Women and Words: Eve, the First Woman

If I’m being honest, Eve’s first recorded words in Genesis 3 are painful for me to read. When Adam’s first words are so beautiful and quite literally perfect, why, I ask myself, aren’t Eve’s the same?

I think part of the answer lies with the one to whom Eve is talking.

It’s easy to read Genesis 3 through 21st century lenses and raise a skeptical eyebrow at the Dr. Doolittle-esque idea of a snake talking to a woman. But when God has just called the whole universe into existence with his words, it seems completely consistent that the creatures He made for His glory might possess some echo of this attribute of their Maker.

The more significant detail in this passage isn’t so much a snake talking to Eve; it’s how, and why, Eve is talking back to the snake.

Genesis 2:4-23 reads like the opening scene in a Disney musical, with its once upon a time beginning, and its lush descriptions of gardens, rivers and gold to set the scene. Moses describes the beautiful way in which God makes Adam his necessary ally- someone who is both like him and not. Adam responds to God’s work with poetic exultation. You can almost hear the music begin to swell into the opening notes of a duet.

But then a third character suddenly breaks into the scene, and the music stops abruptly.

Moses introduces the serpent by calling out what makes him unique, but not in a way that negates the essential truth of what he is. He’s just a beast of the field. His wits may set him apart, but in all other respects he’s just one of the many creatures who move over the earth, over which God called Adam and Eve to rule, together.  So how is Eve drawn so unquestioningly into talking with him as if he’s an equal?  Why aren’t Eve’s first words directed at Adam, about who on God’s green earth this creature is to presume to strike up a conversation with her, uninvited and unintroduced?

The answer lies in his crafty, conversational strategy.

True to Moses’ description, the serpent engages Eve by framing his question in terms that presume upon the things they share in common, even spiritual things.  Both of them were made by God. Both of them have a role to play in God’s creation mandate. What could be more natural, even fruitful, than clarifying conversation between two of God’s creatures about His commands, just to make sure they were both on the same page?

Eve unquestioningly follows the lead of the serpent’s questions. Her answers stretch, and shape, and smooth God’s words until He looks like someone altogether different than who He actually is.

With her words, Eve:

  • puts herself and Adam in front of God, sidestepping His authority.
  • reduces the scope of God’s provision, reducing His generosity.
  • redraws the lines of God’s protection, exaggerating His boundaries.
  • diminishes the scope of God’s transcendence, diluting His glory

all in the space of a single sentence.

The god Eve’s words depict is a god Satan knows how to work with.

Eve’s words form the fatal framework for the lies Satan feeds her, and Adam, and all of us.

That’s why my heart aches when I read Eve’s words in Genesis 3. Because in her words I hear echoes of my own – in every time I’ve put my will ahead of God’s, in every complaint I’ve made over what it seems God has withheld, in every chafing at His protection, in my lust for glory that robs God of His.

The bitter consequences of Eve’s words, and all of ours like them, are what makes Jesus’ words in Luke 4:1-13 all the sweeter.

Several thousand years after Satan meets Eve in a garden, he meets Jesus in the wilderness. He deploys the very same strategies he used with Eve (Satan may be crafty, but he’s hardly creative), questioning authority, testing God’s boundaries, proffering power he doesn’t possess in exchange for the worship he continually craves.

But where Eve succumbed, Jesus prevails.

In the wilderness, Jesus, the Living Word, speaks over Eve’s words with the word of the living God.

  • Where Eve’s words set aside God’s authority, Jesus’ words submitted to it.
  • Where Eve’s words dismissed God’s provision, Jesus’ words rests in it.
  • Where Eve’s words rebelled against God’s boundaries, Jesus’ words revered them.

Eve’s words were the beginning of humanity’s undoing; Jesus’ words were the beginning of its rescue.

With His words, the second Adam spoke with perfection where Eve, and I, have not. And with His words, He modeled for me, and for all of us, the kind of speech that crushes the crafty serpent into the dust – speech that centers itself on the words of God, and the worship of God, all for the glory of God.

