This is the second of Stephanie Judd’s two-part contribution to the discussion surrounding the “Fall of Mars Hill” podcast. See part 1 here
The Ordering of Relationships in the Home
A number of years ago I attended the baptism of my niece at a Catholic church in Sydney. For the reading, the priest selected Ephesians chapter 6 which he obviously felt connected well to the event: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Of course, chapter 6 of Ephesians is also attached to chapter 5, which has this section on wives submitting to their husbands, and husbands being the head of their wife.
“How do we deal with these passages?” the priest said. “The apostle Paul is obviously a misogynist. He was a little backward when it comes to the way he treated women. Not like Jesus. Jesus knew how to treat women.”
Paul’s teaching is not in contrast to that of Jesus; it’s thoroughly grounded upon it.
This may be convenient, but like most truth, it requires you to move beyond convenience to understand what is right. The truth is, the apostle Paul’s teaching is not in contrast to that of Jesus; it’s thoroughly grounded upon it. Did you notice the nature of the husband’s headship?
… the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of his church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. (Ephesians 5:23)
What is the nature of Christ’s headship of the church?
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (v25)
The style of Christ’s headship is not self-seeking or selfish, it is not arrogant or proud, it is not hungry for power, it is not violent or aggressive. It is a laying down of his life that she might be lifted up.
What that looks like in practice—for the husband to do that, and the wife to welcome that service—will look as different as every couple lives it out. Scripture does not mandate particular applications of this principle:
- There are no directives here as to whether men or women should earn more money.
- There are no commands about whether a husband or the wife should play the primary carer role or not.
- There are no simple instructions here about whose preferences should win-out in the case of disagreement or conflict.
- There’s no call for men to eat meat and women to love flowers.
To read these things into the text is to go beyond Scripture. That is not to say that husbands and wives shouldn’t do the hard work of working out where they land on those things, but the focus should be on the underlying principle: the husband loving his wife with the sacrificial, life-giving love of Jesus, and the wife welcoming this love.
With my husband Andrew and I, one of the most concrete examples I have of how this principle played out in our lives was when we decided to come to Melbourne. We had both grown up in Sydney. We both have family in Sydney. We thought we’d be serving Jesus and his church in Sydney for our whole lives.
Andrew considered how, as my husband, he could lay himself down and sacrifice himself for my good … he sought out a job in Melbourne.
I was finishing college and considering what I do next. Andrew was serving as an Associate Minister and was happy in his job. But one day, one of my lecturers sent me a position description for a role at City on a Hill, Melbourne. When I read it, I felt like whoever wrote that PD knew me better than I knew myself. I saw myself in it. I remember coming home and saying: “Andrew, I read about this incredible role today—shame it’s in Melbourne.” (Melbournians, be reassured I love Melbourne. I just never imagined myself living and working there)! To which he said: “Well, why don’t you begin a conversation and see what happens?”
That set us on a path of getting to know Melbourne and getting to know City on a Hill. When it came down to it, Andrew, on the whole, would have been happy to stay in Sydney. I wanted to go to Melbourne. What could Andrew have done? He could have said: “No way, I’m not doing it, we’re going to stay in Sydney.” But as he considered how, as my husband, he could lay himself down and sacrifice himself for my good, he recognised the unique opportunity I had to express my gifts and serve Jesus at City on a Hill. And so, he sought out a job in Melbourne.
Sometimes living out these principles will be convenient for the woman, but other times, they may be challenging. I’ve always been a pretty independent woman. I like to make my own decisions about where I go and when. When Andrew and I were at a previous church, he was on staff and would stay late into the evening chatting to all the uni students. I would walk home earlier in the evening—through an interesting mix of middle-class gentrified terraces and government housing with high rates of alcoholism and drug use. I liked that walk. it was a quiet time on my own after a big day with people.
My husband, however, wasn’t keen for me to walk home alone. He really wanted me to catch a cab. I must admit, that really grated with me. Not his desire to care for me, but the idea that I would have to change my preferred way of getting home because of his request. I liked my independence. Of course, if I’d said “no” there would have been nothing he could have done about it. Nothing in Scripture gives my husband the right to control my movements or make decisions unilaterally, but God’s Word calls and invites me to welcome Andrew’s love and protective care for my good and flourishing. And so, I caught the cab. As a result, I’m here to tell the tale.
Why do I tell you this? Not to be prescriptive, but so that you understand something of the context of these commands. It is not about who is the most natural leader, it is not about competence or strength or power or privilege. It’s about stepping into a living drama of Jesus’ great love for his church—the giving of his life for her good—and in doing so, directing people to the great love affair which is not just for husbands and wives, but for all who would come to Jesus in faith.
