Monday, April 23, 2018

What's at Stake? God's New Social Order

This is the fourth post in my blog series on same-gender marriage. For an outline with links to the whole series, click here. The views expressed in this series are my own and do not represent those of my denomination, conference, or local church.

In my last post, I laid out my Biblical argument for supporting same-gender marriage. In short, I argued that the New Testament abolishes gender norms, which opens up a path for Christians of the same gender to get married. Admittedly, this was a fairly dense argument, which engaged deeply with Scriptural texts but not as closely with the experiences of gay people. To offer some balance, I want to take a step back in this post and consider what it all means. Specifically, I want to engage the questions, Why does the Bible point us away from gender norms? What harm do gender norms in general – and prohibitions against homosexuality in particular - cause?

In my experience, most Christians who have come to affirm same-gender marriage have been inspired to take this position because they recognize that the conservative teaching against homosexuality causes harm. However, when pressed to ask how they are harmful, the answers that progressives offer often lack theological depth. Consider these common types of back-and-forth exchanges between conservatives and progressives. [E1]

Progressives: Prohibitions against same-gender marriage are harmful because they deny homosexuals the opportunity to have their heart’s desire.
Conservatives: That is true, and it is difficult. But is this really something that we want to guarantee to people – that everyone should be able to have their heart’s desire? How does it align with the Biblical ethic of self-denial?

Progressives: Prohibitions against same-gender marriage are harmful because they lead to discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.
Conservatives: Discrimination against LGBTQ individuals is wrong. We should work hard as a church to make sure this doesn’t happen. But we don’t have to support the behavior of gay people in order to oppose the discriminatory action of their persecutors.

Progressives: Prohibitions against same-gender marriage are harmful because they drive gay people, their loved ones, and younger generations in general away from the church.
Conservatives: Since when do we base our ethics on the way that the general public responds to them?

Now that we have done the work of articulating the Biblical trajectory on gender norms, we are in a better position to answer this question. Why do I believe that prohibitions against same-gender marriage are harmful?

Because they stand in the way of the kingdom of God. [E2]

In order to explain what I mean by this, I have to take a step back and share one of the biggest insights I’ve had in the past five years while serving as a pastor, which is about the significance of the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts.

I was introduced to the concept of spiritual gifts at my church when I was a teenager. We looked at the Scripture passages that list them out, [E3] and sometimes we even took self-evaluation tests to figure out which spiritual gifts we had. I found this interesting, but it didn’t really have a big impact on how I lived my life. They felt like a combination of a personality test and a “Which Bible character are you?” Buzzfeed quiz.

Years later, I found myself serving a church that wanted to do a better job reaching out to its community, and I was asking tough questions, such as, “How do you do you help those in need in a way that isn’t condescending or enabling?” and “How can you ensure that your short-term efforts to alleviate suffering don’t cause long-term harm?” As I searched for models of communities that did outreach well, I was struck by the beauty and power of asset-based community development (ABCD). It is a strategy that seeks to relate to people first and foremost by identifying their assets, not their needs, and finding ways to build them up based on those strengths. Another word that one could use to talk about “assets” is “gifts.” [E4] Basically, ABCD was an organizational strategy that sought to integrate people into a larger community based on their God-given and life-cultivated gifts. Before long, we started applying this same concept to our own internal life as a congregation. Too much of our energy was focused on filling the “needs” of the church. New life emerged when we flipped the question and started by asking what our spiritual gifts were and how we could use them.

The key lesson that I learned is that the New Testament discussion of spiritual gifts was not just offered to help individuals understand themselves ourselves better. Instead, it is introduced as a new way of organizing society. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:7, “To each is given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good.” In other words, God has given each of us spiritual gifts so that each one of us can contribute to our community, our society, God’s kingdom. Indeed, we have an obligation to do so, for the social body cannot function properly unless every member is doing their part. [E5] I have come to believe deeply in this principle: that healthy communities, organizations, and societies work best when they find ways to build on the gifts and strengths of each individual member.

