Men and Women, Image-Bearing, and Scripture

Second of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Read part 1.

Any theological discussion should wrestle with the foundational relevant Scripture before going much further. In the case of how women are regarded in the church, this starts at the very beginning.

There, we see man and woman clearly intertwined, right down to these two words themselves (in the Hebrew). In a world that did not yet know sin, the first man defined the first woman with a poetic exultation: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman [‘ishshah], because she was taken out of Man [iysh] (Gen. 2:23). Whatever the relationship between men and women that emerges through the rest of Scripture, the opening of our story marks us out as inseparable yet distinct parts of a revelation of God’s image, set apart from the rest of the animals, fulfilling and completing His creative work.

The language in this passage is revealing and instructive. All other men forever will be born of women, but this first woman is formed by God from the man. When she is revealed to Adam, his hymn of praise says that she is of him, to be with him as companion and “help [‘ezer, a word most often used in the Old Testament to refer to God Himself]” (vv. 18, 20), not for him as a subordinate laborer (as the animals).

In context, God brings forth woman in the midst of His commissioning of man to cultivate and care for the garden. He purposes to provide completion for the man, and then to show him his need by bringing all the rest of the creatures before him to name and describe (vv. 18-20). Once the woman enters the picture, they are naked and unashamed (v. 25), in respect and awe for this harmonic revelation of the image of God. We are told, as well, that this is the foundation of marriage the rest of us (2:24). In the flow of this text, it is almost as though God creates woman to cultivate and care for man, changing him for the better, drawing out his fullest flourishing without deforming his nature, just as man is called to care for the garden.

If, then, there is any allowance in Scripture for a consumeristic relationship between the genders, it is not in Genesis.

In the New Testament, the go-to text that describes with relative clarity (in contrast to the hermeneutical difficulties of, say, 1 Cor. 11) a subordinate role for women in the church is 1 Timothy 2:11-14, where the Apostle Paul bluntly states that women should “learn quietly with all submissiveness,” and that he does “not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” This is a hurdle to women’s ordination to authoritative roles within the church that those of us who hold to biblical inerrancy are reluctant to leap, even in light of reasonable cultural hermeneutics of the peculiar circumstance of Paul’s writing to Timothy (under the shadow of the cult of Ephesian Artemis).

But this passage in no way excuses a demeaning understanding of women (or even an exclusion of women from various and sundry other official roles within the organized church). Are women, being excluded from leadership, Chiesa_Santissimo_Salvatore_(Cosenza)29somehow also excluded from respect, from a voice, from community life? Are male leaders, having attained that station, no longer obliged to listen to anyone outside of the inner ring, anyone “beneath” them? May it never be!

Look at Paul’s own application toward his female co-laborers, women like Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, and Mary, whom he praised and sent public greetings from (such as in Romans 16). These are not insignificant relationships, but friendships and partnerships in mutual submission to the ministry of the Gospel. Look at how Paul (in the same letter as above!) urges Timothy to speak to women as mothers and sisters “in all purity,” even when rebuking them for sin.

This is not even to mention Christ’s admonition to the disciples on how one is to bear power and authority within the kingdom community: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45). We’ll reflect further on Jesus’ own relationships to women in a subsequent post.

I’m attempting to speak primarily from Scripture here, for the benefit of my theologically conservative tribe—who perhaps most need to hear this message now—but the weight of church history bears witness as well. As Gracy Olmstead has pointed out, “In American evangelicalism, traditionalism uncoupled from a robust understanding of church history has been bad for women. For all the conservatism of their beliefs…. [they] have done a poor job conserving or appreciating their ecclesiastical past, and have not always passed on the rich tradition of female leadership and protection of the abused that has existed throughout church history.”

No serious hermeneutical framework, whether egalitarian or complementarian, should ever find in Scripture the license or encouragement for men to treat women as inferiors before God. If any manmade system of interpretation lends itself to the defense of those who would dehumanize others, its proponents ought to be willing to continually examine their view against the Bible to plug the holes that let such evils leak in. At God’s throne, worldly distinctions (even those based in created differences) between members of the household of faith are not determinants of anyone’s worth. Quite the opposite—those whom the world would disinherit and demean are made heirs of the promise (Gal. 3:23-29).

Any justification for the culture and behaviors being revealed in this season is found only in the way of the world, not in the text of Scripture. That these patterns are present within the church is a manifestation of sin (both individual and systemic) and should be condemned as such.

This should all be fairly obvious, but some of our sins, particularly those reinforced by our culture, can become so entrenched as to all but blind us to their presence in our hearts and congregations.

Part 1: Tasteless, but Excusable?: Dehumanization, Women, and the Church
Part 3: Cultivation v. Coercion
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

Image: Saints Andronicus and Junia, Byzantine Icon

Tasteless, but Excusable?: Dehumanization, Women, and the Church

The first of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church.

“Because I’ve been catcalled and leered at twice just while walking to work this week, #MeToo. The worst part is that the safest option in those moments—on foot, on the street—is passivity as people consume me and treat me as property. And the past year…shows that far too many people—even in the church—think [sexual abuse & harassment] is tasteless, but excusable sin.”

Seeing these words last fall in a series of Tweets from a good friend called my attention to what the #MeToo moment was dredging up—a breadth of pain, fear, filth, violence, and injustice endured by women on a daily basis. Many had been reluctant to speak out, cowed by threats or simply exhausted from responses of disbelief, but the growing groundswell of shared stories has helped them bring all manner of individual and institutional offenses to light. More troubling, such attitudes show up and seem to hold sway in far too many corners of the #ChurchToo.

