A Religion for Males, Females, None of the Above, or All of the Above

Help me out here: God is male, female, none of the above, or all of the above; and the church is female, male, none of the above, or all of the above. As we have that settled we can therefore assert that the church needs to be more male, female, none of the above, or all of the above. Careful how you answer the above questions as they may prove you are a sexist, hierarchical, misogynistic, dictatorial jerk; or a weak, limp-wristed, liberal, Kenyan anticolonial- socialist, antinominial[1] heretical, Rob Bell-loving cultural sycophant. Or none of the above. Or all of the above. Regardless of how we answer, we should be prepared to go to our separate corners, and come out swinging with any or all of the bad words we know. Or none of the above. Or all of the above.

The fact of the matter is this: of all these options perhaps we ought to choice all of the above with a healthy dosing of none of the above. The Scriptures we love and the Traditions we have established tend to be multi-vocal[2] on the topic (as they often tend to be on all the ‘important’ topics). Yes, God has chosen to reveal Himself[3] as Father, Son, and Spirit. Yes, He at times seems to like the fellas, promoting them to positions of authority within His Kingdom.[4] He often talks about Himself in decidedly masculine language, and at times seems to act of the man playbook for dealing with issues.[5]  Last he commanded women to take a lesser role in the church and family (because women are weaker and need to be protected).[6]

But there are more verses at play here. God also reveals more feminine characteristics to ‘himself.’ He refers to ‘his’ relationship with Israelas one in which he feeds them much like a mom does a baby. When Christ looks down on Jerusalem, ‘He’ says that ‘his father’ longs to collect ‘his’ straying people just as a mother hen collects her chicks. The picture gets even murkier when one studies the life of the early church. As Scot McKnight has so aptly illustrated in his little ebook, Junia is Not Alone, women played very important roles in the early church (even if some medieval and modern theologians would like to argue otherwise). This is not surprising because if one really studies the Gospels one can see that women played an important role in Christ’s ministry as well. In fact one might contrast the simple faith and good works of Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene (the real scriptural one) with the bumbling cluelessness of the menfolk called Apostles. It goes beyond the pericope of Scripture. Celsus, who penned the earliest extent criticism of the ‘Christians,’[7] stated that this strange new religion brought by the Jews to the Gentiles was a religion of ‘women, children, and criminals.’ Granted some mockery was definitely in play, but in all mockery there is an element of truth. The early Christianity was one that valued nurture and care in a world that valued strength and dominance. As sociologist Rodney Stark and historian Peter Brown have argued elsewhere the early Church succeeded because of this stance. In a world of hard truth, the church showed the value of soft power, i.e. the ability to change the hearts and mind through cultural interaction.

Just last week I was reading a text on leadership for a leadership training program within my local church. In a section entitled “The Leader and the Heart of a Father” I came across the following paragraph, which was discussing 1 Thess. 2:17:

“In the New Testament Greek, a ‘nurse’ nourishes children to the point of fattening them, cherishing them with choice foods. This word denotes a mother who nurses her children before they are weaned. It describes the mother would would [sic] take the most anxious and tender care of her little ones (italics mine).”[8]

Great passage, right, seems to be proving our point that in Christ there is room for both culturally learned maleness and femaleness. Yet the author went on:

“This is the true picture of the ‘nursing’ father, in the masculine sense, as it relates to the apostle Paul and to every leader.”[9]

To my credit I resisted the urge to write ‘WTF,’ in the margins;[10] but I did add a big “female is OK” inscription.[11] Unfortunately this type of conflagration passes as biblical scholarship in many churches. We harp on the masculine passages, and then we at best subconsciously convert, or at worst attempt to explain away these passages. In close reading of scripture finds this verse in the first chapter (which are important and to be taken ultra-literally):

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The repetition is meant to highlight something important. The church has long taught that to be human is to be in someway like God. In this way to truly understand God one must understand his creation; and to understand his creation, one must understand him. The one is like the other. The one reveals the other. Yet this is often where we stop. Yet the passage goes on and tells us something else. Namely that both male and female are created in God’s image. This means that in God there is what it means to be truly male. It also means that in God there is what it truly means to be female. And perhaps even vice versa. Funny, how we want the first several verses of Genesis 1 to be accepted as literal, but suddenly backpedal like Champ Bailey when it comes to this verse. It is here that we might begin to understand the dialectical synthesis upon which the church should be grounded. The Church is called to be both male and female in ecclesial unity just as their triune God stands as three persons in divine unity. When we understand this truth we are ready to exist as he has called as to be. Males and females united in love and acceptance mutually submitted to each other, and mutually being reformed into His image, according to His likeness. Here we understand what it means to love as Christ loves.

Yet this is only our starting point. It is here that we might listen to the great mystical tradition as illustrated by St. John of Damascus or Pseudo-Dionysius both of whom argued that no human can truly understand or comprehend God in his Fullness or Completeness. We all stand before him like Moses on Mt Sinai. God tells us he will reveal himself, but only if we promise to stand in a cave with our eyes focused on the dark shadows, and our backs to his passing. Even as we see his reflection in the shadows, we cannot explain or comprehend all that we see. And so in this sense God is none of the above. He is God. He is not male as we suppose it to be. He is not female as we suppose it to be. He is beyond all our feeble attempts at social construction. When we understand this truth we are ready to take on the stance of humility. Here we can go forth boldly, knowing that while all attempts to interact carry the stench of failure, but are destined to be accepted by Him and credited as faith. And as he accepts and loves so we accept and love. And in this we find our better natures. Male. Female. Both. And. Not at all.

[1] I think I misspelled that one but unfortunately spell-check is no help in the popular Evangelical slur department.

[2] Thank you Christian Smith.

[3] There I said it.

[4] The 12 apostles = Jewish men; regardless of what 13th Apostle Rufus or Sir Leigh Teabing would say.

[5] At least as how we define manliness and / or what type of behavior modern man wants to excuse. God is dangerous, like a man. He takes risks, like a man. He hammers nails, fishes, and possibly drinks, like a man. And if you believe Nikos Kazantzakis, he desired to ‘marry that,’ like a man.

[6] O.K. so there is debate on this one. O.K. I don’t buy this one for a variety of reasons. See 10 Lies the Church Tells Women by J. Grady Lee or Different But Equal by Derek Morphew for excellent scriptural analyses on the main verses in question.

[7] While his actual manuscripts have yet to be recovered, thanks to the 1st century Church Father Origen, we have a good chunk of it recorded in the apologetic work Contra Celsus.

[8] No references is coming in order to protect the guilty. We’re not here to name names.

[9] Sigh, reference withheld. See above note.

[10] I would be opening and reading from it in a church setting.

[11] This may have been more dangerous for my standing. After all, all the cool pastors are revered for being able to throw a choice derogatory out from time to time; but only effeminate liberals would see something praiseworthy in a women (I mean other than her abilities to produce offspring, cook, and clean).


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