Christians for Biblical Equality

Rev. Matt Williams
2nd May 2011

Nearly four years ago
I married my wife, Jenny.

At the reception, I had the last word,
as preachers are wont to do.

Let me read you an excerpt from that speech.

“When I first knew Jenny was interested in me,
I was very reluctant.

Not because I didn't think she was wonderful,
but because I thought her rather too wonderful.
Jenny seemed to me to be good at everything.
In fact excellent at everything.
Or perhaps more to the point,
better than me at everything.

She could sing beautifully,
she could play piano,
she could chair committees efficiently,
she could remain calm in a crisis,
she had read more books than I thought physically possible,
she was intelligent
and articulate
and for goodness sakes, she had a PhD from Stanford!

This omni-competent woman,
what could I possibly offer her?
How could I possibly add anything to her?
The only thing I had that she didn't was,
- well, you know - maleness.”

Although in the longer term
I really wanted a more substantial role in our new family,
I decided at the time to take my cue
from the husband of Proverbs chapter 31,
who appears to do little more than sit at the city gate
telling the other men about how great his wife is.

But I was describing an initial disorientation
that many men feel
when they discover they cannot simply offer their wife
the same things their fathers offered their mothers,
when they find that received models of masculinity
will not help them define their place anymore.

What are they supposed to be?
What is their calling as a man or a husband
except to bring a Y chromosome to the table?

Behind that is a deeper question.
Why is it that we feel there must be some normative version
of what a man offers anyway?

I've been asked to provide a biblical perspective
on what it means to be a Christian man.

In some ways it is a dangerous question.

It is tempting to focus on the word 'man',
to survey the bible
looking for normative descriptions of masculinity
or examples of men or actions by men
we deem particularly manly.

But in fact, if we do that,
we find that our arguments are really circular,
because we are likely to select and use those passages
according the images of manliness we already have.

And if we take a step back, we might realise
that the bible is not exactly full of raging prophecies
against the unmanliness of men
so much as the ungodliness of men.

So I think a far more helpful approach
to pondering what it means to be a Christian man
is to focus our question on what it means to be a Christian man.

If we can firstly figure out what being a Christian looks like
then I think we might better grasp
what being a Christian man looks like in particular
whether in terms of our actual biological differences
or in terms of the social constructs
and relationships that define us.

In the end, I hope we will find
that the bible has something very helpful to say
to reorient men who are disoriented
by social change, particularly as experienced
in gender relations over the past century,
to find our normative version of ourselves as men
not in conformity to the gifts of other men
but in the redemption of our own.

I want to begin by highlighting a problem.
The problem exists throughout the New Testament
but is crystallised nicely for us
in Colossians chapter 3.

Paul begins by talking about the location of their life,
the reality by which they live.

“So if you have been raised with Christ,
seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,
for you have died,
and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

He goes on to urge them to kill off all their earthly vices,
because (verse 11)
“you have stripped off the old self with its practices
and have clothed yourselves with the new self,
which is being renewed in knowledge
according to the image of its creator.
In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew,
circumcised and uncircumcised,
barbarian, Scythian, slave and free;
but Christ is all and in all!”

It's a wonderful picture,
and a powerful ethical paradigm,
to simply think of heaven,
of the kingdom of God,
and to seek to be conformed to its reality;
to set before ourselves a kingdom-shaped goal in all things.

We are being renewed according to God's image,
a renewal in which our distinctions fade away
distinctions of race and social standing
(and he says in Galatians, of gender)
and we are all simply people sharing that same divine image,
and therefore treat one another accordingly.

Later in the chapter, however,
Paul says something surprising,
given we are being renewed to conform to a world
in which there is no longer slave or free:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything...”

How can both these instructions
be part of the one ethic?

How can they be renewed to conform to a world
in which there is no distinction of slave and free
and nonetheless have their lives shaped
according to their status as either slave or master?

And we might equally ask,
how could they be renewed to conform to a world
in which there is no distinction of male and female,
and nonetheless have their lives shaped asymmetrically
according to their gender?

Is this asymmetry, this power imbalance another mandate,
a creation mandate
that stands over against the kingdom mandate?
And if that were the case,
wouldn't we setting our minds on things on earth,
if only for the time being,
not on things above after all?
- rendering Paul's ethical paradigm nearly useless
as it is supplanted by the law of creation?

So which is it?
Are we to prioritise the kingdom shaped end?
Or are we to prioritise the law-shaped present?

The problem, I think, is that we misread the household code as law.
As long as we do that,
the two cannot be harmonised.

But the ethical instructions of the New Testament
should not be read as a new set of laws
but a set of applications
unfolding the pattern of the gospel
and redeeming the social structures of their day.

There is, then, a hermeneutical key
that unlocks this apparent tension in Paul's thought.

