(Re)gendering the Trinity

Thank you to all of the comments below – all very helpful, and I’m not sure I have a great deal to add directly!

However – reflecting on the recent discussion in the media over masculine and feminine terms for God, I have found it interesting to reflect on the fact that certain church traditions have, at various points, referred to the Holy Spirit in the feminine. At risk of entering into counter-factual theology, if such a tradition were a mainstream practice (and if indeed it becomes more mainstream in the future) does this impact one’s view of the relations of the Trinity? Is it then more instinctive to have a ‘subordinationist’ view of the Trinity – that, somehow, calling God the Holy Spirit ‘she’ is less controversial not only because the Holy Spirit doesn’t have another gendered name, but because this still appears to uphold a kind of hierarchy? And how much might it affect our view of intra-trinitarian relationships if they are not all addressed with male pronouns? Basically – and more broadly – how might regendering the Trinity impact Trinitarian theology, or our perceptions of Trinitarian relationships? Would it be damaging? Would it be helpful for some people? Obviously, this is a very broad question, and far more speculative than anything else. But I’m curious to hear reactions to it.

C’Mon Patrick

Thrilled that Alastair kicked off this discussion of Trinity and gender. I have many thoughts, so I’m glad he framed this in specific questions. I won’t even attempt to answer all 7. But before I jump into several, I think it’s important to recognize that no matter how we understand the Trinity, as the great Irish philosophical duo has told us, any and all attempts to produce an analogy or metaphor for the Trinity ultimately leads into some very problematic thinking. So, on to Alastair’s questions:

1. Should we abandon social Trinitarianism, despite the prominent role that it has played in both complementarian and egalitarian theologies?

No. Even though, as our Irish friends have pointed out, analogies will come up short, and possibly lead us into some newly articulated form of an old heresy, I think social Trinitarianism, if we understand it’s limitations, can actually be helpful. It may get us frightfully close to tritheism, but I think understanding the relational connections between the three persons of the one God can actually bring an element of truth to the table. How this plays out in discussions of gender is something still being fleshed out by theologians. But my own take, is that it isn’t useful equally for both sides of the debate. It certainly provides an image far more in line with an egalitarian view of gender.

Several of Alastair’s questions are interrelated, so I’ll group together these: 2. Can our doctrine of the Trinity illuminate and inform our accounts of society or gender relations? // 4. How should we handle verses such as 1 Corinthians 11:3? // 5. How do we relate the earthly obedience of Christ to his Father’s command to the life of the Trinity? //6. Can a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son be theologically justified or squared with the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian theology?

In response to the first of those; Paul seemed to think so. The fact the 1 Cor. 11:3 draws a very obvious connection between the relationship of man to woman and the Father to the Son, means that in Paul’s thinking there is (or perhaps that there ought to be) in some sense a reflection of one in the other. But what is that connection? Is “head” (kephale) meant to suggest the male’s position of authority over the woman? Or, as many egalitarians have pointed out, kephale (and its Hebrew rough equivalent rosh) can refer to “origin” or “source” (e.g. the “head” of a river). I would tend towards the latter, since I am not at all comfortable with the subordination of the son (at least not in any ontological sense, but the notion of kenosis which Paul uses to depict Christ’s work, and the attitude his people ought to imitate, is applied to all Christian relationships [see Gal. 5:13-14, Phil. 2:3-8, Eph. 5:21] not just of the wife to the husband [e.g. Eph. 5:22]). The Son, in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection, is doing the will of the Father (e.g. John 5:30, 6:38-39, Gal. 1:4), but does this mean the Son is subordinate? I would argue no, this makes the Son kenotic not subordinate. Since Christ was in very nature God, there is no ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. Perhaps we can distinguish a functional subordination, but even that is something I’m not entirely comfortable with. But I would certainly not accept the eternal subordination of the Son, since I find this subordinationism pushing its toes right up to (but not quite over) the line with bitheism and/or some form of Arianism.

So, when Paul says “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:3 NRSV) he is alluding not to subordination, but to the sequence of the creation narrative. All things, including man, are created through Christ, and woman is from Adam (but unlike many complementarians, I would categorically reject any sense of headship of man over woman in Gen. 1-2; this subordination is something resulting from the fall [Gen. 3:16], which I’m sure Alastair will lambaste me for saying 😉 ). The ensuing conversation in 1 Cor. 11 dealing with head coverings is fascinating, complex, and of course hotly debated. But since Paul authorizes women to prophesy with heads covered (v. 5), I am inclined to read this passage as supporting women’s full participation as women. NT Wright has argued, rightly in my own mind, for seeing Paul affirming differentiation without subordination in this passage. Paul, unlike the Gnostics of the early 2nd century, affirms the equal dignity of male and female, and does not support a strange call for women to become like men, and blur genders (as in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), but that men and women remained gendered as such, but the Holy Spirit- and not gender- defines the participation in the Church (it is worthy of note, and needing further exploration I think, the mixing of relationships within the marriage in verse 3, and the roles of women in the Church in verse 5).

So, the relationship of man and wife reflects the Father-Son relationship not in terms of authority and subordination, but in terms of different but equally sharing in the image of God, and as I noted above, equally called to kenotic ways of living, which reflect the kenotic life of Christ (e.g. Phil. 2:5-8, Eph. 5:1-2).

