This past week I was featured over at the CBE blog with a piece entitled “The Way God Intends It.” My aim was to give a short theological justification for women and men serving together as full and equal partners in mission. You can find the piece here.
In response to the piece, a couple of folks on Facebook took issue with one of the last lines, and I want to reply to that. Here’s the part up for discussion:
“Adam and Eve, Moses and Miram, Jesus and Mary, Paul and Phoebe, Boniface and Lioba. All co-workers. All equal partners.
All the way God intends it.
The question they posed is a good one:
How could Jesus and Mary (it’s Magdelene we’re talking about) be considered “equal partners?”
My short answer: they can’t, at least in the big-picture sense. I mean, can any human be considered equal with Jesus?!? And so when the newly resurrected Lord and the very human Mary meet and partnership happens in the form of Jesus entrusting her with the good news about the resurrection, we shouldn’t assume that they are somehow equal. Mary is the messenger, but Jesus is the Lord.
And so perhaps my language could be more precise. Maybe “full partners” would be more accurate?
Or maybe not. Because, in revealing the good news of his resurrection and releasing Mary to be his ambassador, Jesus is making the dramatically counter-cultural choice to empower Mary into leadership. In fact, from the moment she meets Jesus in the garden until she testifies to what she’s been told in front of the disciples, Mary is the sum total of the church. She’s it.
So while it might not be accurate to label Jesus and Mary’s partnership “big picture equality,” perhaps we can dub it “functional equality?”
In Philippians 2, we get a glimpse into Jesus’ perspective on power. Though he has supreme power, he doesn’t see it as something to be grasped. Instead, he empties himself, in the process empowering others.
And I’ll argue that that is exactly what is happening with Mary in the garden. It’s what Jesus does. He releases his privilege. He empowers others, particularly women. And in the process, he treats them…
As an equal.
Well, it’s Inauguration Day. The heretofore unthinkable is becoming a reality and later this morning, Donald Trump is being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.
There were many things about Trump’s candidacy that revolted you, from his overtly racist rhetoric to his seemingly off-the-cuff policy decisions to how he so casually and rudely put down his opponents. At every turn, you found yourself saying, “this guy has no right to be running for office.”
But of all the things that made Trump a reprehensible candidate, it was his treatment of women that vexed you the most. Simply put, you consider him to be a misogynist. You honestly think that Donald Trump sees men as being superior to women. And that is unacceptable in the Oval Office.
So, as we collectively lurch and tumble into four years of a Trump presidency, I want to charge you to do these three things:
First, care for the women around you who are threatened by a Trump presidency. That includes the single mothers in your neighborhood who worry about what will happen in the wake of his promised Obamacare repeal. That includes the women in your life who are repeatedly offended by Trump’s comments and actions. And that includes your daughters, who are going to have to grow up with a president that you wouldn’t trust to babysit them. Care for these women by listening to their concerns, by offering encouraging words, and by modeling a different brand of manhood.
Second, use your male privilege to empower women whenever possible. From Trump’s cabinet picks alone, it seems clear that he is not going to be the kind of president who goes out of his way to empower women, so you must do that in even greater measure. Look for opportunities to sponsor women into greater leadership, in your church, at work, in the soccer club, and in every other situation you find yourself in. Before you say “yes” to anything, ask yourself the question “is there a woman that I can invite to take this on instead of me?” Because you’re a man, culture gives you power; put it to work on behalf of others.
Third, pay attention to what he says and does. And speak out when he crosses the line. Donald Trump is a creature of twitter, so tweet at him. Every time he says or does something to further push women to the margins, have at it. The Bible talks about speaking truth in love. The “love” part comes easy for you; you’ll need to focus on speaking truth where it’s needed.
Rob, commit yourself to these three things, and more.
Now is the time to practice what you preach.
Now is the time to be the best version of yourself.
Years ago, I found myself in a knock-down, drag-out theological conversation about the Bible’s teaching on the role of women in the church. We were in the campus cafeteria, but the only things getting eaten up that day were me and my arguments. Let the reader understand that I was dramatically overmatched, up against a well-prepared and belligerent person for whom this issue was central. He was ready, I was not.
It was a smackdown.
I’ll illustrate. At one point in the proceedings, in the middle of his long digression about 1 Timothy and desperate to somehow stem the tide, I found myself blurting out, “well, I disagree with your hermeneutic.” He paused for a second and asked me what I meant. And in the 20 seconds it took me to try in vain to come up with a good answer, he decided that my time was up and resumed his central argument, which was that by allowing women to speak in our InterVarsity Large Group meetings, I was functioning as a false teacher.