This, by the way, is a core piece of the gospel itself. For Jesus did not just come to save individuals from sin and hell, but to re-arrange and redeem entire societies. The good news that Jesus preached was that the kingdom of God was at hand, and this meant that God was introducing an entirely new social order to humanity. This was an order that included a different model of leadership [E6], a different approach to conflict-resolution [E7], a different set of social ethics [E8], and a different way of dividing “labor” – doing so according to spiritual gifts. [E9]

What does this have to do with our discussion of gender? This new way of organizing society according to spiritual gifts comes in direct conflict with gender norms. After all, gender norms are more than just rules that impact individuals; they are also structures that determine the way that society at large is shaped. Consider patriarchy, as an example. Not only does patriarchy harm individual women by insulting their dignity and preventing them from pursuing their dreams. It also has a negative impact on entire communities by preventing women who have gifts in the areas of leadership, wisdom, and innovation from being put in positions where those gifts are most needed. Thus, when we take our gender difference and attach a set of norms to it, it functions as a competing structure, a different way of organizing society, than the model that Jesus described as “the kingdom of God.” And the New Testament understands this conflict. This is why Paul cites the “abolishment clause” [E10] in the middle of his longest discussion of spiritual gifts, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit... All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just a the Spirit chooses." [E11]

And this is how gender norms harm gay people. The pain that gay people experience when they are told that they are wrong to feel same-gender attraction is not the same as the pain that many Christians feel when we are told that we must moderate our excessive sexual impulses or when we are judged for acting out of line with God's will. Instead, this particular pain comes from the fact that we as a church are preventing gay people pursuing their spiritual gifts and callings - that which is good within them. 

For example, there are many gay people who are "made for marriage." [E12] They are caring and loyal and patient and giving - and they both yearn for and are called to share these gifts in a covenantal bond with another human being. Additionally, there are gay people who called to do very intense and important work – the kind of work that faces the ugliest aspects of our fallen nature or that can easily use up spiritual strength – and they need the support of a marriage partner to get through it. To offer one more example, there are gay people who are called to be parents; they have the particular gifts that one needs to relate to and care for children, a job which is best done when there are two caring people working at it together. [E13] And in all of these cases, the gender norm that prohibits a person from marrying someone of thee same gender gets in the way of their God-given gifts and call.

When a Christian community discerns clearly that an individual has a spiritual gift and a specific calling, and the only objection that is raised is a norm that declares that they are not right “kind of person” to pursue it, then this norm stands in the way of the kingdom of God. [E14] My God’s Spirit break every barrier until our community reflects God’s kingdom.

End Notes

[E1] In the following dialogues, I am putting “conservatives” – i.e. Christians who oppose same-gender marriage – in the best possible light. I assume that they care about and are empathetic toward gay people, that they want to ensure that gay people are not discriminate against for reasons unaffected to their sexual orientation, and that they believe intellectual dialogue on the topic of homosexuality is important, despite the fact that they believe same-gender sexual intimacy is sinful. Harold Miller, a pastor in the Mennonite Church, is one strong example of a compassionate conservative, and many of the question-and-answers I write below can be found in this article he wrote.

In truth, this only represents a subset of conservatives. There are many conservatives who do not show the love of Christ even in these basic ways, and their actions should be criticized by conservative and progressive Christians alike. I don’t  think it would be an optimum use of my time to criticize their positions here, but I don’t want to deny that there is a dangerous anti-gay stream within the Church either.

[E2] It’s not by accident that I frame my answer in objective rather than subjective terms. Of course, I too am considered with the effect that gender norms have on individual gay people, but I recognize that suffering itself is morally neutral – it’s not necessarily good or bad. Consequently, in order to move from talking about the pain that these prohibitions cause gay people to talking about the harm it causes them, we have to attach their experiences to a larger value system. Of course, many people do this, but I am seeking to tie it more closely to the Biblical narrative itself.

[E3] The most extensive discussions of spiritual gifts are in 1 Corinthians 12:1-31, Romans 12:3-8, and Ephesians 4:7-16. There are additionally several other passages that mention specific gifts or that touch on the theme of spiritual gifts in general.

[E4] Actually, the concept of assets is a little broader than the concept of gifts, as it includes not only one’s personal strengths and passions but also connections, physical resources, etc. But the core of it is what the Bible would call “spiritual gifts.”

[E5] This is especially clear in 1 Cor 12:14-20.

[E6] Cf. Luke 22:24-27.

[E7] Cf. Matthew 18:15-20

[E8] Cf. Matthew 5-7

[E9] To say a little more on the subject, the New Testament not only divides labor according to “gifts” – which other social groups do – but it combines this with a radical “egalitarian” ethic where no one dictates who does what except the Holy Spirit – cf. 1 Cor 14:26-33a.

[E10] I am using the phrase “abolishment clause” to refer to the saying that circulated in the early church, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul alluded to this at several times in his letters, and quoted it explicitly in Galatians 3:28. However, in this instance, Paul does not quote the entire phrase and drops the “male and female” part.  There may be a reason for this. Paul himself held views about women that conflicted with this great principle he articulated in Galatians, and no where does his bias toward women come out more strongly than in 1 Corinthians. He may have recognized the inherent threat that made to his argument and omitted it for that reason. I’ll wrestle with this in more detail in my upcoming post about Paul’s writings on gender norms in general and same-gender intimacy in particular.