Christian Liberty in the Gender Debate: A Case Study

Before starting into my thoughts on Hannah’s post, welcome Jem Bloomfield to the discussion. Looking forward to your participation.

Now, on to the topic at hand; Hannah A has brought up some thoughts which hit at the heart of what we’re up to here (in my own thinking and desire for PTSS at least). She asks about how far do/should we extend liberty on differences of opinion on gender. In other words, to what extent can people of differing views continue in partnership. I am glad Hannah brought this up, because at present some within my own “tribe” are asking this very question (or at least a very similar one); can complementarians and egalitarians function together in a missional body. I am part of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ). CBOQ approved the opening of ordination to women at our Annual General Meeting in 1947. It was not unanimous, and even now, the differences of opinion persist. There are some (I don’t really now what the numbers are like) pastors, laity, and congregations which believe ordination ought to be restricted to men only. These people/congregations continue to function within CBOQ, even though they disagree with this position. A “live and let live” approach has typically been the norm. But periodically the question pops up again.

So the question which Hannah asks “Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?” can also be expanded to say “Where do egalitarians belong in complementarian organizations?” and also tweeked a bit to ask “Where do complementarians belong in egalitarian organizations?”. In other words, yes, complementarians need to wrestle with the question of what freedoms women have to use their gifts, and whether they can function within organizations which have policies which are contrary to their convictions. And egalitarians need to ask similar questions. One Complementarian pastor recently spoke out in a blog post about what the lines in the sand for his continued affiliation with CBOQ are. One of them was if CBOQ declines to ordain someone because they hold to complementarian convictions. Of course, CBOQ has never done so, but our official policy is that women are free (and encouraged) to pursue ordination if they are convinced of a calling. I am not sure how complementarians process this tension, since they are part of a body which encourages something which they find to be contrary to Scripture. When I try to reverse the situation- in other words, if I, as an egalitarian, were part of a complementarian body- I struggle to see how I would continue to remain within that voluntary association.

PTSS is an experiment in such thinking. Can egalitarians and complementarians (with varying gradations within those two broad groups) discuss in Christian unity and grace the implications of our views? So far, I think the answer has been yes. This gives me a great deal of hope. But this is an online project. What happens when we move this to body like TGC or CBOQ? As of right now, a complementarian view of gender is a line in the sand for TGC, but a difference bridged by Christian liberty within CBOQ (although this isn’t always done well).

I think Hannah has captured the tendency well, saying “For many complementarians, egalitarians have been reduced to “liberals” and for egalitarians, complementarians are oppressive chauvinists.” This is the big issue. Can complementarians and egalitarians drop the labels and assumptions they’ve built about the folks on the other side of the conversation? Can we become people who graciously disagree? In denominational bodies where ordinations are overseen and performed, the issue comes into sharp conversation. But in non-denominational or inter-denominational parachurch bodies, this seems more like a possibility.

One nitpicky item to note, Hannah writes “The current debate between egalitarians and complementarians began when feminist theology started making inroads into evangelicalism in the 1970s.” This is only partially true. In some cases, in was after the new wave of feminism in the late 60s/early 70s which saw big shifts, in other cases, it was much, much earlier when egalitarian views began to gain real traction (like for e.g. CBOQ who began a conversation much earlier which culminated in the decision to ordain women in 1947.

But in answer to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? I certainly aspire to this as best I can. I have complementarian colleagues who I continue to interact with, continue to pray for and with, and continue to break bread with. I have no intention to change this.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake? I can’t say for sure. This is the part I am wrestling with. A pastor friend of mine from another denomination asked me to apply for a Sr. Pastor job at his church. I declined because a) I am currently planted in a call, and haven’t felt the conviction that it’s time to leave and b) I would inevitably run into problems because I have trouble keeping silent on the issue (the church in question allows women in all positions except Sr. Pastor and Elders, and the denomination does not ordain women). Would I speak at a TGC conference if invited? Probably (of course, I doubt they’d invite me for various reasons). Would I join? No (for various reasons). Would I join another organization that I agreed with on every front but this issue? There’s where things get tricky, and in all honesty I can’t answer right now. Luckily, I am quite comfortable with tensions and “I don’t know”s.


#AllTheFeels: What does gendered reason and emotion do to the Church?

After raising the question of men trusting women (and why a tendency towards mistrust might persist) I thought it would be pertinent to explore the topic of gendering reason and emotion, particularly in the Church. As has been proposed in several of the responses from our previous discussion, there does seem to be, at the very least, a stereotype towards women being viewed as untrustworthy on the basis of being more ‘emotional’ than men. We’ve talked a little about passages that reference women as the ‘weaker’ sex, and, while Kristen is probably right that most casual sexism towards women in secular 21st century society isn’t rooted in a particular interpretation of 1 Timothy, I think it is fair to say that post-enlightenment protestant Christianity has certainly encouraged a reason/emotion split, and, importantly, hierarchy in modern thought, and along gender lines. As we move the conversation from a broader look at society as a whole to gendered reason/emotion in the Church, there are a few areas I’d particularly like to explore.

