From youth, I have had a pet peeve around the particular issue of groups saying that they are “biblical” when their teaching doesn’t stand up against a study of the Word. That started in high school when I read Scripture in my own daily Bible reading that contradicted my fundamentalist pastor’s biases he presented as biblical truth. I was deeply disturbed with his misuse of Scripture, all while loudly claiming to be biblical, for a very long time. But I must also admit that I have at times not met my own standard. When I first started teaching material for The Gospel-Centered Woman, a friend at church came up to me and gently questioned me, pointing out Scripture I wasn’t considering. That gentle rebuke was good and right (and has happened to me many times before and after). I am hopeful that in this review I can similarly offer correction that will bless, not harm, as we seek to understand gender from Scripture.
The particular teaching I would like to draw attention to and correct from Scripture involves the Week Two and Week Three chapter descriptions from the 8 week study on Biblical Womanhood from True Woman 101. The study is subtitled Divine Design: an 8-week study on biblical womanhood.
Week Two: God created men to image the relationship of Christ to the church and this has significant implications for male-female relationships.
Week Three: God created woman to image the relationship of the church to Christ, and this has significant implications for male-female relationships.
If you study Scripture carefully, I believe you will see that this is not how God speaks of what He created men and women to image.
The study’s emphasis on Ephesians 5 as the standard on gender, as the starting point for the image we were created to present, is one with which I am well familiar. It certainly dominated my understanding of gender while under the teaching of leaders at Mars Hill. But how does Ephesians 5 mesh with God’s words in Genesis 1 and 2 creating man and woman in the image of God? Which is it? At least the man gets associated with parts of the Trinity in both Genesis and Ephesians. But what about the woman? Is she more associated with God or with the Church? Those are two very different things!
Which came first? Which vision should dominate? It’s not a hard question to answer. Note that one of these visions is the essence of manhood and womanhood while the other is a metaphor. Man and woman ARE image bearers of God. And, interestingly, both woman AND MAN are also the Church. In the metaphor of husbands leading their homes as Jesus leads the Church, husbands aren’t actually Jesus. Furthermore, man, in essence, actually is part of the Church. We need to start with essence. Metaphor is then helpful to flesh out how that looks at times. But metaphor has to submit to essence.
I want to use caution in how I word this, for there is much of beauty (and truth) in Paul’s likening of husbands to Jesus and wives to the Church in Ephesians 5. I have been blessed by studying this passage. On the subject of submission in marriage, it’s helpful to note that while Paul in Ephesians 5 likens wives to the Church with respect to submission, Peter in I Peter 2-3 calls wives to reflect the example of Jesus when submitting to their husbands. It’s a longer passage, but if you follow the flow of thought, it’s clear that when Peter says “Likewise, wives be subject to your own husbands” in I Peter 3:1, he’s refering back to his description of Christ’s example in I Peter 2:21. It’s not that Scripture is schizophrenic on this subject but that different writers use different metaphors and examples to flesh out God’s instructions on this particular issue of submission.
The foundation of all other teaching in Scripture on gender is Genesis 1 and 2. Paul gets this in Ephesians. He didn’t write Ephesians 5 in a vacuum. He was writing in the context of a larger story. After fleshing out the creation/fall/redemption narrative and all Christ has accomplished for us on the cross in Ephesians 1-4, Paul opens Ephesians 5 with the incredible words, “Therefore, be imitators of God.” In Christ, we are equipped to once again image God as He created us to do in perfection. This is incredible and amazing for both man and woman.
Let’s go back now to the problem with the language True Woman 101 uses to discuss the essence of gender. My correction is that God didn’t create women to image the Church. He created women to image Himself. In the particular relationship of Christian marriage, the submission of the Church to Christ is a helpful metaphor for understanding submission between husbands and wives. It inspires us to live out our own metaphor in marriage, a noble testimony of the gospel. But, and this is a very big but, women are also called to be like Christ in this very same issue of submission to their husbands (I Peter 2-3). And, furthermore, while man is to be like Jesus in his love and service to his Bride, man in essence actually is the Bride, the Church. The husband’s example for his love for his wife is Christ’s love for the husband.
The Ephesians 5 metaphor is helpful for understanding roles in Christian marriage, but True Woman 101 sets it up instead as the essence of gender, and that is not consistent with Scripture in my opinion. Our essence, male and female, is that we were both created in the image of God. Our essence, also, is that both male and female are in reality the Church. Neither of us are in essence Jesus; we are both in essence the Church. And both of us were created to image God. We can not zoom in on Ephesians 5 and treat it as the whole on gender. We can not treat it as the context for all other discussion on gender. God sets the context in Genesis 1-2, a context in which Paul writes the whole of Ephesians.
I have other issues with the True Woman 101 study. It sets up good ideas as ultimate ideas, repeatedly using the phrase “… is at the core of what it means to be a man (or woman)” in ways that the Bible doesn’t. It applies Scripture on husbands and wives across the board to all men and all women regardless of marital status. And it presents the issues of Genesis 3:16 in ways I disagree, which any long term reader here is already familiar with.
But in this review, the main thing I want to call us to is precision in how we word what we teach women as the essence of their womanhood. Paul looked at our image bearing creation in Genesis as essence when he wrote Ephesians 5. Just look at verse 1, “Therefore, be imitators of God.” And we too should be careful to use language that does the same.
Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood tore down a biblical womanhood I didn’t recognize. But it also raised my awareness that the adjective biblical, like the noun gospel, often gets used without precision. If we are going to use the word biblical in our titles and descriptions, we have set for ourselves a noble but high standard. It is the best of standards, but it is one we need to steward with extreme care and precision. With a love for the adjective biblical and a desire for its precise stewardship, I hope this discussion is helpful, not harmful, causing us to think about and steward truth, not question it.