[E11] 1 Corinthians 12:11-13. I moved verse 11 to the end for the sake of emphasis.

[E12] These examples focus on marriage, but this is not because I undervalue the spiritual gift of celibacy. On the contrary, I believe it is a very important and underappreciated spiritual gift, which in my mind is closely tied to apostleship. I know people who have this spiritual gift. (Incidentally, I have no idea what their sexual orientation is. Why would I?) And I know gay people who don’t have this spiritual gift but who feel compelled to live by it due to a gender norm that forces them into singleness. The difference is pretty clear.

The New Testament suggests that those who cannot live according to the ideal of celibacy should fall back on the option of marriage. But for gay people, we have reversed this order, suggesting that those who may not participate in marriage must pursue a life of celibacy. In my mind, this is an insult both to gay Christians and to those for whom celibacy is a true gift.

[E13] I do not say this with the intention to insult single parents. I recognize that there are many instances in which it is better for the kids to be with one parent instead of both or in which parents are forced into single parenting against their will. By the grace of God, these parents can still raise their children effectively.

That being said, I don’t think this detracts from the concept that having two parents are better. In fact, I don’t personally know any single parent who would disagree with me.


[E14] You may have noticed that my argument up to this point only goes as far as saying, “Removing gender norms opens up the possibility that God may call two people of the same gender into marriage.” That is because I leave it to the Holy Spirit to decide if and when this possibility is a reality.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The (Deeper) Gender Trajectory of the Bible

This is the third post in my blog series on same-gender marriage. For an outline with links to the whole series, click here. The views expressed in this series are my own and do not represent those of my denomination, conference, or local church. 

           Both of the churches in which I have served as a pastor – the Free Methodist Church and the Mennonite Church – ordain women as pastors. [E1] I absolutely support this practice. Many of the best pastors I know are women, and I am proud of both of these Christian bodies for recognizing their spiritual gifts and calling. However, I find it inconsistent that these churches affirm women in ministry while simultaneously prohibiting same-gender marriage. After all, the argument against same-gender marriage points to the passages in the New Testament that clearly condemn same-gender sex as indisputable evidence that it is against God’s will. However, there are also passages in the New Testament that clearly prohibit female leadership in the church. [E2] So how do these two denominations justify the ordination of women when there are clear Bible verses that speak so strongly against it? By claiming that there is a trajectory in Scripture that points toward gender equality.
What does that mean – a “trajectory in Scripture”? It means that God has always desired for men and women to be treated equally, but this revelation was too much for God’s people to accept all at once. So instead of offering a single command that says, “You shall treat women equally in all areas to men,” the Bible shows the Holy Spirit steadily moving God’s people ever closer to the ideal of gender equality. We can detect this movement working throughout Scripture, but it doesn’t stop when we get to the last page. We are God’s people today, the inheritors of the great Scriptural tradition, and God’s Spirit continues to move us closer to the ideal of gender equality, even beyond the point where the New Testament left off. Those of us who study the Scriptures can discern this trajectory and choose to follow it by supporting women, despite the fact that there are some passages even in the New Testament that still carry the residue of patriarchy. [E3]
I find this argument persuasive. It is a beautiful and powerful way to understand the authority of Scripture. [E4] So why not make the same kind of argument for same-gender marriage? Because – conservatives argue – there are many verses sprinkled throughout the Bible that critique patriarchy or affirm female empowerment, but the same is not true with homosexuality. There is not a single verse that points toward same-gender marriage.  [E5]
I disagree. On the contrary, I believe there is a clear trajectory in Scripture that points toward the acceptance of same-gender marriage, but we have failed to see it because we have been looking through the wrong lens. We have been searching for Scriptures that affirms homosexuality on the basis of sexuality. No such passages are to be found. However, as I argued in the last post, the prohibition against same-gender marriage isn’t ultimately based on sexual desire or behavior. It’s based on gender norms – the idea that your gender should determine how you should behave. There is indeed a trajectory in Scripture that points toward the rejection of gender norms. It is the very same trajectory that the Mennonite Church and Free Methodist Church have claimed points toward the affirmation of women in ministry.
However, these two churches have not fully understood the trajectory that they claim to follow. If we look more closely, we will find that the Scriptures do not point toward the ideal of gender equality but rather toward the overturning of gender norms. This alternative trajectory still upholds the “egalitarian” practice of ordaining women, but it goes further than that and opens the door for same-gender marriage (and other radical changes) as well.
So let’s consider the deeper meaning of this Scriptural trajectory by looking at status of gender [E6] in each of the four parts of salvation history: creation, the fall, redemption, and glorification.