The Ordering of Relationships in the Church
When it comes to the ordering of worship and relational structures in the church, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy on many things. One of those things is the response of women in those relational structures:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. . (1 Timothy 2:11-13)
It appears, in Scripture that there is some kind of authoritative teaching role reserved for men in the gathered church to which women are called to respond. The call to “learn in quietness” or to “be quiet” clearly cannot be a call to silence, or not possessing a speaking role. As we already saw when we looked at examples of women throughout both Old and New Testament, women were prophesying all over the place, and the Bible teaches us to expect that and to seek that. In Acts 2 Peter applies Joel’s words to the prophesying of men and women which takes place “in the last days” on the receipt of the Holy Spirit:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy…
In 1 Corinthians chapter 14, the apostle Paul encourages the saints of God in Corinth (including women c.f. 1Cor 11:4-5) to “be eager to prophesy” in the gathered assembly of believers. Whatever this “quietness” is, it should not deter women from assuming and exercising significant speaking roles in the church.
It appears to me that this “quietness” is a response that welcomes and receives the authoritative teaching role reserved for certain men in the church and doesn’t resist it. It is a response that is thankful for the men who bear the primary responsibility for the flock in their care and is open to their exhortation, instruction, and teaching.
When Things Go Wrong
In the book of Genesis we read that Adam and Eve were not alone in the garden. It isn’t far into their relationship with God, with the world, and with each other that the serpent enters—the deceiver, the one who takes what is good and casts a shadow. One way this shadow is cast is when theology is distorted.
Authors Vicki Lowik and Annabel Taylor write:
[E]vangelical churches … are more likely to create an environment endorsing gender inequality. Considering gender inequality is a well-known driver of domestic violence and abuse, peddling women’s subordination as being ordained by God is placing the safety of conservative Christian women at risk.
What I like about the heart of this statement by Lowik and Taylor is a deep passion to ensure the wellbeing of women in the church and in marriages. And this heart is one that is shared by Jesus. But, whether or not the generalisation is correct, the expression of headship represented here is not one that Jesus or Scripture presents nor encourages. Indeed, it’s something that Jesus, the apostle Paul, and indeed all of Scripture would strongly condemn. Taking and distorting themes of headship to justify abuse, to establish or justify dominance and violence in the home, is a spectacular abuse of Jesus’ teaching. To apply Jesus’ teaching on headship and submission in this way is not a sign of understanding. It’s a sign that something has gone wrong.
Equality versus Distinctness and Distinctness versus Equality
Another way that things go wrong is when equality is pitted against distinctness and distinctness against equality. Let me introduce you to two churches.
Church one is St Philip’s, and the other is St Stephens (these churches are not actual churches, but represent an amalgamation of a number of different churches I have encountered over the years).
In a society where relative truth reigns and objective claims on gender are viewed as evil, St Philips is determined not to bow to the forces of our age, but to protect and to stand firm in the Bible’s teaching on the distinction of men and women. In doing so, St Philip’s emphasises the unique roles reserved for men in the church. They fight to preserve, protect, and promote that. They are wonderful at investing future male leaders. Their senior leadership team is all men. They describe their shared responsibility over St Philip’s church as a “brotherhood”.
She deeply wants to be able to stay and serve, but she’s struggling to see a way forward.
If they do consider the contribution of women it will generally be a discussion of what the Bible would permit a woman to do, not so much about how the contribution of women can be pursued and encouraged. Recently, one woman in the congregation who is a much-loved member of the church, and respected by the male leaders, has begun to voice frustration. She feels called and gifted to leadership and teaching. But there doesn’t seem to be any model of what this could look like, nor any obvious space where she would be able to partner with men. She deeply wants to be able to stay at St Philips’s and serve, but she’s struggling to see a way forward. She is being encouraged by the leaders to “remain silent”, to be active in service—like organising the morning tea roster and looking after the kids ministry.
Church two is St Stephen’s. St Stephens looks at St Philips and is outraged by their restrictive standards. One of their primary missions is to offer the alternative path. They are keen to assert the equality of men and women and in doing so dismantle concepts of role distinction in the church or in the home and fight for the same opportunities and outcomes for all. They are keen to challenge traditional gender norms and they speak regularly against churches like St Philips and their oppressive practices.
But despite their desire for equality, the push for more women in leadership and teaching roles is causing some division in their church. The male Senior Minister has recently retired and the male associate minister is willing to take up the role. Some of the other women in the congregation, however, are unhappy with that. They say the church needs to move with the times and model diversity: “Paul was speaking to a different world, we need a woman Senior Minister and a church for today,” they say.
Equality is not to compete with distinction and distinction is not to compete with equality.
