Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Holy One Of Israel: A Gender-Neutral God

A few weeks back there was a debate raging in the blogosphere.  The debate began in response to a statement made by John Piper, a popular evangelical minister.  For the sake of space I'll only quote his introductory remarks, but if you want to read his whole talk, you can find it here
God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son. The Father and the Son created man and woman in his image, and gave them together the name of the man, Adam. God appoints all the priests in Israel to be men. The Son of God comes into the world as a man, not a woman. He chooses twelve men to be his apostles. The apostles tell the churches that all the overseers—the pastor/elders who teach and have authority—should be men; and that in the home, the head who bears special responsibility to lead, protect, and provide should be the husband.
From all of this, I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And, being a God of love, he has done it for the maximum flourishing of men and women. He did not create women to languish, or be frustrated, or in any way to suffer or fall short of full and lasting joy, in a masculine Christianity. She is a fellow heir of the grace of life. From which I infer that the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.

And, of course, this is liable to serious misunderstanding and serious abuse, because there are views of masculinity that would make such a vision repulsive. So here is more precisely what I mean. And words are always inadequate when describing beauty. Beauty always thrives best when she is perceived by God-given instincts rather than by rational definitions. But we must try. What I mean by “masculine Christianity,” or “masculine ministry,” or “Christianity with a masculine feel,” is this:
"Theology and church and mission are marked by overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage, and risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community—all of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the feel of a great, majestic God, who by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, inclines men to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines women to come alongside the men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work."
Not surprisingly, this struck many female Christians as rather insulting.  Christianity is "masculine," and a woman's role is only to come alongside men as men lead?  Now, let me lay my cards on the table....  I minister in a denomination that values, respects, and empowers the women who are part of our faith community.  Women in our denomination are ordained ministers, appointed as elders and deacons, and lead just as many of our ministries as the men do.  My denomination takes it seriously when Paul says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)  I say all that to say, I personally disagree with Mr. Piper's views on "masculinity" and how it applies to Christian life and practice.

However, what I found most troubling was what these statements say about Mr. Piper's view of God, and I was not alone.  Mr. Piper makes a strong implication that God is male, and that is troubling.  Male and female are part of God's created universe.  God is neither and God is both.  As one blogger pointed out, when God chose to make humanity in his image, "male and female he made them," (Gen. 1:27) implying that God is only truly seen when both come together.  As soon as we say God is pervasively (to use Mr. Piper's word) masculine or feminine, we lose sight of how God has chosen to reveal himself in his fullest.

As another example of this, let's look at a passage I read last week from Hosea (for the sake of space I'm putting this in paragraph form).

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  My people are bent on turning away from me.  To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?  How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

It's hard to miss the strong feminine overtones to this passage.  Verse four, "I bent down to them and fed them," reminds me of a picture I once saw of a Nubian mother stopping to nurse her one year old daughter.  The mother simply stopped walking, bent over, and nursed her daughter while standing.  One could easily make the argument that it is God as mother that leads her children out of Egypt.  It is God as mother that lifts her infants to her cheeks.  It is God as mother whose heart recoils within her, whose compassion grows warm and tender.  Here God is described in very feminine imagery.

At the same time, verse seven reads, "To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all."  In the middle of very feminine imagery, we read "he."  If we try to harmonize this passage with itself, we're left debating which metaphor is pervasive.  Is God masculine or feminine?  But that debate misses the whole point.  When trying to understand the nature of God by looking at men and women, the conversation needs to be led by both/and, not either/or (although to push back at Mr. Piper, in this passage God chooses to reveal himself as pervasively feminine).

God is not male.  God is not female.  God is Other, and "other" is a good definition for the word holy.  It is the "Other One" that is in Israel's midst, and it is the "Other One" that is in the Church's midst.  So let me rework Piper's quote from above into what I see as a much more Biblical approach...

Theology and church and mission are marked by an overarching godly leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage, and risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community—all of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the feel of a great, majestic God, who by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, inclines humanity to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines the ones he created in his image to come alongside him with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work.
Women, you're godly leadership, tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage are an example to us all.  In your femininity I see an act of God to make himself known.  The Church will never reflect the glory of God until we men allow you to stand among us as equals, equally created in the image of God and equally empowered by the Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of the Son.  God forgive us for dividing the Body of Christ by gender.

One last thought and then I'll sign off.  Lest we think that God is the only one who speaks of itself in feminine terms, let's not forget Jesus.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings...." (Matt. 23:27)