It's somehow missed, alarmingly often,
and yet it is incredibly obvious.

The key is to include the other half of the gospel.

The cross.

Paul's gospel is not only a hope of a resurrected new order,
but the gospel of a crucified king.

In all Paul's thinking
and all his ethical advice,
he constantly has his eye on not one but two events:
the cross and the resurrection.

He is not exclusively interested in kingdom-shaped ends,
he is equally interested in cross-shaped means.

That is not only the hermeneutical key to understanding Paul
but also an ethical shorthand
Which I find consistently useful
in assessing all my own ethical choices.

Cross-shaped means to kingdom-shaped ends.

The cross was not only the place of atonement
but the pattern of life which Jesus called us to imitate
a pattern of serving one another, Mark 10
of looking not to our own interests,
but to the interests of others, Philippians 2
of becoming slaves to one another through love, Galatians 5
of washing one another's feet, John 13.

Just as Jesus was determined not to bring about his kingdom
with fighting and self-promotion
and resisted Peter's use of the sword,
so we need to be willing to take the long road to the kingdom,
the path of serving instead of fighting for our own power.

So the path to kingdom-shaped ends
could not be one of slaves emancipating themselves,
nor of wives overturning their husband's legal authority,
hence Paul's household codes.

The gospel path was one of patient submission to authority
and if we possess the authority ourselves,
of deploying it for the flourishing of those under us,
as Christ did, when he used his authority as God
to serve our interests even to the cross.

Paul is not self-contradicting
nor is he inadequately developed in his grasp of the gospel,
he rather understood the full implications of the gospel
perhaps more deeply than we have.

We rightly long for things to be shaped like the kingdom,
we are lovers of equality,
But we aren't only interested in that end at any cost
but are committed to Jesus' way of bringing it in.

This means we have to avoid the impatient egalitarianism
of simply bludgeoning in a kingdom shaped world
using whatever tactics we can find,
for that is only half-gospel ethic.
The means matter as much as the end.
Cross-shaped means, to kingdom-shaped ends.

But it also means we must avoid the distortion of those
who idealise a non-kingdom shaped world of cultivated inequality
of powerful husbands and powerless wives.
Paul showed us how to redeem such a reality
with a cross-shaped mindset,
but I think would be bemused if we thought
we needed to make our relationships asymmetrical again
before we can them redeem them with Christ-like behaviour.
That would be like bringing back slavery
so that we can show what Jesus-like masters we can be.

Redemption starts from where we are,
and for men to seek to restore male authority in the home
looks like neither a kingdom-shaped end
nor a cross-shaped means.
If impatient egalitarianism is a half-gospel ethic
surely men seeking to restore patriarchalism is a no-gospel ethic.


But it's not that simple.

The truth is, although we may have no more slavery
and husbands and wives are now equal before the law,
our relationships are not predominately equal,
they are almost invariably asymmetrical.

And so Paul's example in the household codes is particularly useful,
showing us how to do 'whole-gospel' ethics
in the face of asymmetrical relationships.

My life is full of people who have authority over me
and people over whom I have been given authority.
And even in unstructured relationships,
the varied kinds of gifts and abilities we have
actually lend us a kind of ad hoc power over each other,
which can be used to tear each other down
or to help each other flourish.

But whoever wants to be my disciple, Jesus said,
must become the slave of all.

The calling of a Christian man
is not to seek to resist kingdom-shaped ends
by seizing back power and authority
citing created order
in the home or in the church,
but rather to notice and use whatever power he does have
whatever authority he is given
and whatever gifts he has
to become the slave of all -
to deploy all his capacity into cross-shaped means
that lead to kingdom-shaped ends.


It can actually be liberating
to discover you don't need to “become” a man.

Cultural norms of masculinity quickly become accusations,
whether implied or explicit,
compelling us to modify our personalities to fit in
and suppress those gifts that don't conform.

The bible offers us the liberty to forget all that.
Worry about godliness, and manliness will take care of itself.

Being a man is a gift
that is undamaged by your other gifts.
It's okay to be a nurturing man or a protective man,
a sporty man or an artistic man,
an intellectual or a practitioner,
a single man or a married man,
there is no specific personality you should have
there is no biblical ideal of manliness you must reach
that cannot be met
by simply being male and striving for godliness,
by simply striving to use whatever gifts and authority you have
not in your own interests
but to serve others and help them to flourish.

It is unusual for CBE to have a topic focussed on men.

But it is very appropriate to be considering these matters here.

Because I think perhaps one of the distinctives of being a Christian man
is that you are in a particularly good position
to look exactly like the gospel
looking not to your own interests but to the interests of others
exercising a cross-shaped means to a kingdom-shaped end
precisely by encouraging women
and helping them to flourish
by standing up against institutionalised and baptised sexism
and giving women the space
to become all that God has given them to be
in our households, in the world, and in the church.