A Balanced Approach to Gender Relations – Part II

Antonio and MargoIn Part I, I stated that family life sets the stage for every other relationship.  The importance of the family has been increasingly disregarded in America over the last 60 years or so.  Progressive politics has attempted to gradually redefine what family is, and conservative politics, in an attempt to promote family stability yet remain non-offensive, has sought to encourage “family values.”  Progressives countered with the idea that family values could be maintained by society at large.  Their argument is that we can be one really big family that encourages kindness and such, and yet remove legal restraints on sexual relationships.  The reality is that when it comes to morality, you can’t encourage deviance in one area without expecting it in other areas.  Moreover, a virtuous approach to interpersonal relationships cannot be learned effectively from Society.  A solid foundation of a selfless mindset must be cultivated within a family that teaches and models love, loyalty, and sacrifice.

The mindset that the family builds is the foundation for every other relationship.  I believe this is the mentality that Paul had when he wrote his advice on marriage, and I must say, for a single guy, he had some pretty decent insight into male-female relationships.  If we read his letters with this in the back of our minds, I think we’ll find his advice on marriage easier to understand, and we’ll find that it’s less misogynistic than it sometimes sounds.

Try to picture the community of Christ’s followers in the first century AD.  They didn’t have church buildings.  They didn’t have clergy acting as the head of the religious corporation.  There is no evidence of a weekly lecture.  What we see is a group of families sharing meals, encouragement, and insight as the Spirit led.  Sometimes they sang songs.  They helped those in need.  So when Paul wrote letters to groups of believers, they were read by groups of families.  This is critical to understanding the context of Paul’s advice.  Here are a few pieces of advice from Paul that cause Christians some consternation.

The wife doesn’t have rights to her own body, but her body belongs to her husband.  -First letter to the Corinthians (Ch. 7)

I think most Christians understand this passage for what it is.  Paul then immediately states the obverse:  “The husband doesn’t have rights to his own body, but his body belongs to his wife.”  He’s basically saying that sexual relations should be reserved for married couples, and once a man and woman commit themselves to each other, they should be fully committed physically to each other.  They are now a unified couple and should not use sex as a weapon against each other.

A woman should not pray without having her head covered.  -First letter to the Corinthians (Ch. 11)

This passage is a bit tricky.  The cultural backdrop which Paul is addressing is the city of Corinth which had rejected almost all sense of restraint in sexual practice.  John Towes gives a fascinating snapshot of this culture here (excerpt below).

It must be remembered that the “head covering” in that society meant the covering of the top half of the body. To appear in public without that dress was an act of impropriety, to say the least. Such an appearance would disrupt a worship service, and such misplaced “honor” would redound to the shame of the woman’s husband. Only by covering her head could a woman be free to pray or prophesy to the glory of God alone.

Paul here calls for a differentiation in male/female appearance at worship service because first century Corinth was caught in a sexual identity crisis. Sex reversal or exchange of sex-roles was an important practice in the religions of Corinth. This sex reversal took the form of assuming the garb of the opposite sex, or some other break with customary dress, during religious observances. Paul speaks out against such blurring of sexual differentiations. It is good to be a man, and it is good to be a woman. Both need each other, and both should dress so as to sharpen rather than blur their sexual identities.

Equally significant, the veil indicated the claims of husband and home. Corinth was a major center for the cult of Dionysus. This cult encouraged women to discard their veils for religious rituals. Other elements of the ritual included drunkenness, pagan feasting, madness and promiscuity. All of these practices, it should be noted, are addressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians, and most of them in his discussion of proper church order in chapters 11-14. Paul makes the point that the veil and properly combed hair indicate the propriety of husband and home in contrast to these pagan practices.

I’m far from being a scholar, but I believe that the veil reference by Paul was a cultural phenomenon specific to the Corinthian region.  There are some Christians who disagree with me, and think that women should wear some sort of head covering today.  One of the most interesting reasons I’ve read (can’t remember where) for why women were instructed to wear a veil is that the veil was a symbol of modesty–not to keep men from lusting but to give glory to God instead of self.  Perhaps the principle Paul was trying to convey was that women, when praying in public, were not to attire themselves in such a way as to intentionally draw attention to themselves through their physical beauty.  I’m not sure if this is correct, but I thought it was an interesting principle to consider.  For those who are concerned about the supporting phrase that says “the man is the head of the woman,” you can read a good article from Paul Burleson here that addresses that.

I do not think that we should take one passage from one of Paul’s letters and build a universal doctrine for all time out of it and demand that women start wearing hats, or headscarves.  To do so, I believe, misses the point of what Paul is trying to convey.  The principle that he is presenting is valid and good advice for us today, and we’d do well to understand the principle and take it to heart.  To get caught up in symbolic minutia for its own sake is needlessly burdensome and really misses the point.

