Sunday, March 22, 2015

Practical Dangers of Teaching Women Made in the Image of the Church

In last week's review of True Woman 101 by Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh Demoss, I discussed my concern with their focus on the core of biblical womanhood, that “God created women to image the relationship of the church to Christ.” This is not how the Bible presents womanhood in its essence, clearly seen if you look at the moment that God actually created woman in Genesis 1 and 2. I spent the last post going through what Scripture says on what God created woman to be as well as other Scriptures likening a wife's submission to Christ as much as the Church. I won't rehash that here, but if you haven't read the first post, please do before reading the rest of this one.

In this post, I want to explore the ways this wrong teaching can affect women practically. A major concern is that wifely submission in marriage is not actually helped by teaching the woman reflecting the church as her ultimate thing. I've sat under such teaching, and I found it demoralizing, not inspiring, to think that the best image I have to go to as a woman is the Church, especially if you know anything about the Church according to Scripture. I am the Church, but I am the Church that is being conformed to the image of Christ. If you follow a reformed hermeneutic for understanding Scripture, the other husband/wife team mirroring Christ and the Church is Hosea and Gomer. Their story is beautiful beyond measure, giving us a picture of God's faithful pursuit of His wayward Bride. But it does not give an inspiring image of the Church's role in this relationship.

When I couple Ephesians 5's teaching with Genesis 1 and 2, that I am bearing out God's image in all of my life, I am inspired toward a better, noble goal. Peter does this in I Peter 2-3. He calls wives to look to Jesus as their example during hard seasons in marriage. Holding both of these Scriptures, Ephesians 5 and I Peter 2-3, in conjunction with Genesis 1-2 on the teaching of wifely submission in marriage gives us a balanced understanding of and inspiration for what God is calling us to. We need to use all the pictures the Bible gives us along with the essence of our creation from Genesis 1-2. Singular focus on one of these pictures without the context of the others creates a skewed view of the issue. Though we ARE the Church, we are created to image God. The Church's glory is that God is working in Her to make Her glorious in Him. Her glory is best seen when, as the arms and legs to Jesus' head, she acts in conjunction with her identity in Him. That is an inspiring calling! 

While women weren't created to image the Church, there is still much of value to learn from Ephesians 5's metaphor on the husband/wife relationship in Christ. What do marriages between husbands and wives that are IN CHRIST (Eph. 4:15) and IMITATORS OF GOD (Eph. 5:1) look like? In that context, Ephesians 5 is inspiring to think through. Humility. Love. Self-sacrifice. Laying down of your rights. When our language is correct in how we label a woman's identity as image bearer of God, we can then learn from this metaphor that illustrates a practical piece of the puzzle.

Another major concern with this wrong teaching on a woman's identity is that women often believe that their only opportunity for acting out their created purpose is with a husband. According to the wording in True Woman 101 on a woman's created purpose, the singular place for a woman to live out her purposes in God's kingdom as He intended is in marriage. This is a demoralizing and frustrating teaching for women who are not married. Also, this idea does not fit the narrative of Scripture. Hannah, Esther, Ruth, Rahab, Deborah, Phoebe, Priscilla, Lydia, Mary of Bethany, etc. If you allow God's example of ezer from the Old Testament to flesh out His created purposes for women, you start to recognize it in women commended in Scripture, married or single, with or without children, as they live out God's image bearing purposes in their lives.

Furthermore, extrapolations of this wrong teaching lead to patriarchy and abuse. This is so obvious I don't want to write more on this. Simply put, bad Bible interpretation leads to bad practice by those in power every single time. It will frustrate some that I don't explore this further. Maybe this is the most important reason in your mind to draw attention to this wrong teaching from Scripture. But I have a more important issue in my head, and I will end focusing on what I think is THE reason to be concerned about this teaching.

It codifies sloppy Bible interpretation, and this is bad for all of us. 

