Friday, May 6, 2011

CBE 2011: 'A Biblical Perspective?'

The Rev Matthew Williams, a friend from my time at Ridley and now a minister at St James Old Cathedral, Melbourne recently presented a paper at the 2011 Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) AGM.  It's entitled 'What does it mean to be a Christian man? A Biblical Perspective' and was given as part of a panel on 'masculinity'!

A summary of Matt's argument

What is the "normative" version of a Biblical man, asks Matt. He rejects a survey of "normative descriptions of masculinity" because this would slant results in favour of "the images of manliness we already have."  Instead Matt suggests we should focus "on what it means to be a Christian man, "biologically or sociologically. Matt then suggests beginning the definition of a 'Christian man', eschatologically, in the opening verses of Colossians chapter 3. Our definition of masculinity should be shaped by the future; "Kingdom-shaped goal in all things."

Later in the chapter, the Apostle Paul gives some instructions about slaves (Col 3:22), which sounds, according to Matt, like being conformed to this world instead of being renewed.  "Is this asymmetry, this power imbalance another mandate, a creation mandate that stands over against the kingdom mandate?"  This is only a problem says Matt if we read the household code (Col 3:18-24) as "law" instead of ethical applications.  In the second part of his definition Matt adds "cross-shaped means" because of the Apostle's dual Cross-Resurrection emphasis.  The Atonement, should be our ethical starting point. Therefore says Matt, "Paul is not self-contradicting nor is he inadequately developed in his grasp of the gospel, he rather understood the full implications of the gospel." Matt then argues that the cross should prompt us to be more egalitarian now because of the egalitarian future, rather than "make our relationships asymmetrical again."

While Matt affirms "egalitarianism" as a gospel ethic over and above "patriarchalism", the process of implementation should be slow because we are still in the world, with all it's varying power structures. Matt then concludes by stating that a Christian man does not need any particular characteristic, except godliness.  Matts' final words are: "Because I think perhaps one of the distinctives of being a Christian man is that you are in a particularly good position to look exactly like the gospel, looking not to your own interests but to the interests of others; exercising a cross-shaped means to a kingdom-shaped end - precisely by encouraging women and helping them to flourish by standing up against institutionalised and baptised sexism and giving women the space  to become all that God has given them to be in our households, in the world, and in the church."

1. A biblical basis for masculinity and femininity?

Matt rejects the need to "survey" Scripture for a normative description of Biblical masculinity.  Given that Scripture is both the philosophical starting point and the epistemology of any theological comment it is very odd that Matt writes the following:

It is tempting to focus on the word 'man', to survey the bible looking for normative descriptions of masculinity or examples of men or actions by men  we deem particularly manly. But in fact, if we do that, we find that our arguments are really circular, because we are likely to select and use those passages according the images of manliness we already have.

Later Matt does indeed select a Biblical passage (Col 3:1-3) as a starting point for his definition of what a Christian man should be, but one can't help but wonder how even that selection is protected from bias. (Clearly everyone suffers from bias and it's simply a matter of ensuring our interpretations are consistent with church tradition. (Viva Sola Scriptura!)) The more troubling aspect of this first problem is Matt's a priori rejection of a normative biblical definition.  I recall a speaker from a seminar at the 2008 CBE conference claiming Scripture "could not / should not" provide us with definitions of masculinity and femininity.  Matt's argument seems to reflect this worrying trend, an implication that Scripture, the basis of our Christian worldview, should not provide the basis of our definitions of masculinity and femininity.

I concede of course that Matt may not have sought to create this implication but his paper does little to mitigate the problem his initial statement creates.  I also concede that creating biblical definitions of masculinity and femininity is a difficult task, but that 'difficulty' alone shouldn't be a logical barrier to using Scripture as both the springboard and the basis of our definition. One would hope the controversy should be about the content of biblical definitions of masculinity, not the more foundational question of whether or not Scripture can provide a definition of masculinity!

2. An over-realised eschatology?

I admit that this particular critique is, to a degree, subjective, because of the legitimate range of eschatological positions within Christian tradition.   However, I do believe that Matt, in an effort to create a currently applicable egalitarian ethic strays into over-realised eschatology.  An eschatology that isn't over-realised anticipates the return of Jesus (Rev 22:20), our future glorification (Rom 8:30) and the transformation of all things (Rev 22:1-2). But it also acknowledges that while our hearts may be set on heaven (Col 3:3), we're still only seeing our eternal future with Christ from a distance (Heb 11:13-16), like strangers in a strange land (KJ Ex 2:22) and we're, for better or for worse, ordained to live in this world until our time is up (Ps 90:10).

Matt writes:

It's a wonderful picture, and a powerful ethical paradigm, to simply think of heaven, of the kingdom of God, and to seek to be conformed to its reality; to set before ourselves a kingdom-shaped goal in all things. We are being renewed according to God's image, a renewal in which our distinctions fade away, distinctions of race and social standing (and he says in Galatians, of gender) and we are all simply people sharing that same divine image, and therefore treat one another accordingly.

The eschatology Matt suggests here isn't the hopeless (an earthly Kingdom of God) and pragmatic (work hard now) over-realisation of Schweitzer, but a problematic version nonetheless.  Ethical instructions such as the household codes shouldn't be modified in the light of a still undiscerned future. Furthermore, the household codes have a particular and unique place in the larger and longer economy of God's action in the world, that isn't superseded by a still un-occurred future. (Oscar Cullerman's model of living between D-Day and V-Day doesn't (and shouldn't) account for time travel!)   Lastly the model of Egalitarian ethics Matt presents calls for current and precise certainties, based on a eschatological future that is painted in deliberately broad and tantalisingly mysterious brushstrokes.

3. So what actually is a "Christian Man"?

Matt closes his paper by noting that apart from godliness there is no outstanding characteristic of biblical masculinity. At the beginning of the paper Matt mentioned in passing, biology and sociology as contributing to our definition of masculinity. However at the end of Matt's paper one is left with the impression that an Egalitarian definition of masculinity is sexless, there is nothing except maybe biology ("a Y chromosome") that makes a man or a women.

This is a little disappointing, the promise it seems at the beginning of the paper or at least on reading the title is that there is something to being a male, something uniquely Biblical, something that makes a male well male.  Although Matt nods at biology and sociology, nothing it seems distinguishes men from women. It feels as though the entire CBE AGM panel was a setup; 'Actually, Egalitarianism is true, there's nothing different about men and women.'  Now again, I don't think Matt intended it to land like this but that's the distinct impression I get from his paper.


Matt's paper is both readable and interesting and in critiquing it I appreciated the way it sharpened my own thinking.  In addition, although Matt obviously takes a polemical line in his paper, he personally is a champion of discussion and making-a-place for 'Complementarians' even when 'Egalitarians' are in the ascendency!  I don't think Matt makes makes a convincing egalitarian case for what it means to be a Christian man, but I wonder how representative his line of arguments are and how applicable my critique would be to the wider CBE movement in Australia?