Ladies, Truth, and Tables

Last summer, some Reformed lady friends and I stirred up some spirited conversation about troubling teaching concerning extra-biblical prescriptions for gender roles, originating from a questionable understanding of the Trinity. Last week, some more Reformed ladies stirred the conversation up again. The differences between the responses our groups received says much about how far the conversation about women’s engagement in church life and ministry has come, but also how far we still have to go.

Several years ago now, a loosely affiliated cohort of Reformed women began writing about the topic of gender roles and the Trinity from a number of different angles, based on what we we were observing and experiencing in women’s ministry in our various denominational contexts. The topics included:

  • Genesis 1 through 3, imago Dei, and its expressions in maleness and femaleness
  • Differing foundational descriptions of maleness and femaleness – specifically, headship and submission as ontological categories of being, or as temporal functions related to specific roles
  • Marriage as an expression of the gospel, vs. as the expression of the gospel
  • Differing convictions on the nature of the relationship between the members of the Trinity (ESS/EFS), how those convictions influence perspectives on the issues above, and the articulation of those positions in books, Bible studies, and other resources for and about women
  • Womens’ ministry and discipleship for all of life, in all spheres of life – pursuing a posture of affirmation of women’s gifting beyond the proscriptions of 1 Timothy 3, and calling the church to more intentional training and equipping of women to know and understand all of Scripture, and to affirm the use of their gifts for the glory of God and the building of His church.

The reception to our efforts was notably mixed. We received significant public encouragement from many laywomen, some laymen, and some leaders in ministry. The leading response from most institutions and their leaders was polite silence. Only when Dr. Liam Goligher posted a fiery, two-part post on the Mortification of Spin blog, at the request of one of our group, did the conversation really take off. Like a rocket.

You can go here to read ChristianityToday’s summary of the controversy and our role in it, and here to see a full bibliography of the websites and blogs that hosted much of the debate.

Some of us gently arched an eyebrow at the reception one brother with a D.Min received when he spoke boldly and directly in a single, two-part blog post , vs. the small village of women who had been speaking and writing with quiet, careful conviction for months, and even years. We also noted how much of the conversation centered almost solely on the intricacies of the Trinitarian issues, on the academicians who advocated for them, and to what extent their positions rendered them outside the bounds of orthodoxy and fellowship. Far less attention was paid to the practical implications of these doctrines for women that our experience in women’s’ ministry had uncovered, or to us as the women who had raised the issues.

Within a few months, the fierce flames of debate had died down, everyone returned to their respective academic corners, and little observably changed.

Fast forward to last week.

In March, three Reformed, African American women launched a blog called Truth’s Table. They described themselves and their endeavor this way: “We are Black Christian women who love truth and seek it out wherever it leads us. We have unique perspectives on race, politics, gender, current events, and pop culture that are filtered through our Christian faith.”

I’ve never met nor talked with Christina Edmondson, nor Michelle Higgins, yet, but I can say of Ekemini Uwan that all of the above is entirely true. I treasure the memory of a two-hour brunch and spontaneous parking lot prayer session we shared last year. Knowing her heart for the Lord and her keen mind, I subscribed to the podcast as soon as it launched.

Unfortunately, I had only been able to listen to snippets of several episodes when the provocatively titled “Gender Apartheid” episode came out. This was one I I knew I needed to make time to listen to, and so I did.

Several days later, I was still processing, and praying over, what I heard.

The topics the Truth’s Table sister covered were encouragingly familiar – there were a lot of “Yes. SISTER.” moments in my kitchen as I listened. The approach to some of the topics was unexpected, to the point of making me uncomfortable, so there were a few “Jesus, help!” moments as I listened as well. But I didn’t know reasons for their approach, the context for some of their assertions, or whether I was even representative of their target audience. Until I could understand these things better, (Prov. 17:27), I was reluctant to be either “all in”, or “all out.”

Others were not so reluctant.

On Friday, at the Mortification of Spin (a blog where our writing has been featured, and where Wendy Alsup was recently interviewed about her new book, “Is the Bible Good For Women?”), Todd Pruitt published a passionate protest against the podcast and called for the women to be reported to their various presbyteries (All three women are affiliated with either the OPC or the PCA.)

