Recently two orthodox, confessional, female, Christian authors have published books addressing male-female relations within the church. I have read neither of these books so I am not commenting on them. I have noticed, however, that in some of the responses to these two books there have been appeals to ontology. This is a philosophical category. Generally, ontology is the study of what is. It is the study of being, the nature of being, the features of being and so forth. To be sure, as the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy observes, the boundaries between ontology and other topics in philosophy, e.g., metaphysics (things that transcend the physical world) can become blurry but do they become so blurry that Christians ought to use the category of ontology to sort out the thorny question of male-female relations broadly and the role of women in the church specifically?
It is not self-evident that ontology is the right category by which to analyze this problem. As Christians think about being, we make what I call the categorical distinction (for more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession). This is the Creator/creature distinction, which is between God, the one who simply is, and creatures, who exist at the will and pleasure of God. Scripture says, “In the beginning God…” (Gen 1:1). We creatures do not appear in the narrative right away, not until God says, “let there be” and then not until he fashions us out of the earth and gives us life. In other words, we belong to one order of being and God to another. God must be. We might be or we might not be.
When we are considering male-female relations, we are thinking about how fellow creatures ought to relate to one another. Christians understand that, according to Scripture, both sexes are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). Both sexes fell in Adam (Gen 2:17; Rom 5:12–21). Both sexes are redeemed by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. Apart from the grace of God and a personal faith in Christ, both sexes shall stand condemned before God on the last day. By grace alone, through faith alone, all those united to Christ, shall stand justified before God on that day.
As I try to understand why some critiques of these two books appeal to ontology, it occurs to me that some of the critics write from a specific point of view that is not well known or understood. They are Patriarchalists of a sort. Patriarchalism has become a rallying cry for third-wave feminists, a short-hand way of referring to anyone who disagrees with them and thus, the meaning of the term may not be well understood now.
What I mean is this: there is, in some conservative religious circles—I first encountered this point of view in connection of theonomy and Christian reconstructionism. For more on these allied movements see the resources linked below—a notion that the very being (hence, ontology) is inferior to that of males. When such critics appeal to ontology, they are using code or a shorthand expression to say, “such and such a writer fails to understand that females are substantially, inherently inferior to males in their being.”
As a matter of logic, this sort of argument is known as begging the question. This is the sort of argument some Dispensationalists make against Reformed theology when they accuse it of teaching what they call “replacement theology.” On this see the resources below. Such a critique only convicts Reformed theology of not being Dispensationalist. What they must first do is to demonstrate that Dispensationalism is correct. So too, in this case, the critics must do more than assume that females are inherently inferior to males. They must demonstrate it. I doubt that such a demonstration, with orthodox Christianity, is possible.
Nature, Grace, And Order
There is another way to address this question and it is to talk about nature and grace rather than being. After all, the Apostle Paul does say,
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal 3:27–29; ESV).
He says the same thing in Colossians 3:
…and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (vv. 10–11; ESV).
It is significant that, to the Colossians, Paul appealed to the shared status of believers, who are being renewed in the image of their Creator.
I think that some of the critics have confused nature and grace. By nature, as matter of creation, humans are humans. We are all created in the divine image. As a matter of grace, those who are, sola gratia, sola fide being renewed in the image of their Creator, are co-heirs of the same Kingdom. They all share in the status of “son” (Gal 4:6).
When Paul reminded the Galatians that, in Christ, there is no male or female, he was not denying the existence of nature (creation) nor was he denying the existence of an administrative (economic) order in creation or in grace. Yet it was revolutionary for Paul to announce in the Greco-Roman world that, in Christ, the distinctions that the pagans valued so much meant nothing.
One simply does not see Paul appealing to the sort of ontological hierarchy between the sexes that one finds among the Christian Patriarchalists. One does, however, find him appealing to an order in creation and grace.
In 1 Timothy 2, as he writes to Timothy about life in the church, in the state of grace, Paul appeals both to nature (creation) and grace to ground his order of things and order is not ontology. He writes:
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (1 Tim 2:8–15; ESV).
He is evidently thinking first of public worship. Grace has consequent obligations. We are not saved because we have done anything. We do not obey in order to be saved but because have been saved sola gratia, sola fide we seek to obey God’s Word. Paul lays out consequences for the way men and women should relate to one another in public worship. These are marks of godliness and grace.
In the second place, he grounds the order within the church on the order of creation. For our purposes it does not matter what “saved through childbearing” means but it is sufficient to note that Paul appeals to the nature of the creational order. This is essentially the same argument Paul made for the order of worship in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. Grace has consequences for the way that Christians conduct themselves in worship and in the church but so does nature.
Another way to express this is to confess again that we are not Gnostics or Manichaeans. God created the natural world good. Creation per se is not evil. There are not two cosmic principles, good and evil, dueling for control of things. We recognize creation as a category. God has endowed things with a nature. Nature is not an arbitrary category invented by men to oppress women. Recognizing the limits imposed by nature is freedom. By nature, humans are not birds. In order to fly we humans need machines. When we try to fly without mechanical aid we are bound to fail. Males are not females. They cannot bear children. There is a natural order.
There is an order in grace. Paul reflects on that in Ephesians 5:22–33. Though not addressing church order directly, he does make an analogy between male-female relations and the way Christ relates to his church. In the analogy, a husband is to relate to his wife the way Christ relates to his church, to love her and to give himself for her. A wife is to submit to her husband the way the church submits to Christ. There is a beautiful mutuality in that self-denial and giving one’s self over to the other. Neither is independent any more. They become so intertwined as to become one person.
Through his apostles, Christ has instituted an order in the church, that institution and sphere in which grace is officially administered. That order is not grounded in an ontological hierarchy but is revealed in Scripture to reflect the love that God has for his people in Christ. When we adhere to that order, we are reflecting the love and grace that we sinners have received. Angels and humans are ontologically different. Males and females are naturally (e.g., physically, emotionally) different but they belong to the same category of being. God has ordered the church so that qualified males are to exercise authority, to lead, to preach and teach but that order is not grounded in an ontological hierarchy but in the economy of grace and in the creational order.
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