For a while now, lots of preachers and pundits have been lamenting the feminization of the church. This begins with demographic studies that reflect a greater female participation than male, and continues with a condemnation of the broader “Omega male” culture that is giving men the permission to stay passive – and stay home on Sundays. Some prominent churches and ministries seem entirely predicated on the mission to draw men back into the fold by reinforcing “biblical” male roles and responsibilities.
Perhaps the most polarizing figure in the conversation is Mark Driscoll, who has famously declared that the culture is turning Jesus into a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” and the antidote is Jesus as “a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand, and a commitment to make someone bleed.” This leads him to the “counter-cultural” work of telling today’s men, “You’re the problem,” or perhaps screaming at them to the tune of, “How dare you!” And the proof, for him, is in the pudding of a strong, if not majority, male attendance at his megachurch’s many campuses.
Interestingly, the same anti-feminization logic leads him to callously dismiss stay-at-home dads, effeminate worship leaders, pacifists, and those with anything less than an Eternal Conscious Torment definition of hell (calling us cowards). As a recent example of the latter, see his tweet from a couple days ago:
If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell. It's not unloving to say that. It's unloving to not say that.
— Pastor Mark Driscoll (@PastorMark) January 10, 2014
St. Augustine is credited with saying, “The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”
However offensive that may come off depending on context and application, it assumes a more fundamental, and ancient, belief – that the church is a her. Throughout history, this is how theologians and church leaders have always spoken of the church, with the designation of the feminine. And when the church is assigned a personified pronoun in the New Testament, it just so happens to be a female one. Here’s Ephesians 5:25-27:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
And, lest any of us get the impression that the church is simply being used as a metaphor for godly marriage, Paul asserts that the opposite is true in verse 32: “This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Thus, it would appear that the Bible itself is mandating the feminization of the church.
One could certainly push back with the tone of subordination in this passage with regard to the feminine. That, indeed, it is all about women submitting, and so let’s get some more real men in the church! Let’s confront those Omega males and get them to pull up their pants and take some responsibility! Let’s preach hellfire and just war and manly worship leaders and stay-at-home wives! Jesus the bloodthirsty ultimate fighter obviously commands it!
But it is clear that whatever gender roles the author is promoting in marriage, it is the female role that applies to the entire church – both men and women – in reference to Christ. This is also confirmed by the other New Testament texts that use the marriage metaphor, like 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul likens the church to a virgin presented to her husband Christ, or Revelation 19 where a bride – the redeemed community – is made ready for the last-day marriage of the Lamb. There are other metaphors for the church, clearly. But lamenting the feminization of the church seems misled when the Bible seems so bent on prescribing it.
In my corner of the awkward evangelical 80′s, there was a video of a play/musical thing that started making the rounds. It was called “The Bride” and it was about the marriage metaphor of the church. In it, the church is depicted as a little girl growing up and being purified from bad behavior and prepared for her marriage to Jesus on the last day. It was, obviously, terrible (even at the time) with lots of interpretive dance, bad drama, and jazzy gospel numbers. And, it took a hyper-conservative and superficial reading of the metaphor to a kind of apocalyptic extreme, as 80′s evangelical culture was wont to do.
The same preachers and pundits who lament the feminization of the church and want us to “act like men” can still be comfortable with the marriage metaphor of the church simply because it can be read to reinforce patriarchal and gender-norming views of marriage. But I want to propose a different sort of reading, one that accepts the feminine identification of the church as an elevation of the feminine itself. And if the trajectory of gospel teaching in the New Testament is taking us not to greater human inequality, but greater human equality (as I believe it is), then this metaphor may be celebrated as the very anti-venom to the macho, domineering, violent versions of Jesus and the church’s men alike.
That is, if the church is, in fact, a her, then we may forcefully confront evangelicalism’s current proclivity toward idealizing the baser stereotypes of male behavior. And this, not because we draw on an equal and opposite stereotype (namely, women as submissive or passive or subservient), but because we find both male and female humanity summed up best in humility and mutual submission to Jesus and each other as the Bride of Christ. The church is not only a Bride – the church is also an incarnational Body and a royal kingdom Witness – but when it comes to gender, the beauty of the feminine in communion with the Divine is the only metaphor that Scripture gives us.
And for this reason, we ought to love the ecclesia effeminate. When women lead the way in bringing the church to greater humility, compassion, equality, and peace, we ought to celebrate the beauty of the Bride. When gender stereotypes fade into the background of mutual submission for the sake of realizing Jesus’s kingdom reign, we ought to delight in the foretaste of the final marriage feast where all will be one in, and with, Christ. And when we are presented with statistics that indicate more women active in the church than men, we ought to consider that what is happening is not recession but reformation – and a better church is being prepared for men who are willing to humble themselves and receive it, not harden themselves and conquer it.
It should be noted that in the older dispensation, before the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, showing us what God is truly like, the people of God, Israel, were called by a different pronoun.
But now, the church is a her:
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.
Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
With all her sons and daughters
Who, by the Master’s hand
Led through the deathly waters,
Repose in Eden land.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee:
There, past the border mountains,
Where in sweet vales the Bride
With Thee by living fountains
Forever shall abide!
The feminization of the church, indeed.