CREATION – CELEBRATING GENDER DIFFERENCE

In the beginning, when God created the human race, God didn't make us all the same. First and foremost, we have different bodies - different types of bodies, in fact. We are gendered creatures. [E7] Our different bodies give us different experiences, different abilities, and different limitations. We have different genes shaping us, different hormones running through us, and these influence the way we think and feel and what we desire, producing a number of different perspectives and ways of being in the world. Genesis tells us that God created us this way intentionally and proclaimed it to be good. This is especially clear in Genesis 1:27: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” 
Throughout the centuries, Christian theologians have highlighted this verse as one of great significance. Not only does it affirm that we have different bodies, but it discourages us from viewing one body type as superior to another. It declares that we all are made in the image of God. This not only tolerates but celebrates gender difference
However, there are some people who read this verse in a more narrow way. Rather than viewing this as a celebration of our gender difference, they view it as the establishment of two gender norms or ideals: the male and the female. To put it another way, they read the "and" in Genesis 1:27 as an "or," so that the text seems to say, "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male or female he created them." In their minds, the concepts of male and female are introduced here not only to indicate that each of us was created to be either one gender or the other, but that we ought to conform to our that gender's ideal form. In other words, if God created me as a male, that carries the implications that I ought to live like a male by doing things like marrying a woman (as opposed to another male) and taking a leadership role in my relationship with her. I do not find this interpretation convincing. [E8] I believe that Genesis 1 is simply celebrating the ways that we are different, not trying to suggest that we ought to be a certain way. However, the second interpretation is both possible and a common way to read this text, so we have to consider its validity. 
Which interpretation is better - the one that claims Genesis 1:27 is celebrating gender difference or the one that claims it is establishing gender norms? Perhaps the best way to solve that is to evaluate the way in which Jesus himself understood this passage. Many conservative scholars have pointed to Matthew 19:3-9 as evidence that Jesus interpreted Genesis 1:27 as the establishment of gender norms. [E9] In that passage, Jesus debates with the Pharisees about divorce, and he makes the following comments: "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' [Gen 1:27] and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh' [Gen 2:24]? So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." By taking Genesis 1:27, which describes the difference between men and women, and combining it with Genesis 2:24 - which describes a man and a woman getting married - Jesus seems to be indicating that men and women were designed to be married to each other, which would exclude the possibility of same-gender marriage.
However, the Bible passage doesn't end there. Conservatives usually fail to mention the verses that immediately follow these comments (Matthew 19:10-12), where Jesus continues the discussion of gender with his disciples. His disciples realize that the "gender norm" interpretation of Genesis would actually put them in violation of Scripture. For many of them decided to dedicate their entire lives to following Jesus rather than 'obeying' Genesis 2:24 and adhering to the traditional gender norm of being a husband and father. [E10]
In his response, Jesus makes it clear that he was only promoting the permanence of marriage, not gender norms in relation. He expresses this by saying: "Some are born eunuchs, some are made eunuchs by others, and some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God." Wait... who are eunuchs and what do they have to do with this conversation? Eunuchs were people who appeared to be 'male' but who did not have fully functioning male genitalia. As Jesus notes here, this could be either because they were born intersex [E11] or it could be because they were castrated. Either way, they were well-known and widely seen as a 'third gender' in the ancient world, who were neither male nor female. [E12]
By affirming that some people are born as eunuchs, Jesus is clarifying the meaning of Genesis 1:27: God didn't just create two types of bodies, males and females, but there are other genders such as eunuchs that are part of the created order as well. He goes on to argue that "some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God" - which mans that people may (appropriately) choose to reject gender norms once they become part of God's new society, God's kingdom. But now I am getting ahead of myself. For now, I just want to consider how the first part of Jesus' response, "Some are born eunuchs," shapes our interpretation of Genesis 1:27. I believe that it proves that this passage was meant to be a celebration of gender difference and not an establishment of two gender ideals to which all of us must conform.
However, as we read further in the Biblical story, we do see two gender norms emerge - the male and the female - and we encounter verses that instruct us to adhere to one or the other. Where do these come from? They were created in response to the Fall.

