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Tools for Jesus

February 8, 2012

This is probably going to be a bit of a rant, but I’ll try to lighten it as we go along.  I’m not quite all together on some of this, so bear with me.

A few weeks ago, I went to a seemingly harmless brunch with some ladies from church.  Yes, ladies. (There were loopy scarves involved, k?)  I say it was seemingly harmless because what started off with Panera crumb cake and chitter-chatter about homeschooling ins-and-outs became a deeper conversation about women’s identity and place in the world.  And as you could guess, it was all my fault.

One of the women at the table knew I’d recently left working outside the home and she asked how I was adjusting to life as a stay-at-home-mom.  I told her it was strange not having this broader cause on my mind (because in truth, it was still on my mind, but there wasn’t much to be done about it anymore except blog and who can do that when someone (not me) needs to take a nap).  Wow, I double-paren’d there.  It’s a problem.  I’ll seek help someday.

Anyways, one of the women said she was having the same problem as a retiree.  She was taking art classes and trying to cultivate skills she had lost over her working years.  Another woman said that she needed the validation that came from work.  She was praise-driven and wanted that constant feedback to feel secure.  (I was honestly surprised at how unguarded this discussion got, but maybe Panera works something else into their bagels).  I got both their points.  But they had yet to pinpoint my frustration with the new role I was taking on in leaving my old job.  The last woman at the table, a mother of many (seriously, many) children said, “my contribution to the world is my kids.  Maybe one of them will be the next President or whatever.”

She hit it on the head.  First, it’s more likely that the kids will become “whatever” than “President,” but it’s America and everyone thinks they’re the next big thing, so let that one go.  It was the second part that was troubling me because this is the prevailing sense of motherhood I find these days: that we are whatever our kids will be.  Our success or failure, even our very identity, rests with who we’re turning out.  And their success or failure is what determines their identity.  Motherhood matters and people matter that’s precisely why I can’t accept this idea for myself.

Ancient pagan cultures used to revere reproduction as a means (the only means) to immortality.  It was man’s end to reproduce, because through that, he wouldn’t see an end.  When Christianity came along, people, both married and single, we liberated from that.  Offered immortality through a relationship with Christ.  Fatherhood, motherhood, and marriage itself were redeemed and given new life.  Women were no longer the property of their fathers or their husbands.  Human beings were no longer the factory by which we get other human beings.  Each person matters to God and to other people.  They matter because they are human; fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

The whole “hand that rocks the cradle” thing feels too utilitarian.  Too instrumentalist. Yes, we are tools in the hands of God in mothering (and wife-ing, and woman-ing, too), we’re not just tools.  We’re people.  What a radical thing.  Women are people, too.

So for a couple weeks, my wheels have been churning on this.  A former colleague posted this quote from Harvey Firestone on Facebook recently:

The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.

That’s Firestone.

Tire guy.

NOT this guy:

Though he's said some awesome stuff, too, I'm sure.

I think that description of leadership and service applies to parents, and in this discussion, mothers.  Motherhood is a “high calling” as Oprah and other people say.  And being a newly-anointed SAHM, I can tell you, it’s an overlooked one.  Kathleen Norris says this:

…the woman’s work, the care of small children, is that which was once done for free–often by slaves–within the confines of the household.  Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public…This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, that we can rise above them.

Maybe that’s why we’re having so much trouble these days with some of our complementarian friends.  Modern gender essentialism (picture: “this is what boys do, that’s what girls do”) is built upon a distaste for and a disdain of the feminine.  Not too long ago, respected theologian John Piper addressed a group of male pastors at his annual Desiring God conference saying things like:

God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And being God, a God of love, He has done that for our maximum flourishing both male and female…He does not intend for women to languish or be frustrated or in any way suffer or fall short of full and lasting joy in this masculine Christianity…From which I infer that the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families that have this masculine feel…That is liable to serious misunderstanding and serious abuse since there are views of masculinity which would make such a perspective repulsive. So, there is more that needs to be said…

Thankfully, he did say more to clarify (because that first bit was a little…WHAT.):

When I say masculine Christianity or masculine ministry or Christianity with a masculine feel, here’s what I mean: Theology and church and mission are marked by an overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading and protecting and providing for the community. All of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus…It’s the feel of a great, majestic God who is by His redeeming work in Christ inclining men to humble Christ-exalting initiatives and inclining women to come alongside those men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work.

