As Mother’s Day approached I had cause to think about my mother. She has spent over 50 years of her life married to a man with whom she served in various countries as a missionary. She is a type-A, perfectionist; a driver, a multi-talented woman: musician, administrator, teacher, wife, mother, and missionary-hostess with an astonishing gift of hospitality. Had she been of the mind she could have taken over as pastor of the new church starts as well. But, her ambition and superior skill-set were checked by the biblical text which she believed clearly set boundaries for women in general and wives in particular. The wife was to be her husband’s loving helpmeet (at best, the power behind, rather than upon, the throne). There was no question but that the Bible plainly reserved the authoritative leadership role in the church (pastor) to men.
Therefore, for half a century she gladly poured her energies into her home, her children, and countless guests and church members in need of counsel. The best years of her life were spent sublimating her talents (some might say) by supporting her husband’s ministry-rather than establishing and enlarging her own. When passive met aggressive in head on confrontation in our house, and sparks flew, she manifested a consistent pattern: she would graciously defer, refuse her right to be right, or get her own way, and instead, sometimes after much prayer, she would choose to seek her husband’s good. She taught her sons and daughter by example about the glory of the true feminine. It was not till later that I would come to appreciate its scandal, as well.
The precursor to post-modernity (the Enlightenment, which reached its crest in the freewheeling 60’s) set the stage for the propagation of a new kind of Jesus who espoused a new kind of Gospel. It is what Louis Markos calls “the heresy of inclusivism.” He explains that “though rarely stated so baldly, this heresy posits that at the core of Jesus’ life and teachings is a simple, non-negotiable message of absolute love, tolerance, and inclusivism that should determine every aspect of the faith. Any belief or practice that jeopardizes this message is to be rejected, even if is stated clearly in the Bible, accepted by the historic Church, and believed by nearly all Christians since the founding of the faith.” Louis Markos, Touchstone, “Creating Equal.” April, 2009, 15.
Markos takes to task one specific element of this new heresy which brazenly dismisses 2,000 years of church history. Egalitarianism is the belief that Jesus dismantled all sexually-based role distinctions in the church. It claims that He renders male and female essentially interchangeable neuters. Markos argues that this is the fruit of a Western cultural shift away from equal protection under the law to sameness mandated by law. “The focus today is not on equal creation but creating equality. . . and a projection of those values onto Jesus, the Bible and church doctrine and discipline.” (Markos, 14).
The children and grandchildren of modernity hate authority and nothing speaks of authority more emphatically than hierarchies. The assumptions upon which egalitarianism rests is that authority is suspect, laws that restrict self-expression are inherently immoral, and submitting to such restrictions is dehumanizing and shameful. Jesus, it is claimed, being the advocate, par excellence, of inclusion would never have promoted such oppression or tolerated such an injustice.
The Gospels do not support that theory. Jesus was a Man under authority—His Father’s. He submitted. He honored. He asked, bent over, listened and obeyed, perfectly. Though God of very God, though having every right to demand equality with God, He laid down His divine prerogatives, gave up His inalienable rights, and stepped down to the lowest rung of the social ladder–the position of an abject slave. Fully God yet faithful Son. Holy God yet humble Son. He gladly surrendered His rights and humbled Himself ultimately to accept His Father’s bruising and a criminal’s death.
It is a common claim that when Jesus took up the towel He was purposefully leveling the old hierarchies and ushering in a new egalitarian age. But this is a modern (or postmodern) projection into the text. During their last meal together, rather than declaring that He was tearing down distinctions of order and rank, Jesus does the opposite. He affirms that the disciples are right when they refer to Him as Teacher and as Lord. He also positively reflects on the continuing differences between servants and masters, and between messengers and those who send them. Far from flattening out social differences, He says, “A servant is not greater than his master” (Jn. 13:16). Nor, by implication, is he the same as, his master.
By stooping down with towel and basin to wash the feet of His disciples, Jesus did not dismantle hierarchies of sex or authority, as many today allege, instead He was “instituting a new type of leadership, one that loves and serves those over whom it has power and authority” rather than dominating them through coercion (Markos, 16). He was not eradicating or flattening out qualifications for leadership, He was redefining it.
The community He created to reflect and reveal Him also displays a certain order: a head with a body comprised of intricate, interdependent members with diverse gifts and functions. There is a unity with an equality of worth but a diversity of form and function. His body is not sexless: it is feminine—she is a bride—so we are told. This is why He serves as a perfect model for how husbands ought to give themselves sacrificially for their wives (Eph. 5:25). The church is not a democracy: she is governed by one Head whose authority is dispersed through a five-fold ministry (Eph. 4:11-15). She is ordered, organized and structured similarly to the rest of the sentient creation. Each member has specific and unique tasks which are not interchangeable.
Paul writes to a church struggling with issues of personal rights, value and position that while there is an equality in this new community it is not an egalitarian community (I Cor. 12:14-30). Each member is essential for the health of the whole. No one can claim preeminence or look down upon another. However, in the church Jesus has established a specific hierarchy: “first of all apostles, second prophets,” and so forth (I Cor. 12:28).
