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Episode 10: Gender

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Episode 11: Sex & Sexuality

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An evangelistic talk on gender, sex and sexuality.

 

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Wedding-rings-300x274Here is Andrew Errington’s Same-sex marriage – what is really at issue?

His central point is that there are two visions of marriage going on behind the same-sex marriage debate.  One is set out in the Book of Common Prayer, in which the three purposes of marriage are:

  • the procreation and nurture of children
  • as the only proper place for sexual intimacy; and
  • for the sake of lifelong companionship.

As against this, the modern, romantic view of marriage disregards the first two purposes and is, essentially, two ‘grown-ups’, part-couple-part-sofa, watching boxed sets till they fancy another sofa-mate. (That’s my cynical overstatement, not Errington’s.  But marriage-as-companionship reminds me of Alain de Botton’s comment that love today is about finding someone in particular to save us from people in general).

One implication at the political level is this:

The success of same-sex marriage will not only marginalise the principle that biological parenthood is normal and best. It will mean that the discussion of whether children need their biological mother and father is over for good, because such a claim will be regarded as discriminatory against the necessarily non-biological parent or parents in a same-sex marriage. To be as equally married as anyone else requires that we never again question the various ways children enter these marriages, and whether these means of having children are best for children.

So there are some sobering implications for society at that level.  And if Christians want to exercise their political freedoms in pointing such things out they should be able to do so without being called bigots.  Calling Christians homophobic for having a view on sexuality is like calling Buddhists carnophobes for having a view on meat-eating. Errington’s contribution is a model of clear-thinking Christian engagement at that political level.

On this blog, Paul Blackham has written Legal Recognition of Marriage and the Way of Jesus. Without denying the gravity of the social shift we’re witnessing , Paul’s introduction gives a much needed sense of perspective:

Pagan and non-Christian societies provide legal status and support for the kinds of marriage that express their basic beliefs about humanity, sexuality and marriage.  Pagan societies almost universally see marriage as polygamous [and occasionally polyandrous] with various legal provisions made for concubinage.  Under both communism and fascism, definitions of marriage have been used that were quite alien to the local Christian churches.  Greek and Roman definitions of marriage and sexuality are a well documented point of deep divergence with the local churches of the early centuries.  If Europe returns to its pagan ancestry then, naturally, it will return to those ancient, non-Christian definitions of marriage and sexuality.

Someone asked me, with evident shock, if I could imagine what would happen if the current redefinitions of marriage led to things like polygamy?  It was very sweet really.  Christian churches have often lived under legal systems that recognise polygamy and it has been [and still is] quite a common form of legal marriage around the world. Local churches have lived under legal systems that recognised same-sex partnerships in the ancient world and we are doing so again now.  Yes, it can be a shock to realise that we live in a non-Christian society and we do not have any privileged status or power.  Yet, this has been quite normal for local churches down the ages and it is, in fact, what Jesus told us to expect…

Paul goes on to hold up the local church as the place where the true meaning of marriage needs to be fought for and displayed (read here).

(If the consequences for the Church of England concern you, Jonathan Chaplin offers a solution that works just fine in many other countries – it involves getting out of the registrar business!)

And if all this sounds like a retreat from the public sphere, let me assure you I’m all in favour of preaching the gospel publicly.  Not the fruits of the gospel, mind you.  The gospel.

Here’s an evangelistic talk seeking to make sense of the Christian vision of sex and sexuality (and these are some other posts: here and here).  You’ll notice that integral to these approaches are beliefs about Trinity, creation, fallen-ness and union with Christ.  It seems to me this is the properly Christian footing on which to stand. But these things are not at all obvious to anyone debating at the political level!

So, yes, let’s grieve for a society that has drifted so far from the gospel. Let’s prepare for more of the persecution that is the norm all over the world (not to mention in the Bible). Absolutely, we can be concerned for the freedom of Christian expression – maintaining our right to ‘appeal to Caesar’ as Paul does at points. But let’s not be shocked that new generations, so ignorant of the gospel, find gospel living incomprehensible. Of course they do. And let’s not be under any illusions about how to “fight” this trend.  Let’s look at our own marriages, our own churches.  And let’s get preaching the good news of Jesus.

