Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Theology Of Gender: Part One

Towards Clarity And Charity

In this series I will examine all the relevant Biblical material dealing with the issue of gender. Are there real gender distinctions? Does the Bible prescribe different roles to each gender in the areas of marriage and church ministry? Were there certain roles that men and women were meant to fulfill in the Old and New Testaments that no longer apply to us today? I will attempt to answer these questions and more. My thesis is that, once all the Biblical evidence is weighed and considered in context, a cohesive vision of manhood and womanhood will emerge, one which is typically referred to as the "Complementarian" view. To that end, I will begin at the beginning, the creation account of Genesis, and work my way through the Old and New Testaments, using sound logic and careful exegesis to draw implications from the various texts. Along the way I will interact with the authors from our textbooks (RBMW and DBE), wherever their ideas are good and their comments helpful. As the title of this introduction suggests, my hope is that my arguments are clear and that I am able to remain charitable and gracious to both sides of the issue.

Part I:
Creation To The Cross

Genesis 1 & 2

Scholars on both sides of the gender debate agree that the creation account in the first two chapters of Genesis is of vital importance to understanding the issue as a whole. Genesis chapter 1 describes the creation of the entire cosmos, culminating in the creation of humanity, the universe’s crowning jewel. Humans are described as being uniquely created in the image of God and are given charge over all creation, to rule over it and care for it. As Richard Hess points out, “There is nothing in this first chapter to suggest anything other than an equality of male and female created together in the image of God.” This much is true. From chapter 1 alone, all we know is that man and women are both created in the image of God and both set as rulers over all creation. No explicit relational principles between the man and woman can be drawn from here alone.
Moving in to chapter 2 we see a recapitulation of the creation of humanity from chapter 1, but in far greater detail. Here it is revealed that the man was created first. God charged the man with “keeping” the garden He created in Eden. But God sees that the man has no helper, and so He creates all the many kinds of animals that now inhabit the earth. They come to the man and he names them. But none of the animals is suitable for him. He is alone. And so God takes a rib from the man’s side and forms the first woman. The man immediately recognizes that she is the first and only creature corresponding to him, and responds with delight by composing a short poem about her.
There are several issues in chapter 2 that are the source of contention with regards to the gender debate. The first is the two sequences of creation. As Hess notes , one argument Complementarians will use is that the man being created first represents an ancient Near Eastern convention known as primogeniture. Primogeniture meant that the first born son of a family would receive all rights and inheritance, as well as having authority over younger siblings. Hess attempts to debunk this argument by pointing out that God often chose to override this principle and to bestow blessing on the second or third born. This observation does little to refute the argument, however. Generally, God’s choosing to pass over the first born was for a specific purpose. As in the case of Jacob and Esau, God chooses to bless the younger over the older son in order to demonstrate His sovereignty over His elective purposes in history. This could not be the case if there was not a principle in place for God to override. Moreover, one of the ways in which Christ is later established as the head of the church is by virtue of His being the firstborn of God, juxtaposed to our positions as adopted sons. This kind of illustration harkens back to a primogeniture model. Still, Hess is quite correct in asserting that no direct connection is ever made in the Old Testament between the practice of primogeniture and the sequence of creation in Genesis 2. Egalitarians try to make much of the second sequence of creation, suggesting that it somehow overrides or balances out the first, but this seems an implausible assumption to me. If the first sequence of creation says anything about a hierarchy between men and women, then the hierarchy simply is what is, and the fact that women are the bearers of children would in no way negate it. However, if the first sequence of creation does not imply any hierarchy, then obviously neither does the second. So either way, only the first sequence of creation is important for answering this question. Paul will later use both creation sequences in 1 Corinthians 11 to support an argument about gender, but as we will see then, his conclusions are far from egalitarian.
The second major issue is the man’s naming of the animals. Hess argues that nowhere does the text explicitly state that the man was exercising any authority over the animals by naming them. Hess offers an alternative, that the naming represents the man’s reflecting the image of God by ordering creation , but one wonders why both couldn’t be true at the same time. In other words, Hess’s suggestion does not negate the complementarian model. But is there a positive reason for thinking the complementarian model is correct? I believe there is. It is a reasonable inference to make that the man’s naming of the animals was a part of fulfilling his mandate to rule over creation. The man is defining the very existences of the creatures he names. When the woman appears, he names her as well. Thomas Finley brings out the point with even more clarity . He notes that the man is not merely naming her, as he will later call her Eve, but he is classifying her. He is literally defining what it means to be a woman, and the definition of a woman is that she comes from man. Raymond Ortlund Jr. adds that, while God could have told the man who and what the woman was, He allowed the man to do that himself. And because of the man’s choice of name, the women will forever find her identity in relation to the man, by the man’s own definition of who she is. As before, none of this makes authority explicit, but it is certainly evidence that leads us in that direction, making a complementarian read of the passage, at least prima facia, slightly more plausible.
This leads nicely into the third major issue, the fact that woman was created from man. Again Hess suggests an alternative to the traditional interpretation, saying that woman was created from man not to suggest an implicit hierarchy, but to show how deeply connected and interdependent men and women are. And again I’m compelled to ask why both can’t be true. Even Raymond Ortlund Jr. in RBMW labors the point that one of the primary reasons God paraded all the animals before the man was to make him acutely aware of his loneliness and his need for an equal companion.

