Half the Church – Part 4 – The One About Submission

I have been reading ‘Half the Church’ by Carolyn Custis James and blogging my thoughts on it. Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 are available here. 

A professor at a well-known, US Christian college expressed concern that the number one quality young men on his campus were seeking in the women they dated was submissiveness. He was alarmed at the potential for abuse, which is all too common when women have been encouraged their whole lives not to stand their ground and be on default mode ‘yes.’

What should submission look like? As I pointed out in my last post on the Trinity and what it communicates about female and male relationships, we are image bearers reflecting God’s image – and should always refer back to that image when we are unsure how to display his glory.

Jesus is God’s true image bearer. His weeping reassures us that God doesn’t keep himself at a safe emotional distance from the sorrows we experience. His heart is bound up with us. He is moved with compassion. He knows how the Story will ultimately end and the heavy cost of the recovery effort – but he enters into our sorrows and weeps with us.

Jesus’ definition of submission isn’t about giving in to others, but about giving out from himself, from the fulfillment and relationship he shares in with his Father and the Spirit. Our own submission should likewise pour out from the completeness that comes from a relationship with him. Jesus models this submission as he brings about the gospel – following God’s purpose, he poured himself out to rescue a lost humanity.

Submission for us follows that same trajectory of putting the interests’ of others ahead of ourselves to complete the rescue mission we have been set on – and this is not easy. It requires strength and courage.

But submission is a word that has been used as a weapon, and then rejected altogether as a result. When it has been (and still is) used as a word that only applies to women (and always applies to women), the results are chilling – look at the situations globally young girls and women find themselves in. Should a child bride embrace the word submission too?

Many would say girls in that situation should not submit. But are they just allowable exceptions, in extreme circumstances? If we follow that this is a command for women, when is it okay to not submit, and when must we? Now we are getting to the heart of the issue: is the gospel’s message for women just a kinder, gentler version of the world’s message? Does the gospel only overturn extreme patriarchal societies, or does it overturn our own, more ‘civilized’ but equally as broken culture? Is the gospel’s message for women consistent across time, space and culture, or does it alter, or worse, only speak to certain women?

This is the key question Half the Church is trying to answer, and it reflects a lot (but not all) of my own questions.

I want to live God’s way, for many reasons. But most of all, because I believe I was created as an image bearer of God, a child of his, who was lost and reflecting all the wrong things, but has been redeemed into his kingdom and his mission. I know that God’s glory is increased and his image is mostly clearly reflected to his world when we do things his way. No matter what answers I find, if they are the ones I want or not, I will follow God’s command. But I will find answers.

Biblical equality, Jesus feminism or whatever term you use, has been accused of selfishness, of being about women wanting more or distracting the church with their own issues. But many women, including those who are leaders in ministry and business are most concerned with how to build bridges with our Christian brothers. Topics like women’s ordination and debated Pauline passages fade into the background compared to this. There’s a deep desire in Christian women to serve God with their heart and soul – alongside their Christian brothers.

For the mission God has set us on is urgent. Passivity or a partial effort is unconscionable. When one half of the church is asked to sit on the sidelines, the bride of Christ limp, the mission slows down and we misrepresent God’s oneness and intentions for humanity.

So what does men and women living out biblical equality look like?

They are mission minded – they are part of something bigger than themselves. This compels and frees them to set aside their personal agendas to embrace God’s mission – and the magnitude and seriousness of this mission outweighs everything else and demands a whole hearted effort from everyone.

They are called to gospel living – which means putting the interests of others ahead of your own interests. Gospel living is displayed for the world see – and they will see lives being poured out for the sake of others and for a greater cause, just like the life Jesus modeled.

They are all mutually flourishing – this isn’t a win for the women and a loss for the men. Instead, by working together, all people flourish and become more like the image of God.

It’s hard to fathom the potential impact this biblical equality could have on our divided, combative, broken world. But it’s how God intended things to be, and without a doubt it will make the church shine like a bright light in the darkness to those who have lost their way.


Half the Church Part 3 – The Trinity

I have been reading ‘Half the Church’ by Carolyn Custis James and blogging my thoughts on it. Part 1 and Part 2 are available here.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:26-7 (NIV).

When Adam was created, the job was not finished, for he was only half of a whole. Adam could not fully reflect God’s image, for he was one being, and God is not.

It’s very difficult to understand how male and female together reflect God’s image without understanding the Trinity. For God is one God, but three distinct persons, who delight in self giving love and rich mutual fellowship. One God, three distinct persons, who are perfectly aligned in purpose and work together as one. God’s vision for humanity is for us to reflect this same ‘oneness in diversity.’

When God looks at the earth and his image bearers, he wants to see himself reflected back, like a mirror. He wants to see a clear reflection of himself in us as individuals, but more importantly, in our relationships. After all, Jesus prayed for all of us that ‘they will all be one, just as you and I are, as you are in me, Father, and I am in you.’

Adam cannot reflect God’s image alone. He cannot demonstrate the crucial characteristics of a God who gives and shares and loves when he is alone. So God created someone for him.

What God created for Adam was neither superior or inferior, but an equal. One half of a polarity as the south pole is to the north pole – she will be his strongest ally in pursuing God’s purposes and his first roadblock when he veers off course.

Just as God exists as three distinct, equal persons, male and female were created to be an equal, balanced force for God’s glory in the world.

So the ideals of biblical equality, or Jesus feminism, may sound new and revolutionary, but actually go back to the garden – that things improve and better decisions are reached when men and women work together, as they were created to do.

For women, what does this life look like? If we have established that we are created to complete the reflection of God in humanity – how do we help in this task God has set humanity? This is the task we looked at in the last post, of multiplying image bearers, filling the world with God’s glory and ruling it as God’s representatives. This is a big task – the biggest task ever set. The kind of help needed for this is the full deployment of a woman’s strengths, her gifts and the best she has to offer.