As multitudes of women have broken the silence of shame, the rest of us (i.e. men) have been given an opportunity to reflect on all the implications of a side of life and culture that far too many of us had previously had the privilege and position to ignore. Their stories have shaken the foundations of companies and institutions that covered up such things and protected the powerful men who perpetrated them.

I want to respond to the courage of my friend and so many others both by digging into the higher-level cultural phenomena they’ve uncovered and in trying to help plot a path for a different future.

Dignity vs. Consumption
Blatant evils like sexual harassment and assault can only become, as my friend said, “Tasteless, but excusable,” when we deem victims as somehow less than human. Her choice of words there is telling: dehumanizing people always leads to their consumption or disposal, replacing inherent dignity and worth with cold value-assessment or “taste”.

As was often the case, novelist and essayist Walker Percy sniffed out this tendency well in advance of the cultural mainstream. In his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, Percy crafts a revealing exchange between his protagonist, Will Barrett, and Kitty, the suburban Southern girl he thinks he loves, who he thinks might finally help him find a “normal” life. Will is concerned with the on-again-off-again nature of their relationship and can’t seem to figure out how to relate to her as person. He nervously recounts a story of how his grandfather took his father to a brothel on his 16th birthday to avoid having him “worrying about certain things.” Kitty responds to that grotesque thought by trying on different personae to get Will’s attention and affection. She first offers, “I’ll be your whore,” which he ruefully accepts (to her dismay), leading her to say instead, “Very well. I’ll be a lady.”

Later, Will is lost in thoughts of existential angst, musing: “But what am I, he wondered: neither Christian nor pagan nor proper lusty gentleman, for I’ve never really got the straight of this lady-and-whore business. And that is all I want and it does not seem too much to ask: for once and all to get the straight of it.”

Percy’s jarring either/or reveals more than we may be comfortable with about our culture’s understanding female personhood. What Will couldn’t “get the straight of” while lying awake that night, it seems, is that we (in the rich, comfortable, “liberated” echelons of the Western world) still don’t know how to appreciate women as humans qua humans. We perpetually want to classify them in relation to men. In this telling, women exist for men as a sort of “consumer product”—either in marriage and polite society (as “ladies”) or in sin and secrecy (as “whores”), and various shades between the two extremes—rather than as fully formed persons and citizens of God’s kingdom in their own right. Both categories demean, measuring every woman’s worth not by the content of her character, but by the man that chooses her, or doesn’t.

As a result, we don’t know how to understand men as humans either. We can never dehumanize others without also losing a proportional part of our own humanity. This is also a part of Will’s question above. Is there a path to fully formed manhood aside from becoming the “proper, lusty gentleman” his family and culture expected him to be?

Church: Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?
That this pattern of dehumanization shows up in the wider culture seems like a given. And if we are struggling, in the midst of an open, liberal culture, to welcome women as full participants in humanity, how much more in other parts of the world. Under Islam? Under Hinduism? In poverty? In slavery?

When it shows up just as vividly in the church, we’re left with two ways to interpret this tendency (and I should emphasize that it is a tendency, a general bent from which many, many men faithfully dissent and diverge). Is it a holdover from a fallen, unconverted world? A brokenness and sorrow from which we should flee, repent, and repair? Or is it, like in so many other religions, just the logical outworking of an understanding of the world shaped by its ancient text (with a simple caveat that the lustful side of the consumer coin should be avoided)?

I’m tipping my hand in the way this question is phrased, for I do believe repentance is called for as the only biblical response—even from those whose ministries and churches have not willfully engaged in these patterns. If #MeToo, #ChurchToo (and #YesAllWomen before that) have shown nothing else, they’ve shown that half the image-bearers in the world have routinely been given a lesser status than the other half. This is a systemic sin, often as invisible to its perpetrators as it is pervasive. Time does not heal sin. Injustice may fade in its visibility, but when the Spirit brings conviction, we have no choice but to see, grieve, repent, and restore, and then call others’ attention to the sin so that they may do likewise.

Lastly, lest we think that the church—the embodied family of Christ on earth—has better things to worry about than what gets hashed out on the Internet, my friend adds: “There is a reason the corporate lament and community of [this moment] happened on social media, even for your sisters in Christ. It’s because, as a general trend, that corporate lament isn’t happening in our churches.” With that in mind, what follows in these next few pieces is, to be sure, a theological and social reflection, but with a firmly pastoral focus. How we think through these things should inform how we weep with those who weep.

Part 2: Men, Women, Image-Bearing and Scripture
Part 3: Cultivation v. Coercion
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

Image: Madonna di Campagna, 15th-Century Italian painting

Psalm 52.5

To the attempter of ministry. A song of descents.

1 O Lord, exalter of the humble,
      Crush all my weary pride.

2 In You alone do the lowly take refuge.
                                     Selah

3 Not so the arrogant, who trust in man's power,
      In the riches and reputation they see as theirs.

4 In a moment, you will show them their poverty.
      You will teach them to become weak.

5 For to depend upon You is to be wealthy,
      And to be carried on your back is strength.

6 Blessed is the man who forsakes his position;
      The woman who rebukes a haughty heart.

7 In the shadow of Your presence alone do they find light. 
                                                       Selah

8 Give thanks, O my soul, and heed the grace of the Most High.
      He sets free the prisoner of expectations
      And establishes the one who cannot stand.

Image: Madrones clinging to life in a desert place. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Tex. February 2018.

Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS