Selections on New Creation Week 8
Assistant Professor of Theological Studies
Looking back, it is easy to see that all of the churches I grew up in followed traditional gender roles. The men were pastors, preachers, elders, deacons, and teachers. The women were pastors’ wives, children’s Sunday school teachers, worship team members, and women’s Bible study teachers. But then I went to college — Seattle Pacific University, in fact. All of the sudden I discovered a female pastor at the church across the street. I took theology classes from a female professor. I worked in campus ministry with female staff directors. I eagerly took the “Women in Christianity” class, carefully studying the hard Pauline texts and entering fully into the debate over women in ministry, exploring it from every angle I could. And, to top it off, not long after I arrived at SPU, I felt God’s calling on my own life to pursue further theological studies in order to be able to teach men and women about God both in church and at the university level.
Fast forward to today, and I find myself a newly elected elder in a denomination that has affirmed the ordination of women to the pastoral office since 1956. From my time in seminary, I have countless colleagues and friends who are female clergy and church leaders. And to top it off, I have a doctorate in systematic theology, and count it a privilege to teach as an adjunct instructor as well as in my church.
Yet if I think more deeply about all that has changed and transpired from my childhood experience as a girl in conservative, traditional churches to today, I see a myriad of experiences and relationships in my own story that paint a picture more complex than the straightforward, dramatic plotline rehearsed above. I see shadows of sadness, cast by times like the summer I interned for a church and was told by men in the congregation, following the sermons I preached, that I “sure looked pretty up there.” I discover corners of complexity, coming from my time in a theology doctoral program dominated by men who had all the inside connections to which I was not privy. I find places of pain, particularly surrounding my family’s struggle to accept my differing beliefs on women in ministry. I note angles of anger, recalling my frustration upon visiting churches in an African country with a literal dividing wall between the men’s pews and the women’s pews, or my impatience over the disparity in my denomination between the attrition rates of female and male clergy, with a shocking 89 percent of female clergy not moving from their first call to serve another congregation.
So, if I am honest with myself and with you, kind reader, my story and the question of gender reconciliation as we find it in Scripture are not things I can come to with any kind of neutrality or detached evaluation. Nor are they things that I, or anyone else, for that matter, can gloss over, pretending that there is already such a thing as full equality between men and women in the church. The issue of gender reconciliation, especially as it plays out in the question of women leaders in the church, is still being worked out today just as it was in the early churches. And so I want to reflect on how Scripture’s teaching on reconciliation with one another in the new creation speaks to today’s churches, where full equality of men and women as leaders in the church has yet to be realized.
Gender Reconciliation in Scripture
Of all Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians has the most to say about issues of gender and sexuality, and we will find helpful insight regarding gender relations in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.
However, in order to frame Paul’s words on gender relationships in 1 Corinthians 11, we need to remind ourselves of two larger theological elements that shape so much of Paul’s thinking: his thoroughly eschatological perspective and his emphasis on the ministry of reconciliation. Now when we speak of Paul’s eschatological perspective (a mouthful, especially if you try saying it 5 times fast!), we are gesturing to his absolute insistence that Christ’s death and resurrection have inaugurated a new age in the midst of the old world as well as his hopeful insistence that the final revelation of the new age still lies in the future. Remember what Dr. J. J. Johnson Leese already taught us in Week 2: Paul’s “conviction that Christ had inaugurated an entirely new age within the old […] radically transforms the role of the people of God within history.” [Author’s Note 1]
So let’s consider again how 2 Corinthians 5 lets us in on the radical nature of Paul’s eschatological thinking. Christ’s death and resurrection have already fundamentally changed the world as we know it. All of humanity has been put to death in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14). In Jesus Christ, the old things have passed away and the new things have come (5:17). For the people of God, new creation life means living “in a new time zone.” [Author’s Note 2]
Empowered by the Spirit, we live as new creation people in the midst of the old world by no longer regarding anyone or anything from this old age perspective (5:16). Paul is calling the church to radically manifest the reality of the new creation by living as a new, inclusive community of God which practices the ministry of reconciliation. This ministry of reconciliation proceeds on the new basis that “in Christ” the categories of race, social standing, and gender are irrelevant as structural boundaries (Galatians 3:28). Truly, worldly divisions between people have been broken. When it comes to our gender and sexual differences as male and female, these differences provide absolutely no basis for privilege or preference in the new creation. “In Christ, the old age oppression based on gender ‘is no longer.’” [Author’s Note 3]
So did you catch, in the above, what the impetus is for God’s people to live into this new time zone — to live counter-culturally in the midst of the old world? Think of the tried and true Sunday school answer and you’ll be on right the track. Yes, it is Jesus! The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the defining events that turn the old world on its head and usher in new creation life and the ministry of reconciliation. But it is also the Spirit! As Dr. Jack Levison reminded us, “Pentecost was the great equalizer” as well as “the church’s manifesto, its birthright, its destiny. The spirit digs deep and turns the soil of society upside down. […] The powers-that-be explode at Pentecost, in which the spirit is poured out on all flesh, and no less richly on female slaves than on powerful men.” [Author’s Note 4]In the power of the Spirit, the church is transformed into a place of radical, countercultural relationships. In this way, the church demonstrates the truth that the present age is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31) and a new day has dawned.