  1. How much should we allow a kind of pseudo-biology to dictate the way we talk about the relationship between women and men and their emotional faculties? When it comes to Christians and the ‘natural order’, I notice a trend of inconsistency in which aspects of nature we denote as ‘God ordained’ and which are not. For example: the same people who tell me that in God’s order, women are the ‘weaker’ (read more emotional) sex and men are more aggressive (and reasonable!) leader figures, and that this is reflected in some loose definition of biology, might not be so willing to acknowledge the ‘biological’ basis for the ‘natural’ presence of homosexuality, or the ‘naturally’ occurring desire for men to have multiple partners for evolutionary reasons. On what basis can we use ‘nature’ or ‘biology’ to justify a particular interpretation of scripture, when we’re dealing with a fallen world? And if we are going to, how far can that take us in seeing women as the more ‘emotional’ sex, often to their detriment? (Jem Bloomfield has written a really excellent post on some of the ‘evo-psych’ involved in this conversation – do read it!)
  1. Is it fair to blame diminishing male percentages in the Church on ‘feminization’ (usually meant almost as a dirty word, with connotations like overly touchy-feely worship songs) even though the overwhelming majority of leaders are still male? Do groups like the ‘Christian Vision for Men’ help matters by trying to make church more ‘manly’, rather than addressing a deeper problem, which is that emotional engagement is seen as a primarily female space – and that this somehow makes it inferior? I’m not necessarily arguing that the ‘Man’s Group’ is a bad thing, but as someone who grew up in a form of intellectual evangelicalism, in which emotional engagement with one’s spirituality was viewed with suspicion, it seems that attempts to make the church seem more intellectually rigorous or tough lead to a short-circuiting of a truly valuable aspect of human experience. I’m curious whether there is any traction in the idea that rather than an overly emotional church, the reason for lack of male engagement is that traditionally it was women who were asked to serve in their church communities – and those are involved stay engaged. Rather than taking men out of the main body of the church to bond and do ‘manly’ activities, community is best built when people serve the body together. This is turning into a broader point than specifically about reason and emotion, but I suppose I want to ask whether it’s fair to, in some way, blame women for something that is actually nothing to do with a ‘female’ trait.
  1. How much is gendered reason and emotion impacting the field of theology? Anecdotal evidence shows a lack of women doing the ‘hard’ or more ‘academic’ areas of theological disciplines, like Philosophical Theology, Biblical Studies, and Systematic Theology, and while it is essentially impossible to justify a position which suggests that men are more academically capable of studying these areas, why is it that women are not drawn to them, or are less likely to go on to professorships in these areas?

I’m aware that each of these questions could be a whole topic on its own, so if one is particularly picked up on and someone wants to write a full post exploring another area, I would welcome your thoughts!

Mistrust and the problem of “overgenderizing”

When we first moved to England for my husband’s sabbatical, we began watching a new miniseries on the BBC called, The Honourable Woman, a fitting name for the subject at hand. Every episode began with The Honourable Woman, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, saying, “Who do you trust?”

The questions being asked here are who do you mistrust and on what basis? On gender alone?

First, When it comes to men not trusting women I think we’ve hit on an anthropological problem of sin that affects all types of relations. After Adam and Eve sin, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. Then in the next chapter Cain murders his brother from a place of jealousy and mistrust. We see this continue to manifest itself between races, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, ages, religions, gender, etc. Simply put, we mistrust each other. To be sure, there’s a mistrust of women by men, as has been discussed, but I don’t think we should have the conversation without acknowledging an equal mistrust of men by women. I say this because I don’t want us to “overgenderize” (if I am allowed to make up my own word) this issue.

A danger of overgenderizing is reducing an issue such as mistrust to gender alone and thereby raising up a gender over another. Do all women deserve to be trusted simply because they are female? My answer is a firm, No. In the same way I don’t believe women should not be trusted simply because they are female. Being female (or male) doesn’t make us more or less trustworthy than the other. In fact, because of my view of sin and humanity, I find us all pretty untrustworthy. Yet, when I decide whether or not to trust someone or to believe what they say, it is not based on gender alone but on the person’s character. If there is a woman who is gossiper and liar, they will lose believability. If a male pastor has an affair, he will lose my trust. There are women who do not trust any man because they have been abused by men. There are men who do not trust any woman because they have been cheated on by women. And, of course, as already discussed, there are those who are very biased and allow gender to be a cause of mistrust more than character or behavior.

A second point that follows is that I don’t believe that the passages mentioned by Bronwyn and Graham are much to blame for a general mistrust of women among men. I think the issue, going back to the first point, is a result of sin and, as Alastair mentioned, partly influenced by how we are raised and other outside factors. But I don’t believe 1 Timothy 1 or 1 Peter 3 has had much influence (if any) on the general male population. For example, I don’t believe that every male mechanic to whom I have ever taken my car and has not believed me when I have said that my car is making a funny noise (not to mention that it never makes the noise when I take it to them!) is using 1 Timothy 1 as their reason. As it relates to mistrust of women, I believe the place where these passages of Scripture often come into play is within the ecclesial context where women might not be trusted as senior pastors or as preachers or teachers.

I liked what Bronwyn said in her piece, but I would clarify it a little further. She wrote,

“That first Easter, nobody trusted the women. But I’m reminded on Easter that Jesus did. He trusted the women. And it tells me that somehow, when it comes to bearing witness to Him, He trusts me too.”

I would say that Jesus didn’t trust the women at the cross simply because they were women. Rather, Jesus entrusted the message of his resurrection to the women, without regard to their gender, because he chose them and because they were there. Obviously these women were just as capable as men to take the gospel, but not because there was something in their gender that made them that way but because God chose to redeem and to use both sexes. The emphasis, then, is placed not on gender but on God.

