Posts Tagged ‘complimentarianism’

God’s Gender

The other day I stumbled into a Twitter discussion about God and gender. My point was that God, though neither male nor female but spirit, nevertheless reveals himself as male. The other side of the discussion, who stress God’s genderlessness, asked me to back up what I was saying. A very fair request!

The point I raised was that God self-identifies as male by only employing masculine pronouns for himself. When he uses feminine imagery it is always in the form of metaphor “as a…” That is, God never refers to himself as female but rather uses feminine metaphors to describe some of his attributes.

Since the dialogue took place on Twitter, there were limitations and I wasn’t able to address every point my interlocutor raised. There were a few items that I felt I needed to get back to in a longer format because they either came up from more than one source or others following the discussion favorited his points.

First, an observer asserted that Jesus overthrew the patriarchal structures of society of his day. I asked the commentator to explain when he did that and she cited Galatians 3:28 and John 4:24. I’ll leave the Galatians passage alone since John 4 came up again later in the discussion with someone else using it to show that language describing God as spirit is always other than masculine.

I believe that both of the people who offered the verse may misunderstand the nature of gendered nouns. It can be hard for English speakers to get the idea that a noun can be masculine, feminine, or neuter and that has nothing to do with the sex of the thing. It is just the form of the noun. So the fact that “spirit” in John 4:24 is neuter does not overthrow a patriarchal anything. Nor does it mean that we are free to refer to God now as a he, she, or it. It simply means that God is spirit.

So how do you determine the gender of a thing with you’re dealing with verbal and noun genders? You look for other clues such as the pronouns. So let’s look again at John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him…” It does not say, “God is neuter, and those who worship he/she/it…” There are landmines to avoid on both sides of this discussion here. “God” and “worship” are both masculine. That doesn’t prove that God is a man. The noun ???? (“theos”, God) is a masculine noun and the verb that modifies it, in this case “worship”, must agree in gender. However, the pronoun is masculine and that does mean something. If John was seeking to stress that God is beyond gender here, he could have used a neuter or feminine pronoun but he didn’t. God consistently uses masculine pronouns to refer to himself.

When God wants to stress his care and concern for his people, he sometimes uses feminine metaphors.  For example, in Isaiah 66:13, God says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” There are other verses as well but this is a good example. And still, it makes my point that it is imagery and metaphor, not an equality. For example, no one is arguing that Moses is a female but Numbers 11:11-12 says,

Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers?”

Similarly, when God uses feminine metaphors for himself we have to understand them correctly. We wouldn’t take Moses’ statement here to mean that we can refer to him as “Moses herself” and so we should not take that kind of liberty with God.

The second thing that I wanted to expand on is a warning I received that always taking scriptural language literally risks producing an unscriptural view of God. I think the concern was that my insistence that we refer to God as he has revealed himself could lead to thinking he, is in fact, masculine. I certainly don’t want to make that mistake and so I took the warning seriously. After reflecting on it, I don’t think I’m making that mistake. What he was getting at was warning us away from the mistake of saying, for example, that God has wings because it says so in the Psalms.

This is where I got very frustrated with Twitter as a conversational medium. It would be impossible for me to communicate how I was careful to make that distinction in only 140 characters. So I’m taking to my blog. It will cross-post a link to my Twitter account but I don’t expect anyone from that thread to see it. Still, just to clear my conscience, here goes.

When God uses terms about himself like “Father” and “groom”, at one level he is speaking metaphorically even if he doesn’t say “as a…” Why? Because we know that God’s essential nature is spirit. Also, we can fairly infer that he is beyond human genders because when he created human beings, it says,

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

He didn’t create Adam in his image and then tacked Eve on. Adam and Eve together constitute his image therefore there are masculine and feminine attributes in God. We don’t want to push the masculine language too far and distort who God is.

At the same time, if we are careful to stick to all the Biblical language about God, we’ll avoid that error all together. When we incorporate all of what the Bible says about God, it really, truly places him beyond gender. He just is. We’re divided into two genders, he isn’t.

At the same time though, these metaphors do mean something! God is a Father and a groom and male in some sense. There are things about those roles that illustrate, more than other societal roles, who he is. God wrote those words on purpose and he chose them carefully because that’s the kind of person God is.

To really know who God is, we need to know his Son (John 14:8-9), we need to be filled with his Spirit (1 Cor 2:10), and we need to seek him in his word (1 John 5:11-13). And in these revelations of himself, God chose to show himself using masculine terms and the occasional feminine metaphor. To refer to God as feminine is unbiblical, to refer to him as masculine is following his lead, but to claim he is male or female is an error. He is ultimately neither and both. We worship a really big God.

Egalitarian Vs Complementarian

Sure, the Bible is a sharp blade that cuts bone in two but what happens when certain passages turn into bombs? Wouldn’t it be great to find a way to defuse those verse-bombs that we drop on each other? They get lobbed all the time, especially on the internet. Well, here’s an attempt to disarm one.

spyA friend recently linked to an article from The Junia Project 1Junia is mentioned in Romans 16:7 along with Andronicus as being “outstanding amongst the apostles” in the NIV. This is intended to prove that there were female apostles but ultimately it fails. The verse is translated “well known to the apostles” in the ESV which would not put Junia or Andronicus among the Apostles. Also, the way “apostle” is used in the New Testament is complex. There are the Twelve Apostles but then others are apostles. It may be that the way “apostle” is used in Romans 16 is more analogous to what we mean by “missionary.” written by Dr. Gail Wallace, an adjunct professor of Adult and Professional Studies at Azuza Pacific University. She has a PhD in education and seems like a very nice person overall. The blog post Gail wrote is titled “Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb.” Gail is correct when she says in it that 1 Timothy 2 is often treated as a conversation stopper when discussing women’s roles in the church and that shouldn’t be so. Complementarian or egalitarian, if we are evangelicals we should be able to come to a text and discuss it and seek to understand and obey it. We should be able to do that without rancor and divisiveness so I am grateful for her efforts.

