21 March, 2013 Leonie Mason
Although the headlines have moved onto other issues, it will have been hard to escape the furore over the Women Bishops vote in the Church of England, whether or not the Anglican Church is your particular ‘home’. Much has been said about the equality of men and women in the sight of God, and that is right. We are equally made in God’s image – what a huge privilege this gives us of shared dignity and purpose. Men and women are saved in exactly the same way, by the Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death – how liberating it is that our new status comes from what He does for us, and not the other way around. Much has been said too on God’s good order for leadership of the family and church family life, with sacrificial and loving male leadership; and women being helpers, taking a submissive and respectful role, yet in full partnership.
Much has been said on rights and justice, and on the Church of England’s need to ‘get with the programme’. But have we heard as much about why it is such a good design for men and women to have different roles? From the beginning, difference is woven through God’s plans as well as equality. As God saves us, not all of the differences are ironed out – we don’t all become clones. Race, gender and social standing certainly have no bearing on our status as saved people: we are all found in Christ – He is our new status. But God does not remove all variation. Some differences remain and this is something in which we can rightly rejoice.
One of the clearest and most important places we see difference is in the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Over Christmas, as we reflected once again on the wonder of Immanuel, God-with-us in the flesh, the promised child come to save his people from their sins, I was struck by how impoverished – indeed lost – we would be if Jesus had not embraced fully His role as Son. As the apostle Paul in Philippians says, ‘He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’ (Philippians 2:6-7, ESVUK). Jesus is unquestionably God – but He is the Son, not the Father. We owe our whole salvation to the difference between God the Father and God the Son and their willingness to carry out their specific roles, as the divine plan – and indeed Jesus himself – is executed.
Christ’s role in the God-head, as the Son who submits to the authority of His Father, is part of Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 11 as he exhorts men and women to honour their respective heads, as both genders engage in praying and prophesying in church (the likely context, given the following chapters). The gospel calls all men and women to submit to Christ as Lord; but in this praying and prophesying context, as women honour not just Christ but also men as their head, Christ’s own ‘honouring’ is a pattern for us to cherish twice over.
In stressing difference, God in the Scriptures does not bar women from word ministry. Word ministry is itself diverse in its forms, and many different people should engage in it. Women are to teach, prophesy and pray. Indeed, older women are given explicit responsibility to teach and train younger women in Titus 2. Churches are to be gatherings where every saint encourages the next, speaking the truth in love, and where all engage in singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to one another. The only word ministry that is not open for a woman is that closely connected to the role and office of church leader or elder.
Yet how often is this rich pattern of word ministry – for both men and women – seen? Within the Church of England, and concerning women bishops specifically, the prevalent view seems to be that the only avenues of service available currently for women are either being ‘a priest’ or arranging the flowers. But isn’t this actually a monochrome view of women in ministry? I appreciate greatly our florists, and all they create to brighten our buildings, but there are additional and manifold patterns of service which God has designed for women. These include word ministry – variously and, at times, differently shaped from the pattern given to men – and wonderfully so.
Regardless of what happens next in the Anglican fold, maybe this is a good chance for all of us to re-examine and celebrate not just the equality and dignity that the gospel declares and defines but also the glorious differences that the gospel redeems and upholds – and to live them out fully. And, if in embracing the differences more people come to appreciate the Lord Jesus in his saving humility, all the better.