy perspective, since I want to deal in the next two posts with unhealthy perspectives that I have also experienced, and I think it's better to start with the good and hopeful rather than the bad and discouraging.

In my healthy experiences of gendered relationships in the church, I note a few things.

1. Men who aren't threatened by me.

I have two main areas of experience in evangelical Christianity that have produced good male/female relationships. I have met men online through The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, my books, and my blog. Consistently, I have experienced healthy, charitable communication with them, even when disagreeing on something. I have also established relationships with men, including elders, deacons, and pastors, in person through my church and ministry experience in Seattle. These are the men I have seen and rubbed shoulders with in person for years, and I have felt welcomed by most all of them in the church. I have felt free to share my opinions, whether it's on theology or sports. Why are these men secure? Why do they welcome my knowledge and opinions? I think the answer for men is the same as the one for women – knowing our identity in Christ. We call it Sonship. I perceive that these men know who they are in Christ. They have an identity secure in Him, and a woman with opinions on politics or theology (or sports) who disagrees with them doesn't really throw them for a loop. Their manhood is secure … in Christ. And men who relate to women from their secure vantage point as sons of the Most High are equipped for healthy relationships with the opposite gender.

These men aren't threatened by my knowledge. They also aren't threatened by my sexuality. I'm not a walking temptation by any means, but regardless of whether I find them handsome or they find me pretty, I find them my brother in Christ. Any thoughts toward them outside of that framework would just be inappropriate and weird. It would be creepy. It would be like spiritual incest. When men and women relate as brothers and sisters in Christ, inappropriate things become distasteful. I will discuss this point more in the next post.

2. Men who value my contributions to the church.

These men, secure in their Sonship in Christ, are kingdom focused. They know the Word of God and are committed to serving God as He has gifted them. So when a woman comes along, they either are burdened for her growth in Christ or, if she already shows a maturity in faith, they recognize their need for her in kingdom work. Again and again, ministry minded men who value work in the kingdom of God have welcomed my contributions. Several have been the primary ones to discern how God has gifted me for kingdom work and encouraged me to live out those giftings.

Men in the Body of Christ need women in the Body of Christ, and vice versa. From our secure foundation as sons and daughters of the Most High, we are free to relate to each other without suspicion for the mutual work of building up the Kingdom. As Paul valued and used his sister Phoebe, who was no biological relation to him but his sister in Christ who valued the work of God's kingdom and was equipped to aid in it, may sons and daughters of the Most High value their spiritual siblings and work in unity for the glory of God.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jesus Rejoiced

Other than posts on refugees and political fear, most of my posts the last few months have come from my Bible reading in the book of Luke. I have been working slowly through various books of the Bible since picking up a New Testament with Psalms at a sale at a Christian bookstore that was going out of business in 2011. I'm using that New Testament almost like a journaling Bible to chronicle my path through the New Testament. I should have long since made my way through it, but I only have one or two days a week where I can sit in it like I want, not so much studying it (I study the Bible all the time) but truly meditating on it—ruminating on it. I like to do this on my porch swing in the mornings, overlooking the pond on our farm.

Again and again, in those moments of reading and meditating, God's words hit me like sunshine breaking through the clouds after a rain. And this Saturday's time on the porch swing was no different. I was reading from Luke 10, and the sunlight from that passage warmed my soul.

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” 
21 In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

There's a lot of joy in this passage. The disciples return to Jesus with joy after watching the power they had over demons and evil through the name of Jesus. Jesus tells them they have something even better than that to take joy in – that their names are written in heaven. Then Jesus rejoices.

Jesus REJOICED. This word gave me pause when I first read it, and I enjoyed envisioning what this might have looked like in person. The Contemporary English Version words verse 21 this way – “At that very moment, Jesus overflowed with joy from the Holy Spirit.” The New American Standard says He “rejoiced greatly.” The Greek word can also be translated as exulted or exultation. This is more than happiness. It's more than a peaceful smile. The Greek for rejoiced greatly literally means much leaping or much springing. Jesus had demonstrable joy. I love to envision that. It makes me smile.

Why was Jesus demonstrably joyful in this moment? His disciples had just returned with a similar kind of joy, amazed at what they had seen God do. They were seeing what many before them longed to see but only watched for it from afar. Jesus is full of joy at the disciples' joy. He knows what their joy represents – God revealing Himself to them. But note that Jesus takes special joy because God revealed Himself this way to those who weren't revered by society as worthy of such revelation. Jesus takes special joy in God's grace to these guys. And His joy is so great that it overflows His heart to be seen by those around Him.

This makes me cry a little, that Jesus wasn't just glad that God had revealed Himself, but that God had revealed Himself to these particular guys. A tax collector, a couple of fishermen, a number among the seventy-two who likely had been healed from various diseases. Jesus is overflowing with deep joy at God's GRACE to these guys.

Sometimes, I think of God giving His grace begrudgingly. “Well, if you guys hadn't screwed everything up in the Garden, I wouldn't have to do this stuff.” I know some gracious people who do a lot of kind, giving, gracious things for me or others. But there often comes a point when they are doing it because it's the right thing to do, and they aren't particularly happy about it.

Not so with Jesus. In the end, God's grace costs Jesus the most of anyone. And, yet, here He is demonstrably joyful, perhaps to the point of jumping with joy, as He watches God's grace to His disciples. They were coming to know things that the angels longed to know, seeing things that the prophets of old had longed to see. Jesus had come. The prophecies of His coming were fulfilled. And soon Jesus would defeat death despite Satan's best attempts to thwart Him. Jesus had already seen Satan thrown from heaven, and He knew Satan would be ultimately defeated soon through the cross. This is the reality in which you and I still live. Satan tries to defeat us, but he is ultimately a crippled foe incapable of launching a fatal attack. THIS is why we rejoice this Christmas season. And I hope the vision of Jesus leaping with joy at God's grace to His disciples and subsequently to us moves you to hope a little more this holiday season.  If you got to the point of demonstrable joy -- a smile you can't make stop or maybe even a little leap in the air -- that wouldn't be hokey.  That would be the appropriate response for what God has done for us which we celebrate this season.  

“But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.” Luke 10:11
I have a huge grin on my face right now.  This makes me truly happy.