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Published Date: January 21, 2009

Published Date: January 21, 2009

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A New Focus

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Gal. 6:15, TNIV).

Do you find it curious that some Christians seem entirely focused on gender differences? Have you also noticed that this is rarely the posture of Scripture? The Bible emphasizes our similarities as God’s covenant people, despite gender, class, or ethnicity. What we share in Christ far overshadows differences of skin color, class, or gender. What are the things we share as believers? According to Scripture men and women are equally created in God’s image and given equal dominion in Eden. Men and women are equally responsible for and distorted by sin. Thankfully, men and women are also equally redeemed in Christ, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and included in the new covenant community–where they are also held equally responsible for using their spiritual gifts to advance Christ’s kingdom. Finally, men and women are equally called to imitate the life of Christ in selfless service to the world. By making these observations, we do not deny that there are differences between men and women. It’s just that these differences do not eclipse our calling (and shared authority) as God’s people.

It is worth repeating: no one wishes to deny gender differences. However, to suggest these differences overshadow our oneness in Jesus is not biblical! God has created the world abounding in rich diversity, with men and women of many cultures, languages, and experiences. That which God created as beautiful has been used as the means of domination by sinful people. Yet, in the new covenant, our mutuality in Jesus weaves us together so that gender and ethnic differences no longer estrange or oppress but rather become the means of reflecting God’s presence, forgiveness, and love to the world.

When Paul said that there “is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), he reveals sin’s lost grip on the redeemed. Paul spoke these words to a culture in which one’s class, gender, and ethnicity determined one’s value, status, and sphere of influence. Some insist that Galatians 3:28 speaks only of access to Christ, or salvation. But remember, Paul sent these words to a believing church that was divided over whether believers should observe Jewish law (Gal. 2:11&ff). This passage concerns church life and practice, to be lived by kingdom values, not cultural prejudices.

Notice how Paul places the ethos of the new covenant above the gender and cultural norms of his day. As Gordon Fee notes, Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother (Philem. 16) and with these words Paul allows kingdom values to take precedence over cultural expectations for slaves, pointing to the fact that the world as we know it is passing away (1 Cor. 2:6, 1 Cor. 7:31).

In the same way, Paul asks husbands and wives to share authority in marriage (1 Cor. 7:3-4). In fact, all Christians are to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). In the same breath Paul also places additional responsibility on husbands, asking them to love their wives as they love their own bodies–a new request for first-century men! Taking it one step further, Paul requires husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, denying even their own lives if needed. How radical this must have seemed to first-century people. Remember, husbands held ultimate authority over their household. As such, husbands could require the sacrifice (even the very lives) of their slaves and also their wives. Paul now asks husbands to give their own lives as sacrifice for their wives–a complete reframing of gender, class, and authority. A new Christian culture was forming! Paul even writes that the free are now slaves and the slaves are now free (1 Cor. 7:21-22).

Of course, Paul asks women to submit voluntarily to the loving sacrifice of their spouses (Eph. 5:22), but isn’t this the same thing as asking for mutual submission among Christians (Eph. 5:21)? Yet, the burden of sacrificial love is placed squarely on the shoulders of those who held cultural authority–men. Husbands are those whom Paul primarily addresses, asking them to live out kingdom values, reminding them not to be deceived by temporal authority, for this world in its present shape is passing away (1 Cor. 2:6, 1 Cor. 7:31). The gospel is radical medicine for a world divided by ethnicity, gender, and class, a world that, like ours today, emphasizes these differences in order to maintain divisions and inequities.

This summer, CBE will host a conference to assess the significance of gender differences, asking to what extent these are created by God or by human culture. We will also explore God’s purpose in creating men and women, asking whether gender difference also implies a division in authority. We hope you will join us.