Thinking Slowly Together About Gender
Confusion, frustration, and distress are but a sampling of emotions we may feel as we consider topics of sexuality in our cultural moment. However, it is not just the culture “out there” that is deeply troubling for many believers. Our own evangelical culture all too often exhibits unhealthy and unbiblical patterns in male and female relationships. A host of critiques of our evangelical culture have been published recently, including Jesus and John Wayne, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Recovering from Biblical Womanhood, and The Great Sex Rescue, to name a few. In addition, the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill has unmasked a particularly toxic church culture. And perhaps most disturbing in recent months has been the revelation of the extent to which the Southern Baptist Executive Committee mishandled and covered up sexual abuse. Is there hope for our culture? Is there hope for the evangelical church?
A Challenging Conversation
Addressing these questions is complex and requires difficult conversations. I am usually one who runs from confrontation and uncomfortable topics, so my first impulse is to throw up my hands, thinking it is futile to engage. However, gratefully, our local church is a place that invites challenging conversations and makes room for long, thoughtful engagement. To borrow a phrase from a recent book, we are invited to think slowly together. This past year, I have had the privilege of being a part of a “think slowly” group, a task force of five people from different campuses and different walks of life. We were invited to sit, study, pray, and write together about God’s design for male and female flourishing in our church. This little band of people met for many hours for the better part of nine months, leaning into this challenging conversation. We prayed, read widely, and worked through the vast sweep of Scripture. Entering the conversation with open hearts, we made room to be corrected, surprised, and inspired by what we learned. The result is several papers that are posted on our website. We hope you will read them for a much more in-depth reflection.
So, how do men and women flourish together? Our team’s best understanding from Scripture is that we are designed to be in a complementary alliance as members of a family. Complementary means male and females are uniquely made so as to enhance one another. Genesis 1:27 clearly declares that male and female together bear God’s image. We are so similar: both embodied image-bearers of God. But we are also unique in our contribution and biological distinction. Alliance means we are designed to be in a relationship for the purpose of a common mission. Genesis 1:28 gives the male and female a mandate to rule over God’s earthly kingdom, as well as to multiply and fill the earth. Genesis 2:18, in response to the declaration that it was “not good for man to be alone,” describes God’s intention, “I will make a helper corresponding to him.” The word translated “helper” in this verse is the Hebrew word ezer. Too often this word has been conceived as “assistant” or subordinate. However, the word ezer is most often used to describe God himself as our help. Far from a mere assistant, the ezer is the essential one to come alongside, to enable the fulfillment of a given task. The ezer is what Talbot professor John McKinley describes as “the necessary ally,” emphasizing the joint mission for which male and female are created; to rule God’s earthly kingdom.
This beautiful relationship of complementary alliance was devastatingly fractured in Genesis 3, and God foretold that the consequences of sin would introduce male domination and female frustration into the relationship. This is the part that prompts the throwing up of the hands. However, as believers, we are redeemed to be reconciled—to God first, and then to one another as males and females in relationships of complementary alliance. Whether married or single, we are necessary allies on mission together as family members. We are neither identical nor interchangeable, and we are all necessary.
Most profoundly of all, we find that God himself is pictured as the husband of his people in the Old Testament and Jesus as the Bridegroom to his church in the New Testament. The mystery of male and female is theological (pointing us to God) and eschatological (pointing us to our glorious future). Ultimately, we will live in the New Creation as a complementary alliance of brothers and sisters forever in the perfected family of God.
Living This Out
As a result of this conversation, the leadership structure at Christ Community has not changed, but our understanding and expression of God’s beautiful design for males and females in complementary alliance has blossomed. Our task force has been deeply humbled and grateful for the manner in which our elders and senior leadership have commissioned, engaged with, and endorsed this conversation.
After thinking slowly together with the task force and our leaders over the last year, I no longer feel like throwing up my hands in exasperation regarding the relationship of males and females in the church. Rather, I am prompted to lift my hands in worship of our Bridegroom, the Lamb of God. Praise to the Father for his good and gracious inclusion of all his children in his plan. May we be found faithful to increasingly live into his marvelous design.
Read the resulting papers created by this task force:
1) Exploring God’s Design for Male and Female Flourishing In the Church A Biblical Theology of Male and Female
2) Male and Female in the Church Structure and Polity
Note about the task force:
This team experienced the joy of functioning in a true complementary alliance on this project:
Ben Beasley, former Associate Pastor, Downtown Campus, MDiv, pursuing ThM at Princeton Theological Seminary
Nikki Dieker, Associate Pastor, Olathe Campus
Bill Gorman, Campus Pastor, Brookside Campus, MDiv
Melody McSparran, Bible Teacher, Trinity International University Board of Regents Member, Congregant, Leawood Campus
Kelli Sallman, ThM, Writer and Editor, Congregant, Leawood Campus