To see how male and female representatives of God should interact and work with each other, we must look to the Trinity, the original design and designers. When we look to the relationships between God and Jesus and Spirit through scripture, we see a pattern of mutual submission. Where each is willing to give up their rights and serve out of selfless love. No one is reduced to a supporting role – all are vitally needed for the task at hand, to redeem humanity.

Just as all aspects of the Trinity are needed, so both male and female are crucial to the task. In this job, our first line of defense and our primary source of strength is our theology – what we knows about God. I hope I have showed that – for without understanding the Trinity, how can we understand God and how he relates and loves? Without knowing how God, the one whose image we are to reflect, relates and loves, how can we?

For even the strongest among us will not be spared dark nights of the soul. We are foolish to think we can stand firm ourselves, much less offer strength to others if we have armed ourselves with false, hollow or culture-specific theology. We need to know God better so we won’t be trying to trust a stranger when the storm comes and we are set adrift. We need to know God better so we know for ourselves the role in his kingdom we have to play, rather than accepting what is passed on through culture.

Half the Church Part 2 – Image Bearing

I have been reading ‘Half The Church’ by Carolyn Custis James and blogging my thoughts on it. Part 1 is available here. 

What does bearing God’s image in a broken world look like? What does it really look like, when life is messy and hard and you’re tired and over it? What do we do when the ‘ideal’ life presented by society and the reality  of our lives collide?

Even the church buys into the myth that we don’t live in a broken world, and seems to suggest that if we follow the formula for right Christian living, we too can have the perfect life – that marriage, children, health, home, career and money will all fall into place. Apparently a conflict free life awaits the faithful follower of Jesus, where bearing God’s image is just another thing that will sort itself out.

But the world is a mess and so are we. Yet these are circumstances in which we are called to follow Jesus and bear God’s image. So, back to the original question – what does bearing God’s image look like?

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” – Genesis 1:26-28 (NIV)

Going back to where the original command was issued, we see it is alongside the ‘be fruitful and multiply/increase in number’ instruction. God is commanding us to multiply image bearers. As his image bearers reflect his attributes – goodness, mercy, love, justice, truth and grace – and go out into the world, his glory too spreads over the earth.

Along with the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ instruction is the call to ‘rule and subdue.’ This is a call to leadership that follows the Jesus model – not grabbing authority or power for ourselves, but the self-giving, costly, servant-hearted leadership of Jesus. Ruling and subduing are strong expressions that ultimately convey the weighty responsibility on us to look after all creation on God’s behalf. God calls both men and women to to work together as compassionate, proactive leaders who look after things in this world for him.

These commands are echoed much later in the bible’s story when Jesus commissions his disciples for the task ahead – which is our task too. But it turns out this is not a new task. It is the same command God gave humanity in the beginning – go, increase the number of image bearers, spread the good news, make disciples of mine, baptize and fill the earth.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

Just as the commands to multiply image bearers and to rule the whole earth are aimed at women too, so is this commission. God never envisioned a world where his image bearers would do life in low gear or be encouraged to hold back especially when suffering is rampant, people are lost, and there is so much kingdom work to do.

It’s not overstating things to say that there are dire global repercussions if half the church backs away from Gospel work thinking it isn’t for them. For God chooses his workers, and he has chosen all his adopted children to carry out his mission of telling his good news. If we rule out anyone by holding them to our own human standards, we need to step back and remember who it is who does the Gospel work. Constantly we must remind ourselves that it is God who works through us.


Gender Equality and Mutual Submission – Part 1

I strongly believe that gender equality is a biblical principle, deeply embedded in the Gospel and in grace. Jesus came and died for sinners, for men and women, all people from all places and all times. He has created a priesthood of all believers, who are justified based on faith in Christ’s work. Not based on merits. Not based on nature. Not based on anything in us or of us, but based only on Jesus. God’s salvation does not look different for different people – this idea is not found in Scripture or based on any biblical principles.

I am not saying that without offering gender equality, the Gospel would fall flat for women or not have anything to offer to women – rather I am saying that the gospel is so good and God’s grace is so all encompassing that it makes no sense for the gospel to not offer this too. Why would Jesus come to bring grace, freedom, mercy and forgiveness of sin to all parts of our lives, every part of our hearts touched by sin, every desire to work for our own worth and salvation, and leave women behind? Why would he ask women to hold back when so many need to hear this good news?

This belief, that Jesus’ death and resurrection brings freedom from sin and a new life of grace that stretches even into how women are treated and valued, is not a new one. Women have been advocating for this theological viewpoint since before the reformation. It did not rise out of the 1960’s women’s movement – and though the events of secular feminism have stimulated discussion around women’s issues in churches, there is one key difference between what is called biblical equality, or as I call it, inspired by Sarah Bessey, Jesus feminism, and secular feminism. The difference is the biblical ethic of mutual submission.

Loving service and submission is a key theme in the bible. It is a theme often misinterpreted by those inside and outside the church. For now I will say this: loving submission is demonstrated throughout the bible as something those in positions of power do. The key example being Jesus, the ultimate authority, laying down his pride and power at the cross in loving service to us and loving submission to God.

I believe God calls us, all of us, to submit to him in a loving response to his grace. The idea of submission is one I have struggled with and I know many secular feminists will reject outright. But I strongly believe it is necessary and clear in the bible. However. In relationships between Christians now, the key must be mutual submission. This is a submission where all acknowledge that our worth comes from God, and we are all equal before him. No one can now have inherently more worth or suitability for certain roles, positions or jobs. What mutual submission looks like in practice and in life is something I am still working out. As I continue my evangelical investigation of this biblical ethic of mutual submission, I hope you will join me.