What if the ambiguity at the root of the women’s-ministry debate is not accidental but God-inspired?

R. PAUL STEVENSR. Paul Stevens is associate professor of applied theology at Carey Theological College and academic dean at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and is the author of many books.

Competent biblical scholars line up on both sides of the women’s-ministry debate. Some defend what they call parity of the sexes at home and in the church; others defend distinctive roles and governmental differences between men and women. Both groups claim the authority of the Bible.

It is a frustrating situation. The debate seems to have hit an impasse, with many people “solving” the problem by finding churches where everyone already agrees with their position. To me, this seemed to be less than ideal. And yet what were the alternatives? I did not want merely to add my voice to the polemical chorus. And then I had a thought: What if the ambiguity at the root of these differences is not accidental but God-inspired?

When Both Sides Are Right

Let’s summarize the arguments for each side. On the one hand, the Bible teaches radical sexual equality in creation and in Christ as illustrated by the following observations:

• Both sexes are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–28).

• Full side-by-side complementarity of the sexes is God’s intended plan (Gen. 2:18–25).

• In Christ, the curse experienced by males and females is substantially reversed. Instead of the politics of rule and revolt (Gen. 3:16) in the home, there is the grace of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21–33).

• Males and females enjoy full equality in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

• Men and women are joint heirs of the spiritual gifts and coleaders of God’s people under the New Covenant (1 Cor. 12:1–31; Rom. 12:3–8; Eph. 4:11–16; Acts 2:17–18).

So the advocates of female equality and interchangeable ministries seem to have the Bible on their side. But so do those who insist that sexual differences are entrenched in creation itself and exalted by Christ. Here is another sampling of observations:

• The physical constitution of each sex suggests there are profound differences in both psychology and spirituality, differences that are incarnated in the norms and traditions of every culture and have profound implications for our spiritualities (Gen. 2:18–25).

• The apostle Paul finds in the creation of woman from man (1 Cor. 11:8), for man (11:9), and after man (1 Tim. 2:13) an argument for some kind of male priority, not merely in his culture, but in creation itself.

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• Three corrective passages in Scripture insist that sexual distinctions be made in ministry (1 Cor. 11:2–16; 14:34–36; 1 Tim. 2:11–15).

• The husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church (Eph. 5:21–33).

• The Bible is rich in feminine imagery of God (e.g., Pss. 22:9; 36:8; 123:2), but there is not a single verse where we are exhorted or encouraged to call God Mother. To speak of God as Father is fundamental to biblical faith.

Thus Scripture presents us with seemingly irreconcilable truths. So how can we resolve the bind in which this leaves us?

Two Genders, One Image

Evangelicals typically approach issues rationally and systematically. Arguments for and against the ordination of women as presbyters have been made in this mode. But while proponents believe they have God’s view of the matter, their viewpoint brings with it certain unconfessed presuppositions—namely, that the fundamental truths in Scripture can be systematized, which will then eliminate all paradoxes and yield unequivocal answers.

I am proposing an alternative method—the “contemplative” approach. This approach views the ambiguity of Scripture as a pointer to God, an indicator of truths so great that they can only be seen in full from God-height. A contemplative view takes seriously the fact that the Bible is more often historical than abstract, more often narrative and metaphorical than systematic. A contemplative approach welcomes the mystery of male and female as an occasion of worship rather than of debate.

Now, how will this approach shed light on the issue at hand? My belief is that such “contemplation” provides a clue to the resolution of the bind in which Scripture seemingly places us. If humankind—male and female—is a social metaphor of God himself, then we must relate the mystery of sexuality to the mystery of God himself.

Our starting point for recovering the mystery is Genesis 1:27: “In the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.” Humankind is an icon of God, an artistic expression of God’s own personhood. In considering our birthright as God’s own image, we must go beyond the biology, psychology, and sociology of sex and explore its spirituality.

That we are made in God’s image is not merely a supreme compliment. Rather, we are called to trust in the One who chose to reveal himself through his masterpiece. God thought us up as a work of art for his own glory. Even though we are a scarred and twisted representation because of sin, we are constitutionally both a symbol and a metaphor of the Creator: symbol in the sense of a visual representation of a transcendent truth; metaphor in the sense of a word picture that evokes a deep but otherwise elusive truth.

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This metaphor is a social metaphor. God created a man and a woman in order that their cleaving would be evocative of life in God. The English word sex comes from the Latin secare, which means “to cut or to divide.” The male by himself is incapable of being the full image of God: it takes both sexes in relationship to each other. Male and female are together the image of God. Godlikeness is a social reality. True spirituality is social, interpersonal.

The longing to be sexually reunited is a call to worship. The first purpose of creating a two-sexed human creature was not merely to accomplish procreation, nor even to bless covenant companions with the delights of sex play. Both are good in themselves, but they are meant to be encompassed within our greater sexuality—that active imaging of God that is social and communal at every level. Whether we marry or remain single, sexuality is designed to turn us Godward, to make us prayerful, and to evoke our faith.