The inevitable barrage of Twitter fire ensued, until Dr. Edmondson intervened. She appealed for the detractors to stand down with their public ire, and invited them to engage together in private, with the Scriptures, on any points of dispute. But the unfriendly social media fire continued.

Late Friday afternoon, Todd Pruitt took the original post down, expressing shock at the charges of racism he had received, seeming to suggest that it was the charge itself that was wrong, rather than the statements or actions that invited it.

But while Todd attempted to put out the fire the critical post started, the cloud of accusations and theological suspicion lingers over the women to this day. To my knowledge, no private discussions or other attempts to reconcile the public disagreements have yet taken place.

So my heart was, and remains, very heavy.

Last year, some Reformed women raising questions without getting many answers had our work amplified by one supportive, albeit controversial, blogpost by a pastor/scholar. That was the spark that ignited a vigorous debate about Trinitarian orthodoxy between pastors and academics on both sides. The implications for gender relations and church life remained largely undiscussed. The women who raised the questions stood on the sidelines, not really engaged, but not attacked either.

Last week, one controversial podcast by three Reformed women on the very same topic ignited a debate between pastors and laypeople on one side,and the three women on the other, with the gender issues front and center. The women who raised the questions were hauled before a digital tribunal on charges of unorthodoxy, their expressed willingness to engage privately on the biblical substance of the disagreement ignored and/or declined, with the final verdict still pending.

The issues the Truths Table women raised last week are entirely in line with many of the issues my cohort of women raised last year. The category of controversial Trinitarian theology that emerged in this latest round of debate (this time about the Holy Spirit) is every bit as worthy of critical challenge and testing as the one discussed last year. So, too, is the question of which rhetorical strategies for these conversations are most helpful and effective, and which are not.

These are important and worthy conversations to have, and the Truths Table women, as sisters in Christ, with shared convictions, yet different perspectives, education, and experiences, are worthy women to have them with. And I lament the way they were attacked, rather than engaged.

I’m just returning home from three packed days of worship and teaching at TGC, all focused on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Last night, Ligon Duncan reminded us that one of the forgotten lessons of the Reformation is that “we cannot only stand for doctrine; we must also work for unity.” In that spirit, I am praying two sincere prayers in the midst of this situation:

1. That we would always center our fight for doctrinal orthodoxy on our own tendencies to stray from it, before we concern ourselves with others’. Specifically, that we would remember that there is no category of sin which we are incapable of committing, and no category of sin that is beyond the cleansing of the cross.

2. That we would heed Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:1-6

“…to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Coda: I completed this post on my first of two plane flights home. I decided to check Twitter to see if my in-flight prayers had been answered. And they had, in the form of this post by Richard Phillips, a fellow member of the ACE. I hope the way he carefully engages with the topics the Truths Table women covered, seeing much to agree with and articulating points of disagreement Biblically and with charity, is as encouraging to them as it is to me.

Meanwhile, Todd provided another update here, focusing on his dialog with other PCA pastors.

Proverbs, Women, and Words

In the aftermath of President Trump’s election, news about women and their words was everywhere. From the Women’s March to the Walk for Life, to demonstrations in airports and public squares supporting immigration and protesting the Trump travel ban, American women chanted,  waved signs, and wore pink hats inspired by the President’s infamously blue language, all in the name of making their voices heard.

Not everyone was a fan.

Several days after the Women’s March, Anne Graham Lotz wrote a widely shared piece deploying the two most commonly referenced women of Proverbs – the woman of Folly in Proverbs 9, to criticize the women’s advocacy, and pray for their repentance. Given the dominant themes of the march, and the nature of much of the women’s speech, Lotz’ reaction was entirely understandable. But while she used the oft-referenced woman Folly to condemn the women’s speech, she declined to note that the surest way to keep safe from Folly’s fatal charms is devotion to a different kind of woman, one whose voice is just as loud, but whose words are very different.

The feminine character Solomon names “Folly” in Proverbs 9 is not an isolated one; she serves as the negative complement of another such character who first appears in Proverbs 1. Like twin sisters, the  two characters share many traits. They frequent the same kinds of places (Prov. 1:20-21, Prov. 7:12). They’re hospitable (Prov. 9:1-5, Prov. 7:16-17/ They have strong voices they employ in public with great intention (Prov. 1:20-21, Prov. 9:13-17).