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The first thing to say is that the bible’s sexual ethic is different to the world’s sexual ethic.  And it always has been.   This might sound too basic to mention, yet the point is commonly forgotten.  Egyptian and Assyrian views of sex were markedly different from Israel’s.  As for the Greco-Roman culture surrounding the New Testament church… what’s the saying? “A woman for necessity, a boy for pleasure and a goat for ecstasy!”

Both Christians and non-Christians need to realise that the bible’s ethics were never the ethics of the surrounding culture.  Therefore Christians ought not to hearken back to some golden age when the bible’s norms were upheld by the culture.  Neither should non-Christians insist that “Christians move on from their conservatism and embrace a new golden age.”  The truth is that the bible never enshrined the culture’s sexual ethic – it always stood apart from it.

This leads to another basic observation… secularists need to recognize that they too have a sexual ethic. They are not champions of liberation – except in the most limited sense. They are simply trying to impose a different sexual ethic and therefore to define a different set of sinners.

The next point is the explosive one, but it needs saying in order to blow apart some suffocating assumptions: Jesus is utterly anti-heterosexual.  It’s difficult to think of anyone as anti-heterosexual as Jesus.

I mean really, can you imagine Jesus in the sermon on the mount turning to his disciples and saying “Let your sexual desire be unto the multitude of women.”  If you can imagine that sentiment on the lips of Jesus, you don’t know Jesus!  Christians are not – or at least should not be pro-heterosexual.  Lust is lust and never a positive marker of identity – no matter which cross-section of potential sexual partners are in view!

These modern taxonomies of sexuality are so limited, so unruly, so new, so western, so 21st century.  We struggle to apply them to other 21st century westerners, let alone other parts of the world, let alone other parts of history.  If you try to use our modern categorisations and apply them beyond our tiny blip in time and space you’re in for trouble.  If you want to actually listen to Jesus’ teaching on sex you’ll need to forget everything you think you know about “modern liberal” notions and “out-dated conservative” notions.  Because Jesus’ teaching is something else…

Jesus’ view of sex is crazy and it’s beautiful.  Same as everything else.  “Turn the other cheek?  Go the extra mile?  Love your enemies?”  Crazy!  Impractical!  Totally unrealistic!  But beautiful!  Let me explain…

Jesus only really said three things about sex, but on these three foundations you have a crazily beautiful / beautifully crazy view of sex.  In Matthew 19 He quotes approvingly from Genesis 1: “In the beginning the Creator made them male and female.”  Then Jesus quotes from Genesis 2 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. What God has joined together let not man put asunder.”  Combine these two truths and what do you have?  You have humanity created as interlocking opposites who become “one flesh” when man and woman come together in an exclusive permanent marriage bond.  That’s his teaching on sex and marriage.  And to that He adds, in Matthew 5, that sex is not for any other context.  Not even in your thought life.  Don’t even think about sex outside marriage.  That’s Jesus’ sexual ethic.  It’s crazy, but it’s beautiful.

Because, according to Jesus, when you have sex with someone you are saying “I give myself to you utterly, exclusively, irreversibly and unconditionally for life.”  It’s the most romantic view of sex the world has ever seen.

This is sex as a Ferrari.  If I owned a Ferrari, you could not drive it.  Only if your name was Scrivener could you get behind the wheel.  But if I owned a beat-up old Lada – anyone could drive it.  The Christian view of sex is a Ferrari.  The modern view is a Lada.

But for that reason, this sexual ethic is for the followers of Jesus.  Explicitly the bible tells Christians not to bother non-Christians about their sexual ethics.  1 Corinthians 5 tells Christians not to worry about what people are doing outside the church.  God can worry about them, we’re meant to only worry about ourselves.  This point will be controversial among Christians but I suggest that, in line with the first truth outlined, we address ourselves with the ethics and the world with the gospel.

Which means that the question for the non-Christian is not “Can I live under this sexual regime”?  The question is, What do I make of Jesus?  If He rose from the dead as Lord of the world, then maybe He knows a thing or two about sex.  And if I come to Jesus – not as hetero-sexual, homo-sexual or bi-sexual but simply as a sinner – then there’s a place at His table equal to every other sinner.  And though I fail at His crazy-beautiful life in a thousand ways, He knows how to lead me, step by step, into greater and greater freedom from sexual slaveries as well as the other really dangerous sins – like greed, unforgiveness and moral self-righteousness!

