Gender, Being Missional and the Reign of God

As I write this blog a well known Australian author is fastidiously making comments on his Facebook page around his recently published book on women and preaching. The author is a moderate conservative and a complementarian in the debate around gender identity and roles in the church. I have a lot of respect for this Christian leader and his defence of the Christian faith. His popular book makes a case for allowing women to preach in mixed gender settings, so if you know anything about Sydney Anglicanism you would know that this line of arguing has ruffled a few feathers to say the least, in that context. However his argument also runs that even though women can preach, teaching is a different matter as the tradition of our Christian faith was to be handed down exclusively by men. As I read the posts and comments on his facebook page I have two reactions, one is of mild hope that some might become convinced that it is indeed acceptable that women can use their gifts to preach regularly in a congregation on a Sunday morning however my other reaction is a little less hopeful and even discouraged.

Through the ‘likes’, theological clarifications, historical debates and the meticulous arguments, definitions, pontifications, grammatical corrections, focus on the minutia, dissections of Greek parsing occurring through all the comments, I  again begin to wonder ‘Is this what we have come to as we think about gender in the kingdom of God?’ Has the crucial topic of gender which affects every human being on the earth, in Christian circles come down to arguing  about the complexities and intricacies of the debate around complementarianism and egalitarianism rather than thinking through a broader theology of gender which can have a  missional orientation? And then of course as I watch the interactions on Facebook at the same time paradoxically moderate a position and yet annoyingly also solidify it, I groan with resignation that we are placing more laws and rules around gender roles in the church rather than living in the light of the new creation that we have become through our resurrected Lord.

In a chapter on Gender in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology by theologian Cherith Fee Nordling, she commences by saying ‘ “All things are yours,” writes Paul to the women and men of the church at Corinth, be it “the world or life or death or the present of the future- all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3:21b-22). Paul reminds them that because of God’s self-giving generosity, there is no longer any need or place for division over leadership that would limit the gifts of the Spirit poured out equally on women and men alike. To do so would be to go backward, to live as “old creation”. Rather, these diverse women and men, reconstituted by the Spirit are “new creation”’.

So then what does it look like for Christians to walk as new creations not bound by old divisions and rules in the light of our escatological reality and the realisation of the kingdom come through Jesus’ death and resurrection?

By Kingdom of God I mean the invitation that God makes to us through Jesus, to enter into an alternative reality which is different to the story of this world. Our world which reflects hatred, broken relationships, cruelty, legalism, has been invaded by the story of God which is counter to our world. Through Christ we enter into the reign of God which is a society of reconciled relationships, love, freedom, truth, kindness and justice. A kingdom of God perspective on gender means that we cooperate with God today in order to bring about a restoration and reconciliation of the two genders in our world in order for that reign to expand and bless the earth. By an escatological perspective on gender I mean that we need to have the end goal in mind of fully restored men and women in Christ. What do fully restored men and women look like? Today we poorly reflect the image of God, however at the resurrection when we are raised still in our distinctive genders, what will be the difference? Surely if we keep that goal in mind this is what we must move towards as we live our lives here on earth advancing God’s kingdom.

These are the important things that we need to be discussing today in order to live a fully embodied existence as men and women who have walked into the alternative story of the Kingdom. Rather than getting stuck on sometimes petty debates around whether women should preach sometimes or all the times at church, or at what age men are no longer able to hear the teachings of women, or whether a female writing a worship song which is being sung by men is acceptable in the church, or if a male is supposed to enact a ‘the buck stops with me’ kind of practice, or if a female can preach but not teach, or maybe occasionally teach but with no authority, rather than this, why don’t we begin better theological discussions around gender? So firstly what does it mean to be a fully restored male or female in Christ and secondly what does it look like for the two genders to be properly reconciled so that the age old ‘battle of the sexes’ is finally a thing of the past? The complementarian/egalitarian debates have their place, however we focus too much on these subtopics over the broader, dare I say more missionally charged issue, of gender.

What does gender look? 

What does gender look like through the paradigm of a universe where the kingdom of God has come, where we know that our gender is something that we will keep in our resurrected bodies and with a view that God wants to bring restoration and reconciliation now to the two genders? We must find help in working this out from the pages of the New Testament rather than in any cultural expressions, trendy philosophies or assumptions of the day. Elaine Storkey sees four themes coming through in the New Testament on gender: 1) difference, 2) similarity, 3) complementarity (without hierarchy) 4) and union (needing one another to better reflect the image of God).  Even though each of these themes seem so obvious to most, how difficult is it to hold to the four at the same time? That is to realise that men and women are different of course but at the same time they share many similarities. Then also to recognise the need for complementarity in order to better reflect the image of God but knowing that hierarchy within that is unnecessary.

Would this kind of biblically based dialogue with our world not be more missionally effective than all the intricate debates that we wallow in which reveal our insular theologies and hermeneutics?

Through the Kingdom come on earth we see the old order which identified certain people as more privileged, powerful and blessed than others, disintegrating slowly. We all know that a common Jewish prayer at the time went like this ‘”Blessed are you, God, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile. Blessed are you, God, King of the Universe, for not having made me a slave. Blessed are you, God, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman.”

Yet the Apostle Paul directly challenged that current day prayer in Galatians 3:28 by saying ‘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.’ Was he abolishing cultural and gender differences? Of course not but what he was saying is that those of us in Christ can’t pray prayers from the old order anymore. We can’t live like that anymore. We are a new creation. We no longer live according to old divisions based on the privilege of some over the ‘others’. Instead we proclaim that Jesus is our only Lord. As men and women under one Lord we live crucified lives humbly submitted to each other for the service of the church and our world as new creations in a kingdom that has come now through the resurrection of Jesus. We are together children of God today enabling one another to be conformed to the image of Jesus as we wait for the consummation of all things. So we live in the now and the not yet of the kingdom carrying the privileges of being children of God as new creations in a world which, while the old order still exists, is increasingly fading to make way for the new.

Will we walk today in our privilege of being a new creation or will we gravitate to the old? As men and women living as new creations we must reorient our discussions around the broader theme and theology of gender for the sake of our broken world and so that we live out a more effective missional praxis.

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