When we follow our culture and reduce sexuality to a physical act, we lose sight of its proper goal. Much contemporary biblical scholarship, also, seems determined either to reduce our sexual identities to roles and hierarchies that require no faith, or to dissolve the mystery into egalitarian togetherness with no differences except for the genitals.

Two Into One

A mystery takes us beyond normal categories to explore incomprehensible facts. Such realities are often appreciated more through worship than reason. The mystery of sexuality, the mystery of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32), and the mystery of Jew and Gentile in a new humanity (Eph. 3:10; 2:11–22) are three biblical mysteries that point us Godward to the transcendent unity within God himself (Eph. 4:4–6). We stand under and worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in whose image we are made male and female.

Theological parallels for androgyny (the merging of the sexes) include Islamic monotheism and Unitarianism. The unity in each case results in an abstraction rather than a person. A Muslim does not call God “Abba.” Perhaps the ultimate irony in the history of religions is that, far from proclaiming tritheism, the Christian church humbly confesses the deepest truth of the Muslim creed: one God. And we do this by insisting that we have come to know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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The Orthodox church has best understood the awesome beauty of the Trinity. While the Western church, beginning with Augustine, started with the philosophical notion of the unity of the Godhead and then attempted to explain the differences of the persons, the Eastern church started with the apostolic witness and the church’s experience of three divine persons, and then explored, as an act of worship, the marvelous unity within the Godhead.

Orthodox theologian Tomas Spidlik notes that “only the Christian revelation teaches the highest and most intense union as embracing that which in the finite realm divides and is a principle of division: the personality.” In other words, God is more one because he is three.

If humankind is an artistic expression of God’s personhood, then we will be more one because we are two. And we discover that unity not primarily through the physical embrace, but by experiencing God. According to Orthodox spirituality, Christian experience is neither more nor less than participating in the mutual love, order, and interdependence of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Fellowship is not camaraderie or likemindedness. It is the mystery of God replicated, albeit imperfectly, in the mystery of the church, the mystery of marriage, and the mystery of sexuality.

When Christ prayed that “they may be one as we are” (John 17:11, 25–26), he was not merely praying that individual believers would be united with God, but that believers would participate in the unity of the Trinity while they experience communion with one another. If this is the one community on Earth that claims to bear the image of the triune God, then we should not cheapen this mystery either by unisexing the church or by compartmentalizing the sexes (women ministering to women and men to both men and women).

Becoming What We Worship

An axiom of the spiritual life is that we become what we worship. Idol worshipers become fixed and inexpressive like their gods. Trinity worshipers become celebrators of community and sexual cohumanity. If man (male and female) is created in the image of God, and if both the marriage couple and the church are a mystery of Christ, then we discover our true sexuality through a worshipful imitation of our triune God in the living out of our lives.

The full emancipation of the sexes in the last analysis calls for a spiritual, more than a psychosocial or political, solution. Just as sexual perversions are not mainly matters of biology or psychology but reflect misdirected contemplation (Rom. 1:18–32), sexual health is primarily an issue of faith, of correct worship, of orthodoxy. We become like the God we worship. Prayer is more important than politics in bringing peace to the battle of the sexes.

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Followers of Jesus can make a unique contribution in healing the confusion of the sexes. We do this by welcoming the liberation of women and men, and simultaneously by refusing to undermine sexual distinctives. We proudly proclaim that women’s liberation really started with the Virgin Mary, who was accorded the highest honor ever given, that of being the Christ-bearer. We gladly exonerate the much-maligned apostle Paul, who insisted that women were not second-class citizens.

At the same time, the church has a special contribution in prizing the difference. We should resist the unisexing of everything, including, if not especially, the unisexing of marriage partners and the unisexing of church ministries, whether through androgyny or restrictive roles. Positively put, we should equip the saints to welcome the mystery of male and female as a path to God. That is what a comtemplative approach to sexuality offers.

Shared Ministry

So what does a contemplative approach have to say to the issue of women in ministry?

First we must go back to the much-repeated arguments of C. S. Lewis. Unfortunately, he chose to shortchange ministry by insisting on exclusively male leadership. His argument goes like this: “Only a man in a masculine uniform can represent God to the church, since the church is essentially feminine to God.”

But his argument is curiously reversible. If only men in a masculine uniform can be in church leadership because church leaders represent God to the church, then, it could be argued, only women in feminine uniforms should be in church leadership since they represent the church to God by offering sacrifices of praise and worship. If the church is the bride and Christ is the groom, then the ministers and those appointed to act on behalf of the church must all be women!

These are the sorts of odd permutations that occur when one tries to systematize what was not meant to be systematized. Is it not more faithful to biblical theology and more fruitful for biblical worship for men and women to serve together in partnership? Would this not more fully reflect God’s glory? The church must live out the unity and diversity of God’s image incarnationally, by allowing men and women in all their sexual distinctiveness to share completely as partners in ministry, rather than by institutionalizing gender-restricted roles.

