Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Message of God's Kingdom: Foundational Equality

Luke 3:4-6 tells of how the ministry of Jesus began with the appearance of John the Baptist, preaching a message from Isaiah 40:4:

A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.'

This passage speaks in terms of land, roads and paths as a metaphor for God's salvation. God will fill up the low places and bring down the high places, straighten the crooked and smooth the rough. It envisions the coming God's salvation (the coming of the Messiah which John was proclaiming) in terms of a great leveling. Applying the metaphor to humanity, then:  the message is that human differences in status, one higher and one lower, will no longer matter. Paul speaks of the same sort of thing in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him."

And this isn't just about everyone being the same in what we call "spiritual salvation" -- being saved by grace through faith. Joel prophesied this in Joel 2:28-29 (which Peter then preached in Acts 2:16-21 as having been fulfilled):

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Not just in salvation, but in the pouring out of the Spirit, God promises to bless all His people.  "There is no favoritism with God," says Ephesians 6:9 (which, as Retha over at Biblical Personhood so beautifully points out, is the concluding sentence of Paul's household codes in Ephesians, showing us that Paul was teaching his readers how to work within a human system of favoritism, not God's).

In the Old Covenant, God set aside one people, then one family out of one tribe of those people for priesthood, and another family out of another tribe of those people for kingship.  But now we are in the New Covenant.  Members of every tribe and language and people and nation are made into "a kingdom and priests to serve our God."  Revelation 5:9-10.  Peter said in Acts 10:34, after God had poured out His Spirit on Gentiles, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right."

Paul states this as a foundational truth of the Kingdom of God in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17: "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view [other translations say, "according to the flesh"].  Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.  The old is gone, the new is here!"  Paul tells the Galatians that he "opposed [Peter] to his face. . . for before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles. . . ." (Galatians 2:11-12).  Peter was regarding both the Gentiles and himself from a worldly point of view, or according to the flesh.

But Paul explains later in the same letter, "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise. . . . [W]hen the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship."  Galatians 3:28-4:5  A footnote in my Bible adds, "The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture."  Paul is saying that all who are in Christ Jesus-- Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female-- have received the same promise of the adoption to sonship.  No one who has faith in Christ has any lesser legal standing, powers or privileges than anyone else. 

This is why Paul counsels the believers in Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves." Jesus had taught in Matthew 18:2-4, Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:7 that everyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God must do it as a little child.  Little children had no status, powers or privileges in that day, so Jesus' words amounted to a statement that we all must lay down our earthly status, powers and privileges in order to enter the new creation Kingdom.

The essence of the Kingdom message is this:  "Stop looking at yourself in terms of status, or lack thereof.  Stop regarding others in terms of their power or position.  Stop expecting to be treated with respect based on your status in the world, and learn to treat all others with respect-- regardless of their status in the world." Paul made it especially clear that he understood this when he refused to have followers who said, "I am of Paul," stating that those who insisted on distinguishing leaders or having jealousy of place or position were "mere infants" and "still worldly."  This idea is so pervasive throughout the entire New Testament that it must be regarded as one of its foundational teachings.

But many Christians believe that God, universally and timelessly, has chosen men to have leadership authority in the church and home, and women to be followers under that authority.   Some even consider it an essential tenet of Christianity that men are meant to lead and women are meant to follow-- so much so that they question whether those who disagree are truly committed to biblical Christianity.  They base this doctrine on a few short texts: 1 Timothy 2:12-15, 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:4-5 and 1 Peter 3:1-6.  They believe these seven texts create an exception to the Kingdom message of no favoritism: that in this one area, we are to view certain believers according to the flesh.   They say that Galatians 3:28 refers only to spiritual salvation.  They say that Joel 2:28-29 and Acts 2:16-21 restrict the outpouring of the Spirit to only what is mentioned in those verses: prophecy, visions and dreams.  They say that God does not and will not pour out any spiritual leadership gifts upon women, except so that they may lead other women.

Apparently the idea is that though we must become as little children to enter the Kingdom, the Kingdom itself then confers upon men, based on their maleness alone, new powers, privileges and status that women cannot have.

What we tend to forget is that we're in a completely different situation than the original readers of the New Testament.  We live in a society where men no longer are considered to have primacy and power, and where women are no longer relegated to the home and children.   It's easy, therefore, to read these verses as if they were against the mutuality of our culture: as if they were counter-cultural statements about God's divine plan for the Kingdom-- statements that place male authority firmly within the Kingdom, to be held against all modern cultural changes.

But how would these passages read if you had always lived in a society where women were required to be not just submissive, but obedient to their husbands?  Where freeborn little boys grew up knowing they would one day become masters of their homes, wives, children and slaves?  Where women were not only forbidden to teach (except in the temples of their goddesses), but viewed as less than fully virtuous if they spoke in public at all?

I think if we lived in those days, it would be much clearer that in light of the Kingdom principle that all believers have the same status before God, the New Testament writers were teaching believers to make necessary concessions for the sake of the church's reputation in the cultures they lived in, and yet without compromising new-creation mutuality.   If you were a new believer in the early 1st century, might you not be saying, "My husband/master has become a believer and has laid down his earthly status.  Does this mean I still have to follow the Emperor's law and obey him?"  Peter's words in 1 Peter 2:12-13 encapsulate the New Testament response: "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds. . . Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority."  

As I look back upon history, it seems to me that the Kingdom principle of the equality of believers has had a profound effect, over time, on the notion of the equality of all human beings.  It is not that our modern culture, by insisting on the full, functional equality of women, has somehow corrupted the Kingdom message as it should be understood in the church.  On the contrary-- the church, ever since the passing of the first Apostles, has been finding ways to exclude women from Kingdom equality.  But our Western cultures today, having imbibed deeply of the Kingdom teaching of equality and applied it to all humanity, are now calling out the church on her hypocrisy.

Maybe it's time we listened.


Retha said...

Wow. You say it so well, KR.

We Christians brought equality to the world with our message - ironically the church lags behind on this one!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Well expressed. I believe many women will be encouraged by this. I wonder how many men have ever thought of how when they suppress the giftings and callings of women they work to quench the Holy Spirit and truncate the Great Commission? Blessings, Phyllis.

Don Johnson said...

Super excellent summary!

Kristen said...

Thanks, everybody!