THE FALL – THE EMERGENCE OF GENDER NORMS

            The world that we experience today does not reflect the world that God intended to create. It has been marred by evil and sin. This is expressed in Scripture through the story of the Fall. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden tree, deviating from the will of God, and in so doing, they bring a number of curses on humanity, curses that were not a part of God’s design. Christian egalitarians point out that patriarchy is introduced in the Bible as a part of this curse. Specifically, Genesis 3:16 says, “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Undoubtedly, this is one of the worst ways in which the Fall impacted gender. But it is not the only way. In truth, the most basic way in which the Fall impacted Adam and Eve is that it turned them against each other. They began blaming each other, distancing themselves from each other, and in response, God spoke to each of them differently. God gave one set of roles or expectations to Adam and another to Eve. This is the first time this happens in the Bible. Although the difference between males and females was recognized before, this is the first time that their gender became a principle that determined their behavior. [E13] It marks the emergence of gender norms.
            After the Fall, these gender norms gain momentum, [E14] and many of them become translated into commandments. Men who lack “proper” genitalia were not permitted to enter the public assembly. (Deut 23:1) Women were forbidden from wearing male clothing, and men were forbidden from wearing female clothing. (Deut 22:5). Men were forbidden from having sexual relationships with men and were only allowed to have sexual relationships with women (Lev 18:22). As time went on, the line between men and women became more defined and regulated, with different expectations assigned to each group.
            Although the Bible promotes these norms, it also acknowledges that they are not ideal. The daughters of Zelophehad complain that they should not be deprived of inheritance because of their gender, and God agrees that this is unfair (Numbers 27:1-7) Barak, a military leader of Israel, wants Deborah – the clear spiritual leader of the nation – to assist him. She agrees but notes that this will take him down a road where he receives less glory, as he will be dishonored by a female. (Judges 4:4-9) [E15] Even in Jesus’ time, these gender norms are getting in the way of what God wants to do. For example, when Jesus tries having a conversation with a woman, she questions the appropriateness of this: “Sir, you are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:1-9) [E16] The gender norms were in effect, but they did not shape the world in the way that God intended for it to be. Fortunately, God had a plan to undo the damage of the curse by abolishing gender norms in Jesus

REDEMPTION – ABOLISHING GENDER NORMS IN CHRIST

            It is frequently observed that the way Jesus treated women was radical for his time. As I already mentioned above, he talked to them in social settings where such a conversation was seen as undignified. He included women among his disciples, which was a radical move at the time. [E17] He entrusted women with important responsibilities. For example, the very first person to whom he appeared after his resurrection was a woman, and he asked her to spread the good news. [E18] Christian egalitarians often look at these verses and say, “See! Here is evidence that Jesus believed in the equality of men and women.”
            But equality doesn’t quite describe what Jesus was doing here. He didn’t insist that there be an equal number of male and female disciples. He never made any explicit statements about women having equal status or qualifications as men. Instead, he simply acted as though gender didn’t matter. He disregarded gender norms, and in so doing, disempowered them. [E19]
            Upon his resurrection from the dead, the early church followed suit. They appointed female deacons and apostles. [E20] They put men in positions of service and submission. [E21]. They incorporated eunuchs fully into their Christian fellowship [E22] As a result of these practices, a saying emerged in the early church, which Paul referenced on a few different occasions in his letters, most explicitly in Galatians 3:28, “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [E23] This statement doesn't say that Jews and Greek, males and females are equal. It says that the differences are erased. It abolishes gender norms.
These words were spoken in a world that was still dominated by gender norms. Jesus’ followers knew that people would still have certain expectations of them based on their being a slave or freeperson, or a male or female. But within their own community, within the body of Christ, these distinctions were no longer given legitimacy. However, this was such a radical ethic, that the church has spent the past two millennia unpacking what it means. We are still seeking to understand and follow the gender trajectory.
The Mennonite Church and Free Methodist Church (and many others) are right to open the doors to female preaching, leadership, and ordination on the basis of this verse [E24]. However, they should pay closer attention to verse that most clearly justifies this practice. For it does not say that men and women are equal. Instead, it proclaims that there is no male and female in Jesus Christ. Why does that matter? Because the abolishment of gender has implications that go beyond the equality of gender. It means that people who don’t fit the ideals of either gender can find a space in God’s kingdom as well. It removes the barriers that kept eunuchs from being fully included in God’s community (overturning Deut 23:1), as well as the barriers that prevented transvestites from dressing in the clothing associated with the opposite gender (overturning Deut 22:5), as well as the barriers that kept homosexuals from marrying someone of the same gender (overturning Lev 18:22). Galatians 3:28 does not mean that we lose our gender, [E25] for this is part of what makes us unique and worthy of celebration. But it does mean that our gender no longer dictates how we should be treated in the church.