Paul’s teaching complemented perfectly that of His Master. When he declared that in Christ we are all one (Galatians 3:28), he was making the revolutionary claim that in the church no culture has primacy, no group has superior value, no sex has greater dignity. Every person, without exception, is of equal worth as humans created in God’s image and likeness. Immediately before writing those words that have become the slogan for egalitarianism, Paul places them in context: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:26-27)
The church in Galatia was in danger of accepting a false Gospel. Paul wrote a letter to warn the believers against embracing a heresy that required Gentiles to submit to certain Jewish practices as a condition for salvation. This teaching was grounded on an implicit belief in the superiority of Jewish culture and religion. It was a powerful hybrid which wedded Jewish nationalism with the apostolic Gospel. And it was utterly false.
In his letter, Paul attacks the error by countering its core premise. There is no culture or people that has preeminence, he argues. God does not play favorites. Salvation is by faith in Christ alone regardless of ethnicity (Jew of Gentile), status (slave or free), or gender (male or female). There is no culture that can impose its distinctives on another.
Paul corrects the Judaizer’s heresy by placing everyone on equal footing before the cross. All must exercise faith in Jesus and in Jesus alone. All are in need of a Savior regardless of ancestry, wealth or gender. “There is neither Jew or Gentile,” was an assertion that in Christ there is no superior culture. When he adds the words, “slave or free,” he is declaring that economic or cultural status is also of no significance in Christ. The phrase “male or female” is merely a continuation of his unrelenting assault on privilege.
By adding that final grouping Paul is declaring that gender provides no advantage or disadvantage in Christ. All are equally needy. All are saved by throwing themselves upon the mercy of Christ. Regardless of gender, all get in by squeezing through the same narrow door. These words do not abrogate sexual differences nor flatten out roles and functions in the church. Paul’s argument has nothing to do with those questions.
As it has today, apparently this teaching created some misunderstanding for Paul was forced to clarify the role of women in the church. In doing so he explained that equality in Christ does not abrogate authority or dismantle sexual distinctions. Women remained women, and men, remain men. According to Paul, Christ has not established an egalitarian system: “[T]he head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man.” And lest they conclude that this hierarchy implies inferiority of status, he quickly adds, “and the head of Christ is God” (I Cor. 11:3). Even Jesus functions under authority, he says, and there is no shame, injustice or loss of worth in His submission. Being under does not mean being less.
Paul makes clear that Christ has not come to make men and women interchangeable neuters. Certain fundamental, creational distinctives remained fixed, and are, in fact, essential. For this reason he recommends that in the church women indicate their humble recognition of the authority over them by wearing a covering (“a sign of authority”) on their head. Regardless of the continuing relevance of that practice, it is inescapable that Paul is emphasizing that in the church there remains a continuing recognition of maleness and femaleness. “One” does not mean same or interchangeable.
But what are we to make of this command? This “sign” is not a servile covering but a symbol of the woman’s glory. It harkens back to the church’s First Mother, that “highly favored one” whose glory it was to humbly declare: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). And in bowing her head, her womb became the home of the Messiah, and her body the glorious vessel through which the Savior of the world would come. It is that to which the covering hearkens—surrender, gracious acceptance of servanthood, scandal and honor. It is a weight of glory almost too heavy to bear. And it is enshrined and honored for all time in the sexually-diverse functions within the church.
The new reality of the priesthood of all believers (I Pet. 2:9) struck a blow at ecclesiastical privilege, tribal priority and pride of place. But what it clearly did not do was obliterate the various leadership roles in the community. In fact, it should be noted that Yahweh refers to the entire nation of Israel as a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6) yet reserved the actual office to Levite males. This qualification remained unchanged in the church, at least if we are to take as normative Jesus’ choice of 12 men, Paul’s criterion for the eldership, the example of the early church, and 2,000 years of apostolic tradition with its consistent emphasis on a male priesthood.
Admittedly, this is not an easy doctrine. It is not comfortable. It is culturally scandalous and personally almost embarrassing in the distinction and limitation it establishes. But, I saw its gracious beauty and power lived out before my eyes. No demand for place, position, recognition or fulfillment. Instead, the bowed head of a handmaid extolled a meekness that was stronger than iron, a quiet and gentle spirit that spoke with a soft, resounding, shattering grace. Time after time the choice was presented: demand your rights, claim your status, impose your will, exercise and express fully the dignity of your giftedness and talent. And each time the costly answer was that of Mary’s: “I am the Lord’s servant, be it unto me as you have said.”
Therein lies the glory, and there upon rests the unavoidable scandal of the true feminine. The Marian choice which imitates in advance her Lord’s refusal to grasp for the prominence and position that were ontologically His by right; who instead chose to embrace the ignominy of servanthood, but in submitting was exalted to the highest place at the right hand of the Father.
And I would not be surprised that His Mother, at her death, was exalted to His right, as well. For, I have come to believe, having been married to one for several decades, that the best places in heaven will be filled by wives and mothers; by women who chose to follow humble Mary, laying down privilege and embracing fully the glorious scandal of their vocation. Who with noble strength surrendered claims to equal rights and equal place and equal roles in obedience and confident faith. And thereby gain a crown of glory that no one can take from them.