There are many others more qualified than I to represent a theological and philosophical apologetic for an “egalitarian” or “mutuality” point of view regarding women in the church. As someone who a decade ago experienced my first wife leave me, leading to divorce, I realize my personal life could also be seen as a less than-convincing egalitarian argument. If anyone talked with Carol, my wife, who loves me despite my blindness and insensitiveness, I would be further exposed as a very imperfect example of an egalitarian husband.
Related to that, I’m a white Western male, a lifelong condition that will (I am convinced) mean continual failure to live up to biblical standards in dealing with women in the church and in my own personal worlds. As with racism, gender bias is one of those things that seems more and more to me a permanent stain upon not only our culture, but our individual human hearts. This is certainly true in my case.
I write, despite all of the above, because mutuality is an issue central to my understanding of humanness. As a member of an intentional Chicago-based community of around four hundred and fifty women, children, and men—Jesus People USA (JPUSA)—I also see the importance of mutual submission one to another. Our living quarters are tightly packed together in a large apartment building; our individual marriages act as either models or warnings (sometimes both) to our next-door neighbors. We do, of course, have women in leadership, and it is not an issue with our congregation. As to whether we are a perfect model in this regard, need it be said we are not?
Mutuality: Ideal Or Real?
A problem I struggle with in my own life—the love of abstract ideals—is also in my opinion a problem in both the egalitarian and complementarian communities. Each community contextualizes its arguments in “the original Greek” or “historical frameworks” or “improper proof-texting” by the other side. These are important issues, not to be ignored. Theology, after all, draws its life from the biblical narrative and also(at its best) helps us clarify what that narrative tells us today. Yet perhaps just a dash of postmodernism’s emphasis on story ought to enter the mix. That is, how does a woman lead in the church? How does a man submit to a woman (providing the rascal does at all)? And how does a woman, well aware of her place in our male-dominated culture and perhaps even the victim of physical and sexual abuse at men’s hands, learn to biblically submit to a man—any man? How, in short, do we human beings live out that terribly convicting moment of ever-new revelation: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:3-35, NRSV).
Abstractions wilt in the face of such a Word! What we may need are some examples, stories from both personal experiences and “fictional” works of true art. We evangelicals, alas, don’t have many such skilled storytellers. Instead, we’re stuck with Christian romantic fiction that repeats the same anti-mutuality message of secular Harlequin romance novels; men as the active rescuers and women as the ones needing rescue. Added to that are the amazingly macho “end times” books, complete with muscle-bound angels and Rambo-clone males. God deliver us from this antiwoman and antiman message! Has anyone ever stopped to think that we men get awfully tired of having, in effect, to “hold the pose” of being strong, even when we know we are weak and in need? Genesis says God created the woman as man’s help meet, and it is very hard to understand why he did that if she’s too weak to help us.
I (here comes a typically male-type illustration) lift weights. Hey, maybe I should write an end-times novel. But seriously, it is a wonderful, painful thing to lift dead iron above one’s head or with one’s legs until sweat runs and muscles weary to the point of trembling. My body has been toughened up and (vanity of vanities) looks leaner and more muscular than it has for years. Yet one of the central lessons I’ve learned regarding weights is that one must learn to accept mediocrity. I will never, for instance, lift three-hundred pounds on the bench press. I’m lucky to reach half that amount. Some fellow JP USA lifter put up a painting of Arnold Schwarzenegger, flexing in a godlike pose as he looks down upon my pathetic pencil-neck efforts. I can almost hear Arno’s Austrian accent, “You call that lifting weights?”
In Jesus’ words I hear in effect a command to lift thousands of pounds. It is a command that lies beyond my human ability to perform, no matter how nice or “tolerant” or “sensitive” a male I am. Jesus Christ requires not niceness, but love.
The Weight Of Love
The command to love one another is, as I understand it, an impossible command. It is akin to that other impossible standard (for this man, at least) regarding committing adultery merely by looking lustfully upon another human being. Who, I wonder, has not done this? Well, Jesus didn’t do it. Jesus has this knack of raising the weight load beyond the humanly possible no matter what area of life is involved.
As Kierkegaard observed long ago, we have made it our practice to turn such impossibilities into commonplace, even easy, abilities. We explain them away: “Oh, he didn’t really mean that.” And we tell people how to be “saved” yet still maintain their present lifestyles of materialistic comfort and moral terpitude. Christianity becomes merely Christendom, and the profoundly personal gospel becomes abstract and impersonal, stripped of its ability to move human hearts to repentance and works of love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace.”
Either Christianity is one of those wonderfully idealistic stories, one that we don’t really believe despite our lip-service, or it is a terrible, painful, but glorious struggle. If the latter, it isn’t rooted in our own power alone. The struggle, I believe, must be rooted in the mystery of grace. Grace: unmerited favor, forgiveness. Ah! The white Western male in me responds to the idea of forgiveness. If my wife, who represents all women, can forgive my ineptitude and outright sin against her, yet also show me that I have sinned against her, I am allowed to begin again. If my female coworker can forgive my irritation at her, yet also confront me with that irritation because she loves me as my sister in Christ, I am convicted by the power of what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.” Despair is thwarted. Love commands, and I once again appeal for the grace and Holy Spirit power to obey.
