So, in the past few weeks I’ve tried to say that, relative to gender-equality, the Church has a history of adopting the world’s way of thinking about authority, power, and influence. I quoted Francis Schaeffer to the effect that the Church is usually about 7 years behind the culture. For example, I seriously doubt the Church would have revisited its views on women in ministry if not for the feminist movement, nor would it be wrestling with biblical teaching on homosexuality if not for sweeping changes in culture. A friend reminds me and, yes I agree, that when the Church is merely traditional, rather than faithful to the Lord himself, she may need to be shaken and challenged by the culture. But then comes a difficult discernment issue. How much of the mind of culture is in agreement with the mind of Christ? And do we have the courage to stand in a place of conflict — especially a place at once at odds not only with the movement of culture, but also with merely traditional expressions of Christianity?
I’m realizing I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew, so let me try to boil this down. What worries me about the current climate in the Church relative to women in ministry is not so much the particular decisions various traditions are making, as their blindness to having adopted a whole way of thinking and speaking. There’s an abandonment, or ignorance, of the pattern of biblical thought. I doubt many Christians have considered that “gender” is not a biblical category. Rather, it is an idea that emerged in the U.S. in the mid-1980s as a way of differentiating between sex (male and female), and socially-imposed norms based on sex. This latter idea became “gender studies,” now a fixture in every major university in the U.S. Gender studies examines how societies impose differing expectations for men and women. Out of this field, of course, comes the argument that social norms are unjust and unequal.
Here’s my concern about the Church’s way of thinking and speaking: the Lord doesn’t think at all in the way the world thinks about justice and equality. With regard to justice, by far the clearest statement of equality in all Scripture — the place where all humanity is identified by the same, single idea — is Rom. 3:23: “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We are all equal in our entitlement to the wrath of God. We are entitled to justice, a terrifying thought and a death-sentence. Since the fall, there is no other entitlement for us, not even in the fact that we are all made in God’s image. And but for Christ, there is no hope. Our only real problem, a problem shared equally by all humankind, is moral, not social or cultural. The great problem women face in our society is not that they are treated unjustly, but that they are guilty before a holy God. It is the wonder and beauty of the Gospel that through the sacrifice of the only pure and holy man who ever lived, both women and men can be exonerated and free. Jn. 8:36 “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Among the many ethical challenges given to those who are blessed by being exonerated and free in Christ is the challenge to “set prisoners free.” The primary bondage of all humankind is to sin. Israel’s actual bondage in Egypt was, in the end, just a biblical metaphor for this far more destructive and deadly bondage. Freedom from sin is real freedom. After that, the Bible speaks plainly of our responsibility to the oppressed. But here’s the catch. When the Bible speaks of the oppressed, it’s usually speaking to what we would think of as political prisoners, actual slaves, and the starving poor.
Should we fight for justice for those in these categories of oppression? Absolutely. We should pour our lives out for them (Isa 58). What we shouldn’t be is confused about real bondage. The person who is free in Christ is free wherever he or she may go. Paul and Silas sang and worshiped God in prison. They were chained to a wall. But as Paul said, the Gospel is unchained, and so he rejoiced. In my lifetime, North American Evangelicals have lost a sense of the wonder of freedom in Christ, and so they have lost the humility and perpetual thanksgiving that come with the gift of salvation. If this life were recovered, our pursuit of justice on behalf of others would take a very different shape and tone than it now embodies.