Gender, by God

Click here to listen to the audio of this 35-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. This is a longer-than-usual message, because this is such an important topic, that is so seldom spoken about. So, while 35 minutes is quite a long time, I urge you to set aside some time – particularly today, Women’s Day – to listen to this message.

Today – 9 August – is Women’s Day in South Africa. It’s a day when we celebrate women. But it is also a day when we confront the profound and relentless violence against and subordination of women in our society. The church must, on this day, give particular attention to its role in perpetuating, supporting and even advancing such patriarchal and misogynistic views and behaviours. My own church – the Anglican Church of Southern African – must take responsibility for our role in advancing violence against and oppression of women. And men, like me, must do the same.

So, in this message, I unpack four passages of the Bible – three in the Genesis creation story and one in the writings of Paul – that are often used to support patriarchy. I invite you to read the texts and see what they actually say and to critique how they have been used. Of course, the Bible was written in patriarchal times by people who held patriarchal views. But we are invited to read through their views to see the mind of God on the issues of gender inequality in the world.

This is an important and substantial topic, hence this is a rather lengthy message. I urge you to engage with it, as I think it will help to lay a foundation for thinking about gender relations in the world, in the church, in the workplace and in our homes.

  1. Genesis 1:27-28 tells us that both women and men are equally created in God’s image. It also tells us that they were both – as a couple, as a partnership – given authority to rule over the earth. There is no hint that the man is more created in God’s image than the woman, that he is important or more powerful than the woman. The man is not given dominion over the woman; instead both the woman and the man are given conjoint dominion over everything else. This is a picture of unity, equality and power-sharing between man and woman – a picture that is very much at odds with how life is lived in many homes today.
  2. Genesis 2:18-23 is part of the second creation story, where God recognises that it is not good for man to be alone and decides to create a ‘helper’ for him. Initially, God looks among the animals, but realising that none of these will do, God creates woman. The word ‘helper’ is often used to imply woman’s supportive, helping, subordinate role. But in v18 God recognises that man is somehow inadequate or deficient – unable to be alone – he is incomplete and needs a partner to make him whole. Therefore God creates a woman. The woman is there to help him be a whole person – this is by no means a subordinate role.
  3. Moreover, she is created from his rib, suggesting that they are equal – they stand side-by-side, joined at the rib – the midpoint between the head and the foot. God did not take Adam’s toe and create Eve’s collarbone so that Adam could stand on her head! Instead, they are created as the same, as equal, as partners. It reaffirms Genesis 1 – they are equal partners.
  4. Genesis 3:16-19 tells of God’s cursing of man and woman for their sin. v16 has a line that says “and he [your husband] will rule over you”. Many male theologians and scholars and ministers have used this verse to construct a theology that God’s divine plan for human relations post-fall is that men (husbands) exercise authority over women (wives). This is a profound perversion of the scriptures, because this is just one line out of several lines of curses, including that women will experience pain in childbirth (which humanity has constantly worked to reduce and to reduce maternal mortality).
  5. In addition to hers, there is a lengthy curse against the man (72 words to the man, compared with just 31 to the woman – the man’s curse is more than double the length of the woman’s!). God says that he will suffer and struggle to produce crops from the earth. And yet men have never accepted this as God’s divine plan for them! Men have worked, since they left Eden, to ease the burden of producing crops, through the use of slaves, animals, machines, genetic modification and most recently artificial intelligence. If the curse against men is not part of God’s divine order, why is the curse against women? It is simply patriarchy and misogyny at work!
  6. Overall, the creation story across Genesis 1-3, there is an overriding narrative of equality between woman and man. Even in the fall, both woman and man eat the apple and both woman and man are cursed. Everything is equal, parallel. Indeed, if there was any hint of gender inequality, it would be in favour of woman – she was God’s second attempt at creating a human (we are usually better the second time round) and her curse is shorter than man’s. But indeed, the dominant and pervasive narrative is one of equality and partnership between gender. This is God’s vision for gender.
  7. So, we do need to look also at the New Testament, and particularly to the writings of Paul. It is true that Paul was raised in a patriarchal society and household. He is certainly a patriarch and probably also a misogynist. He does write that men are the head over women, that women must be silent in church, etc. He clearly writes about male domination over women. This is how he was raised. There are, however, NO passages where Paul advocates or endorses, even tacitly, violence against women or the oppression of women. And just because Paul was a patriarch, does not mean God is a patriarch.
  8. Paul grapples with gender issues. He writes “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). He has some sense that in God’s eyes, there is no gender; but in his own thinking, he still sees and supports gender inequality. What we seem to be seeing in Paul’s writings is a developing insight into God’s view on gender equality, emerging and receding.
  9. 1 Corinthians 7:2b-5 presents to us a profoundly egalitarian view of gender relationships from the pen of Paul. It shows a perfect equality between women and men, equal exercising of power over one’s body, equal self-giving of oneself to one’s partner. It is an image of a very modern marriage. It is completely out of step with the traditional passages we quote from Paul on ‘wives must submit to their husbands’. If men are going to quote Paul on gender, let us quote ALL of Paul on gender, and recognise that here is a man whose views on gender are uneven. And this unevenness is best explained as Paul’s growing understanding of God’s view of gender equality.

In light of these challenges about God’s views – and Scriptures views – on gender equality, I suggest two principles that should inform and shape how we interpret scripture:

  1. First, we need to look at the whole of scripture when we formulate a position on something, like gender relations. We need to look at the whole body, and we need to understand the underlying mind of God, which we see most clearly expressed in the mind of Christ, which we best gain insight into in the Gospel narratives.
  2. Second, we need to separate custom from teaching, description from prescription. Just before the Bible writers believed the earth was flat and that the sky was a bowl over the earth, does not mean that the earth is actually flat and that there is actually a bowl in the sky. Even though they express this view in the Bible, e.g., in the Psalms, does not mean it is true or that God believes this. We are inclined to bring our cultural beliefs and impose them onto scripture – gender is a good example of this. Instead, we are required to bring God’s mind, expressed in the scriptures, and use these to sanctify and transform society. When it comes to gender, we impose our preconceived patriarchal beliefs on scripture, even though scripture advocates a far more egalitarian view on gender.

2020.08.09_St. Praxedes and Paul

Featured image of St Praxedes and St Paul, presented as equal co-workers for Christ, in the Basilica Santa Prassede, Rome, from here

Standing against patriarchy

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

The church has fallen far short of its expected role in championing the dignity and worth of women. Instead, the church has been complicit in advancing patriarchy: women and children have been abused and exploited by clergy and church leaders; the role and authority of women has been dampened in the church; women have been encouraged to return and submit to their abusive husbands; and a theology of male supremacy has been advocated. The church has and continues to advance patriarchy.

This is at odds with the teaching of Scripture. While the Bible was written men in a patriarchal world and reflects patriarchal patterns of life, this does not mean that God is a patriarch, nor that the church should be patriarchal. We need to revise our theology in light of a reading of scripture that is not dictated by cultural norms about gender relations.

For example, the creation narrative in Genesis is often used to support male superiority – woman was derived from man, man was created to rule, etc. But a close reading of Genesis 1:27-8 and 2:18-23 presents a picture of God creating woman-and-man as a partnership.

  • Both were commissioned to rule over the world – man was not mandated to rule over woman. They were co-workers, partners, sharing in an egalitarian way the responsibilities for taking care of the world.
  • Woman was created out of man, from Adam’s side, showing that they are the same (or similar). They are equals, partners, lovers.
  • Woman was created as a ‘helper‘, but that word does not imply servitude or subordination. It is used 21 times in the First Testament, 16 of which refer to God helping the people of Israel, e.g. Psalm 121:1-2. God is hardly the servant of or subordinate to Israel! If anything, being a ‘helper’ connotes a position of strength and capability.
  • The creation narrative speaks not of male supremacy and female subordination, but of gender equality and mutuality, of partnership and sameness.

Another example, Paul’s writings in the New Testament are riddled with patriarchy: wives submit to your husbands, husbands are the head of the wife, husbands are the head and wives are the neck, women must remain silent in church, etc. Unquestionably, Paul was a patriarch in a patriarchal world. But, we too seldom hear another thread in Paul’s writings: a thread that is at odds with the patriarchal narrative.

  • In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes about the unity of humanity in Christ. He starts with divisions that he fully understands and lives out: “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor Free”. These shifts towards equity in race and class were radical at that time; indeed they are radical today. But Paul was struggling with “neither male nor female”. One has a sense that Paul understands and partly believes that there is gender equality in Christ, but that his upbringing and investment in a patriarchal world-view hold him captive.
  • In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, Paul presents a view of marriage – of sex in marriage – that is contrasts starkly with the views he presents in Ephesians 5:22-33. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul presents sexual relations in marriage as entirely egalitarian and mutual. There is no sense here of a hierarchy of status or even of a differentiation of roles. Instead, there is simply a loving, mutual self-giving of one to the other. Egalitarian marriage.

I’m not arguing here that the Bible narrative advances gender equity. Far from it – the Bible was written by patriarchs in a patriarchal world, and is full of patriarchy. But I am arguing that the Bible equally presents God’s view of humanity as endorsing gender equity. At very least, we must admit that the Bible is not unequivocally in support of patriarchy.

