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Is Gender Christian?

A friend from Costa Rica asks some searching questions about the church and gender:


In what ways and to what extent do you consider that the feminine metaphors for the church are meant to “tame” (or even “heal”) our animalistic masculinity, infusing it with character virtues that are more typically associated with women? Do you consider that that's what's going on in the New Testament, bringing about an altogether "new" humanity that to an extent embraces the male and female distinctions while transcending and uniting them in the agapic love of the Messiah?


If so, does Christianity in fact bring about a “feminization' of society,” as Prof. Charles Taylor hints in his Sources of the Self?


Lots to consider here—too much for a single blog post. So I’ll begin by pointing readers to a whole chapter I’ve written on so-called inclusive language: in Bible translations, in theology, and in prayer, and in regard to both God and to each other as humans. It’s in my book Partners in Christ (the revised version of my earlier Finally Feminist).


The two points I want to take from that longer discussion are these. First, God is not male. But God typically—although not exclusively—casts Godself in masculine terms in the Bible, from pronouns to governing metaphors.


Indeed, the two primary ways in which God relates to the people of God are as Lord and Lover: as monarch and as matrimonial partner. God does so because in a patriarchal society (and every society has been patriarchal, up to this one), the masculine role contains leadership, resources, initiative, and responsibility in ways that the feminine doesn’t. It makes sense, therefore, for God to use masculine terms because toward us, his people, he is as a lord to a lady (or, to use Kierkegaard’s image, a peasant girl) or as a fiancé to his betrothed/a husband to his wife.


God sets the standard, to be sure, of what it means to be in those roles. When God calls the first humans in Genesis 1 & 2 to be lords over the earth, it is implied that we are to rule as we have been ruled by the Ruler. What it means to be a lord is to imitate the Lord, who is generously kind to his creation, and ultimately self-giving on behalf of it (and us). Likewise with husbands toward wives, whether dear, wounded Hosea in the Old Testament or the figure of Christ himself (Eph. 5) in the New. Masculine power is to be wielded only to bless those with less: women, yes, and also children, the poor, the stranger, and so on.


God, therefore, uses the materials at hand in human culture to paint pictures that are cross-culturally communicative. Still, and this is my second point from Partners in Christ, God does portray himself, paradoxically enough, as feminine and especially as maternal in both Testaments. In the Old Testament God speaks of Godself as a mother giving birth, and Jesus speaks of himself as a hen longing to gather her scattered and vulnerable chicks under her wings as he mourns over wayward Jerusalem.


What, then, about gender in the Church, as transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of God? Is it simply the case that in Christ there is neither “male nor female” (Gal. 5:28)?


No, it isn’t. Paul in Galatians 5 is referring to the economy of salvation and to the way Christians ought to treat each other in the Body in the context of that salvation. The typical hierarchies of rank and value must not be observed in the church, but rather a loving embrace of everyone as equally valued in God’s eyes:


For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.


The distinctions nonetheless remain. Distinctively Jewish and Gentile forms of Christianity were ratified at the Great Council in Acts 15. Slaves and masters are to treat each other with new respect as Christians, but the levelling leaven of the gospel worked its way only slowly through Christian society.


And what about males and females?


Let’s start with a basic observation: Christian virtues are not gendered. The fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5) are not assigned to men and women. The New Testament spends very little time, in fact, addressing men and women differently. When it does, it tells us to use whatever power we have to care for the other. Otherwise, the Gospel comes to us generically, as human beings, and maturity in the Spirit is available to all, regardless of sex.


I’ll take this opportunity to venture a little speculation. Inclusive-language translations nowadays render adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” in order to make clear that the epistles address all the members of the church, not just the males.


I wonder, however, if the single term “brothers” is actually a powerful idiom suggesting in that cultural context that female disciples were indeed full equals with male disciples in the Church. If instead the epistle-writers had written “brothers and sisters,” it might have reinforced divisions and ranks of sex and gender that are done away with in Christ. “Brothers—yes, and also sisters….” Lumping everyone together in the higher social group, brothers, means that there is no more “higher” and “lower.” I considered this idea again recently in studying Ephesians 4:13: “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” It is wildly inappropriate nowadays for women to be told to grow up to become “a mature man,” of course. But in that social world, Christian women could not only aspire, but were expected, to become the best anyone could be: a mature man, a complete human.


