Evangelicals, Emergents, & the Gender/Power Issue, Pt. 2

BLDGWLF

In the first post, I promised two suggestions and two questions, and I’ll get to those straight away.

But first, who invited Don?

There is no better pop-culture commentary on issues of gender and power than the popular AMC show Mad Men. In fact, it’s the undercurrent that makes the storyline so compelling. There is the thin, always well-dressed and attractive veneer of “traditional” relationships between men and women, women taking the decidedly subservient role to the working (m)ad men. They look pretty and act polite and classy while the men look handsome and act smart. Wives make the home while secretaries do whatever their bosses tell them to, absorbing incessant come-ons and sexist one-liners.

But under the surface of all the great fashion and cool personas, there is a battle raging inside these characters, and it is a battle for their own humanity. The power structures in place hide a much more complicated power struggle, and it threatens to destroy all of them from the inside out.

Mad Men is, in a word, a look at the effects of empire among human beings.

As I continue with this proposal – which is, again, not intended to be a final word on the subject, as I am not an expert in it – it is important to note that empire, really, is the problem. Empire – the selfish condition of the heart that leads people to desire and wield power and control over other human beings for inherently selfish purposes – is the enemy in our sights. It is not the Christian group in question (complementarian or emergent), but the way in which empire is influencing that group, that is the real issue (as it was in Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees, etc.).

And here, particularly, is where I think the radical evangelical way offers a compelling vision.

Now, two suggestions.

Suggestion 1: Be Rooted in Gospel

While I am aware that emergent folks may push back on this (and that’s welcome), part of the difficulty I’ve observed in their processing issues like this one is the inability to lean on a solid biblical position. In other words, because of the deconstructive posture toward scripture that characterizes the emergent stream, deciding things like this on the basis of Bible and gospel is typically not an option, at least not ultimately.

Yet, we know that evangelical complementarians (or outright fundamentalists) have no qualms with getting biblical when it comes to gender roles. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood organizes around the very act of citing scripture to counter egalitarian/feminist influence in church and culture. This is the classically evangelical thing to do. But I’m suggesting that it is not the act of leaning on scripture, so much as the evangelical complementarian theology itself, that is wrong.

This is where an evangelical (or, post-evangelical) way forward may present something extremely valuable – if it is patterned after a missional, anabaptist, radical theology.

Both Stan Grenz & Roger Olson have been helpful in boiling the evangelical ethos down to a “convertive piety” rooted in the Puritan and Pietist movements in Protestantism (lotsa P’s). Scot McKnight has further defined an evangelical in these famous four beliefs: 1) authority of scripture, 2) atoning death of Jesus, 3) personal conversion (mainly to 1 & 2), and 4) evangelism and good works in society. Finally, Dave Fitch outlines the three “master signifiers” which currently define evangelicalism’s empty politic: 1) inerrant Bible, 2) decision for Christ, and 3) Christian nation.

Taken together, what is good about evangelicalism can also become what is bad about it. Conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals have an ideology of biblical inerrancy and conversion that becomes dangerous and hypocritical. But a core reliance on scriptural authority, and a pietistic decision to passionately follow the Jesus of the scriptures, are good – very good. I believe the radical, anabaptist evangelical way brings us to this good core ethos, for these two reasons:

  1. It calls us to a confident and passionate devotion to the way of Jesus (the gospel!) in the New Testament, specifically his emphasis on nonviolence/peace, neighbor/enemy love, and social justice as the standard for life in Christian community and life in the world (sermon the mount, etc.). This is a fundamentally egalitarian/just way, to be evidenced first and foremost in Christian homes/marriages, then in community life, neighborly life, etc.
  2. It calls us to a confident and passionate devotion to the subversive, kingdom gospel over against empire, that pervades the NT (including Paul’s epistles, if taken in fresh perspective). This subversive gospel is specifically aimed at the way humans use and abuse power. And even though there are clear cultural power structures still in play in the first century paradigm in which the NT was written (for instance, giving us gender roles in Paul that must be deconstructed), there are yet far more powerful gospel pronouncements like…

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3).

&…

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5).

&…

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6).

& most importantly…

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2).

This suggestion to be rooted in gospel, confidently and passionately, may provide the necessary “force” to confront the unseen ways that male power and privilege operate in church communities and in the Christian movement in general. In this way, there is a decidedly Christian answer to the issue of gender and power – one that confirms the freedom and full humanity of our sisters in the Body, and witnesses of the same to the watching world (engaging the Beyonce effect).

