Category: Gender

The Biblical Data on God and Sexuality

Image via David Hayward @ NakedPastor

(Part 2 of 4)
(continued from Part 1, “The Shack and the Gender of God”)

For some, the gender [1] of God is obvious. The God of the Old Testament is referred to exclusively with masculine pronouns, adjectives, and verbs. [2] For the New Testament, both the Father and the Son are similarly described in masculine terms, while the titles used for God in both testaments are entirely masculine as well. Many believe this alone represents enough data to show that God is an essentially male or masculine being.

Most male headship advocates [3] will assert that the Spirit is referred to as a masculine being as well. [4] In actuality, the data on the Third Person of the Trinity is less decisive. In Hebrew, the word for “spirit” is the feminine רוּחַ, so the adjectives and verbs associated with it throughout the Old Testament are usually feminine—for example, מְרַחֶפֶת for hovered in Gen. 1:3. In Greek, the word for “spirit” is the neuter πνεῦμα with most of its adjectives and pronouns matching that case. Going by gendered language alone, the Spirit is a “she” or an “it.”

The oft-cited exceptions occur in John 15-16 when Jesus is delivering his sermon on the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, wherein he refers to the Spirit with the masculine pronoun ἐκεῖνος. At first glance this seems significant since a neuter form for this adjective exists (ἐκεῖνο) and John seems to have shunned it in favor of the masculine even though it does not match the case of the noun under discussion. However, the antecedent to ἐκεῖνος is not πνεῦμα, but παράκλητος, a masculine adjective functioning as a substantive noun. This could still be a decisive declaration on the Spirit’s sexuality if John had originated this usage of the term, but he did not. The masculine plural form was similarly used as a substantive adjective by Demosthenes in the 4th century BC. [5] John took the pre-existing masculine concept of a παράκλητος as one’s legal advocate and applied it to the Holy Spirit. It therefore follows that his identification has everything to do with the Spirit’s function in the lives of believers, not its gender.

This poses a dilemma for Christians who assert that God is wholly male or masculine: (more…)

The Shack and the Gender of God

(Part 1 of 4)

I never read the entirety of The Shack, the popular 2007 Christian novel about a man who converses with God about the murder of his beloved youngest daughter. My reasons were not theological. I had a childhood friend who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered when I was 9 and she was 11, so the subject of the novel was a little too close to home for me.

I did read enough of the novel to know that two members of the Trinity, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, manifested themselves as women (a black woman and an Asian woman, respectively), and this became one of the many theological “problems” that was protested in the novel. For example, Mark Driscoll, then at the zenith of his megachurch pastor career, decried this as “goddess worship.” Mary Kassian, writing for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, lamented that evangelical fans of The Shack were “succumbing to the feminist pressure to image God in feminine ways.” In quite recent history, complementarians and other male headship advocates [1] got it into their heads that all three members of the Trinity are quintessentially masculine and/or male, and as such, God could not have incarnated as a woman nor could he ever manifest as one, even if he wanted to.

 

Pictured: Human beings made in the image of God who can’t image God. Makes perfect sense.

The Shack has now been made into a major motion picture starring Sam Worthington. It was released today. Its reviews have sadly gone the way of most Christian films (15% on RottenTomatoes as I write this), but in light of the film, I thought it might be worth it to revisit what the Bible says about whether God has a gender, along with some extrabiblical details and philosophical considerations.

I am of the opinion that gender is created and God does not possess one as part of any eternal nature, so God could theoretically incarnate and/or manifest himself as a woman as well as a man should it please him to do so. And I want to point out that viewing God as genderless is not some novel feminist incursion on traditional Christian theology. It is historic and quite mainstream. (more…)

Did Luther really say women shouldn’t be wise?

Luther_Found_GodIn searching for the Martin Luther quote that had troubled me in my youth, I came across a quote on a number of sites critical of Christianity, usually on “look at these misogynist things famous Christians said!” shock lists.

“No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise.”

The problem: it isn’t clear that Martin Luther ever said this.

I’m no expert on Luther–the focus of my MA was American church history, not Reformation history–but I did do a class on Luther and the Reformation, and this quote seemed “off” to me. Luther was certainly against the ordination of women (and you know what I think about that) but beyond that, most of his problematic statements on women were rooted in his attempts to valorize marriage and childbirth as part of his polemics against Roman Catholic celibacy, and there is a sort of logic to them. That doesn’t make him any less wrong, but there was more going on than unbridled contempt for women. I can’t say the same for any number of Christian theologians who came before him, especially amongst the early church fathers.

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Then I knew God calls women

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” – 1 Corinthians 14:34 NIV

“Even though [women] grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for.” – Martin Luther [1]

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Those were just some of the words about women blinking at me from my computer screen that day. I was 16 years old and arguing with a skeptical friend. He had sent me a list of negative quotes about women from the Bible and famous Christian theologians, and I felt horrified.

Holy_WomanI’m not sure you could say I was any kind of a feminist at the time, at least not an intentional one. I had always been taught that I could be anything and do anything, that my gender was no hindrance to dreams, but that attitude within me was void and without form. I had been wild-hearted and tomboyish in my Alaskan childhood, had played on the edges of the wilderness with three brothers before I had a sister, had shot BB guns and pretended I was a Ninja Turtle and done just about every stupid thing that adults told me not to do, for the sake of being contrary and adventurous. The self-selected nickname I had begun sporting in my 16th year, “Jack,” flaunted my disregard for gender norms. “Is ‘Jack’ short for anything?” people would ask me uncomfortably, hoping to learn my real name was “Jacquelyn.” “Yes, it’s short for ‘Bridget,'” I would quip.