For another approach, here’s an older post on the subject…

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“Equality” is one of the most loved and least understood values of our day.  It is considered to be an absolute and unquestionable good.  And yet… what does it really mean?

In a race between me and Usain Bolt… what would be equal?  A 70 metre head-start for me?  A 50kg weight for him?  Of course if we start equally, we’ll finish very unequally.  Equality of treatment will not lead to equality of outcome.  And that’s true in every realm.

Think of tennis. The men and women aren’t thrown into the same draw.  There’s a men’s trophy and a women’s trophy.  But not a “left-handers’ trophy” or a “Sagittarian trophy”. And there’s not a “trophy for whites” and a “trophy for blacks” either.  No, that would be “discriminatory” we feel.  But hang on – all these decisions “discriminate.”  They all seek to treat people differently according to real differences which those in question have no choice over.  Yet we consider differences in gender to be relevant, and differences in race and star sign to be irrelevant.  In other words we discriminate between our discriminations.  And such discrimination is absolutely vital for upholding  “equality.”

Different people do get different treatment all the time.  Sometimes this is negative discrimination (think of racism).  But actually we must discriminate in order to have true equality.  For instance, we ought to spend money on our buildings to provide equal access for wheel-chair users.  Yet as soon as we make this pledge, both the costs and the benefits of these expensive projects fall unevenly.  There is a certain kind of benign discrimination that happens which prevents another malign discrimination.  But discrimination – i.e. making decisions based on real differences, and discerning between relevant differences and irrelevant differences – is inevitable.  It’s part and parcel of true equality.

Now what kind of equality exists between male and female?  Feminism has gone through at least three “waves”, plus “post-feminism” and it’s taken in a wide range of differing political and social expressions.  The massive differences between those working for “equality” is yet more evidence that the meaning of “equality” is not at all obvious.  Yet the upholding of concrete differences as we work for equality is absolutely vital.  We should not want women to be equal to men on men’s terms.  We should not want them to “become more bloke-ish” in order to receive the same rights.  If there’s to be true equality, we should want women to be distinctly women and men distinctly men, and that they, in these differences, be one – completely equal in value and worth.  Is there a way of having both?

In Genesis 1 we have a consultation within the triune God: “Let us make humanity in our image… male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26ff)  The ultimate Union of Distinctions – the Trinity – is imaged in a humanity that is also a union of distinctions: men and women made to be one – and in their one-ness to be fruitful, making another.  A whole race of blokes would not image the divine life.  But men and women, in all their differentness, united in love – this pictures for us a true equality, one that respects and upholds concrete particularities.

If we follow the creation narrative we will see God place Eve – the bride – at the very pinnacle of the cosmos.  God’s creative work moves from the waters to land to plants to animals to man to woman.  It’s all heading towards woman.  As Matthew Henry remarked, if Adam was head over creation, Eve was the crown.  If he was dust, she was dust “twice refined”.  She was taken from Adam’s side to be his equal, from under his arm that he might protect her and from close to his heart that he might love her.  She is “opposite” to him – created to be very different – yet one with him (Genesis 2:18).

Just as the Father is eternally distinct from the Son yet utterly equal, just as Christ is different from His bride (the church) yet shares all things with her, so men and women are different but equal. (1 Corinthians 11:3)

What are those differences?  Well that can be for another time.  Perhaps click the “gender” tag to read more on the blog.  But we all agree that there are differences between the sexes.  Virtually every argument for why women should be better represented in the boardrooms of business cannot help but raise the different kind of contribution women bring to the table.  That’s fascinating – we think there should be more women “at the top” not simply because women are equal to men but, just as much, because they are different to men!  And no Christian wants to argue against that.  Many Christians think the gender differences have relevance within marriage.  Many Christians think they are also relevant in the exercise of certain church leadership roles.  That might sound  “discriminatory” – and of course it is.  But so is every argument for equality.  Even within the various feminisms there are huge disagreements over matters of positive and negative discrimination, for one thing.  Being alarmed by a different vision of equality and diversity should not put you off.  You’ll have to sit down and listen to the Christian arguments a lot longer before you conclude that this is malignant discrimination.

