When my friends Lis and Dwayne got married, they wanted to share a surname, but they didn’t want to follow the patriarchal norm of Lis taking Dwayne’s name. So they did some research into what happens in other cultures. They explored whether some combination of their birth surnames would work, but they ended up choosing a brand new name—Baraka, a word that means “blessing” in Arabic and Swahili—to symbolize their new life and identity together.
I love their story, and I wish I’d thought of something similar when I got married nearly thirty years ago. I think of Dwayne and Lis when I imagine what our world would look like if we embraced the new way of the kingdom of God, with women and men sharing equally God’s mandate God to fill the earth and subdue it, together unlocking the potential in this world and bringing new things to birth.
Lis and Dwayne’s choice looks like biblical gender equality to me, but there’s a danger of saying it must look exactly like that. We risk swapping one straitjacket—of the gender stereotypes that we currently feel constrained by—for another one-size-fits-all monochrome model of sharing life between men and women. So what might a society that fulfills the Bible’s vision of mutuality look like? I’d like to suggest that it would have these five characteristics.
We’d look at our context and at the gifts, energy, and interests of the people around us. Together, we’d creatively arrange things so that everyone can thrive and play their part, regardless of gender. For Neil and Amanda, that has meant Neil devoting most of his time to parenting while Amanda pursues her calling as a teacher. Other parents might work part-time and juggle children between them, or follow a more traditional but freely-chosen model of mom being the primary caretaker for a few years. Or, like for Lis and Dwayne, it could mean thinking outside the box about your family name.
We’d be interested in laying down power, not chasing platforms or prestige. Leadership would change hands often. In organizations, leadership may be shared among a team, with one person taking a senior role for a season but relinquishing that to allow someone more gifted for the next stage of the organization’s life to step up. For a family, this means that working/childcare arrangements may change over time. Nick took a career break when his children were small while his wife Bridget studied to get ordained as a church leader. Now they both work full-time in Christian ministry and share the care of their children.
A community that values biblical equality actively seeks diversity because it knows how enriching it is. For a church, that will mean everywhere you look, tasks and opportunities are shared by a range of people who are single, married, from different ethnicities, who are differently-abled, from all ages and stages in life. Anywhere there’s just one type of person doing something, the lack of diversity is explored and barriers are broken down. At my church, we realized a few years back that we’d fallen into the pattern of men handling the technology for the service and women running the café afterwards. We deliberately challenged each other to learn new roles and operate outside our comfort zones and now we have greater diversity in each role.
4. Freedom from quotas
I long for the day when we no longer instinctively do a quick count of contributors to a program to see how few women there are. We won’t need quotas of female or male speakers, because we’ll be confident that people have been chosen because they have the best contribution to make, that space has been made for new voices to be heard, and people on the margins have been intentionally included. I see that happening in the UK with one or two events that have been intentional about addressing a lack of female contributors. Their lineups are diverse, exciting, and include new voices.
5. No blueprint for equality
There is no blueprint for equality, no one-size-fits-all list of things to do to achieve it. That’s particularly true the smaller the group of people involved, because that’s where diversity will be more noticeable. How one household shares the domestic work equally between them will be different from how another household does it. How one couple divides up the hands-on aspects of parenting will not be the same as the way another couple approaches it. We need to take account of our various different personalities, skills, and preferences while also being aware of the default patterns we’ll fall into if we’re not paying attention.
How do we get there?
The proof of our beliefs is not in what we say, but in what we do. Agreeing that equality is important might be the first step, but nothing will change if it’s the only step we take. We need to make intentional, tangible, disruptive, embedded choices to do things differently.
Sometimes that means doing the opposite of what’s expected of your sex. A man might choose to make snacks for a church event when only the women have been asked. A woman might choose not to make coffee for colleagues at a work meeting to challenge the assumption that she should play that role.
Sometimes it means doing something for yourself instead of expecting someone else to do it for you. A woman might learn to change the inner tube on her bike instead of taking it home to her dad.
Sometimes it means deliberately modeling an attitude that makes people think. A man might refuse to participate in an event that has an all-male speaking team.
Often it means choosing a route that is more difficult at first, but which becomes easier and more natural as it goes on. These are small actions, and ultimately we need new, patriarchy-free ways of organizing communities, institutions, and the wider society. Yet, these small actions are a start. They raise awareness, start conversations, and have a snowball effect. And they’re a step towards the creative, dynamic, richly diverse communities that God longs for women and men to share.