The recent vote in the General Synod of the Church of England on women bishops has thrown the issue of how Christians view the roles of men and women into the public arena.
It has suddenly become much more likely that we will be asked what we think by friends and relatives. Our response, even when we are trying to be biblical, can too often sound as if deep down we wish the Bible said something different to what it does! It seems to me we can do better than that.
God’s gospel commands
All God’s commands, though they sound like bad news when non-Christians first hear them, are really good news. The commands not to lie and not to be sexually immoral sound like bad news to non-Christians, but, as every Christian knows, once we are forgiven by Christ for having broken them, they are a far better way to live. In the same way, if different roles for men and women are consistently modelled and commanded in Scripture (a position I am not going to argue here — that has been done perfectly well by others), that is part of the good news of the gospel. It shows us a better way for male-female relationships than the world has to offer; part of the wonderful design according to which God, through Christ, is remaking people in his church.
How should we go about explaining this?
Society’s failure on gender
First, let’s be bold and say unashamedly that secular culture has not the first idea about how men and women are supposed to relate to each other in a healthy way. Britain today is characterised by nothing so much as terrible relationships between the sexes. Massive family breakdown, the resulting misery of countless children, runaway figures for sexual crimes and the almost complete acceptance of pornography and the vast damage it is doing to an entire generation of young people hardly suggests that our society has got the interaction between the genders sorted. The one-dimensional ‘equality’ agenda can hardly claim to have had fantastic results.
It is often said that this is a ‘secondary’ issue for Christians. In a sense this is true, in that it is not itself a core gospel truth, many of which are routinely denied in the Church of England. Put bluntly, when the first women bishops are consecrated, the fact that they are not male is likely to be a comparatively minor problem. Believing in salvation from judgment only by Christ crucified, risen and returning is likely to be a much more significant omission in their list of qualifications than simply failing to be male.
The heart of the gospel
But, in another sense, this is an issue which goes right to the heart of the gospel. Why? Because the entire ‘equality’ agenda assumes that unless women can do the same things as men they have less value. That is why opposing the idea that women and men should have the same roles is considered such an insult to women.
Now this is how non-Christian society always thinks. It cannot help connecting achievement and value. If it is true that unless we have the same role we do not have the same significance, it follows that our significance is determined by the role we have. If we hold that women are not equal to men unless they can be church elders too, we are assuming that ordinary Christians are not equal to their leaders; the leadership role makes them somehow ‘greater’.
But this link between role and value is decisively severed by the gospel. Indeed, it is the severing of that link which is the heart of the gospel. This is what justification is. Through Christ, our value before God is not defined by what we do. Rather, it is defined by what Jesus has done for us. All of us, in contrast to him, have absolutely failed to establish any kind of value before God by our deeds. All we have earned is his righteous condemnation.
To become a Christian is to give up forever on the belief that there is a link between our achievements and our value. This is true not only of our moral achievements (the godly grandmother and the converted prostitute stand equal before God), but of our social achievements too (the Christian bank manager and the Christian street sweeper do too). The gospel establishes an equality of all believers before God which is far deeper and more radical and wonderful than the shallow secular version.
Being justified by grace means that the sort of jostling for position which is typical of non-Christian society is absolutely ruled out. The whole secular approach, in which men and women are in competition with each other, is simply impossible for those who have grasped what the gospel is really about.
This wonderfully liberates Christians for a far better model for relationships and society. Because the link between what we do and what we are worth has been severed, we are set free to see our different roles in society as ones we are delighted to fulfil as part of our service to one another and to God. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve, and that is the pattern for us all (Mark 10.42-45).
This is by no means limited to gender roles. We all have, through a combination of many factors beyond our control, very different positions in life and society. But that has no bearing whatsoever upon our value to God and therefore on the value we have to other Christians. In a family, children are under the authority of their parents, and parents are responsible for their children (Ephesians 6.1-4). Christians uniquely can do both these things joyfully and humbly because we know that submission is not demeaning to us, and leadership gives us no status. All are valued at the cost of the blood of Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ enables people with different roles to value and relate to each other rightly.
And so it is with male-female relationships. What ‘gender equality’ really means is a horrible breakdown of the relationship between men and women as we all fight to establish our own status over against each other; and, of course, the awful consequences of that for our children. In contrast, the Christian vision of family life is something truly wonderful. Men are able to act as loving husbands and fathers. They have a role of imitating Jesus in lovingly leading, teaching and defending their wives and children in an utterly self-sacrificial way. Women are able to act as loving wives and mothers. They have the role in their families of imitating Jesus’s church in lovingly helping, supporting, nurturing and caring for their husbands and children. Neither role gives any superiority or inferiority in God’s eyes. Both men and women can do these things knowing that they are valued not for what they do but for what Christ has done.
The church is God’s family. Just as in families, so in the church, there are roles to play which have nothing whatsoever to do with our value before God. We are all feminine with respect to Christ; the church is his bride. So when he delegates his authority in the church to elders it is appropriate for them to be male not female. Being elders gives them no extra value; not being elders gives all other Christians no less. So the different roles of men and women are never seen in the Bible as something to be overturned. Rather, they are redeemed, restored to what they should be, truly reflecting the glorious (and asymmetrical) relationship between God and his people (Ephesians 5.22-33).
God’s standards, God’s commands, God’s design are absolutely good. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about rescuing people from an evil and broken world, bringing them into God’s kingdom where their sins are forgiven and their hearts and relationships are remade according to God’s good design. That includes healthy relationships between men and women. Families and churches with clearly differentiated roles for men and women are simply better than anything the world can offer. Let’s not be ashamed of saying so.