Gender and Grace


While volunteering at a women’s empowerment organization in Papua for the past year, one way I found I could contribute to the work being done there was to share ideas that I had access to as an English speaker. For example, reading the book Gender and Grace by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and writing a brief summary of her perspective for P3W’s quarterly newsletter. I was fortunate to be with a helpful staff who translated my writing, or were willing to take on the task of editing my own writing in Bahasa Indonesia, making it accessible to readers in Papua. Here’s the English version, just to give you an idea of some of what I did in Papua:

This is one perspective on humanity’s fall from grace and its impact on the way men and women relate to one another, as found in the book Gender and Grace by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, a Christian Psychologist from Canada.

Men and women were created equal:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27

When God refers to God’s self in the plural, as “we,” God is likely referring to the trinity. God is an inherently social being, and Van Leeuwen points out that, throughout the Bible, we see “Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit working in cooperative interdependence.” Being made in God’s image, we are social as well.

Genesis 1:26-27 present another aspect of God’s image within us – what Van Leeuwen calls “accountable dominion.” Each and every person, from the very beginning, is called to be a steward of God’s creation. We are given this responsibility by God and are accountable to God.

Unfortunately, the world is not the way that it was originally intended to be. Including the way that men and women relate to one another. Although Eve gave into temptation first, Adam was soon to follow. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

In Van Leeuwen’s interpretation of creation and the fall, men and women have been given punishments that are reflective of their respective sins, as described in Genesis chapter 3.

Adam abused his calling to be a social being in placing his unity with Eve over his primary responsibility to obey God’s commands. Therefore, he was punished and his responsibility to practice accountable dominion was distorted, which continues to play out today as “domination.”

Eve abused her responsibility to practice accountable dominion over creation in accepting the fruit from the serpent. Therefore, her punishment is to have her natural sociability distorted. Instead of exercising her God-given responsibility to practice dominion alongside her partner, she submits to his domination. She refrains from taking risks and voicing her opinions in order to maintain social relationships and harmony.

Because this reality is a result of sin and not an intended part of creation, all people are called to work to overcome this unnatural imbalance in our homes and in our society.

Van Leeuwen points out that periods of spiritual revival are when we most often see Christians set aside traditional gender roles in the church. It is in these times, when we are filled with the Spirit, that we are best able and most free to move beyond this bondage. It is in these times that we best understand that we are Christians first, and men, women, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, second.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galations 3:28

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4 Comments on “Gender and Grace

  1. “Therefore, he was punished and his responsibility to practice accountable dominion was distorted, which continues to play out today as “domination.”

    Instead of exercising her God-given responsibility to practice dominion alongside her partner, she submits to his domination. She refrains from taking risks and voicing her opinions in order to maintain social relationships and harmony.”

    I don’t know if I agree with that conclusion; it seems as if Van Leeuwen just pulled it out out thin air. Also, how is this thought reconciled with Ephesians 5:22-33?

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    • Thanks much for the question about Ephesians 5:22-33. The short answer is – I don’t know. But here are some thoughts:

      1. I want to emphasize first off that this is just a synopsis if one aspect of this book. If you really want to understand the author’s reasoning in her own words, check out the book: Gender & Grace. It’s a good read.

      2. Based on Gen 1:26-27, men and women were clearly created equal and given equal responsibilities on earth.

      3. The Fall changed the way we relate to one another, and to God.

      4. Jesus changed the way that we relate to one another, and to God, again. He loved and respected women the same way he loved and respected men and we’re supposed to be following his example. Always.

      5. Ephesians 5:22-33 is confusing, and often hard for me to accept. For further understanding on this topic, I turned to my friend, Elaine, who is much more qualified to speak on this topic. I asked her about biblical authority. Here’s a quote from her:
      Being able to read the texts as texts, historically situated and written by real human beings, requires an understanding of the authority of the Bible as something other than the literal, word for word, Word of God that we have to follow without any question. Which none of us do anyway. What is authoritative about the Bible for me is that it is a record of God’s people struggling to understand the doings and will of God in very real situations and with the inspiration of the Spirit coupled with the limitations of being human beings.