GLORIFICATION – DIFFERENCE WITHOUT DETERMINATION

            Jesus began the process of redemption, but it was not complete by the time of his ascension. He sent out his disciples to spread the good news both through their preaching and by modeling a different way for humans to relate to one another in the church. He acknowledged that this process would take time, but that the Holy Spirit would guide us into a deeper and deeper understanding of the society that God envisions: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear tem now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:12-13)
This is a process – one that is slow and painful for many – but it does have an end in sight. The Bible speaks about a future in which God will make things right, one that completely reflects God’s will, which is variously called “eternal life,” “heaven,” or “the last days.” What role will gender have in this future state? According to the prophet Joel, “In the last days, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy… Even on my male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29) Here we have a vision of God’s spirit being poured indiscriminately on God’s people, without regard to their gender. Notice, gender difference will still be there, but it will not be determinative of how we live. We will be free to live in accordance with God’s Spirit.
Here we have a vision in the story of the Bible for the affirmation of gender difference but the removal of gender norms. Some may still wonder, “But what about the New Testament verses that still impose gender norms?” – which is a fair biblical question. I’ll address that in my fifth post. Others may wonder, “But what is so harmful about gender norms? Why must they be removed?” – which is a fair theological question. I’ll address it in my next post. But I want to conclude with a note of prayer: that we as a church have the courage to live into God’s radical vision for humanity, even though it upends the world that we know.

End Notes

[E1] This can be found in the Mennonite Confession of Faith,Article 15 and in the 2007 Book of Discipline. I don’t have ready access to the latest Book of Discipline, but I’m sure this has not changed.

[E2] 1 Timothy 2:11-15; 1 Corinthians 14:33-34

[E3] For one example of the gender trajectory argument, see this article by Gail Wallace. 

[E4] Of course, there are many Christians who do not find this persuasive and who do not allow the ordination of women. They are not likely to be persuaded by my argument, which assumes the validity of this approach to Scripture as a starting point. But I am ok with that. Right now, my primary concern is to appeal to these two churches – my “mother” church and my current Christian fellowship – so that we can better reflect the will of Christ. I’d be willing to have conversations with Catholics, Orthodox, Reformed Christians or any other complementarians about this, but we’d likely have to start by taking a step back and talking about Biblical authority and interpretation in more general terms first.

[E5] For example, in his article, “Listening and responding to voices of inclusion,” Harold Miller writes, “We pass over the New Testament passages on slavery and women because there is a clear grace-energized trajectory within Scripture toward inclusion of the marginalized, viewing all persons — slave and free, women and men — as valued in Christ…However, there is no such gospel trajectory leading us away from sexual mores.” 

Also, Robert Gagnon writes, “ There are indeed a host of injuncions in the Bible that the church today does not heed; so why be such a stickler for this one?... The problem with this line of reasoning is that, in cases where the church deviates in its moral practices from portions of the Bible, one can usually find a trajectory within the Bible itself that justifies a critique or moderation of such texts… As for women’s roles in the church and in the home, the contemporary church does take, on the whole, a more enlightened perspective than can generally be found in the Bible. However, there are so many positive exmaples of women in leadership positions in the Old Testament (e.g. Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Esther), of women involved in the ministry of Jesus, and of women serving as co-workers with Paul in the proclamation of the gospel (Romans 16 among other texts), that the Bible contains within its own canonical structure the seeds for liberating women from oppressive male structures (cf. Gal. 3:28: ‘there is n omale and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’”) (441-443)

[E6] As I evaluate the Biblical story at a deeper level, I will be introducing terms that are unfamiliar to many people including gender difference and gender norms. To some, this may feel as though I am imposing external concepts on the text  in order to make the Bible say what I want it to say. Certainly, this is not my intention, but there is always some risk in manipulating the text when we use new terminology to evaluate it. Nevertheless, I find it necessary to introduce new terms because our analysis of gender is so imprecise that most people have no idea what to make of the Bible verses that make the most radical gender claims.

What, for example, is a verse like “There is no male and female… for you are all one in Christ” saying? Is it denying that gender exists? Surely not. Is it promoting equality? That doesn’t quite sound right either. We simply lack the language to accurately name what’s going on here. The terms I am bringing into the text give the tools we need to talk about this in a more nuanced way. This is something that the church has been doing throughout its history, from the earliest debates that used the Greek concepts of homoousious and hypostatic union to describe the nature of Christ, ultimately leading to terms that we all use such as “Trinity,” to terms such as transubstantiation and consubstantiation to help us make sense of what happens to the communion elements, etc. At every point, there are people who object to the introduction of new terms, but in the end, I believe they help us understand the text more deeply. (This coming from a Mennonite who does not believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation, but still appreciates the clarity they provide on the debate.)