It was ugly.
Now, years later, I have more and better words. In particular, I know now what I mean by “I disagree with your hermeneutic.” What I mean is this:
Proper biblical interpretation reckons with the context in which the passage was written.
And that’s really the central message of the new-ish book Paul Behaving Badly, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. According to the authors, the process of understanding the message of Scripture must necessarily include a serious effort to reckon with the context in which a particular text sits.
It’s a long quote, but here’s what they have to say about dealing with context in the interpretive process:
“One of the challenges of interpreting Paul is that his writings are what scholars call ‘occasional writings.’ That doesn’t mean that Paul only wrote periodically. It means that when he wrote, it was with a specific audience and situation in mind. His writings were specific to a particular occasion. This wouldn’t necessarily pose a problem for us if we had all the information to reconstruct the occasions for which Paul wrote. If we knew, for example, what questions people had asked him, what crises he was responding to, what books were on his desk when he penned his thoughts, well, the work would be half done for us. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to all that information.
What we have to work with are Paul’s letters compiled in the New Testament. These letters are half a correspondence. In some cases, they are Paul’s responses to letters he received from others. But we don’t have their letters with their questions and concerns, so we’re listening in on only one side of a private conversation. We don’t know the exact dates all the letters were composed, so we can’t say with absolute confidence what situations or events may have shaped Paul’s thoughts on a subject. So then we must weigh all the evidence and make educated guesses. Like all good readers of Paul, we try to recreate the world in which Paul was ministering and writing, and interpret what he had to say in that context.”
This quote captures well the challenge of context. Grasping the context surrounding Paul’s words is surely a challenge, though it’s a challenge that must be accepted in pursuit of right interpretation.
In their chapter “Was Paul a Chauvinist?”, the authors engage some of the verses where Paul seems to restrict the full participation of women in the first church, like the 1 Timothy text that we were talking about back in the cafeteria that day. As they overlay these verses on a thorough examination of the first century context around women, it becomes clear that the passages in question are not meant to be timeless prohibitions. Instead, they are culturally-bound admonitions, meant for the first audience first and foremost.
And Paul’s injunctions would have pushed the cultural envelope. As Richards and O’Brien put it:
“Paul does indeed behave badly when it comes to women. His Jewish culture would not have been pleased with all of the freedom and responsibility he suggested women had in Christ. Traditional Roman culture would have been equally displeased for the same reasons, and the modern ‘liberated’ women of the day would have felt restricted by Paul’s teachings.”
If I had a do-over, if I could walk back into that cafeteria again, I’d like the think the outcome would be different. And it would be different because we’d talk about context, and about the occasional nature of Paul’s letters.
What was the problem with that guy’s hermeneutic?
He paid no heed to context.
And so he missed Paul’s heart for the full liberation of women in the church.
Last week, I got the opportunity to train a church staff team on the topic of flourishing partnerships between women and men. It was a big moment for me, so I decided I’d bring along my secret weapon:
That’s right, this little 8 year old charmer was the best wing-girl a dad could ask for. And as we were heading to the church that morning, we talked about what she would do to pass the time during the three hour training. At one point, I said, “heck, maybe you should take notes on what Daddy does well and what could use some work.”
Be careful what you wish for!
I meant it as a throwaway comment, but she took me up on it. First, here’s her “Good Notes on Daddy:”
For those of you who can’t read Lily, here are the 7 things I did well:
- Talking, which she labeled “very wise.” I’ll take it.
- Family photo, on the flash drive.
- Lesson men and women in partnership. This was her way of saying that she approved of my main point. Phew.
- Photo slide show. Basically, she liked seeing herself on the big screen.
- They know what he’s talking about. Good to know I was being clear!
- You’re happy and funny; you’re not strict. That’s right, I’m the fun teacher!
- You give them breaks. And, to be clear, on each of those breaks Lily got into the candy…
And, now, the bad news:
Here you go, the “Bad Notes on Daddy:”
- How you show emotions. She thinks I could show more emotion when I teach and train. #fairpoint
- Call on people if they have a question. Evidently, I missed a hand at one point…
- Show a picture of me and Hannah. Huge mistake. I had showed a slide with three pictures of “Daddy Adventures” I had gone on with my three older kids. Missing? The picture from the day before where Lily had hung out with her 2 year old friend Hannah. My bad Lily!
