Friday, September 4, 2009

Eve's Fallen, and She Can't Get Up

Some recent blog-reading among my conservative brethren has stirred up an old issue for me.

One of the more challenging things about being the progressive Anglo pastor of a congregation that is now almost entirely Korean is coming to terms with some of the cultural expectations of gender. Even among second generation Korean-Americans, there can be a deep personal and spiritual segregation between the sexes. Roles and expectations that were programmed heavily into Korean culture die hard, and drawing out the full gifts and leadership skills of the young women of my church hasn't always been easy.

This is, in large part, because the traditional cultural assumptions about women in Korean society have been given a potent theological edge by Christianity. I grew up in congregations where women were both pastors and elders, and the realization that most Christian churches in both the U.S. and the developing world have a problem with this always struck me as bizarre. But the attitude is there, and it's real. It says:

Women should be submissive to men. They should be subordinate to men. Why? Because that's the way Jesus wants it. Bible says it, I believe it, so shut up and go get me a beer. Oh, and when I was coming down for my ESPN, I noticed that little Tyler's been puking in the upstairs bathroom. You might want to deal with that. After the beer, woman.

That is, of course, not how evangelicals generally conceptualize the relationship between men and women. It's also not how their healthy traditional marriages work, and unlike many of my progressive counterparts, I'm fully aware that they can work. There are relationships in which the male plays the traditional breadwinner role and still manages to be respectful and gracious towards his wife. Problem is, the ethic of a mandated power imbalance between one half of the human race and the other just does not jibe with the foundational ethic of Christian faith. Love involves being a gracious servant to all, even to one's enemies, and requiring fifty percent of the species to be subordinate just doesn't reflect the presence of the Spirit. It is also an ethic that's repeatedly abused by those men whose desire isn't Christ, but worldly power.

So why has this way of looking at gender relations stuck around? People who feel this is a Biblical mandate root the submission of women to men in the later texts of the Epistles, in texts like Ephesians or 2 Peter. More deeply, though, they use the same core justification for their assumptions about women that can be found in the writings of Paul's disciples or the pseudo-apocalyptic Peter. That assumption goes way back, back to the very beginning.

Why are women to submit? Because they are weak. Why are they weak? Because of Eve, and because after the Fall, her punishment for shattering the relationship with God was as follows:
To the woman he said,
"I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you." (Genesis 3:16)
There you go. God is mad at all of us for the transgression of Adam and Eve, and so men have to dig endlessly in the dirt scrounging for a living, snakes get stomped on, and women have to accept that "he will rule over you." While progressive Christians have major issue with the whole idea of our fallen nature, and cringe at passages like this one, I think it's more constructive for us to just accept the foundational argument of conservatives. That argument, in a nutshell, is that the submission of women to men is a part of our fallen nature. To which I say, sure. Yes. I believe that. I'm willing to cede that point, because in ceding it, it is logical to then ask:

Does Jesus not save women?

According to the great story of the Gospel, the purpose of Christ's life, death and resurrection was to reconcile human beings to both God and one another. For those who are moved by Christ's teachings and transformed by the Holy Spirit, the curse of the Fall is lifted. We are, in declaring Christ's Lordship over our lives, part of that great struggle to lift the yoke of all fallen "dominion, authority, and power."

And yet in the great majority of the Christian world, we Jesus people allow ourselves to be instruments of that curse over fully half of humanity. The reasons for this are primarily because of the incursion of cultural values about the role of women into the faith. That incursion is most intensely expressed in societies where women have been traditionally subordinate, but it begins, to be frank, in the Epistles. The influence of Greco-Roman culture grows strong as the early church moved further and further away from Christ. That's why the Gospels and the seven undisputed letters of Paul take a radically egalitarian stance towards women, and the later Epistles start to reflect both Roman and first century Jewish views on the roles of women.

That variance in the teaching of Scripture leaves folks who take the Bible seriously with two options. The first is to continue to embrace the cultural power imbalance between men and women. We take those texts that affirm us in that belief, and make them the lynchpin around which we approach gender. To do that, though, we must also believe that Jesus metes out uneven salvation, and that when Paul says Christ tears down the boundaries between cultures and genders, Paul was just blowing smoke. It also means we reject the servant ethic least the last time I checked...ain't just for Christian ladies.

The second is to realize that there is a powerful case in Scripture for moving away from the subordination of women. We mainliners grasped this a while ago, and throughout our churches, women's voices are now heard and their leadership is recognized. It ain't perfect, but we're getting there. Unfortunately, while we've done some important stuff spiritually, we're not very evangelical about it. We too often talk about gender equality in terms of "fairness," or using the language of academic feminism.

In reality, what we are doing goes way, way deeper than that. It's a part of that great battle against human brokenness. It's about redemption, and the transformation of humanity by the presence of Christ.