Friday, March 24, 2023

All the Church's Knotted-Up Treatment of Women

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

-2 Corinthians 5:16-20 (NIV) 

I've been reading Beth Moore's memoir, All My Knotted-Up Life. If you don’t know her, Moore is a very well-known Christian author and teacher. Her books and seminars have touched millions of people. But the last few years, she’s been somewhat outspoken about her denomination’s handling of sexual abuse scandals. For her trouble, she’s been publicly mocked and bullied by denominational officials. So much so that last year she left that denomination. 

     Historically, the church’s record on our treatment of women isn’t good. The church has blamed women for the Fall. Targeted women in (literal) witch hunts. Counseled them to go back and be “better wives” to the men who abused them. Told women who couldn’t or didn’t have children that they were missing out on their highest purpose. Excluded them from having a voice in the work of God’s kingdom and the life of the church. Argued that they should not be allowed to get an education, vote, work outside the home, or receive equal pay. Gaslighted them when they raised their voices against abuse. Women have been considered by the church temptresses who lead men astray, fragile china dolls to protect, emotionally childlike, or strident and aggressive. Pretty consistently, when you look at the battles women have fought in the public sphere in America, you find the church on the wrong side. Oh, we’ve come around in most cases, but usually only after the force of law and public opinion has pushed us to the side of right. 

     Sure, we’ve quoted biblical texts to support our misguided positions. Those texts are there, and they say something, and those who find authority in the Bible are right to try to figure out what they say and how to go about obeying them. I used to think that, in most cases, wrongs done to women by the church have been done out of a desire to obey the Bible, protect women, or both. I’m not so confident about that any longer. Especially not when you see how women who have spoken out about abuse have been treated by male church leaders.

     But to the degree that it is those seemingly limiting texts that have led us to be wrong in our treatment of women, I think the mistake has been in letting those texts color the way we read other passages — or obscure them entirely. So, without dismissing those texts, let me remind you of a few others that should be taken just as seriously, and maybe be seen as more primary, in teaching the church how to treat women.

     For instance, Genesis reminds us of God’s creative intent. Both men and women are created in God’s image .  That’s in the first narrative of the creation of human beings, which says nothing about woman being created out of man. It’s just very straightforward — God created people, male and female, and created them in his image. There’s no evidence of hierarchy, of women being subordinate or secondary or of less importance, and in fact they are absolutely necessary for human beings to follow God’s command that they “increase in number, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” 

     Genesis 2 tells the story from a different point of view, but don’t try to make it say more than it does. In this version of the story, woman is created out of man. Still, there is no hint of subordination. It’s still God who does the creating, not man. Creating her out of him is an acted parable, an answer to the problem of man’s being alone.  God solves the problem by making him a “suitable helper,” literally out of the same stuff from which he is made. 

     Let me repeat: there is no hint of subordination. Though Paul later makes a couple of points about man’s being created first, there is no emphasis on that in this text. That the woman is created as a “helper” doesn’t necessarily imply subordination either; the word is used elsewhere to refer to God. Subordination, if anything, is a consequence of the Fall, not the intent of Creation. What God creates for the man is a partner.

     And, in fact, that’s how the man takes this new presence in the Garden. He calls her “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh,” and the writer makes the obvious connection: this is why a man leaves his family and unites with his wife — he recognizes a partner when he sees one. There is no order to be upheld, no God-ordained roles to preserve. Just partners, companions, living together in God’s world as equals.

     That’s why, by the way, we struggle so much with Jesus’ answer to the question about divorce. The problem is that Jesus isn't answering our question — not really. What he’s responding to is an assumption that a woman can be put aside like an old shoe when she no longer meets with her husbands’ approval. Jesus’ answer is intended to protect women (who in his day had no rights in a divorce) by forcing a man to consider God’s intention in creation, and to see how negating the commitment he’s made to his wife — for any reason — cuts against God’s creative work. 

      Paul, for all the accusations of misogyny leveled against him, is in truth nothing of the kind. Paul believed that, in Jesus, a new creation had come, and that anyone who was in Christ was a part of it. In that new creation, he wrote, God was restoring his good world by reconciliation. In Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself, and then giving believers in Jesus “the ministry of reconciliation.” It’s our job, in short, to announce that God is reconciling his fragmented creation, and also to act on God’s authority to create reconciliation. And so it’s a part of the church’s mandate that we be careful to speak and act in ways that affirm God’s creative intent in making man and woman companions and partners who bear equally the image of God. It’s a part of our responsibility to affirm, as Paul says elsewhere, that in Christ there is no male and female, but that the two are one because of Jesus. Injustice toward women, even in the name of God or of obeying the Bible, is a relic of the old creation, the “worldly point of view” with which human beings regarded each other before Christ came. In the new creation initiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, reconciliation and a return to God’s creative intent are in order.

     Like all the rest of our life with Jesus, reconciliation between men and women will have to be lived out relationally, in our marriages, in our workplaces and schools, and in our churches. It may mean letting go of attitudes passed down to us from respected forebears in our families and churches. It will surely require listening to the women in our lives tell their stories, even when what they have to say is difficult to hear. It will surely demand prayer and faith and submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in us. 

     How else, though, can we adequately witness to the new creation, the kingdom of God that has come in Jesus. Why will the world believe us if we can’t get this basic thing right?

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