Learning The Art Of Submission
I do believe the complementarians when they say wives are to submit to their husbands. That is, after all, a biblical command. However, I am also to submit to my wife. “Submit yourselves one to another,” the Word says, and it is addressed to the entire body of believers. While others wrangle about women preachers, I wrangle over my ability to receive the imparted word—no matter who the preacher is. In short, if I really love God, I will submit to women as they bring the Word to bear in my life. Not all Christian women do in fact bring the Word, any more than all Christian men do. The Word comes in frail, willful vessels.
Thus, we’re caught on the antinomy of mutual submission versus individual responsibility. You are to submit to God’s Word; I come to you with what I believe and perhaps state is God’s Word; you, however, have to decide whether it is in fact God’s Word I am speaking to you. (And might I note further that merely quoting the Scriptures to support my own viewpoint is not synonymous with imparting the Word my hearer really needs to hear.) The hearer, not the speaker, determines whether or not that spoken word is “the Word.” That goes for husbands and wives, parents and older children, pastors and congregations. My spirit must bear witness before I can receive what is spoken to me. This is only the reformation doctrine of the priesthood of the believer.
There is something incredibly subversive about the idea of submission. Our Western culture has created a virtual cult of the individual, and feminism has been just as influenced by that cult, as was male-dominated society before it. Yet we can’t have it both ways. John Donne’s famous line “No man is an island entire of himself” applies just as well to the feminine; both genders require others in order to become fully ourselves. Yet in that need is also the necessity of surrender; no one person’s world can remain inviolate without denying entry to all others. To allow anyone to come into our world is also to be forced to learn how to surrender, on one level or another.
Mutuality And Intentional Community
In Jesus People, we quickly discovered the need of one another as conduits of Grace. Grace moves as God wills it to move. Yet in order for Grace to move within the body, we must each be both hearers and doers of the Word, which comes to us through Grace. If, in a complex example, my wife and I both end up with hurt feelings over mutual miscommunication regarding romantic time together, we both will need much grace and wisdom beyond ourselves to reach understanding and a new beginning. Pride, that most universal of human responses, is the enemy of intersubmission. Humility—an eager, hearing heart—is the mainspring of mutuality.
Intersubmission is what we try to live out at Jesus People. Since we’re human, we blow it on a daily, hourly basis. Yet the difficult dance of recognizing various individuals’ giftings for leadership, or (conversely) some ambitious individuals’ lack of such gifting, is a dance we cannot escape. Sometimes leaders, male and female, in the community are forced to speak words not of union, but of division: “No, we cannot accept that teaching and/or behavior here; we must ask that you either cease or move on.” No matter what we do, someone among us will feel we have not done what needed to be done. Some will and have left us feeling hurt that they weren’t heard, just as we feel hurt at their failure to hear us. Thus the ideal meets the real and is defeated. But since in my understanding Christianity is the real, I need not be enslaved to the ideal. I can (once again) begin again; I can afford failure and ignorance, as long as I once again turn toward God and my sisters and brothers in repentance and admit my lack.
Lest anyone misunderstand, I am not advocating and do not believe everyone is called to live in the decidedly odd way I live at Jesus People USA. But I do believe that part of evangelicalism’s collective difficulty with the abstraction of women in leadership has to do with our lack of experience in intersubmission, period. We are so in love with, or at least enslaved to, the lonely model of suburban American life. We fear the very thing that, not taken to unbiblical extremes, will free us.
Becoming Free To Become Slaves
This echoes words from one much wiser than I, a woman who lived her life radically yet (as far as I’ve seen) refrained from condemning those who disagreed with her. Dorothy Day, in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, wrote:
The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for Him. . . .”
In case we’d forgotten, evangelical egalitarianism is really about becoming free only to enter a slavery more complete, more baffling to the world. The ideal is beautiful, but flat and unapproachable, a photograph of a bride on her wedding day. The real is the laughter, awkwardness, messiness, fear and ecstasy of the bride and groom on their wedding night. How much each surrenders, and how much each is glad of such surrender! In the joy of that union is the heart of the real, and if they are wise, they will remember it as they struggle to learn to be one in all aspects of life. Male and Female, without losing their own identities, are submerged in the identity of each other: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32, NRSV).
Below is a poem I wrote years ago for my wife that attempts to express the difference between what I perceive as the errors in complementarianism and the power of intersubmission in marriage.
“See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One wise man among a thousand I have found, but a woman among all these I have not found.”
They tell me I must rule you
Shepherd you firmly
And protect you from yourself
They dare to tell me
They tell me you are inferior
Weaker, I am superior
My pride says, “Amen!”
But alone I ponder their words
We walk before men who judge
Who lay down law as gospel
And neglect Christ’s love
(Am I one of them?)
I reject these foolish men
These arrogant and violent men
Mongers after power
They have Satan in their souls
I want to lead, and be led
To love, and be loved
To shepherd, and be shepherded
By love’s example
At last I can love and be loved
By a woman after God’s own heart
Whose ear inclines to my meager wisdom
As the flower bends to the sun
Oh, lover! Oh, friend!
Your light emanates from the Eternal
And your submission from freedom
I, your husband, wear a crown
Fashioned in your strong and willing hand
Placed there by God’s favor
And your choice
Solomon . . . eat your heart out!