We finished the series looking at the church as the joy of the whole earth, a place where beautiful differences are held and expressed. We looked at it through gender, gifts and generations. You can download the message here: Beautiful Difference or read on for a transcript.
Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God!
His holy mountain, 2 beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
3 Within her citadels God
has made himself known as a fortress.
4 For behold, the kings assembled;
they came on together.
5 As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
they were in panic; they took to flight.
— Psalm 48:1-5
The Blueprint of the church in scripture is of a people radically different from the wider world they live. For the past 3 months we’ve explored some of the sketches the Bible presents for us: city, family, bride, field, movement, buttress of truth and more (available to listen to/download here: Blueprint).
The city of God, the psalmist says, is the joy of the whole earth. This term we’ve been ‘walking around the city’ together and ‘thinking on the steadfast love of God.’ to quote psalm 48.
In the New Testament the marvelling and celebrating over the people of God continues:
Through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’
— Ephesians 3:10
It isn’t only the visitors to the city who marvel but the ‘rulers and authorities in heavenly places’ (angels, & demons).
What is the manifold wisdom of God that Paul’s announcing?
In Ephesians it is the uniting into one people from two peoples. Jew & gentile coming together as one to show how wise and powerful God is. But this uniting of hostile or different parties isn’t seen only in the uniting of different people groups. In Galatians Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. The manifold wisdom of God on display in the church, the joy of the whole earth, is displayed in the beautiful difference on display.
Against that backdrop, let’s get into it and start by looking at the various approaches to difference and what Christianity’s answer to them is: Gender…
First of, the world is a divided world with many irreconcilable and distinct differences in it.
The creation poem in Genesis shows this:
Light / darkness,
Day / night,
Summer / winter,
Seas / sky,
Land / sea
Those things aren’t one and the same or interchangeable.
The atheist writer and social critic Camille Paglia points out more distinctions from her work on ancient civilisations and the art world:
Earth / sky
Land / Rain
Female / male (female association with mother earth; Job quote ‘naked I came from mother’s womb, naked I shall return there.’)
Body / Head (distinction between body magic and head magic)
Curves / Lines
Cyclical / Linear
Internal / External
Invisible / Visible
Eastern / Western
Chaos / Order
Nature / Society
The fact that there are differences/opposites in the world ought to be self-evident. It is often the case that these differences are set against one another, often in conflict. Female vs male, eastern vs western, nature vs society. In the beginning however the difference between the man and woman wasn’t a source of conflict but of joy.
In the creation account when God makes Adam he forms alone. Adam is placed in a garden and commissioned to keep it but early on it becomes clear that he isn’t complete, he cannot complete and carry out what God wants him to do on his own. Next, he declares his aloneness ‘not good’ and tries to find a partner/helper for him. He parades the animals in front of him to emphasise the difference between him and the animals.
(See: Jen Wilkins ‘not like me, not like me…’ here for more on this.)
But when God creates male and female, the first word spoken (despite obvious differences) is ‘same’.
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
— Genesis 2:23
There is obvious difference but there is also an appreciation of similarity; there is a celebration of the other without competition.
We’re then told that it is ‘male and female’ together who reflect the image of God, not male alone and not female alone. Gen. 5:1 ‘When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them.’ Author Alastair Roberts puts it like this:
We tend to think of the standard unit of humanity as being the individual. But the unit of humanity in scripture is the man and woman made in the image of God. Male and female are akin to two magnetic poles structuring time always in reference to one another. Humanity is irreducibly two, it cannot be broken down.
— Alastair Roberts:
Male & female are different but beautifully so, and in order to fully express God’s image and complete God’s mission they need one another.
Sadly however the story doesn’t end there.
After the man and woman disobey God, their relationship changes as brokenness enters the world. The difference between men and women becomes a source of friction.
Gen. 3:16 ‘your desire will be for/against your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ So we end up with books like ‘Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus’ men say (as if to emphasise our difference) ‘you can’t understand a woman,’ and women say ‘if you want a job done right, get a woman to do it.’ And the conflict grows. And the conflict still grows.