And it’s the intention in their words, and in their actions, that reveal the stark contrast between them.

The woman introduced in Proverbs 7:5 is wickedly self-centered, but her tactics are powerful. She entices a foolish young man with every sensual trick in the book – her appearance (7:10), her surroundings (7:16-17), and especially, her words (7:21), with the promise of delight. The young man falls into her trap and meets his inevitable end, just like many have before him (7:22-27).

Solomon’s counsel to his son about her reminds me of the title of Thomas Chalmer’s sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”. The best way for a man to protect himself from the dangers of a evil-intentioned woman with a smooth tongue is to bind himself to one who speaks, and acts, differently. What keeps a man’s heart safe from Lady Folly, is an intimate relationship with Lady Wisdom.

Wisdom’s voice is every bit as loud as her sister’s; it’s her motives that are different. Her words serve, not herself, but all those who hear her, because they’re full of truth and righteousness (Prov. 8:7-8). The powerful rule justly with her help (Prov. 8:15-16), and rewards of those who heed her are riches, and honor, and a wealthy inheritance (Prov. 8:18-21).

 If there is any danger associated with her words, it is not in heeding them, but in ignoring them (Prov. 8: 35-36).

Why?


Because all of her words are grounded in the fear and knowledge of the LORD (Prov. 9:10). If you ignore her words, you’re really ignoring His.

Lady Folly’s words are sound and fury, signifying nothing; they summon all those who follow them to a swift death. Lady Wisdom’s words are full of  truth; they bring life to all who heed them.

This is the kind of womanly speech God affirms, not just in the book of Proverbs, but in the whole Bible – the speech of Abigail and Deborah, of Hannah and Mary, of the Samaritan woman and the women at the resurrection.

 

Women have spoken (and written, and sung) in this way in every age of Church history, and God has blessed their efforts, by blessing all those who heed them.

Women have spoken in the opposite way in every age as well, of course, and they’re doing so today.

But the answer to not being swayed by Lady Folly-like speech isn’t to put our fingers in our ears, or our hands over women’s mouths, any  time a woman speaks. Rather, the answer is to listen for those who speak as  Lady Wisdom does, and when you hear them, listen to them, and live.
And the admonition to myself, and to all women who want to bless the world with their words, is to ask God to so fill us with Himself, and with His Word, that He is the one with Whom our words are filled, so that all who hear our words hear His, and are blessed.

Women, Words, and the Word of God

When you’re gifted with words, and you make your living by using them, you feel the sting of the moments when you’ve said something wrong and hurt someone, or said something right and been ignored, more than the average person.

Or is that just me?

For a long time I viewed my gift with words the way some people view their gift of singleness. I couldn’t deny I had it;  I just wanted God to take it back. I was raised in a complementarian context that equated  womanliness with being quiet. Being a woman with  gifts that have anything to do with being heard make you feel like you live with a giant 1 Peter 3 penalty flag perpetually flapping over your head. Or like you have a genetic condition.

In my case, that’s entirely possible. Because having a strong voice, and the compulsion to use it to help people, seems to be literally codified in my DNA.

The  branches of my family tree are laden with pastors, writers, published authors, and even heralds (my maiden name is Horner).  I followed in my ancestors’ footsteps  by earning an English degree at a Christian liberal arts college. For more than twenty years, I’ve put my gifts to work in the technology industry, helping people improve the way they communicate so they can make gazillions of dollars building the technologies on which all of the the Internet runs.

(Please choose from any of the following options: A. I’m sorry. B. You’re welcome. C. Both)

I’ve been a front row observer of the digital revolution’s transformation of the way people communicate, and have been part of the work to shape that transformation, so that people are helped more than they’re harmed by it.

Home decorating projects give me panic attacks, and the time I spend volunteering in my daughter’s fifth grade classroom is the hardest 45 minutes of my month.  But I can string sentences together, and nothing makes me happier than when I learn that a collection of them has been helpful to someone.