But then, where else will you go?  Christianity has an account of differentness and unity that accords with what we want from a vision of gender equality.  If all you have is unity, you’re left with a steam-roller, flattening differences.  If all you have is distinction, you’ve got a ladder – every difference an opportunity to rank people.  With the world’s philosophies of gender you will only find steam-rollers or ladders – or arbitrary balancing acts between the two.  Yet with the triune God you have a unity and diversity that mutually inform each other.  This unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity goes all the way down and all the way back.  In this God you can find that your gendered identity is acknowledged, celebrated and upheld.  It images the united love of God Himself!

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Recently I wrote about every husband’s temptation towards resentment.  Wives also have every inclination (as well as motivation!) towards sinful attitudes regarding their husbands.  (Mistrust and disrespect are perhaps chief among them).

But in my post I counselled husbands to die to their private ambitions and seek a fruitful union with their wives that acknowledges the completely new unit they’ve become.  Now, as I read back over that language of “sacrifice” and “death”, I have a fear.  My fear is that this talk of “death” will feed directly into the resentment I was highlighting.

I know this because for many years I considered myself to be a sacrificial head.  I took Ephesians 5:25 as perhaps my most basic calling as a husband – to lay down my life.  Trouble was – there’s always a counterfeit way to view marital roles.  The death I embraced was not the joyful abandonment of my rights to find a deeper joy in my wife’s flourishing.  Instead it was the proud martyrdom of the burden-bearing ox.  I’d trudge along singing “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…”, just loud enough for people to notice.  But while-ever I was a burden-bearing ox, there was a deep sense in which I needed my wife to be a burden.

This is counterfeit headship and it comes in a couple of different flavours.  Some, like me, emphasize the “dying” part and spin it to mean ‘desire-crushing trudgery.’  Others emphasize the “saviour” role (Ephesians 5:23) and spin it to mean “knight in shining armour.”  But if you’re married to such a head, watch out.  The burden-bearer will (unintentionally) make you the burden.  And the knight in shining armour will (unintentionally) make you a “damsel in distress.”  In either case we have a sick perversion of roles masquerading as biblical faithfulness.  If you want to consider it in trinitarian terms (which I do here), you end up with Arian distinctions not Athanasian ones.

The terrible tragedy is that these marriages can appear to fulfil an Ephesians 5 complementarity.  And those who trumpet complementarianism as though it’s the key to gender relations can apparently justify their counterfeit roles as “Scriptural.”  I know I did.

But the husband is not simply called to a death, but to a happy death.  As with Christ, this death is because of love and for the sake of the joy set before him.  It’s the very opposite of resentment.  It’s acknowledging the indicatives already present for the husband:

* Christ has put me to death in His cross and I no longer live (Galatians 2:20)

* The Father has made me one with my wife quite apart from my efforts (Matthew 19:6)

* My wife is a gift straight from the LORD and she’s good for me (Genesis 2:18 ; Proverbs 18:22)

* There simply is no life without a good death (Matthew 10:39)

* God will make our sacrificial union fruitful (Genesis 1:28)

* Her beauty will be presented back to me, shining all the brighter for the love which nurtured it (Eph 5:27)

The husband’s death is not the sacrifice of a noble sufferer or the heroics of a brave rescuer.  It’s the grateful response of a guy who – in spite of how she may have hurt him – still counts himself “lucky” to have her.  And if he doesn’t, his need is not to stuff his feelings and die anyway.  He needs to go back to the 6 indicatives above and prayerfully ask for help.

No marriage needs a resentful martyr for a husband.  Every marriage needs Jesus to make husbands joyful self-givers.  And He will… if only we’ll drop our counterfeit roles and receive again from Him.

 

 

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I’m always hearing about the benefits of “accountability.”  Men in particular, apparently, are meant to get together… for accountability.  (I think it’s “men in particular” because women already actually share life with each other.  Men have to be corralled under false pretences).