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The failure to equip the church for such partnership has been disastrous. Men who serve in public ministry often seem to develop an unnatural femininity in order fully to encompass the complete ministry of the church. Some women who have successfully broken into the male world of public ministry have succeeded only by adopting a masculine bearing. Is it not better for men to be men and women to be women in ministry and leadership?

The church has been neutered by the restriction of ministry roles to given genders, and by the resulting androgyny of her ministers. Speaking to this sexual poverty, Jean Vanier notes,

I am convinced that our society desperately needs the reconciliation of men and women in order to build community together.… Women, for the most part, exercise authority differently from men, neither better nor worse. At certain times in the history of a community, it might be better to have a man carrying the responsibility; at other times a woman. The essential is that neither exercises authority alone. Woman has a need to lean on a man, and a man on a woman.

What is needed is a ministry that prizes the shared contribution of both sexes. There is a divine synergy in this. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. This is also true in marriage.

Contemplating Marriage

A contemplative perspective also helps us with some of the thorny issues surrounding the state of marriage today. Christians should resist the reduction of husband and wife to mere spouses. But they should also refuse to reduce the experience of being husband and wife to stereotyped job descriptions.

The Bible insists on mystery at the heart of what it means to be a couple—and so a contemplative approach is called for. Ephesians 5:21–33 describes the spirit, the shape, and the reason for mutual submission of husband and wife, but it does not define roles. There is only one New Testament reference to how husbands and wives are to make decisions, and that is mutually (1 Cor. 7:5). The husband is never given the mandate to make decisions for the wife. Nor is he accountable to God for her spirituality.

I believe there is an inspired reason for the silence of Scripture on the question of marriage roles. We are invited to write our own play, knowing the plot line, how the play ends (with the marriage supper of the Lamb), and why we are playing our parts. Knowing that every marriage is a mystery play in which we write our own lines gives us permission to function in marriage according to our unique God-given personalities and gifts. The alternative is to put on lifeless masks and perform according to someone else’s script.

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At the same time, living out the mystery at home requires a husband and wife, rather than two “spouses.” Part of a contemplative approach to marriage is welcoming male headship. According to Scripture, headship is priority within a relationship of equals—not the hierarchical rule of the male, but a loving sacrificial leadership. Headship means a priority in honor, in nurturing, loving, and building the relationship. Marriage’s mystery is that there is greater unity because there is differentiation, and the union itself is a path to God.

In each of three inspired mysteries mentioned in Scripture, there is a priority within the relationship: In the mystery of Christ and the church, Christ precedes the church, leads the church, and is the source of the church’s continuing life. In the mystery of Jew and Gentile in Christ, salvation is first for the Jews (Rom. 1:16). In the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father has priority in relationship to the Son and the Spirit (John 10:29–30).

Having priority in a relationship of equals is not intrinsically bad. Nor is submission. In Jesus, God took subordination into himself. If, as Orthodox believers assert, becoming a Christian is to be taken by the Spirit into the actual relationship Jesus has with the Father, then headship in marriage is beautiful. There is order, structure, and priority within the Godhead; there should be in our homes.

This is a profound mystery, Paul says, but it concerns Christ and the church. Throughout Ephesians 5:21–33, Paul is not interested primarily in male leadership, female capitulation, or even mutual submission. His focus is on Christ: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). “Wives, submit … as to the Lord” (5:22). “Husbands, love … as Christ” (5:25). “I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:32). He is both the recipient and inspiration of the daily marital ministry of our spouses.

Bow And String

Marriage, however, is not a prerequisite for being sexually whole or for experiencing sexuality. The family of God is the normal environment for any of us to experience gender spirituality and a rich contemplative life. Married or single, we are not only male and female sexually but also spiritually.

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The church will be enriched by prizing the distinctive spiritualities of men and women rather than merging them. This ought to happen by living day in and day out in family and church with the other sex. Each is the outer (physical) and the inner (spiritual) complement of the other. Each helps the other more completely to resemble and express the image of God himself. Each by himself or herself is less than the image of God. Together they are more than the sum of two human beings. C. S. Lewis uses the analogy of the violin bow and the string. Both are needed to make one sound. Such is the mystery of sexuality.

Outside of God there is no unity, only dull uniformity or lifeless mergers. But God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has made us in his image male and female so we would find him and be found by him together.

The deepest issues of our life in Christ resist reduction to manageable ideas or stereotyped roles. Biblical teaching is often ambiguous in just these areas. Hence we find ourselves living with tensions individually, maritally, and in the church. These tensions can generate friction and frustration. Or they can be resolved by an artificial choice to live out only one side of the biblical witness.

Alternatively, the tension can be embraced in a contemplative manner. The ambiguity can be seen as pointing to a God-sized issue. The tension can be lived out experientially, incarnationally, by a joyous attention and submission to the triune God who uniquely loves and addresses each individual, marriage, and church, while remaining “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).

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