In every society, owing in part to the man’s greater strength than the women but owing mostly to his sin nature, women have been oppressed and abused by men and it is far from over. As the recent scandals in government and Hollywood have shown and along with #metoo campaign and statistics that tell us that something like 1in4 women in the uk have been victims of sexual abuse. The conflict continues.
As Christians it’s our belief that men and women are each made in the image and likeness of God, that means that women ought to be treated with the honour and dignity that is theirs as co-image bearers with men. The laws of nature won’t lead us that sort of mutual honour. In fact the laws of nature are red in tooth and claw, it is a dog eat dog, dominance hierarchy where the strong eat or rape the weak. One approach to the difference is to embrace conflict and look to establish who’s better than whom.
This other approach, the opposite problem, is that of denying that there are any differences at all.
In modern times we’ve done away with the ‘heaven and earth’ distinction, the ‘visible and invisible’, and increasingly any ‘spiritual’ things at all; that’s what atheism is.
Along with this (and as a result of this?), there is also a growing move to ‘do away’ with the differences between men and women as well. Gender is a social construct we’re told and our sex ought to have no bearing at all on our identity.
In the 1970s the social activist and radical feminist Shulamith Firestone wrote:
The end goal of the feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself… The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least with the option of) artificial reproduction… The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.
When she wrote it in the 70s much of what she said must have seemed utterly bizarre, but now her ideas are much more mainstream.
More recently, writing in the Guardian newspaper in May, journalist Amy Westervelt points out that the topic of motherhood comes up in just 3% of all the recent papers, journal articles and textbooks on gender theory.
She also comments that for years women’s magazines have written articles on female sexuality promising ‘great sex’ whilst at the same time also being committed to a policy of ‘we don’t do motherhood’. The fact that sex could lead to motherhood for women is seen by many as oppressive. Just as sex differences are being slowly eradicated so is the value and importance of motherhood. Increasingly the state plays the role of the parent and if a young girl tells her careers advisor that she wants to be a mother when she grows up, she is likely given strange stares and offered counselling.
We devalue motherhood at our peril, we seek to do away with the differences between the sexes at our peril as well.
The Christian message, however is different. Rather than putting our differences against one another or denying them altogether, the Bible teaches that we need one another, that although different we complement one another; as gravy complements chips or as cheese complements wine, the two work to enhance and improve the other.
In the gospel God reconciles our differences by making the divided, united, the two, one. Jew, gentile, male, female, slave, free.
In his passage on how men and women ought to pray in church with the discussion on head coverings Paul concludes by saying:
‘Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.’
— 1 Corinthians 11:9
Men and women are meant to honour one another as men and as women, recognising the value and beauty of both. In churches there ought to be no derogatory joking or sexist remarks, just as there should be no chauvinism, belittling, racism, nor classism. There should be no statements about inferiority of any kind among God’s people.
C.S. Lewis writing about the eventual destiny of men and women in Christ saw this, saw the value and significance of the people around him and he wrote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible Gods and Goddesses. To remember that the dullest, and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.
In a society where women are not honoured as women, the society suffers and in a society where men are not honoured as men it also suffers. We live in a society where, as we’ve seen, motherhood is not honoured and valued as a high calling, and the same could be said of fatherhood. The image in popular culture of what a father is is Daddy Pig and Phil Dunfey from Modern Family.
I like Daddy Pig & Phil Dunfey(!) but if a grown up, slightly clumsy & goofy playmate for their kids is about all a man can hope for as a father it’s no wonder fatherhood in our society is in a crisis as well.
Fatherhood, needs protecting and honouring in part because of its difference from motherhood. A Father can much more easily avoid being a dad than a mother can avoid being a mum. When a child is born the midwife never says to the woman ‘who’s the mother?’(!) because she saw where the baby came from.
On the other hand, every time a couple take a child to register its birth the registrar always says ‘who’s the father?’ Because it isn’t obvious! And it’s at that moment a good man will step up and say ‘I am.’ – and it is a statement he will need to make again and again in that child’s life – I am his father, I am her father.’ But it’s a statement that fewer men are making:
In 1972 1in14 households in the UK were fatherless, now it would be 1in4.
