Gender differences, the Bible, the church, preaching, cultural forms and the workplace

There has been some heated discussion in response to a sermon by Carmelina Reid and a video segment at the recent Equip Women's Conference in Sydney. Two big points of contention were 1) the relevance of 1Corinthians 11 to appropriate Christian women's hair length today and 2) whether the Bible teaching about Eve being created to be a 'helper' to Adam should somehow affect the way women conduct themselves in the workplace. Seeing some of the reactions on Facebook, it seems to me that quite a few issues are raised here, that are worth exploring:

  1. We need to be careful, in a reaction against particular Bible teacher, that we aren't reacting against the Bible itself... or endorsing a unteachable heart in response to the Bible itself. In some of the reactions to the 1Corinthians 11 exposition, it seemed hard to distinguish how much people were reacting to the apostle Paul himself, and how much to Carmelina's exposition of his teaching. In a sense, the fact that God HAD said that hair length was at one time an appropriate expression of godliness should measure our reaction to what it may or may not mean for us today. For others some of the reaction, I suspect, would encourage a removed attitude to the Bible: if I don't like the sound of what it says, I should feed that intuitive reaction, rather than suspend it to be open to being changed by God's word.
  2. Love for our brothers and sisters in Christ should be preserved wherever possible when we disagree. This is hard when we strongly, emotionally disagree with someone else, especially when they are in a position of power or influence and we feel judged or rejected by them. There's nothing wrong with disagreeing strongly with each other. But something goes wrong if we drift quickly into a stance of anger, condescension, sneering and mockery. There might be points where we disagree so significantly that we cannot find a way to speak about the beliefs and teaching of others without being stern or satirical in the way we describe their views. But we need to be slow to get there.
  3. It is honest and respectful to acknowledge those secondary (and beyond) things where Christians differ. It's right to recognise that there are some points of doctrine and some passages of Scripture that Christians disagree on. This is a gesture of love to our brothers and sisters, recognising that they exist and their convictions are sincere and are that they are still loved in Christ. This is also an admission of humility too: we might be the one who is wrong! It is a helpful signpost to the fact that we might possibly be approaching an area of biblical teaching that is less clear. The amount of acknowledging we do differs depending on the context we are in: a local church, a conference for a parachurch with a tight doctrinal basis or a broader non-denominational event.
  4. We need to preserve confidence in clarity meaningfulness of the Bible and the importance of doctrine. When it comes to these passages we need to be clear whether these points of disagreement are of primary, secondary or tertiary (or further down the list) importance. Saying that something is of tertiary importance doesn't mean it doesn't matter, and doesn't have consequences, but it does mean that it is not fundamental to genuine Christian belief. And admitting that genuine Christians disagree does not mean that Scripture is without meaning, or that this meaning might not be grasped more clearly. We need to accept fellow believers with whom we differ, but that is not the same as somehow celebrating that different doctrinal convictions are equally good. And we need to recognise when we come to points where Christians might differ, while still having confidence to make a strong case for our understanding of the text.
  5. Public preaching and teaching needs to be clear on how it relates to official instruction. Whether teaching in a church gathering or an inter-denominational conference, the public teachers need to give some thought to what relationship their teaching has to the official position of the church or parachurch. In some contexts, I might not comment on something like the baptism of infants in depth because of the interdenominational platform—the teaching would be different in a local church.
  6. Preachers and listeners need to be aware of the nature and limitations of public preaching and teaching. Public teaching necessarily will be incomplete and imbalanced in some way. We can't say absolutely everything in a way that will be fairly heard by every possible person. In fact in order to be persausive and clear we may even deliberate be incomplete and imbalanced so that one truth might cut through. Recognising this risk, however, should make preachers aware of the need for care and nuance, to limit unnecessary trouble. But those of us who are listening to preaching need to work on careful and nuanced hearing. We need to strive to travel with the teacher, strive to grasp what they are trying to say, however imperfectly. We need to do some work in filling in the discliamers and balancing ideas. Rather than reacting to what we think we've heard, we should first ask what they thought they were saying.