This is the heart and soul of Paul’s teaching. Yet as we circle back around to our passage in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, we find that perhaps this church in Corinth was overly zealous in their attempt to be new creation people, relating and serving one another as male and female. While it is important to acknowledge that there is not a lot of certainty about the exact cultural and church context of the Corinthian congregation, it appears that some women in the Corinthian congregation were disregarding customary distinctions between the sexes when they prayed and prophesied in worship. Let’s be clear here: the problem was not thatwomen were leading in worship along with men by praying and prophesying, but the manner in which they were doing so. So eager were they to lean into Paul’s teaching on the new time zone that they were somehow acting as if there were no actual gender differences among them.
For such a notoriously difficult passage to fully understand, it is a travesty that 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 has so often been used to promote the subordination of women to men within both church and home. [Author’s Note 5] Not only does such an interpretation reflect the exact opposite of Paul’s words to the Corinthian congregation (1 Corinthians 11:10–12), it also requires an equally opposite understanding of Paul’s new creation theology in general, including the teachings of 2 Corinthians 5:14–20 and Galatians 3:26–28, which we’ve considered briefly above.
Paul’s response to the women’s behavior (remember: we do not know exactly what they were doing wrong nor do we have their letter to Paul explaining the situation) consists of three different arguments. The first argument trades on cultural ideas of honor and shame (1 Corinthians 11:2–6); the second on the creation order (11:7–12); and the third on what is proper and customary (11:13–16). Each argument supports Paul’s recommendation that the women have some sort of covering on their head when praying and prophesying in church. Again, let’s notice that Paul wants them to continue to pray and prophesy in worship. But, as odd as it might seem to us, he has some thoughts on what they wear during worship. What Paul really wants to convey to the Corinthians, as he specifically addresses the women’s attire in worship, is that women and men have a relational responsibility to one another rather than just individual freedom in how they dress for worship.
In Paul’s first argument, he works with typical cultural notions in that day regarding honor and shame. In essence, Paul wants to uphold that there are still sexual distinctions in the new creation. Gender neutrality is not an option. “By making their appearance such that it tended to eliminate distinctions between the sexes, [the women] were bringing shame on that relationship, which had not yet been abrogated even though the new age had been inaugurated.” [Author’s Note 6] This is not to say that Paul is here setting up a hierarchical pattern (which comes when kephalē is translated as “authority” [Author’s Note 7]), but to highlight another important element throughout his letters, which is his continual insistence on mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21–33; Philippians 2:1–11; Galatians 5; Romans 15:1–3; 1 Corinthians 6–7; 10:24, 33; 14:34–40). [Author’s Note 8]
Looking closer at the finer points of Paul’s first argument, we can see that he is corroborating his statement in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that man is the head (source) of woman with his allusion in 11:8 and 11:12 to the creation accounts from Genesis 1 and 2. Second, we find that his point that “Christ is the head [source] of every man” (11:3) fits well with his statement in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that a person is a new creation as a result of being in Christ. But let’s be careful here because, while Paul did not include women in this statement of being in Christ, neither did he rule them out. On this matter, Gordon Fee counsels that in these verses Paul is not setting out a comprehensive theological statement on men and women and their relationship to Christ, to God, and to each other. Instead, he is trying to construct an argument to support what he says about men’s attire in worship in 1 Corinthians 11:4. Finally, let’s remember that when Paul writes that “God is the head [source] of Christ” (11:3), he is not thinking of the Christological and Trinitarian dynamics of divine being and existence. That would be to make Paul into an early church systematic theologian, which he is not. Paul is referring to the incarnational work of Christ, whose source is God.