Some of that at the end isn’t as bad as the whole thing when it got started, but it’s still imprecise (to be generous) and problematic (also, generous).  A blogtastic frenzy ensued.  First, Rachel Held Evans (a good read any day, even while we differ on a few points) invited men to respond to Piper (emphasis hers):

This is a strange way to talk about the Bride of Christ.

And it is a dismissive, hurtful way to speak about women, who Piper seems to have forgotten were also created in the image of God, were appointed by God as leaders at critical times in the history of Israel and the Church, and were the first to whom Jesus appeared when he inaugurated his new Kingdom on Resurrection Day.

Since these comments have been made public, I’ve been bombarded with requests to write a response. I certainly appreciate your confidence in me, but here’s the thing: There’s a double-standard out there in which a woman’s critique of patriarchy tends to get discounted as nothing more than the rants of an “angry feminist,” and, truth be told, I’ve grown a bit weary of hearing that charge each time I speak out about this disturbing trend in the evangelical church.

So instead, I’d like to challenge the guys to respond.

And respond they did.  Reformed bloggers, evangelical bloggers, some saint-loving-bloggers that coulda been Episcopalian, Orthodox, or Catholic for all I know chimed in with their challenge.  To be fair, I think Piper is struggling to make sense of his complementarian worldview and does a frequently clumsy job presenting his point (i.e. did he even have a girl pre-read the sermon?).  He seems too out of touch on these topics and makes big inferences from small details (something he usually avoids when he discusses other theological matters).

I have two problems with his comments, and I will grant I didn’t hear the whole thing, but then again, how could I?  “NO girlz aloud,” remember.  The first is that he’s making a pitch to guys that guys will find appealing because they come off as winners.  Christianity: the manly sport.

Why are they wearing mouth guards? It's not like they're going to actually get hit in the face. Otherwise, they'd be wearing HELMETS like real hockey players. Pansies.

I talked about this phenomenon once when I heard a sermon called “Buckskin Jesus.”  It really annoys me that any preacher would pander to the machismo in order to convince an audience to commit to a deeper love of Christ.  File this under “Top Gun.”

The second part that bugs me is what bugged many of the people responding to Evans’ call for public displays of indignation (PDI.  I’m going to make this a thing).  Women aren’t just sidekicks.  We aren’t window-dressing.  We aren’t tools to be used in mens’ kingdoms.  And what’s funny is that I don’t think most men, even those who ascribe to this kind of worldview, really treat their wives that way on a daily basis.  Well, maybe one dude (ahem, speaking of tools…).

Women are bearers of the image of God.  In themselves.  With or without male accompaniment.  Women are fully human.  Pastor-blogger Wade Burleson writes (emphasis his):

In Genesis 1:27 it is said, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  The male and the female were created by God. The male and the female both bear the image of God. The male and the female are both included in the Hebrew word adam (man) – “So God created adam … He created them.”  Notice what God says about them … “and let them rule.…”  The male and the female were both designed to rule. Men and women are created by God in His image as co-regents of the world He created. Any system, any society, any organization that places one gender as an authority over the other, whether it be patriarchal or matriarchal in nature, is a direct violation of the command and design of the Creator God. Why can women rule in God’s creation? Why can women lead in God’s creation? Why can women be equal to men in God’s creation? Women are created in the image of God, just like men, and when the omnipotent, sovereign and invisible Creator God determined to create man in His image, He created a male and a female, reflecting the very nature of God Himself. This is why there is nothing wrong with considering God as both Father and Mother, as the invisible and all-powerful Ruler of the universe who reflects Himself in both males and females–God is Spirit and the perfections of each gender are seen in God.

