One of the reasons things start to get tense when we talk about gender is that we are treading ground that lies quite close to the heart of our identity.
We play with this in elementary school. In the constant jockeying for position that is our attempt to locate ourselves in the world we find all sorts of ways to claim that “boys are better than girls” or “girls are better than boys.”
We look around the classroom to try to figure out who does better in school: girls or boys.
We size each other up on the playground to figure out who is more athletically competent: boys or girls.
We look to the adults around us to gather clues, however covert, as to which of us has greater value in the sight of People Who Matter. Is it boys or is it girls?
Here’s another thing about gender: it is a social construct. So when we identify as male or female we find ourselves expressing that gender in ways that society teaches us to be appropriate: how we dress, how we groom, how we walk, how we talk, how we conduct ourselves in the presence of The Other Gender.
(Some people, of course, do not ever feel that they have place in this socially constructed gender binary, which is both a sign to us that it is a social construct, and a warning about how much authority we try to place on our particular society’s manifestations of gender identity.)
Those realities of our gender identity permeate other facets of our self-conception. They become ubiquitous because even when our genders are not the nouns that enumerate elements of our self-conception, they are often the adjectives and adverbs that influence how we think of other elements of our identity.
Take all of that (and it’s a lot) and smash it together with this: God calls us in Christ Jesus to become the best of who we are.
God’s project is not to rescue us from our humanity, but to make us fully and truly human in ways that we barely even dreamed possible before.
This is going to include our gendered identity.
When we start talking about gender and ministry in the church, here’s the piece that people can get their heads around rather quickly: the decisions we make here are going to be of utmost importance for the lives of the women in our congregations.
Women will either hear that they are equal in every way to the men alongside whom they worship—an equality bolstered rather than degraded by general lines of difference—or they will hear that they are “separate but equal,” and navigate their Christian gendered identities within a more circumscribed set of options.
Complementarianism is, I believe, destructive to God’s daughters.
But here’s the flip side: if we live in churches that have restricted roles and powers based on gender the danger to men is equally acute. As men we need to work for the full inclusion of women because complementarianism is as dehumanizing to us as it is to our sisters and mothers and daughters.
It all comes back to this: Jesus showed us what it meant to be human.
Jesus showed us what it meant to be human in myriad ways: the fidelity we should have to God, the love we should have for our neighbor, the confidence we should have in our identity as God’s children.
But if there is one lesson that looms large over the Gospel stories it is that clinging to power is the dehumanizing way of the world, subverted by the cross of Christ and his call for us to follow him bearing our own.
The greatest series of failures that we see Jesus’ followers making all happen after Jesus predicts his death and Peter rebukes him for it (Mark 8).
Jesus predicts his death—and the disciples turn to debate which is greatest (Mark 9). They don’t get it. Greatness and power are not where true humanity is found. It’s found in humble service, in the person of a child.
They see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and try to stop him. But Jesus says no! That person isn’t against me, he’s for me (Mark 9)! Our impulse to cordon off power and restrict it to people like ourselves is a denial of the Kingdom of God and the humanity whom God is renewing to live within it.
People bring children to Jesus and the disciples hinder it. They don’t recognize that in the powerless children is the very face of Christ itself—in attempting to protect Jesus from the incursion of the powerless, they have denied Jesus (Mark 10). They miss out on sharing in the new humanity that has eyes to see the face of Jesus in the person of a child because they are trying to keep Jesus and his blessings and power for themselves.
Jesus predicts his death—and James and John ask for positions of greatness at his right hand and left (Mark 10). They don’t realize that the only ones who get to be at Jesus’ right and left hand are those who are crucified alongside him (Mark 15).
The disciples get mad at James and John. And Jesus has to tell them: lording power over people is the way of the Gentiles. It shall not be so among you. To hoard power is a denial of the Kingdom of God that strikes at the heart of Jesus’ calling.
Jesus is showing us how to be human. He is calling us who have power to lay it down so that the people around us might live.
When we hoard power for ourselves, we deny the new-creation humanity that is God’s gift to us in Christ. Claiming power for our group at the expense of someone else’s is one of the most deeply dehumanizing things we could do.
Why is it important for men to support and promote our sisters who are pursuing ministry in all its facets? Because keeping it for ourselves means clinging to a degradation of our gender identity, a degradation that will infect everything about who we are.
To become newly human in Christ is to be renewed completely. For women, who have historically had no access to leadership and power, it is to discover that God gifts it as freely to them as he does to men.
For men, who have historically held the power, it is to discover that the life God has in store for us comes as we lay down our lives for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s. That’s the road to a full rediscovery of our humanity. And it requires of us that we blow open all the doors of ministry to our sisters and mothers and daughters.
Daniel Kirk is a writer, speaker, blogger, and New Testament professor who lives in San Francisco, CA. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. He has advocated for women’s full inclusion in ministry in his writing and in speaking both in the U.S. and abroad. He is the author of a pair of books, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God and Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? His third book A Man Attested by God: the Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, is off to the printers. Daniel blogs regularly at StoriedTheology.com (jrdkirk.com) and hosts a weekly podcast discussing the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (LectioCast.com). You can follow him on Twitter @jrdkirk and on Facebook at Facebook.com/jrdkirk.
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