The following are some poignant excerpts (in my opinion) from N.T. Wright’s conference paper, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis,” for the Symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’ at St John’s College, Durham on September 4, 2004. I’ll start with excerpts from his introductory remarks today, before moving on to his comments on Galatians 3, the Gospels and Acts, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. If you don’t feel like waiting around for me to parcel the address out in blogposts, however, read the full version here.
Nota bene: My Emphases. [My Additions.]
[The Potential and Peril of Terminology:]
“I do worry a bit about the word ‘equality’ and the language of ‘egalitarian’ and so on. I recognise what is being said of course, and if I didn’t endorse that point I probably wouldn’t be speaking here now; but those words carry so much freight in ouor various cultures that I do wonder whether it’s wise, whether it actually helps the cause you want to set forward, to highlight those terms in the way you do. Not only is the word a red rag to all kinds of bulls who perhaps don’t need to be aggravated in that way (though some may); it is always in danger of being inaccurate, far too broad, implying to many (wrongly of course, but one cannot police what people will hear in technical terms) not only equality but identity. Likewise, to use the word ‘complementary’ and its cognates to denote a position which says that not only are men and women different but that those differences mean that women cannot exercise ministry, or some kinds of ministry, within the church, is I think a shame; as I shall suggest, I think the word ‘complementary’ is too good and important a word to let that side of the argument have it all to themselves.“
[All-or-Nothing Need Not Apply:]
“Part of the problem, particularly in the United States, is that cultures become so polarized that it is often assumed that if you tick one box you’re going to tick a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page – without realising that the page itself is highly arbitrary and culture-bound. We have to claim the freedom, in Christ and in our various cultures, to name and call issues one by one with wisdom and clarity, without assuming that a decision on one point commits us to a decision on others. I suspect, in fact, that part of the presenting problem which has generated CBE is precisely the assumption among many American evangelicals that you have to buy an entire package or you’re being disloyal, and that you exist because you want to say that on this issue, and perhaps on many others too (gun control? Iraq?), the standard hard right line has allowed itself to be conned into a sub-Christian or even unChristian stance. Anyway, enough of that; I just wanted to flag up the contexts within which you and I are talking, and warn against any kind of absolutism in our particular positions.“
“Many people have said, and I have often enough said it myself, that the creation of man and woman in their two genders is a vital part of what it means that humans are created in God’s image. I now regard that as a mistake. After all, not only the animal kingdom, as noted in Genesis itself, but also the plant kingdom, as noted by the reference to seed, have their male and female. The two-gender factor is not at all specific to human beings, but runs right through a fair amount of the rest of creation. This doesen’t mean it’s unimportant, indeed it means if anything it’s all the more important; being male and being female, and working out what that means, is something most of creation is called to do and be, and unless we are to collapse into a kind of gnosticism, where the way things are in creation is regarded as secondary and shabby over against what we are now to do with it, we have to recognise, respect and respond to this call of God to live in the world he has made and as the people he has made us. It’s just that we can’t use the argument that being male-plus-female is somehow what being God’s imagebearers actually means.”
Again, more on Wright’s take(s) on pertinent passages coming soon.
But for now, I think it’s important to consider Wright’s last points, regarding creation as male and female, in light of Miroslav Volf’s following quote from Exclusion and Embrace:
“The ontologization of gender would ill serve both the notion of God and the understanding of gender. Nothing in God is specifically feminine; nothing in God is specifically masculine; therefore nothing in our notions of God entails duties or prerogatives specific to one gender; all duties and prerogatives entailed in our notions of God are duties and prerogatives of both genders. This, I think, is the significance of the fact that, as Phyllis Bird has shown, gender distinctions are unrelated to the image of God according to Genesis 1 (Bird 1981; Bird 1991). Men and women share maleness and femaleness not with God but with animals. They image God in their common humanity. Hence we ought to resist every construction of the relation between God and femininity or masculinity that privileges one gender, say by claiming that men on account of their maleness represent God more adequately than women (with LaCugna 1993, 94ff.) or by insisting that women, being by nature more relational, are closer to the divine as the power of connectedness and love.“ (Volf 1996, 173-4; emphasis added).
What say you?
If the point that we share gender more with animals then with God is true, and if, as Wright claims, it does not destroy the importance of gender, what does it do? What effect should that point have on Christian discussions of gender?
Is reading gender back into God a real danger when doing Christian theology?
If so, what are the best ways to avoid doing so in our discussions of gender identity in Christian circles?