So when my words fail me, by being unhelpful, unkind, or just plain stupid, the weight of that failure feels particularly heavy.

A while ago, my words failed me (or rather, they failed God)  twice in the space of a month. So I sat under the weight of the Holy Spirit’s conviction over it in an intentional way.

There was one time in my Christian life when my conclusion would have been that my two-footed stumble was a sign I  wasn’t actually gifted with words at all – that the fruit I should bear in keeping with repentance was the fruit of learning to sit down and shut up. But in my womens’  Bible Study on the Gospel of John this year, Jesus’ words in John 15 have caused me to think otherwise.  I’m learning to see that God grants these moments of stumbling as a means of pruning, to make me more fruitful in my gifts, not to mention more humble in acknowledging the true Source for that fruit as it comes.

The questions I began to ask of the Holy Spirit was what shape this pruning should  take. The bad fruit had been of a particular varietal – speech that was injudicious. How did God want me to produce better fruit that was the opposite? Not just me as a Christian, but me as a Christian woman?

So much of the messaging targeted at Christian women focusses on the Bible’s words about the pruning of our speech and being silent; I haven’t read nearly as much focussed on what the Bible says about when women are to speak, and when we should know we’re meant to listen.

So I’ve spent the last several months digging into that topic.  I’ve studied the words of the women of the Old Testament, the women of Proverbs 7, 8 and 9, and the women who followed Jesus. I’ve studied the context for their words, and the consequences, for the women who spoke them, for the people who listened to them, and for the people who refused to listen as well.

What God has been teaching me has been startling and strengthening, convicting and emboldening.

There’s no question that the Bible contains strong warnings against certain types of womanly speech, speech that endangers the soul of anyone who heeds it. But the Bible is equally clear that there is a kind of womanly speech that brings life, and it’s every bit as dangerous to our souls when we ignore it.

As I’ve sought to replicate the patterns of speech God affirms in Scripture, and put off the ungodly ones, God has graciously produced the fruit in my life, in encouraging and unexpected ways. That fruit has come not just from speaking differently, and, yes, in saying less in certain circumstances; it’s also come from speaking differently and saying more in others.
I’m  posting some of the results of that study here in the coming days. I hope it will bear fruit in your life as well, whether you’re a woman wanting to be a better steward of your words,

or you’re a woman, or a man, wanting to be a wiser listener when a woman speaks.

Orbitals and Uncommon Gifts

One of the most helpful insights I’ve ever been given in how to think holistically and biblically about gender came to me in the middle of a chemistry lecture about orbits, orbitals and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Really.

If you think back to high school chemistry class, you may remember learning that all matter is made of atoms, and all atoms are made of a specific number of protons and neutrons, around which a (usually) matching number of electrons rotate. You may have drawn pictures of atoms that looked like this one of carbon:

untitled

six electrons spinning around a matched set of protons and neutrons, in solidly defined circular patterns. The picture looks the ones we draw of the paths planets follow as they orbit the sun.

Except, as far as representing the actual shape of a carbon atom, it’s almost entirely wrong.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that it’s impossible to measure accurately both the location of an electron and its speed, at any particular moment in time. Thus, you can only depict the likelihood of a particle’s location at a particular moment, then aggregate all those likelihoods into the patterns they form. Consequently, a more accurate (but not perfect) picture of a carbon atom looks like this:

carbonorbitals

At any moment of time, each of the six electrons in carbon will be located somewhere inside one of the colored, spherical zones around the nucleus. They’ll occupy some locations more often than others (as designated by the darker perimeters of each zone). They’ll frequently be where other electrons have been previously. But in many moments, one or more electrons will be in locations we wouldn’t ordinarily expect. These moments aren’t anomalies. They’re simply a percentage of moments when a carbon atom’s electrons are arranged in a way that’s statistically less common. The sum total of all those electron arrangements, both common and less common, are what make an atom what it is.

