August 31, 2014

(Un)equal Partners

When it comes to politics these days, the sound bite is king.  These short audio or video clips are extremely powerful.  Because people don’t really listen long and hard to genuine arguments about opposing positions a politician (or party) who can generate some really catchy one-liners is likely to do better than the candidate who can’t.  It has gotten to the point that clever sound bites can take the place of substance.  If you can grab hold of a witty one-liner you can usually get voters to pay attention to that instead of actually analyzing your policy proposals and thinking through whether or not they are any good.  Perhaps one of the best examples of this in recent memory was President Obama’s original campaign slogan “Hope and Change.”  Whether or not you agree with anything he’s done, you have to admit that in 2008 most voters latched on to the ideals of hope and change without worrying much about how they were defined.  As the 2010 election cycle came and especially in the 2012 cycle another sound bite became the rallying cry for many politicians.  This one spoke more to a longstanding awareness that in spite of overtures to the contrary, our culture is not a totally level playing field in many different areas of life.  Well, the perception by some is that one of these areas is the relationship between men and women.  In light of this, the slogan that was adopted was anchored around the phrase “War on Women.”  We were told over and over again that there is a war on women in this country; that people who thought certain ways about certain issues were committed to seeing women become once again the rough equivalents to slaves as they were in ages past.

Well, while all this language and sound-bitery wasn’t always or often applied to the church, the church has had its own image problems in our culture when it comes to women for a long time.  The church has often been criticized as demeaning women; as treating them as second-class citizens; as considering them inferior to men; as relegating them to making babies, caring for babies, and otherwise staying out of the way.  What more the folks making these kinds of charges seem to have Scripture to back them up.  There are some passages in the New Testament in particular that are awfully hard to understand when read through a modern cultural lens.  These and other passages when combined with the way men in the church have sometimes treated and talked about women in the past (and present) have led not a few folks, particularly female folks, to the conclusion that the church really doesn’t care all that much for women.  From there it is not a far leap to thinking that God must not care all that much for women, that He, in fact, hates women.  But is this true?  Is that the God we believe in?

Before we try to answer that, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page.  This morning we are wrapping up a four-part series called The God I Don’t Believe In.  If you missed any of the first three parts or if you were wanting to share them with someone else you can visit our website and either read or listen to them there.  So far in this series we have taken a look at the god who makes his followers dumb, the god who really only cares for the rich, and after rocking out with the High Road Gospel Band, last week we looked at the god who hates gay people.  What we have found in each of these cases is that these are false gods who Christians can join with our culture in emphatically rejecting.  Gods like that aren’t worthy of our worship and our job as Christians is to share with people about the God who most definitely is.  Well this morning as we take a look at one final false god we are going to see why we don’t believe in a god who hates women either.

You see, in spite of criticism on passages in the New Testament that are indeed hard to understand without careful analysis, the overall picture we get from Scripture is of a God who is just as fiercely committed to the well-being of the fairer half of the human species as He is the men.  Now, there are a couple of ways we could go about demonstrating this.  We could painstakingly work through each of these hard passages in order to show why the interpretations assumed by critics are probably not the most correct.  It would take us a couple of hours, but we could get there.  Given, though, that you probably don’t want to sit in here for a couple more hours, not to mention I would run out of both water and voice by then, there is a better way.  If we go all the way back to the beginning of the Bible’s story of how we came to be and what God’s plans for us are in order to see how God designed things to work initially, we just might find a clue as to how things were always supposed to be.  Any drift from that would be the result not of a God who hates women, but of a people broken by sin.

With that in mind, open up a nearby copy of the Scriptures and turn or thumb your way to Genesis.  This first word in the Bible begins at the beginning with God creating the world and everything in it.  After creating the heavens and the earth and all the plants and animals in it, God has a really good thing going.  The place is beautiful and meets resoundingly with His approval.  He repeats over and over again how good it all is.  But as good and beautiful as creation is at this point God has saved the best for last.  There is one more creature to make and this one will be the pinnacle of the peak.  The telling of this signature achievement of creation is summarized in Genesis 1:26-27.  Check this out with me: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Now, I realize there’s a lot going on there.  There are some really big theological concepts at play here about which scholarly types have debated for centuries.  We’re not going to get into all those this morning.  I want to stay focused on the task at hand.  So then, what’s going on here and how does this speak to a God who doesn’t hate women?  Look at this with me in a bit more detail.  This first part of the creation narrative is more generalized.  It speaks of God creating whole classes of creatures.  God doesn’t create lions and lemurs and llamas and Labradors.  He creates animals that live on the land.  And He doesn’t create pelicans and pigeons and penguins and parakeets.  He creates birds.  And He doesn’t create goldish and groupers and gar and great white sharks.  He creates creatures that live in the sea.  Given that, when God says here, “Let us make man in our image,” is He talking about creating specifically men?  Well, the Hebrew word there is adam.  The word does have “man” in its interpretive range, and it did become the proper first name of the first man, but that’s not the whole story.  It can also mean “humans,” “humankind,” “mankind,” “people,” and a variety of other non-gender specific words.  This case is furthered when you see that after announcing His plans to create “man,” God says He is going to give them dominion over the earth.  The three-part poetic formula of v. 27 helps to draw this out even more.  The first two lines there use all singular nouns and pronouns.  The third, though, switches to plural and appropriately reads, “Male and female he created them.”  The point here is that while men and women were not created in the same way we do share equally in the image of God.  In fact, to help you remember this idea I came up with a little rhyme.  It’s cheesy, but that’ll help it stick.  Are you ready for this?  Here it is: Both women and men, we’re all made like Him.  Say that with me.  Both women and men, we’re all made like Him.  And think about this with me now: If women and men were both created in the image of God, what do you think is the likelihood that God values one half of the creatures that bear His image more than the other?  I’d have to say…nil.

Yeah, but what about those folks who argue that God made Adam first and so he thinks men are somehow more special for it?  The quick answer?  They don’t know what they’re talking about and may not have actually read the story.  Flip over to Genesis 2 with me right quick.  It’s true that God made Adam before Eve.  But this doesn’t have anything to do with how much God was going to value him relative to his wife.  It has everything to do with the roles he had for each of them to play in creation…which will also have to be the subject of another sermon.  Getting to the point, we can dispense with the inequality of value nonsense pretty quickly just by paying attention to how the story unfolds.  God creates Adam from the dust and sets him to working the land.  After a short while, though, God notices that “it’s not good for man to be alone.”  Deeper theological truths to the side for the moment, ladies, how many of you could have told God that before He even started with creation?  In any event, God notices it too and sets out to solve the problem.  He gives Adam the job of naming all the animals.  That means Adam has to do at least some kind of an analysis of all the animals.  Now, I don’t know how exactly that worked and right now that isn’t important.  The important thing here is that God was essentially giving Adam a chance to survey all of creation in order to find a suitable partner for himself.  He matches up Adam with all the various animals of the world to see if any of them resonate with him.  For the most part it goes pretty well.  The situation with the lion got a little dicey and the mosquito didn’t work out so well, but on the whole it wasn’t bad.  And yet, not a single one of them fit the bill.  There wasn’t a single creature in all of creation that was a suitable companion for him…not even the dogs.

Because there is no suitable creature in all of creation that can serve as a fitting helper for the man, God creates one.  Now, the word “helper” there gives some folks a bit of heartburn.  It translates the Hebrew word ezer.  When we hear the word “helper” we tend to think of a subordinate person who provides a useful service, but whose contribution doesn’t really add anything of great value.  The Hebrew word ezer, on the other hand, communicates the idea of someone who literally “supplies strength in the area that is lacking.”  The ezer is neither stronger nor weaker than the one being helped, but is rather a complementary partner.  The natural modern question here and the issue about which many people today are concerned is this: are they equal partners?  Well, that depends on what you mean by “equal.”  If by “equal” you mean, do they have the same value, then the answer is yes.  Remember: Both women and men, we’re all made like Him.  But, if by “equal” you mean, are they the same, can they do the same things, do they have the same roles, and so on…this isn’t going to make me very popular, but the answer is no.  Men and women aren’t the same.  Modern cultural revisionists who argue things like gender is merely a social construct or that men and women are interchangeable are wrong.  The woman was created to be the man’s ezer, not his equal.

Now then, let me give voice to the criticism that is surely coming: “Well there you have it!  The preacher said it from the pulpit.  He thinks men and women aren’t equal; that women are just supposed to be the helpers for their men.  God may not hate women but this kind of language is what has led to their being mistreated by the church for centuries.  Why can’t you just embrace the realities of the modern world and get with the times?   Women can do all the things men can do.  We are equal!”  No, we’re not; not in the modern sense of equality being conflated with sameness.  Men and women are built differently.  Modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are wired differently.  There are some tasks that men simply do better than women.  There are some tasks that have women running circles around men.  Men tend to be physically stronger than women.  Women tend to be more emotionally intuitive than men.  In short, men and women are not the same.  God didn’t design them to be that way.  But, this doesn’t mean there’s any difference in value.  Both women and men, we’re all made like Him.

Men were created uniquely for a specific role in the administration of creation.  Women were created uniquely for a specific role in the administration of creation.  Yes, the woman was designed as the man’s helper, but think again about the definition of ezer with me.  The ezer “supplies strength in the area that is lacking.”  Folks, far from being superior to the woman, the man wasn’t complete without her…and God knew it!  When we read the second, more detailed creation story in Genesis 2, it’s written with some dramatic flair to make it exciting (and it was), but in light of the summary version in chapter 1, God knew that He was going to create women too.  Our joking earlier to the side, the man’s incompleteness on his own came as no surprise to God.  The man…and thus creation as a whole…wasn’t complete without the woman.  If you want to look at it this way, God’s final pronouncement that creation was “very good” didn’t come until the woman was created.  She was the final jewel in the crown.  God designed her and the man to be a matched set, totally different from one another and yet perfectly complementary of each other.  We were created for different roles in the caring for of His world, but we are both possessed of an inestimable value as far as God is concerned.  Both women and men, we’re all made like Him.

The god who hates women?  He’s out there.  But that’s not the God I believe in.  The God I believe in created women with care and grace and is passionately concerned with their well-being.  He views them as having an integral role in the world He made and not simply as man’s “helper.”  He’s a perfect Father who looks on each woman as a treasured daughter and doesn’t take kindly to those who would abuse or mistreat His little girls.  That’s the God I believe in.  In fact, everywhere this God is worshiped, the place of women in society is advanced light years beyond where the majority culture has it.  Since the earliest days of the church, cultures shaped by the Christian faith have treated women very differently (better) than those not so impacted.  Just look around the world today for evidence.

How does the Muslim world treat women?  Not good.  Girls are so undervalued in places like China and India that sex-selective abortions—widely practiced in spite of their official illegality—have resulted in there being somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million fewer women in the world than there should be.  The machismo culture of Latin America views women largely as objects to be controlled by the stronger men.  The various communist regimes on the planet have actually made concrete efforts to treat men and women as if they were the same and the result, culturally speaking, has been a disaster.  Even in the ostensibly Christianized Western world women are often treated as little more than objects to be visually enjoyed.  Just survey a magazine rack at a local bookstore if you want proof.  The simple fact is, whatever contrary claims they might make, cultures which do not embrace the Gospel have a terrible record as far as their treatment of women.

It is only the church who has ever given women the honor and respect they deserve.  It is only those folks who have paid attention to what the God who is worthy of worship said and did about women who have treated them as they deserve.  It is only those folks who are able to walk the line between on the one hand treating women as little better than household slaves and often worse as most cultures in the world have done, and on the other hand treating men and women as if there were no differences between them at all as much of the modern world has done.  It is only folks who follow the God we do believe in who recognize that both women and men, we’re all made like Him.  Forget the god who hates women.  We believe in and serve the God who created them uniquely and for a specific and vital role in His world; who sent His Son to die for them in order that they might become fully who He created them to be; indeed, who loves them.  Both women and men, we’re all made like Him.  Now, are there more weeds here to pull; baggage to unload?  There sure is, but that’ll have to wait for another time.  If we can start in this right place, though, those other issues will be a lot easier to tackle.  Both women and men, we’re all made like Him; the God who is worthy of worship.