Sexual Politics and the Church
- Friday, January 02, 2004
The classroom was stuffed with small huddles of posturing undergrads as I walked through the door on that first day of my junior year. It was a large group, especially for an upper-level college elective course. As I scanned the room, I recognized most of my fellow political-science majors. There was also a healthy sampling of frat guys, balanced by an equal number of outspoken feminists. Sprinkled in among them were some fine-arts punks, science brains, and aspiring intellectuals. This had the makings of a most entertaining semester.
Only a course entitled "The Politics of Sex" could have brought us all together that day. I won't speculate on the motivations of my fellow students, but my reasons for being there were not exclusively academic. To my dismay, however, I soon discovered that the course content would be less about sex and more about politics. "Gender and the Struggle for Equality" would have been a more accurate course title, but far less attractive on sign-up day.
The premise of the course was that all of life is a political struggle for power, rights, and freedoms, and nowhere is this struggle more aggressively played out than in the relationships between men and women. As if to demonstrate this premise, the class soon broke into two camps-the traditionalists (mostly male), and the progressives (mostly female). The rest of the semester was basically one big battle of the sexes, producing heavy ego casualties on both sides. I don't recall the entire class ever agreeing on anything, except maybe where to have the keg party at the end of the term.
In splitting into two camps, the class reflected our society's schism over the "Sexual Revolution," that disastrous experiment begun in the 1960s. Regardless of gender or political beliefs, you and I are participants in this ongoing experiment. It's an experiment because it involves tampering with society's view of sex and how we see each other as sexual beings. It is a revolution because nearly every sphere of life-morality, law, entertainment, customs, economics-has been shaken and shaped by it. Decades after it began, this revolution remains a topic of heated debate. In the minds of some, it is destroying the very foundations of society. Others see any remaining obstacles to complete sexual license as repression of the cruelest kind. Meanwhile, revolution continues to swirl all around us.
Don't look now, but the sexual revolution is alive and kicking in the church as well. Some of the most divisive issues in the church today, such as the debate over women in ministry and the idea of a gender-neutral Bible, are a direct result of the encroachment of sexual politics into the Christian culture. Although most biblical scholarship affirms the traditional understanding of male/female roles and identities, the debates rage on. Often, opposing sides can't even agree on the question, much less the answer. Is the church stuck in outmoded and legalistic ways of thinking? Or are Scripture and Christian tradition being abandoned for a liberal political agenda that exalts human desires above God's law?
In these debates, liberals tend to envision a culture that emphasizes human freedom and equality as the highest possible good. Such a culture, however, could never bring human satisfaction, for the simple reason that it rejects God's laws regarding moral behavior for mankind.
Meanwhile, conservatives tend to look to the past for inspiration. Conservative Christians can appeal to almost any pre-1960 period of cultural history, as long as it was "more Christian" than our own. But we would do far better to take our life cues from the infallible Scripture rather than from the traditions of our all-too-fallible predecessors.
A humble study of the Bible and history reveals that those long-lost "good old days" prior to the sexual revolution were hardly a heaven-on-earth. Grievous injustice toward women, in plain violation of Scripture, has regularly been tolerated throughout Christian history, simply because then-current secular culture and traditions found it acceptable. In fact, some notable Christian thinkers believe the sexual revolution was ushered in by the failure of twentieth-century men and women to rightly exercise their biblical roles and responsibilities.
The practical result has been great confusion-sometimes even within the church-over what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and how the two can possibly co-exist. How can you express your unique attributes as a man or woman under Christ in this gender-blended culture? How can you confidently stand against the cultural tide without becoming entangled in the political push-and-shove that so often characterizes this debate? Space doesn't permit me to set out an apologetic against a feminist view of the biblical treatment of women; the recommended reading at the end of this column can help you there. But I do believe that the rhetoric of the sexual revolution can do great harm within the church, primarily by muddling our understanding of the wonderful and complementary purpose of gender identities presented in Scripture.
Early on in writing The Rich Single Life I realized I would, at some point, have to address single men and women separately, for men and women approach the life of faith in very different ways. My problem, obviously, is that I only see through male eyes. I have tried to compensate by studying and seeking help from the women I know, especially my extraordinary wife, Jill, who has coached me for nearly 20 years. So, next time I will take a shot at this. I hope you will find it helpful.
The Rich Single Life by Andrew Farmer: "The truths contained in The Rich Single Life could revolutionize your understanding of singleness. Andrew Farmer skillfully shows single Christian men and women what a rich and valuable opportunity they have. Just as importantly, he explains how to take full advantage of that opportunity. This book will help you live the single life in all the fullness of God." -Joshua Harris, author and pastor. Available from the Sovereign Grace Store.
Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem: A definitive study of men's and women's roles. Its piercing critique of feminism won it a "Book of the Year" award in 1992. Vital material for all Christians, whether single or married.
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