“I believe we have seriously misread the relevant passages in the New Testament, no doubt not least through a long process of assumption, tradition, and all kinds of post-biblical and sub-biblical attitudes that have crept in to Christianity. Just as I think we need radically to change our traditional pictures of the afterlife, away from the mediaeval models and back to the biblical ones, so we need radically to change our traditional pictures both of what men and women are and how they relate to one another within the church and indeed of what the Bible says on this subject.” N.T. Wright
+ + +
There is a beautiful dance that takes place in a relationship between a man and a woman, a relationship that at its best provides a remarkable window into God’s own Trinitarian community.
Of course, many of us who grew up in church haven’t always had the best model of this. I was influenced by a tradition that viewed women as the weaker sex, somehow inherently unable to make decisions or lead as men could. This, I was told, was by design, God’s design. And with a few mis-applied Bible passages, I was sold on a view of men and women that was not only counter to God’s design, but a perversion of God’s own Trinitarian way of relating.
To be sure, one can find passages in the Bible that offend our 21st century sensibilities. Much has been written on this, of course. The Biblical story unfolded in a patriarchal context, and it’s wrong-headed to assume the elitist position that we’ve evolved beyond their naive and primitive ways. What’s more clear, however, is that no matter the context, Judeo-Christian ethics with regard to women, slaves, foreigners, and the like were always progressive for their time. That will never sit well with some, but as the Story unfolds it is evident that in God’s economy, His people ought to be at the forefront of restoring right relations.
God’s energies are always focused in the direction of re-animating us as full image-bearers. Post-Fall relating will always bear the mark of the curse. But the energy is directed toward St. Paul’s vision of “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”
It’s new creation energy, imaging God in the Trinity, dancing beautifully, self-sacrificially, loving and being loved without needing to demand, coerce, or pressure. It’s the way God relates. Love compels an extraordinary dance of giving and receiving, submitting and leading, decreasing and increasing, dying and rising.
Rules around male and female relating are more often born out of insecurity and fear. Young couples who come to me for premarital counseling want to know the how-to’s. I can teach them a few basic steps, but I can’t release what is already in them – that Garden-grown, image-bearing spirit-of-the-dance that arises only as we enter into the messy reality of relating and failing at it time and again. This is a mystery. And in the place of mystery, we too often compensate with legalistic rules of relating.
He can do this. She can’t.
These rules end up becoming spirit-breakers, sabotaging the mysterious process of learning the dance and killing our souls in the process. The rules may, for a time, keep us from straying into another relationship, or abusing trust. But rules don’t cultivate the dance. You can’t legislate love.
Hard as it might be for modern American perfectionists like me to hear, we learn the dance over time, not by following a step by step handbook, but by loving and failing, loving and failing. Sara and I have been married 16 years, and we’ve become much better at this as we’ve seen the fruit of staying in it even when it feels like we’re not going to make it. I once did a marriage conference called “The Death of Marriage” because I wanted the main takeaway to be this: your marriage will die, not once, but over and over again.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it stands alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
Marriages struggle and fail because we resist this death. But even if you are not married, you will watch this unfold in any good and lasting relationship.
God puts rules around relating to help us learn the baby steps. But to grow up, we must enter into the wilderness, where uncertainty, fear and insecurity will either send us running back to the safety of Egypt, or propel us to deeper maturity. We will fail. And significant parts of us will die, old parts of us that thought we had life figured out. But out of the dust will emerge a dance.
In his image he created them. Male and female He created them. And this time, instead of eating from the tree of certainty, they entered the mystery of love – of desire and dependence, of striving and failing. And this time, they got the blessing.