In good faith Gail opens that conversation by offering to “defuse” this explosive verse for us. She used what I consider to be a very clever metaphor for making her point: she shows us the “three wires” we need to cut in order to defuse the bomb; the “Translation Wire”, the “Context Wire”, and the “Interpretation Wire.” In all, I thought it was a very helpful way to present her material. And even in this short blog post she provided a kind of bibliography at the end. Nicely done!

In the end though, I don’t think she would last very long in a bomb squad. The wires she chose to cut didn’t defuse the bomb but merely confused the issue with some poor arguments against the complimentarian understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12. The problem that Gail seems to have missed is that we can get so entrenched in our positions on issues that we cannot actually hear the other side of the discussion. In this post I take a look at each wire she sought to cut and show how attempting to cut them fails. In the end, I point to three wires we need to cut, not to defuse arguments against our commitments but in order to engage in real dialog on them.

Read On…

   [ + ]

1. Junia is mentioned in Romans 16:7 along with Andronicus as being “outstanding amongst the apostles” in the NIV. This is intended to prove that there were female apostles but ultimately it fails. The verse is translated “well known to the apostles” in the ESV which would not put Junia or Andronicus among the Apostles. Also, the way “apostle” is used in the New Testament is complex. There are the Twelve Apostles but then others are apostles. It may be that the way “apostle” is used in Romans 16 is more analogous to what we mean by “missionary.”

To Refill the Core

I get what he’s saying but I still disagree with Carl Trueman on this one. To summarize, Trueman is confused as to why The Gospel Coalition is complementarian (men and women are equal but have different, complementary roles in the church) but all fuzzy on baptism since there baptists and Presbyterians in the Coalition. More to his point, The Gospel Coalition is supposed to be focused on the gospel and isn’t the role of women in the church a secondary issue but baptism a primary one?

The reason complementarianism is important is because of the hermeneutical issues that surround it. Trueman makes a very good point that there are shades of egalitarianism that run from “the Bible is wrong on this” to those who says “you’re reading those texts wrong.” So, Trueman reasons, why exclude those who still hold to inerrancy but don’t agree with how complementarians are interpreting certain passages? I don’t know what Trueman has been reading on this but the egalitarians I’ve read employ a hermeneutic principle that can be used to justify a whole bunch more than ordaining women. The premise I’ve read is that the situation in Paul’s day was that women were uneducated and therefore not fit to lead in the church. But today women are educated and therefore good candidates for leadership in the church if they meet the other criteria.

The problems with that approach are numerous and therefore it can be used to justify anything. Instead of uneducated women, put in thieves. Sure Paul said that if a man does not work he cannot eat but back in Paul’s day if you stole from someone it meant that you were taking food off their table. Today if you steal a little from work, no one is hurt since the company makes so much money… Do you see? There are no bounds on this thing. I agree with The Gospel Coalition on this because of the hermeneutical land mines of allowing egalitarianism equal footing.

So yes, there are hermeneutical differences between the baptists and paedobaptists but we’re well aware of those differences and whichever side you’re on, the ‘errors’ of the other side don’t leak like the egalitarian error does. Denying the inference that baptism replaces circumcision isn’t likely to lead to denying the physical return of Jesus. However, a hermeneutic that says that the situation Paul was addressing in his day is different that what we see today and therefore the explicit requirements and prescriptions in the Bible don’t apply to us could lead in any number of dangerous directions.

The Gospel Coalition is about more than just setting “aside issues which divide at a church level but which do not seem to impact directly upon the gospel”, as Trueman says, they are about the health of the church. And qualifications for church leaders has a lot to do with the health of the church. I was at the very first Gospel Coalition conference which was held at Trinity University’s chapel and I got to hear what Carson and Keller wanted to do in putting the Coalition together. They were concerned about the doctrinal hollowing out of the evangelical church in America. Carson gave a good talk on how evangelicalism used to be doctrinal but we’ve tended to put that aside and focus on techniques. The Gospel Coalition is supposed to help the American evangelical church regain her doctrinal core. And while we may differ on the doctrine of baptism, no one in the Coalition is going to say that baptism is optional or a practice for a different age. Complementarianism is important because within evangelicalism, egalitarianism is new and rests on a hermeneutical loophole.

Clear Complimentarianism

I don’t know who David Gushee is, but he is an egalitarian who has done complentarians a service. He has written an article in which, as he says, he wants to “ask you some questions aimed to help you keep the application of your approach as biblical as possible.” Before I read the article, I was afraid he would caricature the position and then try to force us to extremes. He doesn’t, not at all. He seems to really understand the position and with charity reminds us of some of the abuses and pitfalls we face. Here’s a summary of his questions:

  1. Are you successfully communicating to young men the conviction that a complementarian perspective must elevate rather than diminish the dignity of women, and therefore inculcating a moral commitment on their part to act accordingly?
  2. Are you absolutely clear on which positions of Christian service (you believe) are barred to women?
  3. Once you have determined what positions of Christian service are barred to women, you have therefore also determined which positions are permitted. Are you active in encouraging women to pursue the positions that are permitted?
  4. When women occupy positions of church leadership that parallel those of men, are their positions named equally and are the individuals involved treated equally?

Again, he isn’t attacking with these questions, he’s really helping us make sure we don’t misuse (intentionally or otherwise) the position. I might add a fifth point, not a question:

5. Ensure you know the bounds of the Biblical restrictions. Complentarianism doesn’t extend to the work place or public office.

[HT: Paulo]