Gender mess

Gender mess July 23, 2012

“It is not so much compromise that is called for but a greater wisdom and vision.”

Years ago, I heard this wisdom from the famous evangelical preacher, Chuck Swindoll: ”Creativity is messy.”

He was right: almost all creativity, from a first draft of a novel to finger-paint to sex, is messy.

It involves differences and distinctions as well as sameness and connections.  In Genesis 1, God separated this and that and gathered the other to make our earth.

So, it is no surprise that such messy creative tension is woven into the community of the people of God; the most basic element of that creative tension being male/female difference and equality.

Some of you have likely been tuned into all the conversation about gender last week on the web. This Christianity Today blog-post offers a bit of a summary.

If you want to read from the conversing sources more directly, read this from Rachel Held Evans and Jared Wilson whose blog sparked the exchange.

What a mess!  The pain of it all makes me want to disengage, to throw my hands up and say, “Forget it. It is too hard, too hurtful, too messy to stay in the conversation.” It makes my head hurt to try to sort through it all and maintain some sense of personal openness to all the sincere voices involved. Bravo to Rachel and to Jared for hanging in there… and in public no less!

When I look at Scripture, I’m not sure it gets any easier. It seems that God’s ideal is to maximize gender difference and to maximize gender equality. Not an easy task. No simple, quick solutions here.  Not either-or, but both-and. It’s a really messy proposition and very hard to describe.

Oddly, the passage of Scripture I often reference internally is one that is seldom talked about: Genesis 17.  This is the conversation between God and Abraham when God specifies that Sarah will be the mother to the promised child; a free woman, an equal partner and joint heir in the covenant. This is how I wrote about it in The Feminine Soul.

“God’s dual invitation

God was not blind to the events of chapter 16 (Sarai casting out Hagar) when God made this promise to Sarai.  Sarai was not perfect, she was chosen, invited to be a part of God’s plan to grow a nation.  Even as she spoke for the first time in the previous chapter, so, now God addressed her specifically for the first time.  God made it clear that this long awaited child of promise would be her son, too.  She, too, was renamed.  She, too, was blessed.

God preserved Sarai’s place in the promise in the midst of her lost hope and vision.  God has done the same for us also as women in the church who struggle even now to find and own our place in God’s story.  Listen well, oh Sarai’s of the church, God is calling your name.

God saw the need for the nation to have a mother as well as a father.  Though clearly Sarai’s and Abram’s roles were different, there was equality in the essential language in this passage: the naming, the blessing, the envisioning of a future.  This moment echoes back to creation when God created both male and female in God’s image.  It is very significant that as God inaugurates this new covenant, this new approach to relationship with humankind, both genders are again specifically and equally included.  God appears intent on maximizing both difference and equality.

How sad that such vision for the greater glory of both mother and father of the nation has often been missed by the church.  Beyond physical childbirth, we seldom hear much of all Sarai did to mother this seedling of a nation.  As Abram demonstrates next, for some reason, the equality of this moment has been especially difficult to grasp from the very beginning.

A lesser vision

17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Though Abraham did not laugh right in God’s face, he sure came close.  Interestingly, most of us know about Sarah’s response of laughter when she first heard this news (addressed later) but little is generally said of Abraham’s laughter.  It is not hard to see where Abraham was coming from.  Relationally, adding another son to the already fragile mix of these two women in his household would be disastrous.  He had 13 years invested in one son, in one understanding of what the fulfillment of God’s promise would look like.  Fundamentally, if Sarah’s inclusion meant this much disruption, he had just as soon leave her out.

And so it began.  I readily acknowledge that God’s choice of a dual promise, including free men and women equally in God’s work, is a very messy proposition.  It adds tension, complications, and inefficiencies.  Both men and women often resist the idea.  It seems foolish and laughable.  Yet, surprisingly, in God’s eyes, it also seems to be a non-negotiable.

God’s “Yes,but…”

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

God’s affirmation of his dual invitation to relationship and ministry was anything but vague.  He began and ended this section with undeniably clear language.  Sandwiched between, however, God’s heart of compassion came through.  Abraham was in a rough spot.  He had genuine concern for the only son that he had known for 13 years, the son he thought was the promised child.  God lovingly and specifically reassured Abraham that Ishmael, too, would be blessed.

As women, we can hear this affirmation of Sarah’s unquestionable part in God’s plan as God’s invitation to us.  Many of us, as was true for myself, are so caught up in the nurturing and urgent duties of the day, that we fail to ask the questions necessary to even discern God’s calling for us in the larger scope of kingdom work.  From the tone of this passage, it seems like that might not be a very acceptable excuse to God. “

Fully equal and fully different is messy. Gone are the one-voice systems of an authority that does not listen and the one-voice of uni-sex that denies difference.

When all voices are heard, it is not so much compromise that is called for but instead a greater wisdom and vision that honors the fullness and wisdom of both male and female, that hears and welcomes all.

And the one thing I feel confident about is that it will be messy.

Creativity almost always is.



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