It’s a bit of a complicated analogy, but hopefully it serves the point. All too often Christians have defaulted to talking about gender attributes in terms of orbits, instead of orbitals. We think about the various attributes of gender in terms of solid lines that rarely overlap – work and home, leading and submitting, strength and softness.  Problems occur when we look around and see numerous ways those lines  overlap, so that the ever-increasing number of exceptions begins to challenge the legitimacy of the rule. More often than not, the attributes of maleness and femaleness operate like orbitals.

Consider the quality of strength. In Alastair Robert’s recent piece at TGC, he noted data that indicates that, in general, men possess significantly greater physical strength than women, particularly in their upper bodies. Put a woman and man up against each other in an arm wrestling match or a weightlifting competition, and the man will win every time.

Those kinds of statistics are precisely what make the Old Testament story of Jael and Sisera so fascinating. In a nutshell, the story involves a Canaanite general fleeing to safety from battle to the tent of a friend named Heber. Heber’s wife, Jael, comes out to meet him and encourages him inside her tent. She plies him with warm milk and covers him with a blanket and stands watch as he falls into exhausted sleep. Then she picks up a tent peg and a mallet, quietly walks over to him, and literally nails his head to the floor. As I’ve written previously, there is zero ambiguity about the morality of Jael’s actions. Sisera is known for his brutality, especially towards women, and the prophetess Deborah sings blessings over Jael for what she does.

Jael is often appealed to as a one of many biblical exceptions that seem contradict the definition of womanhood so many hold up as the biblical norm. Jael’s actions, while quiet, are anything but gentle. For women who wrestle with the Apostle Peter’s declaration of women as the weaker vessel in 1 Peter 3, it’s easy to turn Jael into an Old Testament version of a movie action hero like Rey or Wonder Woman. You can practically see the movie poster – a woman whose cloak and tunic exposes arms with triceps of steel, one hand casually holding a wooden mallet as big as her head, the other gripping a tent peg, blood dripping down it and pooling onto the dirt at her feet. For all I know, right now an entrepreneurial woman who read Alastair’s article is writing a business plan to launch a workout program for Christian women called Jael’s Gym.

The truth is the Scriptures give us little context for Jael’s actions, and what portion of them were natural, and what were supernatural. Jael’s intentional invitation to Sisera does seem to indicate that her actions were intentional, rather than opportunistic, and thus maybe a measure of premeditation. Perhaps she was the kind of tent-dwelling woman who drove the tent pegs herself, so that she really did have arms of steel and was simply executing a move she’d done a thousand times before. But given the physical norms of male and female strength, it’s just as likely, or perhaps more so, that she simply imitated what she’d observed the men in her tribe do (albeit with a different application!). And her effort, whether sufficient on its own, or supernaturally assisted, was sufficient for the task. In the end, Jael was a woman to whom God gave particular abilities in a particular context for particular task, a task she did faithfully, and one for which she was commended. She was there to do what God had set her in place to do, and she did it.

There is a sense in which the Jaels, (and Deborahs, and Esthers, and women witnesses to the resurrection), could be considered statistically unusual or exceptional. And yet, the whole story of God is one where God regularly uses the unexpected – the weak, the low – to confound those who might otherwise expect to take center stage, so that no human being, male or female, might boast in the presence of God. The frequency with which God gives women (or men) uncommon gifts is not nearly as important as whether we recognize them, and God’s purposes in them, when He does it. As we look to the special revelation of Scripture and the natural revelation of creation to inform our understanding of gender, let’s not let our tendency to focus on the common, cause us to miss God’s purposes in the uncommon, just because they come to us from a place, or in a person, we don’t immediately expect.

Gender, Fighting, and (Friendly) Fights about Gender and Fighting

When I was young and single, and motherhood was simply a far-off state to be dreamt about, my romantic imaginings about it always involved a lot of grubby-faced, skinned-kneed boys. This wasn’t so much in spite of my own upbringing, growing up as one of two girls and attending a private girls’ school, as it was because of it. The emotional drama and nuclear wars of words that characterized many of my school years left me with some pretty deep scars. On top of that, I had grown up in an ultra-conservative Reformed Baptist home, where rules forbidding the wearing of pants and nail polish (among many others), developed in me an antipathy for overly prescriptive ideas of femininity. With all that baggage, the rough and tumble physicality of boys seemed to me to be an infinitely easier parenting journey through which to travel.

