Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Trouble with Men and Women: Exercises in love and unity

Christians differ in conscience and conviction about what the Bible says about a number of issues. Really everything is disputed somewhere, but if we can concede that there are some things that are utterly essential and others that are open to some dispute, some which are essential for unity, others over which there is room to differ, then one of the most contentious is the role of women.

The issue basically comes down to the role of men and women in marriage, and the role of men and women in the church particularly with regard to leadership and teaching. On the one side is the egalitarian who notes that men and women are both created in God's image and that there is no male and female in Christ. On the other the complementarian who agrees with the previous statement but says that this equality includes order which says men are to lead in the home and the church.

The missional movement in which I work takes no position on this issue, regarding it as a matter on which we can disagree and still carry out our mission, consequently you can find students, staff and churches in our partnership who hold a full range of views on the issues.

Our partner publishing house IVP-UK have published a volume by Grudem on Complementarianism and one edited by Groothuis and Fee on Egalitarianism. Fee spoke at our Staff Training Conference a few years ago. My church and its wider family are broadly complementarian (to varying degrees), and I would agree with the stance my church takes. Churches need to decide a position as they appoint leaders and have more to do with marriage than a purely student context ever will.

My experience is that those who are opposed to the complementarian viewpoint tend to be concerned that it is oppressive to women who will find themselves dominated in the home and their ability to serve in the church restricted. Hannah expresses her experience here of being within the same student movement and church family as I am. I don't doubt there is some abuse, from all theological positions, and that is shameful and without excuse. In the church I hurt other members and other members hurt me through negligence, weakness through our own deliberate fault; but we are called to love by the one who loved us, the propitiation and expiation for our sins.

In marriage what's really at stake is the issue of men stepping up to take responsibility for their household, unlike the original shirker Adam; and women partnering with their husbands rather than being led astray by an outsider, unlike Eve. Both Adam and Eve are held responsible for the fall. The women in our church seem far from oppressed and more liberated and empowered by their husbands leading. Moreover the real issue is that male leadership is to be Christlike leadership which means giving themselves up to death for their wives, and similarly the wife being like the church dies to live a new life in Christ. I think the application of these doctrines makes for a better marriage, one in which my sin is confronted by the gospel of grace rather than accomodated.

In the church one has to deal with the maleness of instructions about the qualifications for leaders in 1 Timothy 4, Titus 1 and the restrictions of 1 Timothy 2 one way or another. I think this has to come in view of a body ministry, which I'm glad our church practises. This means that the elder or the preacher is not the key ministry to have, but rather that every ministry matters in the church - indeed leaders equip the saints for ministry - saying a woman can't be an elder is just saying a woman isn't a man because she's a woman it's no degredation or restriction of her ability to contribute to the body. Where would the body be without women? On a Sunday morning (and at other times) I'm as benefited by the prayers and prophecies and other contributions of women in our church as by the service of other men in the body.

In my mind the issue matters because marriage is meant to be the best echo of Christ and the church and there are ways in which that echo is meant to be heard, and because the life of the church is to look like Christ's body and reflect the life of the Triune God too. Order is something that is evident in creation, the world was formless but God spoke to bring form and orderliness because he too is a God of order not of chaos. I find it hard to see how anyone can draw Egalitarian convictions from the Scripture, but doubtless my brothers and sisters in Christ would query how I can draw my Complementarian views (and a whole host of other conclusions) from Scripture too!

In my workplace though we're not running a church we're a partnership between churches and the principle issue, ahead of having my own doctrinal way, is to have love, and that means some Christian Unions lovingly don't have women teaching and others do - on the basis of how we can best serve and bear with one another's consciences in these matters.

There is liberty. We unite on the gospel. We admit our differences. And we love one another.

Issues that can divide us don't have to be papered over - we can face them head on, respecting that there is room for disagreement with brothers and sisters, without abandoning our own convictions but in pursuit of love. When opportunity comes to teach on what it is to be a man or a woman I want to tread carefully and respectfully, admitting that Bible-loving people have drawn other conclusions on the issue to those I have drawn.

The Egalitarian Evangelical is doubtlessly trying to be Christlike - today I choose to assume the best of others though I confess I've not always done so. This Complementarian Evangelical is also trying to be Christlike, and if so that has got to mean loving others and dying to my self not least because I'm saying that as a husband I want to walk in Christ's footsteps and lay my life down for my wife, a pursuit that doesn't sit well with the arrogance, laziness, pride or divisiveness that I might easily be prone to embrace.