The ordination of women had never come up in the two denominations I had attended with regularity (Church of the Nazarene and Presbyterian Church USA) since youth. Those churches had no female pastors, although I had noticed female elders and deacons at the PCUSA. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis had articulated a hierarchical view of marriage that I accepted at the time, as much out of love for Lewis as anything, but it didn’t affect me because I wasn’t married and wouldn’t be getting married anytime soon, so I gave the matter little thought.

And then I had these words blinking at me from my computer screen. Horrible words about women in my own Bible and from Christian leaders I was supposed to revere. I didn’t know who God was anymore.

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I Suffer Not a Woman–But I’ll suffer just about anything else

tchividjianTullian Tchividjian was in the news again in March, and not for good reasons. The disgraced grandson of famed mega-evangelist Billy Graham made headlines last June when he resigned from his megachurch post with the following announcement:

As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself.

At the time, while I winced at how Tchividjian threw his wife under the bus, I had little sympathy for her. Infidelity is a form of abuse and unrepentant cheaters might be among the few who are actually deserving of public humiliation and shame (granted, their families are not). And while I think the “revenge affair” is still wrong and a terrible idea, I gave Tchividjian props for doing the right thing and recusing himself from ordained ministry. After all, 1 Tim. 3:2 says that an elder must be “the husband of one wife,” a phrase that I believe was a euphemism for “faithful to his wife” (as so translated by the NIV and NLT). The directive is repeated for deacons in 1 Tim. 3:12, and a similar qualifying phrase appears for the order of ministering widows in 1 Tim. 5:9 (“wife of one husband”). [1] Besides that, 1 Tim. 3:2 also says that an elder must be “above reproach,” and adultery is, oh I don’t know, reproachable?

In short: Christian adulterers have no business serving in ordained (or even just ordered leadership) ministry, whether as pastors, elders, or deacons. They may find other callings for their pastoral gifts, but ordained ministry should not be one of them. I personally believe this prohibition should be indefinite, but if such persons ever are restored to ministry, it should only be after years of repentance and therapy. Infidelity is not easy to repent of. It is associated with a wide variety of personality disorders and very serious character flaws, none of which are the sorts of things we want leading us from the pulpit.

Luckily for Tchividjian, the elders of Willow Creek Church [2] in Winter Springs (FL) didn’t have my grasp of the New Testament. They offered him a job just two months after his confession of adultery went public. His pastoral résumé hardly saw so much as a hiccup. Note that Willow Creek Church is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, a hierarchist (“complementarian”) denomination that doesn’t ordain women even to the office of deacon (which is very clearly a biblical practice; Rom. 16:1) precisely because of their interpretation of passages like 1 Tim. 3:1-12. They wouldn’t have offered Tchividjian’s new job to a woman no matter how much adultery she hadn’t committed; the sin of being born female would have been enough to disqualify her. Yet it took them all of a few months to hand the keys to the office to Tchividjian, 1 Tim. 3:2 be damned. Now that’s all blown up for them as it turns out Tchividjian had an even earlier, undisclosed affair. (So, when Tchividjian threw his wife under the bus, he was being a jerk and a hypocrite. For all we know, she was the one who had the “revenge affair.”) [NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that Tchividjian’s position at Willow Creek was “Director of Ministry Development,” a non-ordained staff support position. Unless this position was/is open to women, I think my criticism holds, and I think weeks/months after confession of adultery is still way too early to be “director” of anything ministry-related.]

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Of Ephesians 5 Wives & Ephesians 6 Slaves

Jesus_Leader_Leader
Husband-gods not wanted, not needed

Ephesians 5:22, “Wives [submit] to your husbands as to the Lord,” has long been the go-to soundbite for those who preach the subordination of women in Christian marriage. Egalitarians have put considerable time and effort into arguing that this verse doesn’t really teach marital hierarchy, and while my brothers and sisters in Christ make a lot of excellent points,[1] on the whole, I tend to disagree. I think Paul does endorse a hierarchy here, albeit a soft and self-sacrificing one, not the self-serving and hypocritical John Piper man-god nonsense so many “recovering biblical genderhood” Christians endorse and promote. I also think it is very clear that the household code promoted by Paul in Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9 (and repeated in truncated form in Colossians 3:18-25) would be a disaster if applied to our day and age.

Anybody who knows basic Roman history will recognize that, throughout Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, Paul is alluding to the Roman concept of the paterfamilias, wherein the [male] “master of the household” had “power . . . within the family [that] was almost absolute, unlimited by the state or any other organization outside of the familia unless [the paterfamilias] was demonstrably insane or mentally incompetent.” The paterfamilias was “the legal owner of all family property,” the only one who could “loan, mortgage, or sell [property] or engage in contracts,” and “the source of law within the family . . . his orders . . . recognized by the state as having the force of law.” More direly for the other members of the household, the paterfamilias was the sole “judge of the household, and his rulings normally could not be set aside by any external authority, even though he might kill, mutilate, expel, or give into bondage his sons or housemates, and though he might break or dispose of the household property.” As for women, they were “always subject to the power of some adult male.” [2] 

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