To be honest, knowing my heart the way that I do and how prone I am to wander, I am surprised that God would entrust his gospel message to me at all. I sure don’t deserve it. But by his grace he does, and we must recognize God’s grace at work in others when he entrusts the same message to them that God has entrusted to us.

In response to Graham’s post, it seems that Paul was on trial in regards to his intentions (“Did Paul bring patriarchal bias into the composition?”) and in regards to inspiration (“Luke Timothy Johnson takes Paul to task for his poor exegesis.”). If one doesn’t take the “plain reading” of the text, then there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Rather, instead of raising a level of suspicion of Paul, I think a better and more helpful approach is to show from Scripture, tools of hermeneutics, cultural background, etc, how we have been misreading Paul. What Paul has written is the Word of God, but we have been misinterpreting or misreading him. This would be a better approach, in my opinion. I am uncomfortable with the other approach. A helpful book here that charges us to not read anachronistically is William Webb’s book, “Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.”

Secondly, in regards to the comment about Paul doing “poor exegesis” of Genesis 2, I think a better explanation of what we find in 1 Timothy 1 is Paul making an application of Genesis 2. He is not exegeting Genesis 2 as such, but rather he is using Genesis 2 to explain what is happening in Ephesus with the women. I personally understand Paul here to say that wherever women are being deceived like Eve and spreading false teaching, they need to shut up. And to that I say a hearty, Amen.

“Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien would be a helpful read also.

“Those Clanging Words” cont’d

Just some thoughts in response to Alastair’s comments to my earlier comments. I wrote:

Interestingly, on 1 Timothy, Luke Timothy Johnson takes Paul to task for his poor exegesis of Genesis 1-3. He states that “the warrant for the injunction [excluding women from leadership] is, in fact, a faulty reading of Torah.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy [The Anchor Yale Bible]. New Haven: Yale, 2001. p. 211). More could be said on how Paul reads the Genesis accounts and what he’s trying to demonstrate. But I will simply say that the ease with which Eve was deceived is certainly matched by Adam, and in Romans and the Corinthian letters, responsibility for sin is placed exclusively on Adam.

To which Alastair replied:

I don’t believe Paul is misreading Genesis, although the proper application of it is a question for another day. A key to the Eden story is that, although both Adam and Eve came under it, only Adam directly received the commandment concerning the tree, before Eve was created (2:16-17). Note that when God refers to the commandment later, he addresses Adam alone and uses the singular ‘you’ throughout (3:11, 17). Eve could be deceived because the serpent played off information that the text suggests she received directly from God (3:1-2; cf. 1:29) against information that she only had second-hand from God through Adam (as with Hebrew reported speech more generally, Eve’s reporting of the commandment in 3:3, where the plural ‘you’ is used, should not just be presumed to be a de dicto rendering of God’s words: here it seems rather to be a declaration of God’s commandment for them revealed through the words spoken to Adam alone). Adam appears to have been close by while Eve was tempted (3:6), without intervening, increasing her confusion and the likelihood of her deception. Adam alone committed thetrespass because he alone knowingly went against what God had said.

Just to clarify what I was referring to, I’ll expand what I was echoing Luke Timothy Johnson on. Alastair and I, for the most part, agree on this part of the exegesis of Gen. 3 (although Alastair elsewhere has drawn conclusions about gender which I wouldn’t from Gen. 1-3). But Adam’s earlier creation, and the creation of Eve after the command to not eat of the one particular tree are not precisely the issue I (and LTJ) are responding to. The issue is the fact that Paul seems to be drawing certain conclusions about women and men based on specific aspects of his reading of Genesis 3 which are not present in the text.

Let’s just look at Paul’s argument based on Genesis 3:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1 Tim. 2:11-15, NRSV)

Paul’s argument is typically understood to be this: a woman should learn, and not teach or exercise authority over men, but must keep quiet in teaching times, because 1. Adam was formed first and 2. it was Eve who was deceived, not Adam. Thus, men are not culpable (or more likely less culpable) and women are in some sense disqualified because the original woman was created after the original man, and because their having been deceived demonstrates their inherent lack of ability to correctly handle the commands of God. The problem is two-fold:

First, Adam having been formed first shows little or nothing with regard to male headship or authority generally. On the surface it looks like Paul is arguing that the simply fact of Adam preceding Eve means only men can teach. Adam having been present for the command and not Eve is never shown to be binding on gendered humanity for all time. Adam taught that command because Eve was not present to receive God’s instructions, not because males are inherently designed to hold teaching authority. Once relayed, the command is equally binding on both, even though Eve has it second hand (in our case, all commands of God are taught to us through human teachers, whether we are male or female, so this dynamic needs to be flushed out more). Eve knew the command, and initially trusted Adam that it was from God. Beyond the first generation, no one was present for the giving of that command thus Adam’s creation before Eve is almost irrelevant for discussions of male exclusivity in authority to teach (I say almost because I’ll come back to that in a moment).


Second, Paul says “Adam was not deceived” but he in fact was deceived. Paul says “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” but Adam also became a transgressor. In Romans and 1 & 2 Corinthians, it is through Adam that sin enters the world, and in Adam all are subject to death (although, 1 Cor. 11:3 does blame Adam’s sin on Eve, but Paul still asserts that it is Adam’s sin which brings death). Johnson’s argument is this:

Paul plays on the fact that the serpent deceived Eve rather than Adam. Presumably, this is to show that women are less capable of distinguishing truth from error, or are too driven by the appetites to be reliable teachers and leaders. But the logic is flawed. The woman, after all, was deceived by “the most subtle creature that the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1), but all the woman had to do was offer the fruit to the man and he ate it (3:6)! We can also note that in Gen. 3:17 it is not the woman who is blamed for eating the fruit, but the man.

He then continues:

Paul was not in this case engaging in sober exegesis of Genesis, but supporting his culturally conservative position on the basis of texts that in his eyes demonstrate the greater dignity and intelligence of men and, therefore, the need for women to be silent and subordinate to men.

Paul’s actual argument, based on Genesis 1-3, seems to be and has been traditionally understood to be that because of men having been made first, and women being deceived, holding the authority to teach is exclusive to males. To make such an argument is problematic, since the text of Genesis does not, in my opinion warrant such a conclusion. So, either Paul (or the person writing 1 Timothy) is misreading Genesis and using it to reinforce patriarchy and make an injunction excluding all women from the authority to teach, or we have to re-evaluate our reading of this particular passage in 1 Timothy. Johnson argues the former. I would argue both to some extent.

I do think Paul has made problematic assertions regarding Genesis. But I also think many readings of 1 Tim. have gone off in a problematic direction. Paul’s assertion that Adam was not deceived is problematic. The text of Genesis makes no such assertion. Why else would he eat of the fruit? The serpent has convinced Adam and Eve, since they were together at the time, that God’s statement “you must not touch it, or you will die” was not to be trusted. The way the text reads, in my opinion, is that they were both deceived, and Paul says Adam was not, and he then gives no account of Adam’s reason for partaking.

That said, I still think there is a real problem with reading 1 Timothy to say Paul’s argument is that women are universally like Eve in being deceivable, and also that Adam being created first means authority to teach is reserved exclusively for males. My own reading would be more like this: Adam was created before Eve, and the commandment came before Eve’s creation. This gave Adam the role of passing along what he knew, because Eve did not know, and needed to be given this instruction. The lesson then is not only males are permitted to teach and females must learn in submission, but that the untaught (in a 1st century context, women would fall here) should respect the authority of those who have already been taught (or have been taught to a greater extent). Eve was deceived because she failed to trust Adam’s teaching (hey look, we’re back to trust issues, but the other way around!). She believed the serpent and not Adam, and in turn, Adam believed the serpent and not God. Thus, Adam’s transgression is what produces death. Eve failed to trust her husband, Adam failed to trust his God.

“Those clanging words”

Alastair’s post to begin this topic was really helpful, and identified the key issues regarding trust. He concluded with a set of questions. The one I want to speak to is the second question: “What are some of the ways that men can change their behaviour and attitudes in order to trust women more?”

In her response (which got picked up by the Huffington Post), Bronwyn, I think, hit the nail on the head, referring to the biblical texts which cause so many problems for gender discussions:

1 Peter 3 refers to wives as “weaker vessels” than their husbands, and then there are those clanging words of 1 Timothy 2:14 where we are reminded that it wasn’t Adam who was deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (And, I am struck by the fact that Adam is named as an individual-not-blamed, while Eve-as-individual is not named… it the more generic “the woman” who was deceived… as if Adam as an autonomous agent is an exception, but all women are innately deceivable.) Are these not hints, then, that even in God’s economy, women are less able to act, less able to discern, just…. less able? In other words, are there theological reasons for women to be considered less trustworthy?

I haven’t met many willing to own this statement outright, but it seems to me that it lies as an undercurrent beneath some of the discussions about women in leadership in the church. Being prone to being busy bodies and gossips as they are (1 Timothy 5), and being deceivable and weaker (the Bible says so) – surely then women should remain silent?

The hermeneutical challenges of these passages (and other passages often cited and used as “clobber texts”, like Eph. 5:22ff, 1 Cor. 14:34-35) are immense, and hard to cover in a single post (so I won’t even try). Several questions swirl in my mind when I read these texts. Most egalitarians will immediately go to historical context, and suggest a greater level of cultural influence than complementarians are comfortable with. These are canonical texts, accepted by the Church as inspired (what that means in terms of infallibility/inerrancy is far beyond the discussion at hand). We assume that the authors were guided by God in the composition of these words. Did Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians & 1 Timothy in Paul’s name, depending on your slant on this topic- also beyond our scope right now) bring some still persistent patriarchal bias into the composition? In Romans and Galatians we don’t see anything like what we see in 1 Timothy. So, was there something unique about the behaviour of the women in Ephesus and Corinth? Did Paul have a lack of trust for all women, or just the specific women in these particular places/congregations? Given the praise he heaps on the women mentioned in Romans 16, can we identify a tension in Paul’s own mind which the Spirit is coming up against?

Without getting to deep into the exegesis of these passages, I just want to work out some things we can take away from them in response to Alastair’s question. A surface reading of these texts can easily reinforce male mistrust of women. As Bronwyn noted, it could be read to mean women in general follow after Eve and are deceivable, weaker, and as such, untrustworthy as witnesses. Yet, as Bronwyn helpfully pointed out, Jesus was certainly willing to trust women. So why were Paul and Peter seemingly reluctant to do the same, even with the Holy Spirit guiding and inspiring? Do we have to reread Jesus? Paul & Peter? All of the above?

