Following Phoebe

Another 'Plausibility Problem'

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If you've read 'The Plausibility Problem' by Ed Shaw you'll know that the premise of this excellent book is that there is a problem of plausibility when people look at what God asks of people who are same-sex attracted in the Bible. Is it actually a liveable life-style to choose to not fulfil your sexual desires and still be a flourishing human being?

If you haven't read this book, you should definitely do that, it is sensitive, and pastoral, and personal, and I found myself encouraged and challenged to read of such obvious sacrifice to follow Jesus.

And it has been on my mind, the more I think of what God asks of my same-sex attracted brothers and sisters, the more I think...If they have to make such a culturally big sacrifice for the sake of following Jesus, what do I sacrifice, or need to sacrifice?

Because following Jesus means sacrifice. Jesus tells His disciples in Mark chapter 10 that they need to give things up in this life to follow Him. It's costly to be a Christian.

The more I thought about it the more I thought of things like money (giving to church, mission, and the poor and marginalised), ministry (giving time and energy, sometimes vocation), family and friends (some people are disowned after becoming Christians), and then I thought about the area most closely linked to same-sex attraction which started this train of thought - sex and gender.

The hot topics it seems of so much public discourse.

I think partly it is because the cost of following God's ethics around sex and gender is so easily seen in our culture because there is so much relaxing happening around norms and ideas of what is normal for sex and gender.

Obviously this is a huge topic and there are so many areas I could talk about that are hard for Christians who believe that the Bible is God's word and that what it says should be taken as such to figure out how to put in practice. But the one I have been thinking about is women's role in the church.

To our culture, saying that there are some leadership roles in the church that are to be limited to men only sounds old fashioned, misogynistic, and oppressive. That's what it sounded like to me when I first read the texts in the Bible which say these things. It's why there are many Christians who have come to a different way of reading the Bible (using a different hermeneutic) and understand those passages to be culturally or situationally bound and no longer applicable. And I can appreciate how attractive that option is, I really can. There are a lot of things in the Bible that are hard to understand. There are a lot of things which can be painful to read when we first come across them. But to change the way we read the Bible so that we can feel comfortable with something we know is not the way God has made it to be is not the way to go about it I think.

I have discussed in previous posts that I am convinced of a broadly complementarian understanding of the Bible. That God has made humans with two genders and that the way men and women relate to each other in leading and submitting is a picture of God's relationship to the His people with Jesus and the church, His bride.

This is another 'Plausibility Problem' for people in our culture, to use Ed Shaw's language. In our culture women who hold to a complementarian understanding of the bible have to sacrifice desires to exercise their full gifts of preaching if they have it, or sacrifice some desires when it comes to husbands headship sometimes. And men who hold to this conviction, well they are often viewed as oppressive misogynists at worst, and at best, unwitting participators in a patriarchal system.

It is, of course, important to acknowledge that this understanding of gender relationships can and has been abused by Christians throughout history. Especially in Christianised Western cultures, this idea has been twisted and made into something so thoroughly un-biblical that women have been viewed as less intelligent, less competent, less gifted, and less vital to the life of the church.
But that is not the way we see women treated in the Bible when they are treated the way God wants them to be (obviously there are horrendous mistreatments of women in the Bible, but these are not held up as prescriptive examples of how to live, they are always condemned as sinful and shameful...perhaps another post could be spent discussing this...). Although in the New Testament, letters are often addressed by men, to men, women are always talked about as partners in the gospel. They participate in church life and mission but in different ways which reflect submission to husbands and male church leadership.

How can we, as Christian women, live out this theological conviction without becoming doormats, or fostering unhelpful ideas of what Christianity is about?

How can we do this as women and give beautiful picture of Jesus to outside world without being 'those oppressed women'?

How can we, as Christian men, live this out without being seen as oppressive and belittling?

Well I have been thinking of a few things that could be helpful.

  1. Make sure we teach that it's not only women who need to sacrifice their desires. Ephesians 5 tells husbands they must love their wives like Jesus loves the church, by laying their life down for her. That's a big sacrifice! We need to be clear that the God doesn't only call women to sacrifice in relating to men, but also men to sacrifice in relating to women. Similarly in the church biblical manhood is not about dominance, but sacrifice. 1 Peter 5 talks about leading as an example, not domineering. 1 Timothy 5 talks about treating older men and women as fathers and mothers, and younger men and women as brothers and sisters in the way we relate to them. Teaching a whole theology of the way men and women relate to each other shows that having men as leaders is not so offensive because they aren't supposed to be patriarchal in oppresive way, but instead in a fatherly, paternal way. Just as women are to be maternal.

  2. Explain the positives behind the negatives. I recently heard Sam Allberry use this as part of how we talk about same-sex attraction, but I think it applies here. Explaining the Bible's big picture of gender not just being 'because God said so', but showing the more beautiful big picture that marriage and the relationship between men and women points towards - being in perfect relationship with God in heaven. It is so much more compelling a reason to surrender your desires than simply saying 'the Bible says'.

  3. Be real about gender stereotypes. Yes there is a difference between men and women, and the Bible teaches that there are these leader/helper roles. But the Bible does not say blue is for boys and pink is for girls. There are many things which are culturally bound stereotypes about what we think are masculine and feminine and these change over time. During biblical times in the Middle-East it was normal for men to wear tunics. Aka. a garment which had one tube of cloth around both legs, like a dress. In 21st century Western culture, a man wearing a dress is not a cultural norm of masculine dress. In Georgian times, men wore wigs and high heels and that was considered masculine as it covered male pattern balding and emphasised muscular legs. In the present day, not seen as so masculine. We need to make sure that in teaching that men and women are different, we are not teaching stereotypical gender which are not necessary in expressing masculinity and femininity. This will hopefully mean that things which are feminine will not be scary or threatening to men and vice versa. Toxic masculinity that is scared of feminine things is rife and breeds a contempt for women, and also for men who are more stereotypically feminine in their voice or manner.

  4. Model sacrifice in other parts of life. So when we make sacrifices in the area of gender, it makes sense in cohesive Christian worldview. Following Jesus is about putting others before yourself, following the example of the servant king who made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

I guess what I'm saying is, we need a holistic approach to sacrifice for Jesus to make living for him plausible to outsiders. And this is something I want to think about more.

  1. Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash ↩︎

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