Manhood and Womanhood: What’s the Problem? image

Manhood and Womanhood: What’s the Problem?

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Several cracking articles have appeared in the last week or so on the subject of men and women: at TGC, Jesus Creed, 9Marks, and other places. I want to highlight two in particular.

The first is from Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks, and is an attempt to tease out the different pastoral intuitions we feel when we approach the subject of men and women. Our instincts, he argues, derive from what we think the biggest problem is in the church and/or the culture, which in turn derive from our experiences.

Ask two complementarians, “What’s the biggest problem facing the church’s understanding of manhood and womanhood today?”

One answers by pointing to Western culture’s fifty-year assault on what the Bible teaches about men and women. He talks about things like second-wave feminism, the LGBT movement, and how more and more churches treat men and women as interchangeable. He’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to difference and authority.

The other answers by pointing to the threat that abusive male authority has long posed to women and families. She talks about how evangelicals have given a pass to Donald Trump’s sexist language, how pastors have encouraged women to remain in abusive homes, or how church leaders have refused to believe women who report sexual assault. She’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to equality.

Hopefully all evangelical readers can agree that Scripture addresses both his and her burdens. Yet once again, different experiences and intuitions will lead these two complementarians to emphasize different pastoral burdens. If she has spent years counseling abused women and avoiding leering “Christian” men, she will more likely put challenges to equality on the front burner. If he has spent years counseling marriages that grow distant and dissolve because the husbands were quick to say, “She sinned, too,” and refused to recognize their greater responsibilities of leadership, of course he will put challenges to difference and authority on the front burner.

In short, I don’t think it’s overly simplistic to say that narrow complementarians generally feel burdened pastorally by challenges to equality, while broad complementarians generally feel burdened by challenges to authority and difference.

There’s a lot of wisdom there, I think, and it helps a great deal when it comes to living peaceably with one another on this subject. In this cultural moment there is fierce pressure in both directions simultaneously, so it is important for all of us to see the whole board as best we can, even if our experience and context lead us to believe that one danger is more pressing than another.

The second is from Alastair Roberts, who is answering a much more specific question: “How would you summarise the argument against the ordination of women?” As you’ll know if you’ve read Alastair before, or attended THINK, there is a big picture way of answering this question which, while not ignoring the exegesis of particular passages in Paul and Peter, generally focuses elsewhere. Here’s how he answers (unbelievably, at least to me, this is a transcript of a verbal answer he previously gave on video, pretty much off the top of his head):

First of all, we have the very basic biblical commands and restrictions within the New Testament, in places like 1 Timothy 2 and elsewhere, where there are limitations placed upon women’s teaching, exercising authority, and speech within the context of the church. And these teachings themselves provide an initial basis for the restriction.

Then we have the circumstantial evidence—the fact that Jesus chooses twelve apostles who are all men; he surrounds himself with men; he establishes the leadership of the early church with men. And throughout, we have this pattern of male leadership within the church. And so that’s a significant thing to notice too.

In the Old Testament we also see an all-male priesthood. We see the kings are all male, with the exception of one who is the usurper, Athaliah. And so apart from that, there are entirely male monarchs, entirely male priests, and there are also male apostles. Now people will talk about the character of Junia—much more could be said about her; that can be in another video if someone wants me to answer that. But looking at these cases there seems to be clear evidence that men and women are not regarded as interchangeable when it comes to positions of leadership within these positions, whether it be priest or king.

Another thing to notice is that throughout Scripture there is a lot of emphasis given to the symbolic importance of male and female: that male and female—no matter what the skills or gifts and abilities of a particular man or woman—are not interchangeable, because fundamentally they are either a man or a woman with all the symbolic significance that comes with that. So for instance, when you look at the sacrificial system in Leviticus you see a distinction made between sacrifices. Now why would it be necessary to sacrifice a male goat for the leader of the people or a bull for the priest? These are questions that we should be asking.

There is a symbolism and a symbolic weight given to gender and to sex that we find very hard to understand in our society because our society is built around detached organisations with people who are fairly interchangeable. We see people as functions rather than as representing a deeper symbolic order. And yet this symbolic order is prominent throughout the whole of Scripture; we see the whole of Scripture teaching concerning men and women and the symbolic weight that they both have.

And so men have a symbolic importance that we see coming to the foreground in figures like Adam or in the figure of Christ as well. That Christ is incarnated as a man—that’s significant. Christ also takes a bride, the Church. Likewise, the creation of Eve—Eve is distinct from Adam. Adam is created with a particular orientation in the world and Eve is created with a particular orientation in the world. Eve is created from the side of Adam to bring unity and communion through joining with Adam; and Adam is created from the earth primarily in order to form and till and guard and establish God’s order within the world and upon the earth. We see that within the curses as well.

When we look more deeply, we see deeper connections between men and women and larger symbolic realities. So, for instance, the man is associated more closely with heaven; the woman is associated with the earth. If we look, for instance, in the curse, the woman is associated with the earth; she brings forth fruit from her body, just as the earth brings forth fruit from its body. The earth is the adamah and the man is the adam: the woman is the one from whom all future men come; men come from the womb of the woman. And the womb of the woman is associated with the earth: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there,” “Knit together in the lowest parts of the earth.” Such images are very significant for understanding the symbolic world of Scripture.

And so when God talks about himself as Father, this is significant. The earth is our mother; God is our Father. And as Father, God is in a different relationship to us: we do not arise from God’s womb; rather God creates us through his word, and he is bound to us by his word and his commitment and love for us. But there is a gap, a distance, a break, a fundamental distinction between creature and Creator which is conceptually maintained in part by calling God ‘Father’.

Now what is the office of the pastor to do? The office of the pastor in large part is designed to represent the fatherly and husbandly form of authority in relationship to the Church. And so it is proper that it is performed exclusively by men. That’s one of the reasons why we have exclusively male priesthood within the Old Testament. God is not a mother, God is a Father; and so God’s transcendence is symbolically masculine.

And we see all these symbolic connections within Scripture that are quite alien to us within our society. Because we tend to think about the pastor as just performing certain functions—certain therapeutic functions, certain teaching functions—they need to know their theology, they need to know how to work with people, and they need to know how to speak publicly and these sorts of things. That, we suppose, is what a pastor is. But yet within Scripture a pastor stands for something as well: the pastor represents and symbolises God’s authority within the congregation. And we respond to motherly and fatherly authority differently—not primarily because of distinct behaviours, but because of where that behaviour comes from. The behaviour coming from a mother has a different salience and a different resonance than the behaviour coming from a father. And even if they did exactly the same thing it would be very different, because one would be a father’s action and the other would be a mother’s action. And this is one of the reasons why priests and pastors are to be exclusively male: because it is a fatherly form of authority that is being represented …

And it is one of the things that we see throughout Scripture: that forces that want to control a society do it generally by breaking down the power of their men by killing the baby boys or doing something along those lines that hits the men that give strength and particular backbone to the society—in its maintaining of its borders and establishing of its foundations. Now, the filling and the glorifying and the heart of the society, the life—the inner reality—of the society is primarily ordered around women. Women are the ones who establish that—who give men something to fight for, something that is a meaning for them to lay down their lives for. I might get into some of the problems that arise when we mix up these things later. And so the significance of these traits—the traits of male strength being used in service and protection of the larger community—those are things that are required in the leadership of the people of God.

If you’re wanting a distraction from the UK election today, the full versions of both these articles are well worth your time.

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