[E7] There are some who would argue that I ought to say that God created us as sexed creatures rather than gendered creatures. In so doing, they draw on a distinction distinction between sex and gender, with the understanding that sex refers to the most fundamental biological characteristics that make us male or female, while gender refers to several additional characteristics that society has taught us to associate with maleness or femaleness but which are not inherent to it. Indeed, the Mennonite document Human Sexuality in the Christian Life draws on this distinction early in its writings about gender and sexuality (2.2.1) and depends on it throughout the rest of the text.

However, a few years after Human Sexuality was put together, first philosophers and then scientists began questioning the idea that you could separate sex and gender so neatly. In science, the question centered around the question, “What precisely determines whether one is a male or a female?” There are at least three possible answers: by our external sex organs, our internal sex organs (e.g. reproductive systems), or our sex chromosomes. For the most part, people who have the male or female feature in one of these categories have the male or female feature for all three. However, there are a significant number of people who have a mixture of male/female characteristics, and scientists don’t know what to assign them. For example, there is a condition called persistent mullerian duct syndrome in which a person is born with external male genitalia and yet have a uterus and a womb.  For those who believe that everyone is male or female, this poses a problem: which one are they?

Philosophers argue that science itself cannot answer this question. Science can show us the various traits that we associate with men and women, but it is human societies that determine what ultimately makes people male and female on people. In other words, the idea that “sex” is determined by science and “gender” is determined by society breaks down.

Some philosophers take this argument further. Not only do they deny that gender categories exist in nature, but they argue that they are inherently oppressive and that we shouldn’t use them. I don’t go this far. I recognize that gender is more complex than the male/female dichotomy suggests, and I am in favor of introducing more nuanced language to describe gender difference but not of abandoning differentiating language altogether. To do this would be to implicitly deny the goodness of gender difference, which is a key aspect of the Bible’s testimony about gender. So, one of the subtle changes I make instead is to consistently use the term “gender” rather than “sex,” because the former term is less dualistic and normative than the latter.

[E8] To me, these two interpretations of Genesis 1:27 can be compared to two different reactions that a traveling couple has when come across a sign in front of a community center that says, “This Saturday, celebrating our common heritage. Blacks and whites are invited to attend.” Upon seeing a sign like that, one person might say, “Wow – this town is encouraging diversity. Good for them!” However, the other might say, “What a racist sign! Why would they go out of their way to exclude Native Americans, Asians, and other people who don’t fit the black-and-white dichotomy from this event!” Technically, the second speaker has a point. The sign only says that black and white people are invited. On the other hand, it does not say that only black and white people are invited.

Whose interpretation is better? How can we resolve this dispute? I would argue that the rest of the sign offers context. The emphasis is on celebrating and a common heritage. It’s quite possible that the creators of the sign weren’t thinking of Native Americans or Asians when they made the sign, but I don’t think they were actively excluding them.

Likewise, I don’t think the author of Genesis 1 was thinking about intersex people and others who don’t fit the gender norms when that person wrote “…male and female he created them.” However, I also don’t think Genesis is actively excluding them either, for it doesn’t say anything like “…only as male and female did he created them” or “either male as female he created them.” Moreover, the rest of Genesis 1 provides context. It is a celebration of difference, especially in the parts that celebrate all the different kinds of plants and animals that God created. So I submit that the spirit of this text is celebrating difference, not establishing norms.

[E9] Or they may point to its synoptic parallel in Mark 10:2-12.

[E10] During his earthly ministry, Jesus himself was seen by some as violating the gender norms of his day because he did not get married or have children. By not being a good “family man,” he was not living the way that men were designed to live. This is a concern that comes up in several places in the gospels, such as Mark 3:31-35 and here in Matthew 19. Ben Witherington, a “conservative” Bible scholar, explains this gender norm and Jesus’ rejection of it quite well in this short video

[E11] Intersex is a medical term used to describe people who have a mixture of male and female biological characteristics as the most basic levels and therefore cannot be assigned on a scientific basis to one or the other.

[E12] Antiquity scholar Mathew Kuefler writes in his book, The Manly Eunuch, “[Eunuchs] represent a reality larger than themselves; indeed, they symbolize… gender ambiguity.” (6)

[E13] Of course, nature itself puts limits on our bodies, and these often put us in different roles. For example, men (defined by the current medical criteria) do not have a uterus or vagina and therefore cannot give birth. Only women can. That’s not oppressive; that’s just nature.