Several commentators make helpful observations about meanings of words, like the fact that “weaker” can mean something more lack lacking access to resources, or simply that it refers to physical size making women vulnerable. So, in a patriarchal culture, weaker vessels is not a comment on women’s abilities generally but a statement about cultural assumptions and the treatment of women; i.e. Christian men must act as advocates because of the restrictions and dangers Greco-Roman social structures place on women.

Interestingly, on 1 Timothy, Luke Timothy Johnson takes Paul to task for his poor exegesis of Genesis 1-3. He states that “the warrant for the injunction [excluding women from leadership] is, in fact, a faulty reading of Torah.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy [The Anchor Yale Bible]. New Haven: Yale, 2001. p. 211). More could be said on how Paul reads the Genesis accounts and what he’s trying to demonstrate. But I will simply say that the ease with which Eve was deceived is certainly matched by Adam, and in Romans and the Corinthian letters, responsibility for sin is placed exclusively on Adam.

Obviously we can dig deeper and deeper into the exegesis of these texts, but don’t have space right now. But, in terms of Alastair’s question about what man can do to alter their behaviour to reduce the mistrust against women, one important answer is to read with greater nuance. One of the phrases that I read from rigid complementarian writings in “plain reading of Scripture”. If we read more critically (both in reading the texts, and ourselves, noting our inherent biases) we see far more at play than simply reinforced patriarchy. Egalitarians still have to wrestle with this too of course, and not simply dismiss 1 Timothy as not authentically Pauline and therefore not authoritative (even if it is pseudonymous, it’s still accepted as canonical) or chalk it up to cultural influence or situation specifics and ignore it. I’d love to pretend certain passages aren’t there. But I always have to ask myself, even if this is specific to Ephesus in the 1st century, what does it mean for me in 21st century Canada? I live in culture with significant immigration from places where patriarchy and low views of women’s value and trustworthiness are alive and well. Even among Westerners, the problem is still there. How do I do ministry in an environment with a plurality of views on gender?

My own behaviour as a pastor with egalitarian views speaks volumes to the culture I am in. But do I keep silent, and hold these views as private, and non-binding on others? How much of my understanding of the trustworthiness of women related to my egalitarian views? If I claim I trust women, how do I influence others and demonstrate this trust in a way which proves to be a positive influence on others, even if the others continue to hold to certain patriarchal or “hard” complementarian views? Can patriarchy still endorse trusting women’s testimony or do the underlying assumptions inevitably undercut any stated level of trust?

I am under no illusion that only egalitarian men trust women. That would be rubbish to even suggest. But is there a connection between what Paul seems to say about Eve and assumed gender roles and a lack of trust shown to women? Given the Genesis declaration that male and female are both fully and equally in the image and likeness of God, what makes males assume men are more trustworthy than women? Do we tend to overemphasize generalized differences between the genders, to such an extent that the shared likeness is downplayed? Isn’t a mistrust of females a mistrust of humanity?

“Really? Are you sure he meant it that way?”

Alastair’s response to this article was particularly helpful in teasing out the reasons behind a lack of trust being formed – especially with an article that relies heavily on generalizations as to male and female behaviour. One thing I’d like to draw out further is the concept of different ‘realms of experience’ for men and women.

Can we gender space and perception in this way, and does it explain a male lack of trust? Clearly, there are ‘gendered’ experiences – otherwise large parts of this conversation would not be necessary. But is it right to say that it is partly a lack of shared experience which leads to male disbelief, or does that simply cover up a deeper problem?

As subjective beings, all of us perceive life differently, and will be confronted with different experiences which other people will not be able to relate to, regardless of their gender. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be married, be physically disabled, have a parent die, be bilingual, be African-American, etc etc. And yet if someone tells me what that is like, or what his or her personal experience has been, my inclination has to be to trust it, because I don’t have any personal knowledge that could counteract what he or she says. And I imagine that goes for men hearing from men, too –if it is a man who shares a different experience, particularly one of being poorly treated, he might be taken more seriously.

In all this there are of course other factors which touch on much broader issues of social privilege and trust – the lower down any kind of social ladder you are, the less likely your complaints are to be taken seriously (see this article for an interesting perspective on whether our desire to view the world as ‘fair’ has anything to do with this) but I suppose I’d like to ask whether we can really put male disbelief of female experiences down to a lack of knowledge, or whether it is a case of finding it easier to believe that such problems don’t exist – particularly if you are of the ‘not all men’/’I would never do that’ camp. Or, worse, a much more deep-rooted/historical lack of trust in female witness, which is much more difficult to break – thanks to Bronwyn for drawing attention to that in reference to Easter Sunday!

If, however, it is the case that a lack of shared experience leads to a lack of trust, then surely we need to seriously challenge our own empathetic abilities. We should not have to rely on trying to draw male experience into female oppression in order to provoke sympathy (e.g. that is someone’s daughter/wife/sister) but learn to have true compassion, sorrowing in another human’s experience without needing to reference our own.

Marriage, Singleness, “Family Values”, and the Church

I’m married. I have 3 children. I’m a pastor. I drive a minivan.