As I said in my first post on True Woman 101, I have a high standard for what constitutes an accurate handling of the Word. I believe that standard is best held through self examination and a willingness to correct when confronted with contradictory Scripture. I have had to correct myself personally in light of that standard many times, usually when another confronts me with Scripture I am misunderstanding or a passage I have missed altogether. It's humbling to have to correct yourself. But it's right nonetheless, and for the integrity of the Scriptures, it's absolutely necessary.

I know this concern of mine isn't as important to others as it is to me. But of everything else listed here, this is the one that bothers me most. Sure this teaching hurts women when practically applied, and that is a big problem. But this teaching is also just wrong! It is the result of inaccurately handling the Word of God. THAT'S what hurts women! My major concern for women coming out of a True Woman 101 study is not what they think of themselves but how they understand Scripture. If a woman can accurately handle Scripture, she'll eventually get her identity in Christ. This may be an unpopular focus I have, but I stand by it. I've staked my ministry on the belief that the Bible when accurately handled is good for women, that it is LIFE-GIVING for women. Teach women to handle the Word accurately. Do it ourselves in our studies and teaching. Elders and pastors, encourage it and oversee it. When we do that, a whole lot of other issues in the Body of Christ concerning gender suddenly fall into place.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

My Review of True Woman 101

From youth, I have had a pet peeve around the particular issue of groups saying that they are “biblical” when their teaching doesn't stand up against a study of the Word. That started in high school when I read Scripture in my own daily Bible reading that contradicted my fundamentalist pastor's biases he presented as biblical truth. I was deeply disturbed with his misuse of Scripture, all while loudly claiming to be biblical, for a very long time. But I must also admit that I have at times not met my own standard. When I first started teaching material for The Gospel-Centered Woman, a friend at church came up to me and gently questioned me, pointing out Scripture I wasn't considering. That gentle rebuke was good and right (and has happened to me many times before and after). I am hopeful that in this review I can similarly offer correction that will bless, not harm, as we seek to understand gender from Scripture.

The particular teaching I would like to draw attention to and correct from Scripture involves the Week Two and Week Three chapter descriptions from the 8 week study on Biblical Womanhood from True Woman 101.  The study is subtitled Divine Design: an 8-week study on biblical womanhood.
Week Two: God created men to image the relationship of Christ to the church and this has significant implications for male-female relationships. 
Week Three: God created woman to image the relationship of the church to Christ, and this has significant implications for male-female relationships.
If you study Scripture carefully, I believe you will see that this is not how God speaks of what He created men and women to image.

The study's emphasis on Ephesians 5 as the standard on gender, as the starting point for the image we were created to present, is one with which I am well familiar. It certainly dominated my understanding of gender while under the teaching of leaders at Mars Hill. But how does Ephesians 5 mesh with God's words in Genesis 1 and 2 creating man and woman in the image of God? Which is it? At least the man gets associated with parts of the Trinity in both Genesis and Ephesians. But what about the woman? Is she more associated with God or with the Church? Those are two very different things!

Which came first? Which vision should dominate? It's not a hard question to answer. Note that one of these visions is the essence of manhood and womanhood while the other is a metaphor. Man and woman ARE image bearers of God. And, interestingly, both woman AND MAN are also the Church. In the metaphor of husbands leading their homes as Jesus leads the Church, husbands aren't actually Jesus. Furthermore, man, in essence, actually is part of the Church. We need to start with essence. Metaphor is then helpful to flesh out how that looks at times. But metaphor has to submit to essence.

I want to use caution in how I word this, for there is much of beauty (and truth) in Paul's likening of husbands to Jesus and wives to the Church in Ephesians 5. I have been blessed by studying this passage. On the subject of submission in marriage, it's helpful to note that while Paul in Ephesians 5 likens wives to the Church with respect to submission, Peter in I Peter 2-3 calls wives to reflect the example of Jesus when submitting to their husbands. It's a longer passage, but if you follow the flow of thought, it's clear that when Peter says “Likewise, wives be subject to your own husbands” in I Peter 3:1, he's refering back to his description of Christ's example in I Peter 2:21. It's not that Scripture is schizophrenic on this subject but that different writers use different metaphors and examples to flesh out God's instructions on this particular issue of submission.