What’s more; there 236 local authorities in England and Wales in which more then 50% of the families don’t have fathers.
This is awful and catastrophic. That is what happens when a doesn’t honour men and women but instead when a society is bent on denying difference and devaluing distinctions between people.
It ought not to be the case in the church. It mustn’t be the case in the church.
The New Testament teaches that the church, as the household and family of God, needs fathers it needs men who are going to take responsibility for and protect the church and it’s a requirement that God puts on men as early on as Genesis.
When the man and the woman disobey God and eat the fruit of the tree, it is the man that God speaks to and addresses. It is the man who is called to account, to take the responsibility and the blame for the actions of the entire human race; we are described as being ‘in Adam’ rather than Eve because a man was created as the representative head.
When the Bible calls the husband the head of his wife it is with this imagery in mind. To be the head doesn’t simply mean that he’s ‘the boss’ or ‘in charge’ any more than in a physical body the head is the boss of the heart; they work together. It is the man’s responsibility before God to be on the look out for trouble, to honour and protect his wife and family and to embody God’s fatherly authority.
God the Father is the model for fathers, the model for husbands and the model for elders in the church. God the Father glorifies and honours God the Son, and so it is the job of the head to honour the heart and ensure its flourishing and full expression.
The way this translates into the life of a local church (which is called the family of God) is that its male leaders are called elders. Paul lays out the requirements for eldership:
An overseer (in the church) must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household how will he care for God’s.
1 Timothy 3:1-3
The pattern is – to oversee or govern in the church, to be a father in the church, a man must be able to oversee and father effectively in his own home. Elders are men called by God and appointed to guard and lead the church, not exclusively (or independently of women it should be said) but nevertheless they are to do it distinctly and deliberately.
But, as with the other aspects of our difference, so here; the way an elder is to govern is as a servant, seeking to become less in order that the church’s members become more.
My friend and church leader Phil Moore says: eldership isn’t meant to monopolise leadership but to mobilise it. Elders are given in order for a church to release others into leadership and positions of authority; because that’s what fathers do.
Elders, are men who are told to take responsibility for the guarding of the church family. They are meant to take the rap for its shortcomings and failures, and it is men as elders who are meant to step up to the block first and offer their necks to the sword before anyone else. Christ offered his life for the church, and asks men to follow him in doing likewise.
In the book of Acts Paul and Barnabas address a church to encourage them saying ‘it is through much hardship that we must enter the kingdom of heaven,’ and then immediately afterwards appoint elders. It is part of how a church prepares for and survives hardship, by appointing fathers who get hit first when trouble comes; because, again that’s what fathers do.
It is true also that churches need mothers, it’s just that that isn’t what’s being referred to when Paul speaks of elders and the governing structure in a church. Given that the man bears a name used by God ‘father’ it is God’s call on him that he be discouraged from sitting back passively on the sidelines, and embody God’s action in the world.
Families need men who engage in family life as an act of embodying God. Churches need men who step up, rather than step back and refuse to let others take the blame for the state of the church. Again, that isn’t to say that women shouldn’t or that they can’t; it’s just I’m here talking about eldership.
It should also be stressed again that eldership is distinct from leadership and the gift of leadership, as we’ll see when we come on to talking about gifts. Although not independent of leadership, it is distinct from it.
In this church we have men and women in leadership positions across the church, together using their gifts, together guiding the church and making decisions. Our senior leadership team (to use the language common in the world) is made up of men and women. It doesn’t surprise me when a woman has a stronger leadership gift than her husband nor does it surprise me if she’s a better preacher. Our difference isn’t a difference of ability but a difference of kind. Men, as fathers and potential fathers, are called to take account for the church even though it’s the men and women together who end up steering it.
There are women who are recognised as mothers within the church, and the church needs them.
We’ve not done so publicly but as we move forward together it’s going to become increasingly important that we do honour and recognise the various leadership roles people play in the church. The mothering that women like Jane and Ruth have taken on ought to be commended and honoured, the level of maternal care and concern that women like Polly and Amy feel for the church here needs valuing as well.