So what we have seen in the first argument is that Paul is concerned that there not be a dismissal of sexual distinctions in Christian worship. [Author’s Note 9] In his second argument, which works with ideas about the creation order (11:7–12), Paul highlights that the woman is the man’s glory without ever once denying that woman too was made in the image of God and is also the glory of God. Furthermore, Paul “says nothing about man’s authority; his concern is with the woman’s being man’s glory — the one without whom he is not complete” (11:7c–9). [Author’s Note 10] But what does it mean for woman to be man’s glory? A good suggestion made is that Paul is further reflecting on the Genesis texts to which he alludes (Genesis 2:18–20, 23). He echoes Genesis in the idea that the man needs a suitable helper so that he will not be alone. The man needs someone who is like him but different from him. That someone is the woman whom God creates from his rib. Upon discovering her, the man glories in her through song, recognizing not that she is his subordinate, but that he needs her in order to be complete. [Author’s Note 11]
Turning to 11:11–12, we can see that it is almost as if Paul knows that his words in 11:8–9 might be misunderstood by the Corinthians to mean woman’s subordination to man. But what the Corinthians will notice about Paul’s argument in the Greek, which we often miss in the English, is that the sentences in 11:11–12 are written by Paul in such a way that they line up perfectly with the wording he uses in 11:8–9. This signals to the Corinthians that there is a limit to the applicability of 11:8–9. Verses 11–12 again support Paul’s main point throughout this passage: that women and men have a relational responsibility to one another rather than just individual freedom in how they dress for worship. Furthermore, if Paul’s prior allusion in 11:7–8 was to the creation story in Genesis 2, now, in 11:11–12, he widens the allusion to include not only Genesis 1:26–28 but also possibly Genesis 4:1. Again, these allusions serve Paul’s theological point in regards to women’s head coverings: in the Lord, neither men nor women can exist without the other.
What this passage shows us is that the distinction between the sexes is important to uphold within the new creation community because it supports the mutual dependence of one to another. God created humanity as male and female (Genesis 1:26–28). Both are from God. Both are in God’s image. Both are charged to care for creation. Together, men and women form a full picture of humanity.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Paul’s new creation teaching and reconciliation focus are not muted but rather amplified. How? By giving a specific example of the relational dimension of mutual dependence between men and women. In Christ, the boundaries that separate men and women have been broken. By the indiscriminate outpouring of the Spirit, our ministry of reconciliation is made real in the midst of our mutual dependence and submission to one another. Men and women are one in Christ. Yet Christ has taught us that equality is not an end in itself, but exists for the sake of serving the other (Philippians 2:5–11).
A New Way of Life
Pauline scholar Gordon Fee was once asked by a student, “If you were to return to the pastoral ministry, what would you do [meaning, How would you go about it? What would you emphasize?]?” He immediately replied, “No matter how long it might take, I would set about with a single passion to help a local body of believers recapture the New Testament church’s understanding of itself as an eschatological community.” [Author’s Note 12]
I think this is good advice for the problem facing many churches and denominations today regarding women leaders. Fee’s answer helps us realize that the problems with gender reconciliation today are not the same as those facing the Corinthian congregation back then. If their problem was one of overly zealous attempts to live into the new time zone, our problem is the opposite. Our problem, exemplified by the shadows of sadness, corners of complexity, places of pain, and angles of anger in my own story, is that we are often still in the process of setting our watches and clocks to the new time zone.
Yet even as our situation today is clearly not the exact situation facing the church in Corinth, we can take a lot from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. Men and women are never to be independent of one another, most especially in the church—the eschatological community who is living into the new time zone. We need each other. Our mutual submission and dependence on one another go hand-in-hand with the Spirit’s work to transform us into a radically new, inclusive community of God. To deny women full and equal leadership in the church is to miss out on living as a new creation community — a community where none receive special privileges or preferences but where all are recognized and valued for the gifts they contribute. When women are prevented from using their Spirit-given gifts, from exercising their callings, from receiving equal respect and support, the work of the Spirit in the community is cut in half, and the church looks more like the old world than the new. As Spirit-empowered ministers of reconciliation, the church is to be set apart from the world, to look and act differently, to model full equality in the midst of mutual dependence on one another.
With a renewed commitment to living as a new creation community, may the church ever seek to encourage all God’s people to offer their Spirit-given gifts for the edification of the community in their worship of God and witness to the world.
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