He goes on to cite a non-Western, non-white theologian (I know! The gall!):

George Kwami Kumi, Ph.D. is an Akan Ghanaian Christian and the vicar general of the Diocese of Sunyani, Africa. Dr. Kumi says that the affectionate term Father-Mother God is used among his native people to denote the invisible God of the Bible. Dr. Kumi is himself accustomed to referring to God as Father-Mother God, and he found it surprising to discover a resistance among conservative evangelicals in the United States to acknowledge God in the way the sacred Scriptures present Yawheh. Dr. Kumi has wondered if western conservative evangelicals in the United States have succombed to creating a god in the image of western civilization culture. Dr. Kumi has even called “strange” the practice of some Christians to only view God in male terms. He explains that Akan African Christians have a fuller and more biblical understanding of God as both Father and Mother, precisely becauseboth male and female characteristics are found in the nature of the invisible spirit God.

“Wondered if western conservative evangelicals…have succombed to creating a god in the image of western civilization culture.”  Um, YEAH, prolly.  Maybe that’s why we see it in all these major secular conversations on these issues.  Even in highfalutin’ places like the World Economic Forum in Davos where, for the first time, there was a session exclusively on women.  (I can’t believe it!  The universe is crumbling!  Women and economics?!  Insanity.)  Industry leaders discussed the gender gap, attempts at economic upliftment for women in poverty and MORE (that last one is an attempt to get you to watch the video link above).  As blogger Eesha Pandit writes,

It is indeed inarguably important to increase access to health care and education for girls. But there are also some troubling, and vaguely articulated assumptions at the base of this argument for investing in women as economic strategy…[T]here’s a bit of uncritical gender essentialism at play here. Somehow, investing in women is investing in us all because women are inherently more caring and nurturing. Instead of reinforcing the notions of women’s work and men’s work, we might want to invest in dismantling gender essentialism.

And we’re back to what my mom-friend said that day at Panera.  Investing in women is worthwhile because they produce.  Not because they are worthwhile in themselves.  We also have to keep the jobs and roles super-clear because we wouldn’t want any men engaging in unpaid work like child-rearing or anything.  I say all that knowing that in some ways, I could be considered an essentialist.  At least in that I believe there is no way I could ever be a father, for example.  Like I said, I haven’t quite worked all this out.

What I do know is that the whole lot of it feels too dominated by a determination to have set rules in place so that women don’t get out of bounds.  It’s about keeping us in our place, and not predetermined pleasant places established by God Himself.  God’s boundaries provide a delightful inheritance, not a painful prison.  Piper and other like-minded theologians would have us believe that their view is God’s best for women.  If women would just stop beating themselves against the bars here, we’d all be able to see that.  (Objection! Total hyperbole!  Sustained. I don’t think Piper wants women enslaved or in a jail, but his poor choice of words could easily set up such a scenario and no amount of “more that needs to be said” really fixes that.)

These complementariots? complementatriots? want to insist that in being a “helper suitable” women should fill some passive role, riding shotgun and keeping the car running while they make the big scores for Jesus (mixing metaphors, but I had this whole Walkaway Joe thing happening in my head.  Indulge.)  Whoa, whoa.  But guess what I learned today?  The real meaning of helper-suitable.  Schooled by Joy Bennett, with an assist from Carolyn Justis James:

What about that pesky label, “helpmeet” (or “helper suitable”)? Too long have we languished under these insufficient terms. These translations fall far short of the real meaning of “ezer-kenegdo” found in Genesis 2.

“Kenegdo” indicates that the woman is a match for the man – like the South Pole to his North Pole, literally “as in front of him.” 

“Ezer” refers to a strong military ally. If you look through the rest of Scripture, ezer is used twice for women (both in Genesis 2), three times to describe those Israel turned to for military aid, and sixteen times to describe God as helper of his people Israel in a military context. (Carolyn Justis James, “Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women”)

We need to embrace this God-given role for women. The ezer-kenegdo is no passive calling. Women are called to be strong and valiant battling our Enemy alongside our brothers. God wants us to be women of valor.

The vision for mankind is of alliance, a unity out of many, a dynamic partnership in which everyone throws themselves wholeheartedly into the work God has given us to do. This is a vision that all people in every place at every time can embrace, not just North American white upper-middle-class suburban women. The parable of the talents applies to men and women equally. Woe to us if we take the gifts and talents God has given us and bury them in the ground.