The foundation of all other teaching in Scripture on gender is Genesis 1 and 2. Paul gets this in Ephesians. He didn't write Ephesians 5 in a vacuum. He was writing in the context of a larger story. After fleshing out the creation/fall/redemption narrative and all Christ has accomplished for us on the cross in Ephesians 1-4, Paul opens Ephesians 5 with the incredible words, “Therefore, be imitators of God.” In Christ, we are equipped to once again image God as He created us to do in perfection. This is incredible and amazing for both man and woman.

Let's go back now to the problem with the language True Woman 101 uses to discuss the essence of gender. My correction is that God didn't create women to image the Church. He created women to image Himself. In the particular relationship of Christian marriage, the submission of the Church to Christ is a helpful metaphor for understanding submission between husbands and wives. It inspires us to live out our own metaphor in marriage, a noble testimony of the gospel.  But, and this is a very big but, women are also called to be like Christ in this very same issue of submission to their husbands (I Peter 2-3). And, furthermore, while man is to be like Jesus in his love and service to his Bride, man in essence actually is the Bride, the Church. The husband's example for his love for his wife is Christ's love for the husband.

The Ephesians 5 metaphor is helpful for understanding roles in Christian marriage, but True Woman 101 sets it up instead as the essence of gender, and that is not consistent with Scripture in my opinion. Our essence, male and female, is that we were both created in the image of God. Our essence, also, is that both male and female are in reality the Church. Neither of us are in essence Jesus; we are both in essence the Church. And both of us were created to image God.  We can not zoom in on Ephesians 5 and treat it as the whole on gender. We can not treat it as the context for all other discussion on gender. God sets the context in Genesis 1-2, a context in which Paul writes the whole of Ephesians.

I have other issues with the True Woman 101 study. It sets up good ideas as ultimate ideas, repeatedly using the phrase “... is at the core of what it means to be a man (or woman)” in ways that the Bible doesn't. It applies Scripture on husbands and wives across the board to all men and all women regardless of marital status. And it presents the issues of Genesis 3:16 in ways I disagree, which any long term reader here is already familiar with.

But in this review, the main thing I want to call us to is precision in how we word what we teach women as the essence of their womanhood. Paul looked at our image bearing creation in Genesis as essence when he wrote Ephesians 5. Just look at verse 1, “Therefore, be imitators of God.” And we too should be careful to use language that does the same.

Rachel Held Evan's A Year of Biblical Womanhood tore down a biblical womanhood I didn't recognize. But it also raised my awareness that the adjective biblical, like the noun gospel, often gets used without precision. If we are going to use the word biblical in our titles and descriptions, we have set for ourselves a noble but high standard. It is the best of standards, but it is one we need to steward with extreme care and precision. With a love for the adjective biblical and a desire for its precise stewardship, I hope this discussion is helpful, not harmful, causing us to think about and steward truth, not question it.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Fellowship of Suffering

Philippians 3:8-10 I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but refuse, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death;
I have been suffering, and as I have suffered, my eyes have been opened to others who are suffering. I always knew of others who were suffering, but there is a difference in knowing of someone and then knowing that someone in truth. My own minor experiences with suffering kept me from being able to enter the suffering of others. But as I have personally suffered, I have found a new ability to enter others' suffering as they have entered mine. 

Enter is an interesting word for this phenomenon. My friends and I have gone through a doorway that brings us into each others' suffering. We don't sit outside peering in through a window. We sit in the room together, sharing the experience in a way that others who have not suffered cannot. There is a fellowship, a companionship, a comradery in this room of suffering in which we mutually sit. Paul calls this the fellowship of suffering.

In Philippians 3, Paul is talking of this fellowship in terms of Jesus and His suffering. We enter into a special place where He sits, as He enters into ours. He is the Man of Sorrows, well acquainted with grief. We have a fellowship with Him in our suffering in particular that is worth meditating on. But Paul also talks of the Church as Jesus' Body. So it makes sense to me that when I enter another believer's suffering, I am entering into Christ's as well. This fellowship of suffering involves both the Head and the rest of His Body.
1 Corinthians 12:26 If one member suffers, all suffer together;
The fellowship of sufferers is a room for the mature in the faith. Suffering moves one from kindergarten to master's level faith pretty quickly. People wise up. Their naïve notions of how their lives would turn out burn off. They put off trite kindergarten sayings of Christianity. They recognize the prosperity gospel for the heresy that it is. They quiet down and man (or woman) up. 