However, once you move from saying that [some] women can give birth to saying that women are supposed to give birth, you move from acknowledging a fact of nature itself to establishing a gender norm.

A similar move occurs with same-gender attraction. It is true that the majority of people are attracted to members of “the opposite sex.” But once you say that this is the only people whom they should be attracted to, you are making a move that goes beyond what God and nature actually dictate.

[E14] But they develop in different ways in different societies, which provides evidence that they are not derived from God’s design.

[E15] Actually, the woman that he will be dishonored by is not Deborah by Jael, but there is a reason that this story emerges under the jurisdicition of the only female judge of Israel. It is expressing the tension that emerges from the violation of gender norms that Deborah’s leadership implies.

[E16] This, of course, touches on both the issues of ethnic identity and those of gender.

[E17] See Luke 8:1-3. Again, Ben Witherington addresses this well in this video.

[E18] This was especially significant because women were not seen as reliable witnesses in the ancient world. For an excellent scholarly exploration of this concept, see this article. 

[E19] By saying this, I do not mean to indicate that it is inappropriate for us to discuss the inequality of men and women. In settings where women are treated as inferior, it is important to name this and explicitly note that “men and women are equal.”

However, one might question whether the ideal of equality can ever be reached. For example, in the 1890s, several US states tried to create a segregated social system for whites and people of color that was “separate but equal,” but the Supreme Court finally acknowledged was functionally impossible in 1954. Similarly, in her paradigm-shifting work, Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that the existence of separate categories “male” and “female” ensures that women will be locked in the inferior position, and so the category must be undermined.

But I would argue (and I think Butler would agree) that if we abolished gender, we would find ourselves under the control of a different power structure. Where I diverge from Butler is that I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing – we should not consider power to be bad in and of itself. The question is rather the structure itself is fair. Jesus, I believe, was introducing an alternative power structure, one that treated people with the dignity that they deserved, and this was much more at elevating women than simply proclaiming, “They are (separate but) equal to men!” This alternative structure will be the focus of my next post.

[E20] See especially Romans 16:1-16, in which Paul lists several of his male and female partners in ministry, describing Phoebe as a deacon, Prisca (i.e. Priscilla) as his co-worker in the ministry, and Junia as an apostle.

[E21] Many of Jesus’ instructions for his disciples violated the gender norms – especially for males – of the time, including the invitation to singleness, the call to servitude, and the willingness to be physically beaten. We don’t notice these as gender-defying instructions today because the Christian Church of the fourth century and beyond worked hard to re-define the gender norms of the Roman Empire so that they better aligned with Christian values, a process that is laid out masterfully in Mathew Kuefler’s book, The Manly Eunuch.

[E22] Acts 8:26-40. The fact that this act violated a gender norm can be seen in the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (v. 36) He knew that it would have gone against the grain of social expectations, but he also knew that – if the abolishment of gender norms was taken seriously – there is “nothing to prevent this.”

[E23] There seems to be a scholarly consensus around the idea that the teaching contained in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is longer slave or free, there is no male and female, for all of you are on in Christ Jesus” was not created by Paul himself. Instead, it seems to be a saying that circulated widely in the Christian Church, and Paul here appeals to it in order to make his case against the Judaizers. Evidence for this comes from the fact that Paul cites different versions of it in Colossians 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:13. However, these verses do not contain the reference to women, probably because this was the category that Paul himself had the most time “abolishing.” More on this in Post #5.

[E24] BT Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church, wrote about the significance of this passage in his book, Ordaining Women, saying, “Paul settles the question. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ – Gal. 3:28…  Make this the KEY TEXT upon this subject, and give to other passages such a construction as will make them agree with it, and all is harmony. The apparent conflict is at an end. The fetters are taken off from woman, and she is left free to serve Christ in any position she may be qualified and called to fill. Why should this not be done?” (p.36-37)


[E25] The way that Paul uses Galatians 3:28 in the context of Galatians makes it clear that he was not trying to eliminate diversity of ethnicity or gender. Indeed, he uses this saying to stop Judaizers from forcing Gentiles to follow the Old Testament law, in much the same way that I am trying to use it to stop conservatives from forcing homosexuals to follow the Old Testament law. Now, I know this principle comes up again in the New Testament – most significantly in Romans 1, and I will deal with that in my fifth post. But taken on its own terms, I think the clearest statement we can make about Galatians 3:28 is that it was not trying to eliminate gender difference, but it was rejecting gender norms.