And when we combine this fracture in the patriarchal edifice, even if only a tiny fault line, with the person of Jesus, and his ministry among the women and men of his day, the church must stand up to and against patriarchy. Patriarchy is a social evil that harms the life of the majority of humanity: all women, all children and (arguably) all men. We are all held captive to patriarchy, with some of us (mostly us men) benefiting at the expense of women. This cannot be. This is not the image of the Kingdom of God presented by Jesus Christ.

I call on all of us, but especially men, to do four things:

  1. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). We have to start with our own minds, which have been taught patriarchal ways of viewing the world and ourselves since infancy. Let us be transformed, so that we can perceive God’s will more clearly. Let us challenge the deeply engrained patriarchal patterns of thinking.
  2. We need to speak out against patriarchal talk and behaviour. Let us not be silent. Let us not turn our eyes away. Let us speak up for truth and love, for gender equality and for the full dignity and worth of both women and men.
  3. We need to challenge the misuse of Scripture, which draws on handfuls of texts that bolster the culture norms of our society, but are not aligned with the Kingdom values that Christ presents in his teachings and ministry. Scripture has problematic passages, to be sure, but the overriding thread that runs throughout Scripture, and that is our key to making sense of the Bible, is God’s extravagant love for humanity, revealed through creation and the life of Christ.
  4. We need to stand, unequivocally and unflinchingly, with the victims of gender-based violence. For too long, the church has stood with the perpetrators. We see this particularly in the Roman Catholic church, for example, in Pope Francis’ protection of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile, and his later apology to the victims of Bishop Karadima. But let those of us who are not Catholic, not be complacent and point fingers. Child sexual abuse and sexual harassment of women manifests in all churches, including, for example, the Church of England and Willow Creek. The church – you and me – must stand with those who are violated and abused. That is what Christ did, repeatedly. We can do no less.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the Church should and must stand up to and against patriarchy, and for the voice of those who have been disempowered and silenced. This was the role that Christ Jesus took up during his brief time on earth. It is the role that his mother gave voice to in her great Magnificat. And it is the role that the church, and all its individual members, must continue today.

Gender in the Kingdom of God

Click here to listen to this 26-minute sermon

God’s vision for the Kingdom is one in which all of humanity is related to each other in relationships of equality, dignity, respect and peace, under the sole headship of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:9-10). But in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, women do not enjoy this Kingdom. Women and girl children are all too frequently the victims of abuse, violence, exploitation, domination and subordination. I have been harshly confronted with this over the past 33 years, since I was a young teenager. We live in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.

But the church has typically been silent and even complicit in this oppression of women. This is often because people of faith interpret the Bible through the lens of their culture, and most cultures are patriarchal – thus we come to the Bible with preconceived notions of gender and ‘find’ support for our ideas in the Bible. And of course the Bible itself was written in patriarchal societies by people who endorsed patriarchal beliefs. But while the Bible is surely filled with patriarchal passages, there are also many passages that have been invalidly used in support of patriarchy – texts have been distorted to serve the interests of men in power. What is required, in fact, is that we allow the Scriptures to interpret our culture, so that our culture is redeemed and transformed into the image of the Kingdom of God.

In this sermon, I take two passages that have, for thousands of years, been used to support the subordination (and often abuse) of women by men, and read them closely and carefully to show that they really do not provide support for male superiority or female subordination, but rather for equal partnership between the genders.

Genesis chapters 1 to 3 lay the foundation for our understanding of God, creation, humanity and the divine-human relationship. But far from endorsing gender power differentials, these chapters (specifically 1:28, 2:22-23 and 3:16) endorse both domestic and commercial partnership and equality between women and men, and depict patriarchy (a husband’s rule over his wife) as sin.

Paul, of the New Testament, was almost certainly a chauvinist, and grapples with the implications of there being “neither male nor female … in Christ” (Gal 3:28). Ephesians 5, with it’s infamous verse about wives submitting to their husbands, must be located against 5:21, which calls for mutual submission within the household of God. Using three pairs of power-differentiated relationships (wife-husband, child-parent and slave-master) Paul first introduces the cultural norm of submission/subordination for the less powerful person, though with a bit of a spiritual spin; and then a counter-cultural requirement for submission by those in power. Read as a whole, this passage calls for mutual submission or consideration in all human relationships, particularly when there are cultural power differences.

Through all of this, I am calling for people of faith to set aside their cultural assumptions as they read the Bible; to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, in choosing to unlearn racist, sexist and colonialist ways of thinking and relating; and to not stand by silently when women are humiliated or oppressed.

Blog image from http://www.borgenmagazine.com/10-examples-gender-inequality-world/