Note by contrast that women in the two main Indian religions typically have to wait to be reincarnated as a man before they can even hope to enjoy the best Hinduism or Buddhism have to offer. Classical Greek and Roman philosophers typically understood women as malformed men. The New Testament, however, says in a variety of ways that in Christ we are all simply humans: children of God destined for glory, regardless of sex.


Furthermore, the New Testament writings commend a wide range of virtues, variously typical in the Roman world of men, or of women, or of both. Courage and fortitude and leadership, yes, and also meekness and obedience and deference. Vigour and magnanimity and the forcible overcoming of both obstacles and enemies, yes, and also petition, receptivity, and submission. Again, the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23), like every other Pauline list of virtues, are not gendered at all.


There is, to be sure, an important sense in which the Roman world would have found Christian values suspect precisely because Christianity required of men the same virtues it requires of women. Centuries later, the latter-day Greco-Roman Friedrich Nietzsche curled his lip in disgust at the way Christianity subverted classical values of manly honour, status, and power. So there is something to the idea of Christianity “feminizing” our culture, but that’s a maladroit way to put it.


Instead, the regime of Christ expects everyone to strive to be full of the same Spirit so as to produce the same basic fruit. What happens, then, is not “feminization,” but the valorization of what had been seen as feminine traits now as generically human virtues. Christianity isn’t made feminine. The feminine comes into its own in Christianity.


The Christian religion does not expect men and women to be entirely the same—to be sexless and genderless or, along the same line, to be ethnically uniform and all the same colour. When the kings of the earth enter the New Jerusalem, they enter as representatives of different peoples (Isa. 60). There is no reason to think we shed our sex anymore than our culture or skin tone at the entrance to the world to come.


Let’s borrow a Chinese symbol, the tai-chi (or taiji). The interconnected curves of the yang and yin, of masculine and feminine, are complementary and cooperative. Yet the tai-chi symbol also shows, in the “eye-dots” of the opposite colours, that there are to be masculine traits in women and feminine traits in men, since both are generically human and there is much that is simply good toward which all of us should strive.


What, then, about gender in today’s gender-fluid society? Primarily, why not just try to be good persons, faithful disciples of Jesus and exemplary children of God? That is certainly the dominant emphasis of the Bible—not distinctions of sex and gender. Be yourself in Christ—and you’ll be the most authentic you.


Ethical conservatives concerned to defend heterosexual marriage as the norm don’t need to insist on formulas of maleness and femaleness or lists of masculine and feminine traits, subject as such specifications always are to the suspicion that they are merely culturally, not Biblically, derived. Instead, if male-female difference is truly as basic and as important as it must be for Biblical heteronormativity to make sense (and not be instead some weirdly arbitrary divine command), surely it will work itself out beautifully in each authentic Christian life and each authentic Christian marriage.


There are, after all, lots of different kinds of men and lots of different kinds of women. If “M/F” is truly encoded as part of the basic human operating system, then might we not just try to be as Christlike as possible and see how M/F manifests itself in this man or this woman, and in this marriage and that marriage? (I restrict the discussion to marriage because I don’t think sex and gender should matter in church and society. There’s that book again: Partners in Christ.)


Let us beware, therefore, of currents in our culture—whether in Canada or Korea, Australia or America, that would pull us off-centre, away from the image of Christ that the Holy Spirit of God is striving to inculcate in our hearts. Let us examine with care the latest trends—just as we should the inherited traditions—of what it means to be a man or a woman . . . or whatever today is posited as “in between,” and scrutinize them in the light of the whole revelation of God in Scripture.


Above all and in all, let us hew to the pattern of Christian life set out so richly in the Bible. And so we will let whatever male/female and masculine/feminine patterns emerge that are consistent with that pattern, and with that Spirit.


Downstream of both patriarchy and feminism, I look forward to seeing what comes next for women and men, girls and boys—in God’s exemplary new creation, the Church of Jesus.

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