  7. Cultural expression is a secondary, but still significant concern for biblical ethics. God looks at the heart, not merely the outward appearance. But this doesn't mean that cultural expression is irrelevant to Christian ethics. We communicate things through cultural and we live together in culture, unavoidably. We have to figure out how to love with the externals of words and actions and dress. Whatever we might think about the appropriate application of 1Corinthians 11 today, clearly the text is saying that some kind of cultural expression (head coverings and hair) is important on some level for Christian conduct.
  8. Appropriate cultural expression becomes harder in diverse communities with little agreed upon shared cultural norms. This challenge in applying 1Corinthians 11, or other biblical teachings that are connected with cultural expression, is that we live in a very diverse cultural context. More than that, we live in a cultural context that has increasingly resisted any kind of shared, civic culture. There are very few things that we agree upon as a kind of mediating 'lingua franca' for cultural behaviour. As a result, we must be much more open in our encouragements to culturally appropriate behaviour. Not only should we say 'this might mean this is the godly way to behave' but we need to also affirm 'but also it might not be this at all, but something else'.
  9.  More clarity would be helpful among complementarians, about the difference between biblical commands about gender difference and general inclinations and cultural norms arising from gender differences. It is important to observe that the explicit Bible teaching on gender roles is applied to marriage and the official teaching leadership of the local church. Because of this, many insist that we must restrict application of these principles to these contexts only: not to any other area of Christian ministry, let alone broader men-women relationships or secular work patterns. I largely agree with this. However, the danger with this approach is to make these instructions fairly arbitrary, and disconnected from anything in the created nature of men and women. So I have sympathy for those complementarians who want to explore how the Bible's teaching on the differences between men and women affect other areas of life: we don't stop being men and women when we step outside of the church. The problem comes, I believe, when these more global applications become commands (or very strong encouragements). If, as the Bible teaches, men and women are different and were created to be different, we might expect there to be generalisations about what many women are like and what many men are like. We might expect there to be behaviours that can be described as more 'masculine' and 'feminine', more 'paternal' and more 'maternal'. This in itself is fine. But to say that all men must be masculine and paternal (or that all women must be feminine and maternal) according to a narrow pattern, is going too far. We can recognise these tendencies and the underlying gender differences that might feed into them, without mandating them. We should still make space for men to be more feminine and maternal and women to be more masculine and paternal, without passing judgement.
  10. Nothing much constructive comes from discussing whether 'feminism' is good or not. As a term it now gets used in so many ways, to describe so many different ideas that sometimes contradict each other. It is no longer possible to say in a simple way that 'feminism is good' or 'feminism is bad'. Which feminism? Which bits? For those who want to critique feminism, it seems to me that it is no longer effective or persuasive to make blanket statements about 'feminism'. By all means critique particular feminist thinkers or particular branches of feminism. But to make global statements about 'feminism' is unconstructive, it seems to me. Likewise, to insist that everyone must adopt the label 'feminist' in order to be a good person is an odd linguistic legalism.
  11. Save the outrage for when it's really needed. If everything is outrageous, nothing is outrageous. If everything is outrageous, nothing is good. Perhaps if the sermon and video content from Equip made strong, unequivocal negative statements like "You cannot ever be a godly Christian and have short hair" or "Christian women only work in the secular workplace to make men shine and nothing more", this might be different. But if someone simply arrives at different conclusions to you, within the realms of Christian orthodoxy, and expresses them in an unnuanced way: is this worthy of outrage? Of walking out in protest? Of publishing a critique not merely on a personal blog or Facebook Page, but in a public newspaper, that itself is watched by the wider media? We live in a culture that escalates very quickly, when hot topics come up. It would be a peculiar honour to us Christians in this particular social context if we were quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Be dismayed, confused, annoyed, critical. But resist the urge of outrage unless really neeed.

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