So of course, when I finally married and had kids, God gave me girls.

God has used my three daughters to sanctify me and conform me to His image in numerous ways, but particularly in causing me to wrestle deeply with what it means to bear His image specifically as a woman. What does it look like for my daughters, and me, to model Christlikeness in bodies that, while notably similar to Jesus’, are also so distinctively different? How do I  teach my daughters about the active obedience of Christ for them, when that obedience was lived out in a body that was, and is, not like the body in which we strive to live that obedience out ourselves?

Several years ago, my oldest daughter’s transition into adolescence, with all of the questions that season brings, drove me to the Scriptures in earnest. I was fearful of reacting against the culturally bound errors of my well-meaning parents, not mention of replacing them with reactionary ones of my own! But I was, and remain, deeply committed to leaning into the goodness of gender, both maleness and femaleness, as God declares it to be. But I didn’t want to merely to affirm the goodness of my gender; I wanted to understand as well. If the heavens and earth declare the glory of God, how much more so does the God-breathed image of His Triune self do it, through femaleness specifically? How does He do it? And how does that translate into how my daughters, and I, are to live to reflect that glory each day?

As my Bible study began to generate more questions than it answered, I did what one does in the 21st century and took to the Internet for help. My research lead me to the writing of (and now treasured friendship with) women like Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson, who had thought longer and more deeply on these topics, and on their practical implications, than I. It eventually lead to this series that I wrote at a blog Wendy and I share, where I meditated on how a woman’s body was uniquely created to declare the glory and character of God, how it was corrupted through the fall, and how it is redeemed by the work of Christ on our behalf.

That series didn’t so much represent the end of my questioning, as it did the formation of the foundation for the many questions that followed it -on the complementarity of maleness to femaleness, the expression of that complementariness in the smaller orbits of church and family, and the larger orbit of the world as a whole. But parenting emerging women has proven to often be more circumstantially and emotionally demanding than parenting little girls, so I wasn’t able to commit those thoughts to print as often as I’d like. Still, anytime someone wrote something thoughtful and challenging on the biblical purposes for gender, I read and meditated on it as God gave me opportunity.
Recently, this piece by Alastair Roberts on the place of gender distinctives in social and political discourse got significant Internet attention, and for good reason. The points Roberts made, and in particular the approach he took, left me itching to respond. But the six weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are like college finals season for mothers, so I had little opportunity to do more than mentally ruminate on it while wrapping presents late at night. Today, Roberts tackled the gender distinctiveness topic from a decidedly different angle, using the same approach. But this time, he posted it on a day when our Christmas is all done and put away, and I literally had next to nothing planned.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.

As with his previous piece, Roberts’ approach is to consider the differences between the genders from the perspective of natural law, rooted in function or purpose. In today’s consideration of the validity of women fighting in mixed marital arts for entertainment purposes, he looks at the differences in strength between men and women, and male interest in fighting, and concludes that fighting is an inherently masculine activity, one from which women should largely be proscribed.

What he declined to do in today’s piece, or in last month’s, was to set his natural law observations into a wider, dare I even to say it out loud, more completely Biblical context. For example:

  • How was male strength inherently created to display the character of God, separate from its expression or function (given that God’s declaration of the goodness of man and woman in Genesis 1 precedes any record of their actions)?
  • How has male strength been corrupted by the fall?
  • How is it redeemed through Christ in the gospel?
  • Consequently, what expressions of male strength best embody this redemption, and what do not?

Read through the lens of questions such as these, it’s hopefully easy to see why some people like me reflexively objected to how Roberts framed his observations and assertions, particularly as summarized in the article’s blunt title. Positioning MMA as an activity for one gender but not another’s, based purely on one gender’s affinity for it, rather than questioning whether that activity is an appropriately Christ-like expression of that affinity (not to mention our humanity), seems problematic.

When we examine behavioral or physiological gender norms in isolation, and extrapolate behavioral prescriptions based on them, unhelpful ideological proof-texting (and corresponding social media sturm und drang) sometimes ensues. On the other hand, when we examine those norms as a cohesive, and yes, complementary set of markers that point to the character of God, we are better able to examine their complexities, and appreciate their beauty. Most importantly, our gaze is deflected from them, and onto the ultimate beauty of the One to which they collectively point – Jesus Christ.