The Associate Minister can’t help thinking: “Well if there is no distinction in roles for men and women, then it shouldn’t matter if men take up a senior leadership role or not. Shouldn’t it just be the best person for the job?” There are vocal supporters in the church on both sides, and they struggle to find a shared language and vision for how they are to order themselves and navigate the way forward.
I know these are reasonably extreme examples, but you see when you pit equality against distinction or distinction against equality, nobody wins. When you put distinction over and against equality you end up geared towards a church that gives little room for the biblical expression of men and women in partnership in God’s mission and you have a church which affirms what the Bible will not. But when you put equality over and against distinction you end up geared towards a church that struggles to provide a language and vision for how to structure relationships in an orderly and purposeful way and to provide a shape to man and woman’s equal partnership in God’s mission.
Equality is not to compete with distinction and distinction is not to compete with equality. Rather, our distinction acts to serve our equality as men and women work together valuing each other’s distinct contributions in God’s mission.
Men and Women and the Way of Christ
I could have listed more scenarios when things go wrong in the church when it comes to men and women. But the truth is, I’m not that interested in defending the church when it comes to women. And while it’s important to respond to the disturbing teaching and behaviour of Mark Driscoll, I do not want to stay on Mark. The sad reality is that within a lifetime of being a church member, you and I will, at best, be irritated by the church. At worst, we will be wounded by it.
Is the church an extraordinary place to be? Absolutely! The Bible describes the church as the body of Jesus, the temple of the living God—the place where God’s glory is made manifest to the world. It is the beacon of light to a world in darkness. Should you dive in and take your part in the building of Jesus’ church? Absolutely!
Does that mean that the church won’t fail? No way. The reality is, though it is a redeemed people, the church is not yet a sinless people. Sure, they have been forgiven of their sins and day by day they are being made in the likeness of God’s Son, but like all communities in this world, the church will fail. Yes, if they are centred on Jesus, churches must bring forth the fruit of Jesus’ Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But as men and women awaiting the full redemption of their bodies, they will also judge, struggle with empathy and insensitivity, be self-focused, sometimes be sexist, sometimes show narcissism, sometimes be proud, and sometimes, tragically, abuse … just like any community of men and women in this world.
How do we deal with that? How do we move forward in a world where regardless of which communities we belong in we can never truly be safe?
We go to Jesus.
Going to Jesus
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is making his way through a town called Samaria. He is on foot, and tired from the journey he sits down by a well in the middle of the day. And as he’s sitting there beside the well a woman comes to draw water. This woman, we find out, has a scandalous past. She’s known for being sexually loose—the fact that she was at a well on her own in the middle of the day (instead of with other women) shows that she was an outcast.
What does Jesus do to this woman? Does he shame her? Does he rebuke her? Does he send her away? No. Jesus does what few women or few men would do. He sits with her, and he says to her:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13)
All of us thirst for something. All of us thirst for honour and respect. All of us thirst for love and acceptance. All of us thirst for meaning and purpose and truth. All of us want to be known. All of us have sought these things and have known the sting, the shame, of entrusting ourselves to someone or something which let us down. Each of us carries the weight and the pain, not only of others’ failings, but our own—we are all haunted by decisions or actions that overshadow our relationships. Not only are we not safe from other people, we are not safe from ourselves.
The gospel is good news. It is good news for women, and good news for men.
This is why the gospel is good news. It is good news for women, and good news for men. As we come to Jesus, we find a safe place. The Christian life is not a call to faith in the church or in ourselves. It’s a call to drink from Jesus, the living water. In Jesus, we find an authority and power which is matched with love. We find one who doesn’t distance himself from our mess; who doesn’t recoil at our past; who doesn’t dismiss us, or overlook us, or distort the truth, or abuse trust. No. In Jesus, we find the one who meets us in our mess and who holds out eternal life. In Jesus, we find the one who poured out his life for his bride, who emptied and wrung himself dry in death so that we could be forgiven, welcomed in, and drink from the well of life.
What do Christians need? Do we need healthier and humbler leaders? Yes. Do we need stronger accountability structures and good governance? Yes. Do we need to deal with bad culture and call out a distortion of the truth? Absolutely. But most of all, we need a greater encounter with Jesus.
Perhaps, like me, you have often placed too much faith in the church. Perhaps you have looked to the church to be the Saviour that only Jesus can be, and you have been left disappointed, or you have been hurt. Perhaps you have been carrying fears based on the opinions of others rather than the call of Christ. Or perhaps you have failed to demonstrate and pursue the kind of relationships and vision of men and women to which we have been called and created. Look again to Jesus. See in Jesus the perfect model of love. Ask his Spirit to fill your life. Ask God to empower you to repent of sin and surrender everything at his feet. Ask the Spirit to help you to follow him, and to help the church be better.