By the standards of “traditional Christian family values” I have all the boxes checked off. When my wife and I were expecting our third child, we had to trade in our dependable, much loved Toyota Corolla for a minivan. I hated the thought of being a minivan dad. I felt like pleated khakis and a fanny pack were not far behind. But one lady in our church actually said something to the effect of “I’m glad you have a minivan now, it sends the right message”. By that I assume it was meant the image I project by driving a minivan is that of a “family man”, and a pastor should be a family man. Anything I can add to that image is to the benefit of my ministry. Apparently some people want their pastors to be dads who drive minivans, have a flock of children and a homemaker wife. But on what is that based? There seems to be the assumption that Christians are supposed to get married and make babies and have perfect nuclear families.

Since this post is meant to get a conversation going I won’t try to be comprehensive or conclusive, but I just want to throw out a few ideas on the subject of marriage, singleness and the Church’s assumptions about the ideal of family life. Most of the PTSS contributors are married, and have children. Sadly, Lore Ferguson had to drop out of this due to time constraints, but she has done lots of thinking and writing on this subject of singleness. Alastair and Hannah M will have to bear the load of the single perspective. But here’s a few of my own thoughts.

When building a case for Christian marriage, many turn immediately to Genesis 1 & 2 (a section which I’m sure will play a significant role in our conversation moving forward). “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'” (Gen. 2:18 NRSV). And in the previous chapter, we read that after making male and female in his image God commanded them “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). So does this mean all humans are meant to be in covenantal partnership with a spouse and make babies? Is there room for singleness in this vision for humanity? A few thoughts which should add nuance to our reading:

Is this descriptive of Adam and Eve or prescriptive for all humanity? There are all sorts of interpretations of the historicity of Genesis 1-2, and our purpose here isn’t to tackle that, as fun as it may be. But my own 2 cents is to read Adam and Eve as representative of humanity at our origins, not literally historical people. Thus, God’s creation of humanity in two genders for the sake of partnership and fruitfulness is for the purpose of human flourishing. But if a specific human doesn’t procreate are they failing to obey God’s command? Or is humanity collectively in view here?

I am not prepared to push beyond the text, and impose this as commanded to all individual human beings; that each and every single person must have a spouse and produce children. Marriage was prescribed for the benefit of humanity, but is it a requirement of all people? We as humans are better off as image bearers in community, but does that specifically require the community of marriage? In other words, is being unmarried the same as being “alone”?

In the New Testament, there is a bit of tension on this front. In a unique passage, Paul gives his own personal advice on the subject: “ To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.” (1 Cor. 7:8, throughout 1 Cor. 7, Paul specifies that he is giving his own opinion, not binding divine commands) It seems there is, according to Paul, some advantage for Christians in remaining unmarried. Paul honours singleness. However, 1 Tim. 3 (which many say isn’t actually by Paul of course, but both texts are accepted as canonical) we read that

Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?

Not a popular passage among egalitarians or singles, since on the surface it certainly seems to insist all bishops must be males who are married and have well behaved children. So do we conclude singleness is good, unless you want to lead? But that would obviously be problematic for Paul, who was unmarried. The marital statuses of many of the apostolic community is shrouded in mystery. Peter had a mother in law, and Philip had daughters. There is some consensus that there are married couples in the leaders listed in Romans 16. But it is quite difficult to ascertain exactly what the Apostolic community envisioned with regard to marriage in the Church, and how it played out it the formative years of the Christian community. There seems to be honour given to both singleness and marriage. Paul assumes marriages will take place. Some (or perhaps even most) Christians will marry, and likely have children and ought to conduct themselves in the context of marriage in ways which reflect Christ (how the remarks like those in Eph. 5 are best interpreted is a discussion which I am fairly sure will come up in the future). But Paul makes significant room for singleness as a viable, or even preferable way.

So, what do we do with that in the here and now? The Christian cultural bubble seems to prefer marriage. There certainly seems to be a significant push on young folks in the Christian community to “pair up” and make babies for the glory of God. The “family values” ideal of dad, mom, 3 kids, a house, a dog, a minivan, etc. has become assumed as the vision for Christian life. Those who remain unmarried sometimes receive some funny looks and strange questions (“when are you going to settle down?”, “haven’t met the right person yet?”, etc.) There is pressure in Churches to build ministries to young families. But how many ministries to young singles exist? And are the ones that do exist mainly focused on creating opportunities for singles to meet potential spouses? I suspect that part of the reason I was called to my current pastoral role was because I was married and expecting a second child when I interviewed. A young family man will attract the young families to Church. But this of course denigrates singleness. We certainly wouldn’t consciously exclude singles, but what part do they have in the overall vision of the Church’s mission? (Also, it’s bizarre that folks in the congregation I pastor emphasize young families, when our building is located in a neighbourhood which is mostly made up of folks who aren’t young families).

Also, it’s worth asking, is there a double standard? Are single men finding a different experience from single women? I’d certainly be curious to hear the experiences of both sides on this front. Are single women honoured in their singleness or is it viewed as strange? Do men receive similar pressure to find a nice girl to build a family with? The demographics of my own congregation suggests that singles are not flocking to Church (at least not this one). We have a few, but they are far outnumbered by married couples, widowed folks, and even by divorced people. The number of never married folks is a very slim percentage here. Is that because of the assumed expectation of marriage?