In the church there ought to be a recognition and honouring of the beautiful differences between the sexes, and not a toxic competitiveness or a blancmange of non-distinction. The church needs fathers and mothers.
And so we come to gifts. The church is a place where both men and women should flourish and is the place where part of that flourishing is a result of us using and honouring our various gifts. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit… faith, healing, miracles, prophecy,
NB: for the common good
V26 ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’
And the instruction is given in Romans 12:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness
NB: no gender restrictions are applied in any of this.
God has given you gifts that are to be used to help strengthen and build the body of believers you’re a part of. Here again we see the temptation to compete, to set our gifts against each other: that gift is better than my gift, or ‘I’m not valuable because I don’t have his/her gift.’ And also the temptation to deny any distinction at all: that we’re all superstars at everything. My friend went to his child’s parents evening recently where the teacher said something similar to that; and he had to try and insist that his son wasn’t good at everything, he said it was quite an amusing battle.
We need to honour and celebrate difference without being threatened by one another
Part of our brokenness shows itself in the way we often feel devalued when someone else is honoured rather than rejoicing in and sharing in their honour. When I compliment one of my kids and not the other when they’re together, the other always protests and so I have to teach them – I’m not devaluing you by honouring them, rejoice when they’re honoured and trust that there are times when you’ll be honoured and your brother won’t.
The chances are that if you don’t know what your weaknesses are or if you feel embarrassed or awkward that you have any weaknesses at all, you’re not through on this.
In the church we ought to work hard to ensure none of us derives our value, worth or identity from our gifts.
Instead we want to celebrate the beautiful differences at work among us and then we will be able to relate to what Paul says: when one is honoured, all rejoice together.
Lastly, and very briefly, this brings us to another aspect of beautiful difference, that of generational differences.
The church is the joy of the whole earth because it is the place that men and women recognise their beautiful difference, where each member recognises the beautiful difference of the gifts in use and also it is a family where the generations honour and respect one another’s differences.
Again this is counter-cultural. We live in a society and a time obsessed with youth and in a culture that pushes its elderly to the margins and discounts their opinions; demonising their choices, as was seen with the Brexit vote of two years ago.
I’ve heard of some people saying they don’t go to church prayer meetings because too many old people go, or certainly not enough young(!) and I met a visiting couple one Sunday say in a rather disgusted tone ‘there’s so many young people,’ – they’ve never come back.
Instead let’s seek to be a church that honours and celebrates the beautiful differences among us. The church BBQ last week, was a fantastic vision of family, to see older people and younger people together.
The church is a community of brothers and sisters (and not just potential sex partners), of mothers and fathers, grandads and grandmas; a place where people are honoured and nurtured to become all that God has called them to be.
My prayer and hope is that the church in this town and across the world lives up to the her potential and possibility.
My prayer is that one day the world will be caught aghast by the beauty of the church, that like a diamond lying in the muddy banks of a Congolese river and like a flower bursting through a dusty and dry African plain, so the church would be seen in our towns, against the backdrop of an increasingly godless society.
The joy of the whole earth is a community of people where the poor are honoured, and treated with the dignity and value they have, where the rich aren’t deceived into putting their hopes or identity in their wealth.
The joy of the whole earth is a community where our cultural backgrounds play second or third fiddle to our identity in Christ, that people wouldn’t say ‘I’m too English to understand these Africans, or I’m too American to get along with these Asians.’ But instead we’d see ourselves as one in Christ united by him. And we’d work through our misunderstandings.
The joy of the whole is a community where men and women behave like brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, where greatness is seen in terms of servanthood and the old make way for the young, cheering them on at every step and misstep and the young defer to the old and listen to and seek out for their advice.
That, and nothing less than that, is what God has called us to be. That is the Blueprint of the church, that is the joy of the whole earth, a community of beautiful difference expressed in gender, gifts and generations.
And all of that is possible because of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ death was an act of destruction, He destroyed the dividing walls of hostility between people and genders, but hie death was also an act of creation; on the cross he was uniting all people under him the head over all things.