Amen, sisters.  A-glory to Jesus-men. (And the double-quote thing was a total accident.  I really do have a problem.)

Rachel Held Evans posted the responses she got today.  One of those responses was a man named Justin Bowers.  Amid a litany of comments that floored me, his stood out, in large part because I’m a mother who wants this for myself and my daughter.  Also, I have a dear friend working her way through seminary at a conservative school.  For quite some time, she has been wondering if theological education and academic life is really for her.  She doesn’t know if she has the muscle to keep swimming in a pool of ThD candidates where women are told to keep to the shallow end.  I get that fear and frustration.  As a female teacher of the Word, I get that like nobody’s business.

Bowers wrote:

A few years ago, early in my time at a former church, I met a high school girl who was very committed to Christ.  I asked her what her goals were and what she was considering studying when she graduated.  She sort of shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘Well I like theology, but I’m a girl so I can’t really do much with that.’ My heart broke for her…

When my daughters were infants I took each of them in my arms and stood in front of a congregation and dedicated them entirely to Christ.  I asked the congregation to support my family and help raise them to be disciples, Kingdom  Agents, and ambassadors of Christ.  I stood before the body of Christ, the BRIDE of Christ, and in solidarity believed with them that God had plans for these girls that can only be carried out to the fullest extent in the community of believers.

…With all due respect to John Piper, I think he misses the mark.  I get his point and respect much of what he suggests, but I have to believe that regardless of the purity of his motives and the sincerity of his theological belief in this topic, this mindset that limits the dreams I have for my daughters.

The story I want my daughters to live is the one that begins in Genesis.
The story where it is “not good” for the man to be alone.
The story where Eve is taken from Adam’s side–a place of companionship and equality, not to walk behind.
The story where, prior to sin entering the world, the relationship of the man and woman was a mirror of the unity of the Triune Creator–equal and submissive to each other because of love.
The story where the gospels open on amazingly godly women, Mary and Elizabeth, through whom the Kingdom invasion began.
The story where Paul writes, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
The story where the body of Christ–the Church–is at its fullest breathing capacity when its members function in their fullest giftedness regardless of any barrier.

See?  I’m not rebelling just to rebel.  I’m really not interested in stirring the pot to watch it whirl.  I’m not an uppity woman looking for trouble nor a bitter bossypants trying to create division.  I want to understand all this and the complementarian thing and John Piper are completely unconvincing.  (So is the egalitarian thing for those keeping score at home.)

I simply want to know that if I’m to be an instrument, it’s for God alone.  Because God is the only person I can trust to use me without making me feel used. He’s the only one who will do with me and for me at the same time.  Because He loves me like that.  No one else, in their best human efforts, even with Jesus’ help, can fully-all-the-time use-me-love-me like that. Will He employ me in service to my family, my church, humanity?  Of course!  Because He loves them like that, too.  But none of us, not a single one, is merely an instrument to God.  We’re His people created to be loved and to love.  That is our identity and our usefulness.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. TCF permalink
    February 8, 2012 3:54 am

    I know you’ll like this, given your special connection with Moses:

    “The name of [one of Moses’ sons] was Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.’ And the name of the other was Eliezer, for he said, ‘The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'”

    Eliezer = My God is help.

  2. February 9, 2012 2:38 am


    This is a great post. Thank you for including me in your response. It’s been great to see what felt like a simple encouragement for my daughters be used to encourage so many others.


    • bnbecky permalink*
      February 9, 2012 3:44 am

      It was very encouraging. Thanks for coming by!

  3. February 10, 2012 3:53 am

    Amen and Amen. Love your thoughts on this (i.e. – I cried.)

  4. claudia permalink
    February 12, 2012 7:56 pm

    I remember a few years ago someone saying ‘if you don’t like being described as a helper, it might be helpful to remember that it’s the same word that’s used for the Holy Spirit – I will send a helper’.

    And I thought – oh, okay then.

    So much to chew on here. Thanks!

  5. February 13, 2012 7:01 pm

    Um, how have I not found this blog before? Seriously…

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