      When it comes to husbandly headship as described in Ephesians 2:22-33, it’s interesting how men are called to love their wives and women are called to respect their husbands. Do you think that is ideal? Or would it be even better if both loved and respected one another mutually? I think God would approve of that situation as well. If two partners are united as one (verse 31) then how could one really be above the other? And we can’t forget Eph 5:21 – You will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

      6. I just want to re-emphasize point number 4, above. Jesus embodied servant leadership and love and peace and justice and forgiveness, and just about every good thing that the world needs more of and that we are lacking as human beings. Yet he gives us hope to aspire to those things. He was radical and rejected the status quo. We need to figure out how that applies to us today in our culture and society. How can each human being work to honor and love one’s neighbor/partner/sibling/friend/enemy each day? I just don’t know how figuring out who is the boss of who contributes to spreading God’s love.

      7. We call the gospel the good news, but shouldn’t it be called the awesome news?

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  2. I’m not quite sure how clear Gen 1:26-27 is. I can definitely see how it can be interpreted as man and woman being equal, but I don’t think it’s that clear.

    Also, the very next chapter sets up a different relationship between God, man, and woman in Genesis 2:18-25.

    If men and women are truly equal, how does the Catholic church rationalize the exclusion of women from ordination? (this opens up another can of worms, so feel free to sideline this point for now)

    In terms of marriage, I do think it’s best if both love and respect one another mutually. However, I also think there also needs to be some sort of agreement about who has the final say. I envision critical decisions being stalled because if each person has one equal vote, then decisions can remain tied in a completely equal system. Thus, I think having someone who’s the lead is a good thing.

    However, having said that, this is in no way a settled issue for me. I am often feel conflicted in how I should partner with my significant other.

    In the meantime, I shall proclaim the awespel (that’s etymologically correct, I think)!

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    • First of all, I’d just like to say thank you for mentioning that this is not a settled issue for you. It’s always a good reminder for me to stay open minded myself. That said, I will attempt to explain my perspective further.

      I’m more than happy to sideline the Catholic Church question as I regrettably know very little about the Catholic way. I think it would be fascinating to hear why women should not be ordained as priests, because I whole-heartedly disagree.

      Going back to the issue of Biblical authority. The bible is not our only source of guidance, as Christians, yes? To me, it is clear that Genesis 1:27 proclaims men and women, and all people, to be created equally in God’s image. In other words, no person is more or less a representation of God than another. Then again, I do not read the Bible from an unbiased perspective. I don’t know of anyone who could. Its message is tainted/amplified/explained by my life experiences, mentors, books, etc. And by far the most important influence on how I read the Bible, in my opinion, is the way that God’s spirit moves in my life on an on-going basis.

      So coming from my perspective on who God is – as I understand God’s character to be – I am assured that all people are created equal. This verse in particular makes a reference to gender, but it could be any number of personal traits. There are many inequalities in the world, but none of them come from God. God loves us too much. Inequality in society is a result of human shortcomings.*

      Therefore, my perspective is based on the premise that men are no more or less God-like than women are. Now, if you disagree with that premise, then we’ll probably just have to agree to disagree on the whole thing.

      You mentioned that it may, at some point in a marriage, become necessary for a final decision to be made to get out of some sort of a stalemate. I have heard this argument from a few different people before, but it is just really difficult for me to come up with a realistic scenario in which no compromise can be made. I would love to hear about a hypothetical situation from your perspective, if you wouldn’t mind indulging me.

      The great thing about this Ephesians 5 passage we’re looking at is how much it emphasizes that a man should love his wife. I’ve heard a great sermon from Rock Harbor Church on this passage that explains how revolutionary this passage was for its time and context. If, hypothetically, the man finds it necessary or reasonable or important to put his foot down, or make a final call (however you want to phrase it), the decision must be made in love, and if I may extend that idea with a bit of creative license, it must honestly be in the best interest of the wife and family, not in the man’s best interest alone.

      So maybe it could be OK. Maybe it doesn’t have to be the unhappy marriage I imagine when I read “wives must submit to your husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:24). I could see it going either way. However, I would like to be married to someone who values me as an equal partner in our marriage. I believe that couples should seek God’s will for their life together for their family, walking together in partnership, recognizing and complementing one another’s spiritual gifts. And everyone, life partners in particular, have to have a lot of grace for one another. Because of course, without grace, healthy relationships just aren’t possible.

      So that’s where I’m coming from. I hope you do continue to consider how things thing can play out in practice and then of course be open to tweaking how things go along the way. It’s one thing for us to say what we believe, but a whole other game when it comes to living it out in daily life.

      *Gender is just one aspect of who we are. It is no more reason for unequal status than economic status, race, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability – you name it. And yet throughout history, human beings have justified categorizing people in such ways as to place some people on a higher level than others. Ok, getting off my soapbox now…

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