The final major issue in this passage is regarding the fact that the woman is called the man’s “helper.” Egalitarians are quick to point out that the word “helper” is often used of God in the Old Testament, so the term alone does not imply that the women was somehow subordinate to the man. However, Paul will later make a point about this, highlighting the fact that the woman was created for the man, and not the other way around. Should the man also be a helper to his wife when she needs it? Of course, but then every good leader must also be a good helper. The point is not the task of helping itself, but rather the fact that the woman was created for a specific purpose, one of helping the man to rule over creation.

Genesis 3
Chapter 3 describes the fall of humanity, and at this point I feel that too much speculation is required to make any real progress. Any conclusions we might try to draw out of this passage would be based on assumptions. For example, in order to argue that the serpent chose to go to the woman in order to usurp man’s authority and undermine God’s created order we must first presuppose that our understanding of the created order and its implications are correct. It is also true that the first explicit reference to authoritarian patriarchy comes at this point in the narrative, after the fall, however it is just as likely to read that portion of the judgment as representing a degeneration from benevolent male headship as it is to read it as a total warping of an egalitarian relationship. Thus I don’t feel that drawing strong conclusions from chapter 3 for either position is warranted at this point.

Galatians 3:28
Because the majority of the Old Testament narratives must be interpreted in light of passages such as Galatians 3:28 (and others that will be examined in the next section), it will be more useful to skip straight to the end. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the only place outside of the passages that deal specifically with marriage and ministry that Paul mentions gender. He seems to mention it almost in passing. The problem that Paul is addressing in Galatians is of the utmost importance for the Galatian Christians’ very salvation. Agitators in the community have risen up, casting doubt on Paul’s teachings and telling the Gentiles in the church that they must be circumcised and follow the old Jewish law in order to be saved. This is the primary issue of the letter, this is Paul’s focus, and the whole of the letter must be viewed with this single problem in mind.
Gordon Fee states rather boldly that Galatians is not foremost about soteriology (how Christians are saved), but about ecclesiology (roughly, the doctrine of the church) . He supports this claim by pointing out that the Galatian Christians are already saved, but this seems to miss the whole point of the urgency and fervor with which Paul is writing. The salvation of these Christians is now in jeopardy, they are slipping into heresy, and Paul desperately wants to set them straight (regardless of whether or not you believe true believers can lose their salvation, there can be no doubt that Paul is very concerned that they not teach false doctrine that would cause them, and others, to slip away from the true gospel that alone brings true salvation). Fee believes that the focus of Galatians is on forming an inclusive church, bringing Jew and Gentile together as one body, and finding a place for the Gentile (and by extension, the slave and the woman) within the church community. In other words, it seems that Fee sees the letter’s primary focus being more on social justice than on defending correct doctrine. And while there may certainly be some truth to that, I can’t help but come to the conclusion, after reading Galatians myself, that viewing the book of Galatians in such a way requires reading an agenda into the text that isn’t there. For example, Paul does not bring up the incident with Peter not breaking bread with the Gentiles primarily to illustrate the racial prejudice that we wanted to correct (although he did want to end such behavior), rather he brought it up in the context of defending his apostolic authority and credibility, part of which required him to explain why he got into a confrontation with Peter in the first place. Once again, the main focus of the book of Galatians is not on social justice, but on right doctrine.
I don’t want to sound as though I’m claiming more than I really am. There’s no doubt that Paul addresses the issue of being equal before Christ. However, he does so not in an unqualified way, but rather in the context of addressing the heresy that had crept up in the Galatian church, specifically regarding circumcision. As Robert Saucy aptly points out, the Old Testament law placed a great number of restrictions on Gentiles, slaves and women when it came to religion . Paul is no doubt saying in Galatians 3:28 that all of those restrictions are abolished. The walls are torn down, so to speak. Women, Gentiles and slaves can now all enter the inner courts of the temple, in a figurative way. This is the radical oneness in Christ that Paul is describing. But as Saucy argues, none of this has any direct bearing on gender roles when it comes to the specific dynamic of male-female relationships. Why? The male-female relationship was not a part of the Old Testament law that is now being done away with, but was established in creation. Of the three categories, only gender existed before the fall, when all was still good. That fact alone makes the issue more complicated than most Egalitarians would like to admit. While Paul himself doesn’t make this distinction, I would argue that he doesn’t have to. The oneness before God that the Old Testament Law did not allow for is what Paul has in view here. Women, Gentiles and slaves were not allowed in the inner Temple courts, and now they are. Spiritual access to God is no longer restricted based on these three classes. But once again, none of this has any direct bearing on the unique relationship that exists between man and woman. Of all three of the pairs, only the man-woman pair is God ordained. The distinction between social/economic classes and racial classes are entirely man-made, the distinction between genders is not. Again, this is not something Paul specifically mentions in the text, but it is true nonetheless, and our reading of Galatians 3:28 must take such considerations into account.
Finally, notice that this argument fully accepts that Paul is talking about practice, not just doctrine. Or, put another way, he is talking about ecclesiology, but only in relation to soteriology. And in whatever way the letter might sound like a lecture on racial reconciliation, it is only so in relation to the main argument over right doctrine.
Notice, however, that I did not argue that Galatians 3:28 does not teach Egalitarianism. What I argued is that it does not teach it necessarily. We must wait until we have a more robust outlook on the issue, with all the relevant New Testament passages in view, before we can come to a truly definitive conclusion.

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