Suggestion 2: Be Fundamentally Non-Institutional

This suggestion will be much shorter, but the radical evangelical way, with its subversive gospel, has the potential to be fundamentally non-institutional. While both the conservative complementarian and progressive emergent options seem at times all-too-steeped in institutional hierarchy (which always skews male and produces a privileged male paradigm), the radical way seeks to bring all (especially men with power?) under submission to Christ and each other in the community. While institutions and organizations are inevitable across the board, institutionalism is not inevitable.

Likewise, this radical gospel demands that we see things in terms of ideology not just issues. What are the powerful ideologies that we have accepted from the church or culture which then inform our view on the issues themselves? Where are the powers hidden in “heavenly places”? Etc.

Again, to decide on this ethos is part of that convertive piety – coming to a decisive realization that Jesus is Lord and Caesar (or Caiaphas) is not, and therefore all power is brought into subjection to the Spirit of Jesus in the community of faith. And committing one’s life to the reign of God. Similar to the matter of organizations, this is not a denial of the need for leadership, either; but a necessarily diverse, power-distributed, polycentric structure for leadership, that humbly equips the congregation, is not optional.

Finally, two questions.

Anabaptists: Are There Barriers to This Work?

Because I am by no means an expert on historic anabaptist ecclesiology, sociology, and polity, my question is whether there may be significant issues in this stream historically that would hinder the work of dismantling oppressive male power and privilege.

For instance, I don’t think it is possible, in any evangelical/biblical framework, to escape the gender distinction inherent in the Christian creation narrative and NT social narrative. In other words, a degendered philosophy would be difficult indeed to sustain scripturally. But short of degendering the conversation, what barriers might need to be removed in historic anabaptist thought and practice?

Feminists: What More is Needed?

To Christian feminists especially, I ask, Is this enough in your perspective? Do you think that a radical evangelical way, as presented, might offer more than the conservative and emergent options? If not, what more is needed?

I leave you with this comment in the first post from Amy:

Enter a core idea of the Anabaptist ā€“ nonviolence. No power issues will be solved without a fundamental position of non-violence and a radical commitment to a radical hospitality towards each other as human beings. Iā€™m not sure this is so much an issue of gender/power, as it is just power. It just happens to be viewed through gender issues right now because its one of the most obvious places to see it. No matter what reproductive organs you have, this is a heart issue.

Like Amy’s, everyone’s comments thus far have been amazing. Looking forward to further input!

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • Morgan Guyton

    Thanks for this, Zach! Nonviolence is the key. To some degree without violence overt or sublimated, there is no power as the world understands it so much of the remaining discussion becomes moot.

    • http://zhoag.com Zach

      Totally. Well put.

  • http://Www.beckygarrison.com Becky Garrison

    A key mantra one heard from the emergents in this last fight was that academic rigor should trump diversity, a comment that assumes we can only learn from those we deem to be our equals, as well as dismissing the reams of kick ass scholarship coming from those who aren’t descended from dead European white dudes.

    Here’s what changed me as LGBT ally – I was challenged to quit talking about all I had done as an ally and sit back and really listen and learn. It was very uncomfortable at times to put myself in positions where I am in the minority in terms of my skin color, sexual orientation or gender identity and allow others to educate me. But that’s where I could see signs of transformative change and real education.

    • http://zhoag.com Zach

      I was surprised by that as well. There was a level of defensiveness that I wasn’t expecting. Thanks for putting more words to this.

  • http://braidplain.wordpress.com Erin

    Great couple of posts, Zach. think it’s fascinating that what you and many Anabaptists are taking about when using the word ‘empire’ is what feminist writers are getting at with the word ‘patriarchy:’ power and its abuse, at national, institutional and smaller social levels. Even as a feminist myself, I think that empire can be a more helpful term sometimes. Patriarchy immediately conjures an image of a tyrannical male head-of-household – but it doesn’t go far enough in addressing oppression in larger political contexts, or with the nuances of race, sexuality, etc.

    Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza prefers the term ‘kyriarchy’ from the greek ‘kurios’ or ‘lord’ – which I think is approaching the same idea of empire that you talk about here. When lordly exercise of power (and usually, therefore, violence) becomes the model by which we do our social relationships or construct our societies, everybody ends up losing.

    • http://zhoag.com Zach

      Thanks Erin, agreed. Empire is compelling for me also because it transcends gender categories – it’s a bigger issue that affects everyone. Helps to avoid power struggles and realize that selfish power in itself is the problem. Appreciate the feedback!


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