- Let people say their opinion. Whoops. OK, maybe I’m NOT the fun teacher…
- Don’t push them for questions.
- Tell them about your experience. Stories. More stories!
- Tell them how you feel about a question.
All in all, I think this is some pretty good feedback. In particular, it interests me that she picked up on a lack of emotion in my presentation. Duly noted!
Thanks, Lily. You are a wonderful partner!
I love taking communion.
You know what I mean? Communion is a sacred act of worship. More than that, it’s a sacramental act of worship, meaning that it’s something we do in the church because Jesus did it, and then commanded his followers to mirror his example.
Because of this, when it’s done, communion has to be well-pastored. You know, the instructions given have to be clear and compelling. Put simply, in order to glean maximum spiritual impact, the congregation should know what it’s getting itself into.
We took communion in church recently. And one part of the officiant’s instructions landed with a thud in my ears and in my heart. He said something like this:
“And after you get the bread and juice, feel free to take communion as a family. Husbands, fathers, you can lead your family in this…or anyone else can lead.”
If you ask me, a little bit of Tertullian there in those instructions…
As I’ve sat with our recent communion experience, I think there are three primary reasons why the meshing of a theology of male headship in the family with the act of communion sits wrong with me.
First, when Jesus inaugurated the institution of communion, he didn’t have anything to say about male headship in the home. For that matter, he didn’t have anything to say about male leadership in the church. Instead, here’s how Jesus framed the first communion instructions, from Matthew 26:26-29:
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
See, nothing in there about male leadership of the communion process.
The second reason why I think those particular instructions are unhelpful is that they presume a common theological understanding that male headship is the way of the Kingdom. And, obviously, if someone like me is sitting in the crowd, that understanding is anything but common or universal.
There are robust arguments to be had about male headship in the home, and, no doubt, Bible-loving, Jesus-pursuing Christians search the Scriptures and disagree. Because of this, it would be best to not just assume a baseline, default theology around headship.
If you do, you risk alienating, or distracting, someone like me, right at the critical and sacramental moment of communion.
Third, and finally, the instructions for husbands, or fathers, to lead in the communion-taking process is problematic because there is inevitably a good chunk of the congregation for whom those instructions will be either painful or irrelevant.
Because, of course, not everyone has a husband or father present on a given Sunday. Maybe the family has been broken apart by separation or divorce. Or maybe mom packs up the kids and brings them to church by herself every Sunday. Or, for the single folks in the room, where do those instructions leave them? Who will lead them into communion? And while I give the officiant props for tacking the “or anyone can lead” phrasing onto his instructions, I worry that the damage had already been done.
It’s not a book specifically about communion, but in her book Blood and Wine, Shauna Niequist talks about the Christian’s approach to table fellowship. Consider these words in the context of communion:
“We don’t come to the table to fight or to defend. We don’t come to prove or to conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed, and we allow ourselves to be nourished, like children. We allow someone else to meet our need. In a world that prides people on not having needs, on going longer and faster, on going without, on powering through, the table is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel.”
“The table is the great equalizer.” What a grand vision!
Now let’s not taint the sacrament by making it another place where power is unevenly distributed.
It’s the end of the school year, which means it’s class parties, talent shows and awards assemblies, all day, every day. Note to self…take the last week of school off next year!
So I’ve been in and around classrooms all week, and this morning, in a 5th grade room, I noticed this poster on the wall:
What do you think stands out to me when I look at this poster?
Hint…it’s not the fact that Warren Harding’s middle name was Gamaliel…
Right. They are all men.
I’m aware that this reality isn’t news to anyone, that every day as they grab their backpacks a classroom full of fifth graders looks up at a poster full of 44 male faces.
So what’s the issue?
For me it’s about what the poster communicates, to both the boys and the girls in the class.
For the boys, in part the poster communicates that as a gender they belong in power, that the highest office in the federal administration is something that not only is attainable, it’s theirs exclusively. Surely, this is a message that Tertullian can get behind.
For the girls–and I have had a little girl in this particular classroom this year–the poster communicates that as a gender they belong on the outside of power, and that if a woman is going to make it into the highest office in the land, they’ll first need to overcome 200+ years of national praxis. Is it subtle? Yes. But it’s real.
Models are important, which is why, someday, I hope a classroom full of fifth graders, boys and girls, can look up at such a poster and see: