Men, Women, and the Place of True Equality
Over the past 40 years, topic of men and women and our function in the local church has been one of the leading discussions in Christian circles. Unfortunately, the topic is often marred by controversy and division, and some complementarians can feel, for good or bad, put on the defensive. So we rush to explain and emphasize the differences between men and women, which often leads to more confusion, and in the process we forget to emphasize the gloriously and typically counter-culture truth of the equality of men and women.
To my fellow complementarians, then, let's not forget how poorly women have been treated throughout history. And consider how the biblical truths of equality make Christianity shine and stand out in comparison to other religions and parts of the world today where women are often treated as second-class. I wish I could say that we have gotten this right throughout history, too. We haven’t always exercised our faith with the radical call to love our neighbor as we should. But by the grace of God and power of the Spirit, we can. Churches, therefore, should be places where our differences are taught and celebrated, yes, but so should our equality. So as we continue to work out the scope and nature of our differences, let's keep celebrating and affirming our equality and unity, starting where God does, in Genesis 1.
In the beginning, God created all of mankind in his image, male and female alike (Gen. 1:26). And we know that before the foundation of the world, God, in his goodness and kindness, had his people in mind (Eph. 1:4). It was no surprise to our omniscient Father that Adam and Eve fell and sin entered the world. He knew people wouldn’t always worship and delight in Him—and knowing this, he didn’t have to give us aspects of himself. But he did. God—the holy one, pure and awesome—created us to reflect aspects of his beauty and character.
Of all the creatures God made, humans are the only ones created in his very image. Among many things, this means we have dominion over the rest (1:28). This is a profound mystery—God is spirit, so we do not bear his physical image (see John 4:24)—and yet it’s also a great privilege.
As God’s image bearers, men and women are able to reflect God in our ability to create, to feel compassion, to show grace, to uphold justice, to express our love, and more. Men and women aren’t monolithic in this reflection—either as individuals or as representatives of our gender—but we are equal in it. We’re equal in dignity and worth, and we’re also equally fallen (Rom. 3:23).
The imago dei isn’t a new concept for most of us. We’ve heard it over and over again. We know that men and women are created equal, but different, and yet it would seem that most of our focus is on the difference. We search to know what’s acceptable—what men and women can do and cannot do—instead of celebrating the sameness we enjoy as image bearers. Why do we do this? Have we forgotten the reality that all humans at root are created the same, each with immeasurable value?
Understanding our equality as image-bearers changes everything about our human relationships. As image bearers, we should view others as God views them. So perhaps we ought to ask ourselves, do we honor the image of God in our fellow man and woman, our fellow sister and brother?
God could do anything he wanted without us, but he chose to use us. And God chose both men and women to fulfill his purposes in the world for the good of the church and for his glory. It’s God’s grace to us that, as the body of Christ, we can partner together to proclaim Christ. Specifically, each person in the local church plays an important role in its functioning properly. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about the gifts being utilized in the church (as we’ll discuss below), he didn’t distinguish between men and women.
A BODY WITH MANY PARTS
There are many of us in the church who long to have hands that can draw when perhaps God has instead given us feet that can march. We may desire to play a certain role in the church that God has ordained and equipped others for. It could be that this desire truly comes out of a love for service, or it could be an indication that selfish ambition has taken root in our hearts as we strive for our own glory.
Whatever the case, I always find Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians to be helpful when thinking through where and how God has gifted us to serve in the local church. By focusing on both this call to serve and the fact that God has gifted men and women, we should find a beautiful common ground as we think through our differences and our different convictions.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that the church is one unit made up of many parts (1 Cor. 12:12). Though these parts represent various ethnicities, cultures, genders, and ages, they’ve been unified by the same Spirit (2:13). Unity is the goal, but as we see at the beginning of Corinthians, the church is divided, and some members seem to value certain gifts over others (1:10–31).
Paul uses the imagery of a physical body to provide truth and correction. The body is indeed made up of many parts, and these parts aren’t all the same. Our eyes aren’t like our mouths. Each has different and unique functions. The same is true for our ears and our hands. A healthy body is one where all the parts work together. But if one part is absent or not working correctly, it’s difficult for the body to function as it should.
Different parts of the body aren’t of lesser importance or value: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.” (12:21-23). Paul’s line of thinking here seems backward in our success-hungry, name-recognition-driven society. Weakness isn’t often associated with greatness. In fact, it’s often considered utterly dispensable. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and his wisdom isn’t our wisdom.
So often, we can look for a certain role and miss the certain need. In other words, there isn’t a man’s Bible and a woman’s Bible. Although there are differences between men and women, the call to be active in using our gifts is for everyone. I imagine these aren’t topics we disagree on. After all, there are few who say men and women shouldn’t be engaged in service. And yet, how often do we highlight when the body is actually functioning well?
CELEBRATE AND ENJOY
I imagine that gender wars—infighting between men and women of the Christian faith—is at the top of Satan’s list of joys. As men and women, we have an equally eager enemy to be aware of and on guard against. Paul warns us in Ephesians: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6: 12).
It would behoove us not to forget our true enemy, to not forget our real fight that is not against flesh and blood. Satan doesn’t want the watching world to know our love for one another and therefore point to our source—Jesus (John 13:35). So, as we remember to stand firm in our faith together, we have a clear motivation to celebrate one another and our shared mission together. What a privilege it is to join together as brothers and sisters on this mission to proclaim Christ!