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 gets really controversial – even amongst Christians – is on the different roles of men and women within the Church. (If you’ve been on social media in the last few weeks, you may have noticed the melt-down that took place over the recent women’s ‘Equip’ conference. It even made ABC news.)
Now don’t get me wrong. Many people are rightly concerned about the real abuse that women have experienced at the hands of men – sadly even within churches. And nothing I’m about to say is meant to minimise that. Furthermore, I think it’s important for churches to think seriously about how they can be places where women thrive (this article by Jen Wilkens is well worth reading).
With that said, I’ve noticed a trend across social media: a trend in how Christians discuss the role of men and women in the Church. It goes something like this: Christians sometimes (increasingly?) discuss this sensitive topic using jargon like ‘patriarchy’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-equality’.
And this trend concerns me. Here’s why:
1) These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded
They’re not ‘value-neutral’.
When words like ‘patriarchal’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-inequality’ are used, we need to understand something. Those words are not ‘value-neutral’. 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 is according to some form of secular feminism. Thus it’s a negative evaluation: ‘patriarchal’ implies that women are somehow oppressed, and treated as second class citizens.
What’s more, when you introduce ideologically loaded jargon, the evaluation is just assumed – it’s smuggled in as it were, underneath our worldview radar. If we’re not careful, we can uncritically swallow the non-Biblical worldview.
Furthermore, when I see this language used, I rarely see any corresponding discussion of particular Biblical passages, arguing whether such evaluations are true to the Bible.
(Of course, these allegations of women being marginalised and oppressed might be true of the church in question. But, dare I say it, often what secular feminism means by ‘oppression’ is different to what the Bible means by oppression.)
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? 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, We Can Start Doubting The Bible
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.
But the problem with allowing our experience to drive our theology is that it’s not a reliable guide. Just ask the grieving husband who’s lost his wife to breast cancer: would 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.
(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.
Second, let these problems drive us not to secular feminist ideology, but to the Bible. 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 terminology); and at worst, these words prejudge the Bible’s teaching and impose a secular worldview onto it.
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:
UPDATE: I republished an expanded version this article on The Gospel Coalition Australia website, with the help of Dani Treweek, a sister in Christ who has thought about this issue for a lot longer than I have. CLICK HERE to read the expanded article.
UPDATE: My friend and fellow Christian blogger Nathan Campbell posted a thoughtful critique of my (initial) blog post, in a post entitled ‘Why I use loaded words like ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘privilege’: not just words used in the Bible. It’s worth reading, and I encourage you to do so.
I posted my response on Nathan’s blog as a comment, but for the record, here it is:
Here are my initial thoughts in response to your thoughtful article:
1) I love that you unequivocally support women, and want to see them thrive. This comes out clearly in your writing, especially on this topic.
2) I’m not against using ideologically loaded terms *per se*. We do it all the time when discussing the Bible and theology in general. Some obvious examples are ‘Trinity’, ‘Atonement’, ‘Penal’, ‘Perichoretic’, not to mention ‘complementarian’, ‘equal but different’ etc.
3) However, the *key* difference between terms like ‘Trinity’, and ‘Patriarchal’, is that the former was derived from reflection on what the Bible actually says. Whereas the latter is a direct import from secular (feminist) ideology.
4) Whilst the Bible’s message will overlap at times with secular ideologies (e.g. the example of evil men oppressing the women under their care is an example of injustice that *both* the Bible and secular feminism condemn), secular ideologies also bring with them extra worldview ‘baggage’.
So for example, ‘patriarchy’ doesn’t *merely* condemn *evil* men who rule and oppress women: in its popular usage, the term ‘patriarchy’ condemns men-only rule as *inherently* oppressive.
So when you write: ‘Men and women in the Old Testament, after Genesis 3, don’t seem to operate very often in the way envisaged by Genesis 1-2.’, popular secular feminist ideology would say that it’s because of their sex (i.e. they’re male – of course they’re bad when they’re in control of society etc), whereas the Bible would be more nuanced: the reason evil men in power are *evil* is not because of their assigned sex per se, but because of their *sinfulness*. A term like ‘Patriarchal’, however, doesn’t seem to make that distinction between sin, and male leadership.
5) Which is why it’s unhelpful to use terms like ‘Patriarchal’. It can lead to confusion (were the evil male rulers in the Bible evil because they were men?), and at worst, it assumes the secular feminist meaning of ‘Patriarchal’ in discussions about the Bible (‘Yes, the problem is all male leadership *per se* – and thus we should get rid of male-only leadership’).
6) This leads to my point about Jesus in my article, which I would like to see you address.
That is, by any secular feminist standard, appointing exclusively male apostles to lead the church is a patriarchal – and therefore oppressive – thing to do.
But was Jesus really oppressing women by appointing all-male apostles?
(I would think the answer is ‘no’.)
If Jesus wasn’t oppressing women by apopointing all-male apostles, then it seems possible to have all male leadership, which is not *inherently* oppressive.
In terms of feminism, though, can you affirm all-male leadership (as Jesus did), and still be a ‘feminist’ in any meaningful sense of the word…? ‘