Here are some of the things I have experienced in fellowship with other sufferers.

1. Quiet sitting rather than trite answers.

2. People who pray asking God for advice rather than offering advice of their own.

3. People who can give wisdom on how to BE rather than what to DO. (Sufferers understand being in a situation where you can't control the outcome while non sufferers feel threatened by that idea and have a hard time with anything except advice on how to get out of your suffering.)

4. People who understand this world is not our home.

There comes a moment in the path of suffering when you move from efforts to jettison the weight from your shoulders toward adjusting the weight so you can carry it for the long haul. Not all suffering lasts all of life. I have been healed from severe foot pain that kept me from activity for a good year or so. But I have not been healed from type 1 diabetes, and I have had to learn how to manage it, knowing that I am likely to wear an insulin pump for the rest of my life. A rebellious child is something one can wait in hope in this life for their return to faith. But the child who died from cancer is a permanent loss, a weight that can not be jettisoned from the story of your life.  Such weight is impossible to bear if you don't believe in the joy set before us, the destination in eternity that will not disappoint. Sufferers, especially those permanently scarred by circumstances that can not be undone in this life, get this deep, important truth in a way non-sufferers don't.

Maybe the best thing about the fellowship of suffering is the mutual encouragement we receive to persevere from others in the circle. Wesley Hill's Washed and Waiting did this for me. His struggle was in a totally different area of life, but the last chapter on his vision for enduring in suffering and temptation ministered deeply to me. When my friend admonishes me from his wheel chair to not quit; when my rejected sister in Christ reminds me that there is nowhere else to go, for Jesus alone has the words of life; when the woman dying of cancer writes of mundane faithfulness to the bitter end; the fellowship in this suffering empowers me to persevere, to count the loss not worthy to be compared to the glory of knowing Christ.
Yea verily, and I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but refuse, that I may gain Christ ... Phil. 3:8 
If you are suffering, your first reaction, especially if you are early on in your suffering, is likely to find others whose suffering reconciled. The estranged couple who worked it out. The cancer patient who recovered. The parents of a rebellious child who saw their child return to the faith. But as your suffering continues, you'll find a deep treasure in those who have endured without earthly resolution to their pain. Their perseverance will bless you as they know this world is not our home and look to the treasure that lies ahead.
“Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” Romans 9:33 
Enter into this fellowship with Jesus and His Body.  Do not be afraid of it, for it is life giving in the garden of faith.  You are not left to walk this road alone.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Three-fifths of a Person

It's the last day of Black History Month, and I've had a post swirling in my mind that I never had a chance to get on paper. I'll offer some short thoughts instead.

The most important thing for any non-black to remember during black history month seems to me to be that it is caucasian history as well. Black and white history in America are really one shared history. My place in America as a white woman is built upon this mutually shared history, and it has benefitted me to study black history. I recommend Henry Louis Gates' documentary, Many Rivers to Cross, as a starting point for understanding black history in America.

In the opening episode of Gates' documentary, he discusses the transformation of slavery from a globally practiced arrangement affecting most nations and races into a movement that systematically dehumanized large groups of a single race of people, culminating in that dark moment of our national history in which slaves by law were labeled only 3/5 of a person. While the rest of the United States was celebrating the amazing Bill of Rights, slaves were denied their true humanity and the inherent rights our nation said such humanity deserved.

Others with better first hand experience are the best ones to write about the effects the history of dehumanization by our government has had on our modern milieu. My take away this year is around this root issue – the dehumanization of people who are fully human – in light of the story of Scripture. What was it like for a people group to be treated as less than fully human for generation after generation, and what is it like to reclaim the truth of their inherent dignity as image bearers of God for the future? Our history is shared, so I also must ask MYSELF, what privileges do I have because for generations my family, despite their poverty, was treated as fully human? And what can I do daily to use my privilege to support the dignity of image bearers of God who have had to fight their own government to be recognized that way?

One of the most important things I've learned at this point is to stop and listen, truly listen asking only clarifying questions, to the stories of my African American friends. Our histories are shared. Their stories reflect on mine, as mine reflects on theirs. The value of such listening won't stop on March 1.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Fifty Shades of Genesis 3:16

Well, Fifty Shades of Grey is coming out on Valentine's Day.  Oh, what a warped view of love we have. I doubt Christian women need a lecture against reading the book or going to the movie. I can't imagine anyone is going because they think it is a morally good thing to do. It will be a blockbuster hit because there is a deeper issue in our hearts, and it is that deeper issue that I prefer to address.

The Twilight Series was a lighter version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Call it what you want – erotic fiction, BDSM, or in the Twilight Series, paranormal young adult fiction. But the bottom line of both series is the same -- Good Girls fall in love with Bad Boys. These particular series made the news because the individual books and movies reached a mass market audience, but “romance” novels involving the "hero" treating the girl badly and the girl wanting him anyway (with the hope of reforming him) have been hugely successful among women for hundreds of years.

The popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey doesn't surprise me, because God predicted it in Genesis 3. The woman's desire or strong craving (addiction if you will) will be for the man, and he will rule over her. THAT is why Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight Series, and countless other lesser known masochistic “romance” novels have flourished over the years. When Christ is removed from our relationships, that is what is left – men oppressing women and women lapping it up, even if it's just in fiction. I imagine men will not appreciate that characterization any more than women will. Yet, apart from Christ and God's common grace among unbelievers, this is where both sexes default in my humble opinion, and I think history affirms my view.

This is not to say that, apart from Christ, we don't have countless societal coping mechanisms for dealing with this phenomenon. I see feminism as the major coping mechanism. I'm thankful for aspects of feminism, particularly the first wave of feminism. I see it as a great manifestation of God's common grace. Feminism didn't change anyone's heart, but the movement did help to restrain sinful oppression of women in many countries and in many different walks of life. But for every educated, take charge feminist woman you know, there remain hundreds in the shadows of life contributing to their own sexploitation. After 3 waves of feminism, countless laws, and much education, millions of women would still run after the sulky vampire in their fantasies, choosing to suck blood for the rest of their lives rather than living in the light.

As for Fifty Shades of Grey, while it is in many ways like Playboy for men, there are motivating factors for women that are very different than a man's for pornography. I think that understanding the reason that so many women are flocking to this book/movie can be a powerful tool to pointing them back to the gospel's answer for the dark longings in their heart. To that end, I hope this analysis is helpful.

For many women reading this (and men too), a lot of this may sound completely foreign. If you're saying to yourself, “That's not MY husband or MY history,” then praise God! Perhaps as a child you were raised to know Christ and His Word. You recognized early on your creation in His image and your worth as His honored son or daughter. For the most part, that's our family, though occasionally I get glimpses into my tendencies apart from redemption. I would have lapped up the Twilight Series hook, line, and sinker during my teenage years. I thank God regularly that He kept me from the kind of guys I would have been willing to date when I was too naïve and immature to recognize this in myself.

There is something much better than secular coping mechanisms that are helpful in some ways and detrimental in others though. Christ has broken the curse and is slowly but surely redeeming His children from its effects. In Christ, women have the rescuer we need. We have a need to submit, and we need one who dominates our life.  But only One, Christ Himself, can fill those needs in a way that invites light, not shadow. I'm reminded in all this that we will offer our best solutions spiritually when we best understand the root issue.

My heart aches for women longing for their Christian Grey. That is not his real form, and he morphs into something dark and disturbing when you least expect it.  In Christ, we can recognize this dark fantasy for what it is and then move away from the dark towards the light to live in the real relationships God has given us.

It helps a lot if you understand Genesis 3:16.

This is a reworked version of a post I first wrote in 2012.