In his introduction to the article, Justin Taylor notes that Roberts has an entire book on the subject coming out this Fall, titled “Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes”. Based on the title and Roberts’ thoughts on the topic up to this point (not to mention the conversation they generate), I’ll be tempted to pulling whatever strings I can to get an advance copy before November. Given its length and title, I’m assuming that  a significant portion of the book will be dedicated to building the biblical framework  on which he places his assertions, and I greatly look forward to following his arguments for it. I’ll possibly disagree with him on some particulars, even as I’m prepared for him to challenge and change some of my own thinking.  The questions he asks, and the conversations they generate, are important, and long overdue. I’m thankful for his work, if only because I have many mothering-of-daughter miles left to tread.

I need all the help I can get.

((Postscript – immediately after I finished these thoughts, I noticed that Roberts has, in the comments,  offered some responses to some of the main objections to his piece that are helpful and clarifying. If anything, they affirm that topics of this complexity are often better served in long form books than short form blog posts. One more reason to look forward to his book. 🙂 ))

Single Women Serving Faithfully

Dear Amy,

Recently, you wrote to ask John Piper a question about a trend you noticed in people serving on the mission field – namely, that the vast majority of them are women. Specifically, you noted that there are significantly fewer single men than single women engaged in full time missions, and you wanted to know Pastor Piper’s thought about why that might be. Pastor Piper offered several thoughts in reply, ones he was careful to note were grounded in opinion, rather than fact. For that reason, I feel emboldened to add on to what Pastor Piper proposed. The Ask Pastor John format is notably short, and it’s possible there wasn’t sufficient time to note possibilities beyond what he offered, so here goes:

  1. Single men have many more avenues of full time ministry to pursue than single women. In the sector of evangelicalism in which Pastor Piper and I live and serve, men with leadership and communication gifts have a wide number of full time ministry or vocational options they are encouraged to consider. A pastorate, a professorship or administrative position in a Christian institution, or even simply a senior leadership position in a secular professional field are all vocations that men are coached to pursue. So, it’s just a matter of basic math that, if missions is only one of a number of ministry options a man has from which to choose, the number of men who choose each individual option will be fewer.
  1. Some single men wisely discern that, like pastoral ministry, the mission field is a matter of calling and gifting, not just willingness, or a fall back option when nothing else is working out. Some others, well, don’t. Some single men think the solution to their bad grades or battles with lust or laziness will be found living in a remote jungle. far from the temptations and turmoil of Western life. Those men will be wrong, often in ways that hurt many others beyond themselves. Wiser men take note, work out their issues at home, and if they continue to struggle, see that as confirmation that the call to missions is not theirs, and they should feel confident in that decision, rather than discouraged.
  1. Some single women have taken a long, honest look forward at the cultural trajectory we’re on, and a look back at the way their mothers navigated life, and realized this moment requires charting a different, more intentional course. Women in previous generations were encouraged to be certain of the likelihood of marriage and children at a relatively early age, with men having an array of professional and ministerial vocations they were taught to pursue with a mind to pursuing and providing for a family, and everyone planned accordingly. Today, porn culture is robbing men of both the interest in or ability to pursue marriage, while unfettered technological advancement is narrowing the types of work available to men (and women) to pursue in a way that ensures economic and familial stability, let alone fulfillment. Simply put, single women today can be far less certain that marriage and children will be part of their future, whether at a young age or at all. Taking Dr. Piper at his famous words, they’re not going to waste their life waiting for what may never come. They’re going to start spending it for the cause of Christ now, and are entrusting Him with their future.

That so many women have made this commitment and are remaining faithful in it may not necessarily be a problem in need of a solution. It may, in fact, be God’s plan for this current time in history. And if it is, women who resist the secular siren call for wealth and comfort and power in secular professions AND the presumptive temptations the church can unwittingly entangle them in about waiting for marriage, should be praised, encouraged, and supported accordingly.

I hope this helps.