“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”—Galatians 3:28
Oneness in Christ is still radical today
Paul’s radical statement to the Galatians in the first century is apparently still radical for Christians in 2021 to hear. Paul is telling us that our oneness in Christ is transformative and leads us to destroy the barriers that we’ve created to separate one another. Whether they are ethnic barriers—Jews and Greeks, or gendered barriers—males and females, or socioeconomic barriers—slaves and free. Paul is doing a radical theology that includes everyone into a life that transforms our worldly labels and binaries. Paul isn’t disregarding the power and the reality of those social constructions, but he’s acknowledging that they are human-made, and not God-given.
I think even Paul understood that just because a culture or a society socially constructed them, that doesn’t make them any less “real” than the house you live in, that was also constructed. This is a point a lot of people miss—just because race and gender are largely socially constructed does not mean that they do not have an impact on our lives. So it is not good enough to “regard no one from a human point of view.” We actually have to help inaugurate this New Creation that Paul is talking about. And that not only means doing work to include sexual and racial minorities, it also means interrogating how we conform currently to “patterns of this world.”
I often hear moderates suggest that an identity in Christ makes work around antiracism, women’s equality, and LBGTQIA inclusion unnecessary, because we shouldn’t see each other from a worldly point of view. But it is actually the opposite, the identity Christ gives us requires us to deconstruct all of the meaning and power assigned to bodies by forces other than God. When we act as if our identity in Christ doesn’t demand such change, we are operating out of a worldly identity and leaning into our wordly-given powers of race and gender, notably.
Inclusion alone is not the job of the church. The Gospel does not end at “inclusion,” but necessitates transformation. We all need to undergo transformation, not just tolerate one another. Paul’s vision for the New Creation is about oneness in Christ, not mere tolerance.
Yet we still consider each other from the old way of doing things; we still don’t see each other as one in Christ. We still adapt to our cultural norms and double-down on our earthly barriers, despite the radical vision of God through Paul in the New Testament. Anyone who is serious about the New Testament needs to cease this sort of separation, despite the cultural norms in Christianity that may make removing such distinctions appear scandalous. Last week I wrote about how we might demonstrate the radical inclusion of the New Testament, specifically as it surrounds people who are disabled, women, and racial and sexual minorities.
A patriarchal order contradicts the reign of God
All of those subjects deserve their own post. But this week, I am concerned about the church’s tendency to codify the exclusion of women from being pastors and being ordained. LGBTQIA people suffer a more comprehensive exclusion that is linked similarly. Ultimately, it is patriarchy, or a male-dominated social order, that organizes us to exclude both women and LGBTQIA folks. As long as men order us, and insist on being in the position of power, they exclude women as equals, as well as LGBTQIA folks because both threaten a patriarchal man’s view of himself.
If we are committed to a patriarchal order, we are not committed to the reign of God.
I have long said that I do not consider women’s ordination or women leading to be a secondary issue for Christians. I don’t think giving full honor and dignity to women to be a negotiable issue for Christians. Paul says it clearly above. This is not just a matter of freedom or rights, it is a matter of responsibility. Here’s how we say it in Circle of Hope:
All people of any gender or sexual orientation are bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.—Circle of Hope proverb
When we exclude women from the pastorate, we limit their possibility for growth, discipleship, and their responsibility as followers of Christ. Further, it is categorically sexist to do so. And it is also harmful to cherry-pick Bible passages that support our prejudice, while ignoring the New Testament vision, clearly expressed by Paul, but also demonstrated by Jesus, to include women as equals with men. I think it’s essential to put Paul in his time and place. He had patriarchal tendencies and was too permissive of slavery. But it’s also very easy to read him as subverting patriarchy and as an abolitionist. Listen to the contextual theologians who conclude this.
There is only one way to interpret “there is no longer male nor female,” when it comes to women’s ordination. And those who don’t, are not only being categorically sexist, they are violating oneness in Christ by insisting that our genders separate us.
Tolerating complementarianism is tolerating sexism
Plenty of Christians, sadly, exclude women from leadership, which dismays me. But what disappoints me more are those Christians that agree that women’s ordination is exactly what God would have us do, but decide that we are being too divisive, or too harsh, when we name the practice of excluding women from ordination as sexist.