It’s not so much that we’re meant to meet for fellowship.  Not so much to speak the good news to each other, but to hold each other to Christian standards.  We’re being called to mini-communities of law, where a combination of fear, pride and resolve dis-incentivise the appearance of sin.  Not “sin” itself.  I can easily survive an accountability group while nurturing a love for sin.  It’s the “not appearing to commit sin” that counts.

Behind this drive towards “accountability”, so often there’a a vision of the Christian life as sin-management.  It’s not even that we’re aiming for Sinlessness.  We’re aiming for Sin Less-ness.  We’re trying to keep the ‘flagrant transgression count’ down.  That way we won’t have to appear before our brothers and sisters as “a sinner.”    Phew.  That’d be awkward.  Having to confess I’m a sinner – Yikes!  No, that horrible feeling becomes the dis-incentive to transgress.  What’s important is avoiding the need for, you know, confession, grace, forgiveness, the blood of Jesus.

And even as men herd together for accountability – the big issue we’re meant to drill each other on is… the dreaded P word.  No, not Pride.  How intangible!  How can we measure progress in that?!  And no, not Prayer.  Goodness me – let’s not over-spiritualize things here.  We’re after indicators of performance.  No, no, every man’s struggle is Porn.  Obviously.  (Of course with every man who’s ever confessed struggles with porn to me, it hasn’t taken long to establish that pride and prayerlessness are way bigger problems contributing to the mess.  And yet, those are problems it never occurred to them to confess.  It’s “Porn” that’s the issue, right?? That’s by the by…)

What am I saying?  Stop meeting up for accountability?  Well look if you’re a guy in an “accountability group” – well done.  Everything you love about this group is good and godly and biblical – you enjoy brotherhood, you enjoy sharing life, you enjoy another human being speaking forgiveness and grace into your life.  Hallelujah!  That’s what fellowship is meant to be like.

But “accountability”?  Thing is – it doesn’t even work.  But confessing your sins to each other… speaking words of forgiveness in Jesus’ name… opening up to each other as a fellowship of the broken… having a cry… having a laugh… that’s the Christian life.  And guess what?  It doesn’t have to be gender specific!!  Cos, heck, you don’t have to “fellowship” around “men’s problems” or “women’s problems.”  You might just be able to, you know, be family together in Jesus.

And at the end of it all, you’ll almost certainly sin less.  But that’s not the point.  The Christian life is not sin management.  It’s life together in Jesus.

 

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I guest posted for Emma on headship and submission and all that.

Stuff like…

The Father is the Head, His Son is the Body (1 Corinthians 11:3)…

Christ is the Head, His Church is the Body (Ephesians 5:21-33)…

Ephesians 5 says that  Head and Body roles are taken on by husbands and wives…so it seems clear that there is a place for roles.  But what place?

If you only study Christ on earth, you might see a passive Father and an active Son.  If you only study Christ exalted to God’s right hand, you might see a busy Father and a resting Son.  If you only look at Christ in Gethsemane you might see a sweating Saviour and a sleeping church.  If you only look at the worship of heaven, you might see worshipping servants and a seated Lord.

Freeze-frame a marriage at any one point and either spouse might look like the active partner, either spouse might look like they are ‘taking a lead’.  And that’s a good and healthy thing.  It’s the nature of a proper relationship which thrives on give-and-take.

The thing is – and finally I’m getting to my point – we just can’t insist on one kind of action for one member of the relationship. In fact, to worry about specifics is a big mistake.  Roles is about an overall shape to the relationship in which the Head serves in love and the Body encourages and receives that serving love.  And when this shape is even approximated in human marriages, something wonderful happens.  Suddenly the  caricature of marriage is over-turned.  You know the picture – rightly derided in our culture: there’s a  good-for-nothing husband, half-man, half-sofa, watching Top Gear repeats on Dave while his embittered wife taps her foot and nags him into submission.

The gospel redeems this shadow of marriage as partners embody the true roles of Head and Body.  Where Adam was silent and Eve grasped, now husbands step forward and wives receive.  It’s a beautiful thing when true roles are played out.

But… resolving to take on these roles is not where the revolution lies.  The roles are an expression of the revolution, not the cause.

The gospel is the cause and Ephesians 5 (the passage on roles) couldn’t be clearer about it….

Read the whole thing here.  And perhaps if you want to comment, do so there to keep them all together.

 

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