Women must learn in silence, with all submissiveness.  I won’t allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.  She must remain silent.  -First letter to Timothy (Ch. 2)

Women should be silent in the assembly, for they are not permitted to speak…. If they want to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home.  -First letter to the Corinthians (Ch. 14)

This is the big one.  When this verse is read, people immediately picture a worship service in a church.  The conclusion is that Paul is saying that women are not allowed to talk in church, and they especially aren’t allowed to be pastors (or bishops, or whatever the preferred title is for the corporate church head).  But since the Christian religion wasn’t developed when Paul wrote these letters, these passages have nothing to do with our modern, ritualistic religious ceremonies.  Because most of our modern religious practices run contrary to the teaching of Jesus, we should be looking to break free from these entanglements.  Paid clergy is one of these artificial practices that are stifling the spiritual growth of believers.  For this reason, I believe that neither women nor men should be pastors (in the modern sense).

Given the nature of the gatherings in the first century, I find it hard to believe that Paul would expect women to not speak.  Given some of Paul’s other writings where he commends several women and refers to female apostles, I think we need to take a balanced approach to the two times that he instructs women to be silent.  I’ve heard quite a few people explain this passage by saying that because girls weren’t educated in those days, Paul didn’t want uneducated people teaching the group.  I personally think this is a stretch, as he clearly expected older women to teach the younger, and he reminded Timothy of the faith of his mother and grandmother which were passed on to him.  A lack of formal education does not equate to a lack of life experience and wisdom.

A friend of mine offered this unique perspective on the issue.  Picture a handful of families gathered together, discussing the teachings of Jesus and how those teachings applied to their culture and personal lives.  If a woman asked another woman’s husband for some specific advice on an issue, it might appear as if she were denigrating her husband in front of the group.  It would be preferable to discuss the issue with her husband at home.  In the same vein, when men discuss an issue, if one says something incorrect, another can correct him and generally, the correction is accepted and life goes on with no drama.  If a woman were to start teaching and said something incorrect, another woman’s husband would likely be reluctant to correct her in front of her husband.  I’m not sure if this view is what was driving Paul’s words, but it makes a lot of sense.  If this view is correct, then Paul’s advice isn’t due to a lack of education or knowledge or a difference in rank or equality.  It’s due to respecting the differences in the psychological makeup of men and women.  I’ve been a part of a small fellowship of believers in which women participated in the discussion.  We all treated each other with respect, and there was no drama that disrupted the fellowship.

Again, I would advise that we operate with a sense of deliberation before declaring “God commanded that women shouldn’t talk in church.”  I don’t think that wives should be treated like children by their husbands, nor do I think that is what Paul was advocating.  Even if he were, I would be cautious about blindly following that advice when it goes against the way God wants men to treat women.  I would also advise that we not write off Paul’s advice entirely, because there is a lot of wisdom and insight to be found in his words.

Let me share a bit of insight into the male mind from my own personal experience.  I’m being pretty transparent here, so please don’t destroy me for being honest.  I was in the gym recently, and near me was a group of two guys and one girl.  The girl was teaching the guys how to properly perform a bench press, and after overhearing several lengthy lectures about proper weightlifting technique, I found myself getting annoyed.  I realized that what I found irritating was that two men had to be instructed by a woman on something that is typically a “male” thing.  To be in that position can feel like a mark against one’s manhood.  Do I struggle with my ego?  Yes, I do.  Should I be willing to learn from anyone?  Yes, I should, and I’ve learned significant lessons from women.  But this silly story illustrates a typical male mindset that I think Paul recognized.  Women, especially when gathering with other believers, should be careful not to undercut a man’s masculinity–especially in front of a group.  Which leads us to our last troublesome instruction…

Wives submit to your husbands.  -Letter to the Colossians (Ch. 3)

Paul repeats this phrase in a few other locations, and Peter says something similar.

First, notice that this instruction is immediately followed by an instruction to husbands to love their wives.  Again, I don’t believe that a woman should be treated like a child, nor do I think that a man should be The Boss.  Looking at this instruction through a psychological lens might shed some light on male-female interpersonal dynamics.  If a woman wants to influence a man, she can do so much more effectively by using a feminine approach than by trying to “out-masculine” a man, which would always be perceived as threatening and demeaning.  This approach essentially requires the woman to subordinate her desire to get her point across to her desire to effectively persuade her husband for his good.

Again, I’m not sure if this cuts to the heart of what Paul was saying, but it makes the passage make more sense to me.  I do know that God created men and women equal.  He also created them differently for a reason, because together, we’re better than we would be without each other.   This article addressed verses relating to women, but if husbands followed Paul’s advice on how men should treat their wives, much of the friction we experience would likely never develop in the first place.

Men and women have significant psychological differences, and when we recognize these differences and try to understand them, we will get along much better with each other and accomplish more together.  As always, we should each be seeking the good of the other.  God wants to bring healing to this world.  We can be a part of that healing, and having an unselfish and deferential attitude toward each other is a good place to start.

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