People have asked me, does that mean you are ready to write off every complementarian—that means the people that believe men and women complement each other’s roles in the life of the family and church—in history because they were sexist against women? The answer to this “gotcha” is no. Many of us will invariably work with people that exclude women and LGBTQIA folks. But here’s the key: We shouldn’t normalize or minimize that exclusion, though. We have to keep calling it what it is: sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.
Furthermore, it is essential that we honor people who say that it is not safe for them to work in ecumenical bodies that tolerate the exclusion of women. And perhaps it makes sense to stand in solidarity with them. Romans 14 makes a compelling case for us to change our behaviors if our views offend the “weaker” ones around us. That might mean that it’s time for a radical change in traditional Christianity, which participates in the sexist exclusion of women.
For some people, though, naming such behavior as sexist is too aggressive, or perhaps too convicting for them. But I am not willing to say that the full dignity of women in ministry is a secondary issue. Or as one popular author suggested “less important than Christ crucified.” I refuse to make such a distinction, and to do so at the expense of women. Preaching “Christ crucified” and not permitting women to do the same is a contradiction, and an exposure of the hypocrisy of those who exclude women. You cannot say we are “one in Christ,” but only allow men to say it on a Sunday morning. And sometimes, complementarians are that pedantic—Saturday night a woman can preach however she wants, but on Sunday morning she can’t. That sort of absurd thinking is rooted in sexism, not in a biblical understanding.
Though I absolutely disagree with people who exclude women from being pastors, I’m not suggesting a cut off from people who hold sexist views. In fact, relationships are a great way to lead to the transformative “oneness in Christ.” But I don’t think it’s responsible to name our disagreement on the dignity of women as a secondary issue, as opposed to fundamentally immoral. We don’t have to soften our language, at the expense of women, in order to lead something to transformation, to oneness in Christ. We need to speak the truth in love, and it is a lie to suggest that complementarianism is anything but sexist.
Sexist teaching keeps all of us from true discipleship
I am not trying to set up new doctrines and rules to live by. I don’t think the answer is just in our codes or our laws (in fact, I think it is the rejection of those things that ultimately leads to women’s empowerment). Further, I don’t think egalitarian churches have overcome their patriarchal tendencies (not least of which because many of them still exclude LBGTQIA folks).
But when it comes to faith, discipleship matters. We cannot allow any of our beliefs to block people from relating to God or to cause them to lose their faith. Paul uses his harshest words when cultural norms keep people from the Gospel—he calls the Galatians foolish when they do that. Jesus says it is better for someone to have a millstone hung around their neck and thrown into the Sea of Galilee than the judgment that waits them when they cause a little one to stumble.
Our formation as one in Christ matters above all other concerns in our faith. Preventing women from serving in full dignity is a discipleship issue, it is an issue of faith, and it is a Gospel issue. Simply put: you can’t preach “Christ crucified,” and in the same breath keep women from doing the same. Tolerating people that do without offering them the truth of their sexism is allowing them to prevent women from their God-given responsibility. Furthermore, it also prevents men from their fullness in Christ, since it can lead them to believe their sexism is holy and tolerable.
Christianity has a lot of work to uproot the patriarchy that’s woven into our history and tradition and that can be easily extracted from our Holy Scriptures. We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t name the exclusion of women as sexist, and we further exclude women from the church, or reduce them to a subservient status. Jesus and Paul have an entirely other way of doing things.
And my conviction, ultimately, is born in my experience. Julie and Rachel, two pastors I lead with, are essential to our church. Twenty-one of our 37 cell leaders are women or nonbinary folks. Their presence matters so much for how we disciple one another and I wouldn’t be the same without them. The idea that their leadership is secondary to the Gospel is far from the truth. Their leadership and what it symbolizes is essential to the Gospel. A Gospel that cannot be preached by women is no Gospel at all.
If you want more, please read Fig Tree Christian’s post about “The Unknown Weight of Being a Woman in Ministry.”