Let’s face it: Christianity is weird.
We believe a dead man rose to life again (after being crucified as a common criminal).
We believe that marriage is the union of one man, and one woman.
But where Christianity so often appears to get really weird – even amongst Christians – is on the different roles of men and women within the Church.
Recently, a Bible talk at a Sydney women’s conference on 1 Corinthians 11 sparked an extended round of social media discussion regarding the roles and relationships between men and women in marriage, church and society more broadly. In one sense, there was ‘nothing new under the sun’ about those recent online interactions. The questions, concerns and frustrations have all been raised before. And yet, in another sense, there did seem to be something new. Or at least something new-ish. Christians appear to be increasingly discussing this sensitive topic using the type of language and categories which find a comfortable home within the realm of secular ideology—jargon such as ‘privilege’, ‘gender-equality’ and ‘patriarchy’.
Before proceeding further, a disclaimer. Many people are rightly concerned about the real and utterly tragic abuse that too many women have experienced at the hands of men. That some of this abuse has happened within churches and Christian marriages is a terrible evil. The Bible condemns all relational violence and abuse as a distortion of God’s good design, warning men, in particular, that failing to honour women will bring spiritual repercussions (1Pet 3:7). We Christians must actively and adamantly affirm this. There is absolutely no excuse for the abuse of women (or, indeed men) by husbands, church leaders, or anyone else. Nothing in this article is intended to diminish that in any sense. As a further aside, it is also vital for churches to continue thinking seriously about how they can be places where all women thrive (this article by Jen Wilkens is well worth reading).
Nevertheless, the increasing Christian trend to import worldly jargon such as ‘patriarchy’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-equality’ is of concern. Here’s why:
1) These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded
They’re not ‘value-neutral’.
When words like ‘patriarchal’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-inequality’ are used, they don’t merely describe a state of affairs: they also evaluate it.
So, if a church with an all-male leadership structure is labelled as ‘patriarchal’, it’s not merely a neutral description of the leadership structure: it’s also an evaluation of that structure. And in this case, the evaluation borrows heavily from ideological language that is heavily derived from secular feminism. Thus it’s usually a negative evaluation: ‘patriarchal’ does not simply communicate a concern about the leadership structure of a church. Rather, it implies that men within that church are misogynists who oppress women and treat them as second class citizens.
What’s more, when you introduce ideologically loaded jargon, the evaluation is already assumed – it’s smuggled in, as it were, underneath our worldview radar. For example, what secular ideology means by ‘oppression’, is often different to what the Bible means by ‘oppression’. It is of concern that when this language is used, we rarely see any corresponding discussion of particular Biblical passages, arguing whether such evaluations are true to the Bible. (And when these Scriptural discussions do happen, they tend to be secondary rather than primary.) Importing this type of jargon into our discussions with each other means that, if we’re not careful, we can uncritically swallow the non-Biblical worldview.
The same goes for ‘gender-inequality’. What does ‘gender-inequality’ look like? A pastoral team where men outnumber women (the usual setup of reformed evangelical churches)? Is that something that needs fixing? Why? Who gets to say?
This raises a further issue.
2) Jesus Often Comes off Looking Second Best When He’s Evaluated by Secular Feminism
You may have had a discussion with a secular feminist friend, where they said something like this: ‘Jesus, yes, he had a heart for women, especially the ones who were social outcasts. But the reality is he had all-male apostles. That’s patriarchal and oppressive.’
Let’s face it: by appointing an all-male apostleship, Jesus isn’t going to be held up as a feminist hero, no matter how (radically) well he treated women.
And if you’re like most Christians, then when Jesus (and the New Testament) gets a negative scorecard from secular feminism, you may start feeling a chill. You may even start feeling embarrassed about the Bible’s teaching on men and women.
But such embarrassment, if left unchecked, can lead to serious problems.
3) When We Feel Embarrassed by What The Bible Says, it Undermines Our Confidence
If we allow our embarrassment to drive our view of the Bible, then it’s not long before we’re relying on our own experience and insight (influenced in large part by our culture’s views) to interpret – or even supersede – the Bible.
Yet experience is not a reliable guide when it comes to theology. Just ask the grieving husband who’s lost his wife to breast cancer: does he feel that God is good, and loves him? That’s not to make light of his awful suffering. It’s simply to point out that our experiences shouldn’t determine our theology.
Otherwise – to put it bluntly – we may end up ditching much of what the Bible has to say.
Experience is not a reliable guide when it comes to theology.
(Of course, our discomfort can also lead us to more closely examine what the Bible has to say – and that’s a good thing, as long as we allow the Bible to speak for itself.)
4) A Better Way To Engage This Topic
Leave out the buzzwords, and grapple with the Bible.
So what should we do, as we approach the sensitive question of men, women, and the Bible?
First, let’s acknowledge where churches (and men in particular) have failed to uphold women with the dignity of coheirs of Christ, whether through violence, sidelining, or just plain misogyny. Let’s bring the gospel to bear upon such injustice, so that it may be exposed for what it is and so that, ultimately, forgiveness and healing may abound in Christ.
Second, let these problems drive us not to secular feminist ideology, but to the Bible. The 20th Century women’s liberation movement leader Gloria Steinem is reported to have defined a feminist as “anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men”. Yet, is this not exactly what Scripture compels us to recognise and rejoice in? Shouldn’t we Christians call for a full out-working of gendered equality because we believe that both men and women were created in the image of God? Don’t we believe that both are equally precious in his sight? That both are one in Christ? By so readily and eagerly identifying with secular feminism, we concede too much of our primary identity as Christians. In fact, to adopt the label of ‘Christian feminist’ seems to suggest that the gospel needs to be supplemented by a secular ideology. It’s not that the essence of feminism is wrong per se, but it ought to be Scripture that compels us to recognise the equal dignity of men and women. As people of that Word then, let our primary and full identity be as ‘Christians’.
Third, as a result, let’s leave the ideologically loaded buzzwords out of this discussion. At best, they’re confusing to most people (who aren’t up on feminist and secular terminology); and at worst, these words prejudge the Bible’s teaching and impose a secular worldview onto it. Let’s instead seek to engage with each other in ways which open up opportunities for genuine dialogue and generous relationship.
Let’s discuss the roles of men and women – but on the Bible’s terms.
And let’s not be surprised if the conclusions the Bible comes to are different – sometimes radically different – to feminist ideology.
We’ll Always Be Out Of Step With Our Culture
But that’s God’s design.
It’s challenging being a Christian in a society where we feel pressured to conform to our culture’s values about gender.
But such cultural difference is normal.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul acknowledges that Christianity seems foolish to the surrounding culture:
‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…a stumbling block to Jews, and folly to Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:18). But yet, foolish as Christ and his teaching seems to our culture, He is ‘the power of God and wisdom of God’. (1 Cor 1:22-24).
And we need this God-given wisdom as we think about any topic, especially this topic of gender.
 Here are some articles that grapple with Scripture as they look at the issue of men and women:
(An earlier version of this post appeared at akosbalogh.com)
Photos: Elvert Barnes (head), Thien (body); flickr