So to summarize and suggest some ideas to cover in our conversation:

1. What assumptions do we see at work regarding the relationship between Christianity and marriage?

2. Can we establish a biblical foundation for honouring singleness in the Church?

3. Has the Church over-emphasized the ministry to the young families demographic?

4. Do we see a conscious or unconscious bias toward having clergy be married?

5. Is there a difference in the experience of men and women towards singleness?

Introduction: Hannah Malcolm

Photo on 23-09-2014 at 14.12 #2

I have a B.A. in Theology from the University of Cambridge and am currently studying towards an M.A.R. in ‘World Christianities’ at Yale Divinity School. Follow me on twitter at @hannahmmalcolm, and read my other musings at youhaveanaccent.wordpress.com. I talk too much.

I was born in London to evangelical Christian parents, who met at medical school and both came from Christian families. They were both ‘working’ parents, though their decision to have five children meant that my mother stopped working for a few years/went part-time. Both parents ‘led’ at home, and I never had the impression that either was making ‘final’ decisions (and if someone was, most days it was my mother, who is terrifyingly organized and efficient).

I promise this won’t be my entire life story. We’ll skip some bits.

In my teens, as a reaction against a secular school environment and a desire to explore what it would mean to fully express my faith, I began writing and blogging about being a Christian woman. At the time I called myself ‘complementarian’, believing that ‘equal but different’ meant what it sounded like – that men and women were actually equal, but that they were ‘different’ – and, from my teen perspective, I could see they were different. They looked different, they smelled different, and they thought differently about things. I never thought that women shouldn’t preach, but I did think there were bigger concerns. I did, however, react violently against the dating books, the language of ‘warrior princes’ and ‘pure princesses’ and the flowery skirts brigade that still infects many evangelical churches today. I would sit there in my trackies and jumper (and sometimes jeans if I were feeling really gracious toward my parents) and feel disgust at the guilt piled onto girls about their sexuality in particular. I understood wanting to dress modestly, but my frame of reference was the fact that, to me, most immodest or revealing clothing was just another patriarchal imposition – high heels, after all, are shoes designed to make it harder for women to run away. In church, teenage boys talked about their struggle with porn, teenage girls talked about their low self-esteem. I felt fine about the way I looked, and had definitely watched porn. Where was that conversation? Once, at university, I tried to bring that up in a flowery-skirted bible study, and was greeted with relieved I’m-not-the-only-one faces, but also silence.

At university I also discovered that many of my evangelical male friends were pleased that I described myself as ‘complementarian’, and I began to understand what that word really meant –men had the final say, women were ‘naturally’ submissive, and working mothers were, at best, a no-other-option choice – not a good model for raising a family. I had seen none of that in my parents’ own marriage, and began to think that maybe I didn’t belong in this camp. I was too brash, too outspoken, wanted to argue theology when that was a ‘male’ domain, and I began to resent my ‘female’-ness.

And so the word ‘complementarian’ slowly dropped out of my vocabulary, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the insidious male/female gender divides I saw in my (in other ways absolutely wonderful) evangelical church. Men went out for curry, beer, and theology, women had afternoon tea and craft days. Male students had male mentors in positions of church leadership, and there were no such leaders/elders amongst the female mentors. I had switched to the theology faculty for my final two years of study, and had several concerned conservative male friends suggest that it wasn’t a great idea. No women suggested that to me. In fact, I rarely heard evangelical female friends make theological assertions or discuss theological ideas at all, outside of the need for evangelism and personal Bible study. Like all of academia, Theology conferences were predominantly white and male, in both speakers and attendees.

I began reading more anthropology, and found that, as I did so, it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the sexes beyond the fact that women could birth and feed children and men had greater physical strength. There were no universal norms as to ability to lead, intelligence or subtlety of thought, fierceness of spirit, or preference for quiet, sitting down activities. In fact, the only true universal was that male physical strength led to male dominance, and that meant that male names were far more prevalent for both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities (e.g. the most famous sports people, warriors, chefs, artists, craftspeople, writers, politicians, teachers, doctors, etc. are, for most of history, male, even though assumptions still prevail that little boys will want to run around outside and poke insects and little girls will want to bake and paint and play teacher). The most genuine ‘difference’ seemed to be one of opportunity, not natural tendency. (No one calls Van Gogh ‘girly’, but Cleopatra led ‘like a man’, because it was the men who led.)

If nature doesn’t really support gendered norms, should the Church? Of course, the Church is not bound by society, or even by what humans find ‘natural’ – even if it were ‘natural’ for humans to want to seek out multiple sexual partners (and some scientists argue that this is the case) I would still support marriage and one person commitment as the model God wants. And so, the questions became –

1) How much Spirit, and how much culture, do I read into any given Bible passage?

2) How much do I take seriously the feeling of call to leadership that many women in the Church claim to experience?

And 3) Why is the Church so slow to cry out against the oppression of women in all walks of life?

So, this is where I begin – a gender structuralist, who wants to take scripture seriously. A proponent for women in leadership, but who also understands the perspective of those who do not want it. Someone who wants to increase space for women in theological conversations, not by reducing male voices, but by making the space even bigger – I know that there are many white male theologians who have taught me a great deal, and I would not want to lose that, but I also don’t want to be limited to that. It’s exciting to me that all of us are going find our theological limits challenged in the next generation. The Church no longer looks white, male and western. It’s time for all of us to catch up.