Luke 21, Ephesians 2 and the equality of men and women

Sat, 05/01/2008 - 12:08 -- James Oakley

I was asked one very specific question after my last sermon on Luke 21.

I developed one implication that the temple was to come to an end, which is the implication developed in Ephesians 2. The era of Jewish national privilege has closed, so that in the new creation none of us will have a second class spot – specifically, no Gentiles will be penalised for being Gentile.

After the service I was asked why, if this is the case, I still hold that there will be a distinction in the roles taken by men and women in church life.

This question stems from some common misunderstandings of what I have been teaching, so I thought it may be worth posting a few thoughts here by way of reply.

  1. At no point have I ever taught that there is any difference in value between men and women. I have taught that there will be differences in the functions we perform and the roles we take. One could only legitimately conclude from this that there is a difference in value if one also starts with the assumption that value necessarily derives from function. I do not believe that our value in God’s sight comes from the functions we perform, and I do not believe that the Bible teaches this.
  2. The analogy offered is not exact. I was talking, from Ephesians 2, about the breaking down of the specific barrier between Jew and Gentile. That barrier is a feature of the old covenant, and it is removed in the new. The difference between men and women is not a feature of the old covenant, and so it is not removed with the arrival of the new covenant. Instead it is something God instituted at creation, and (as such) is restored and renewed in his plan of salvation; it is certainly not removed.
  3. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that our value is determined by the roles and functions we perform. Where does that take us?
    1. Let’s consider, first, the question of gifting. Ephesians 4 teaches that the ascended Christ gives different gifts to different members of his church. If we were going to say that our value is determined by our roles, we would have to conclude that Christ also gives different value to different members of his church. That is the very thing 1 Corinthians 12 says we may not conclude.
    2. Let’s be more specific about gifting. Suppose a particular role in church life is valued particularly highly, such that we are tempted to say that those performing that role are more valuable. To borrow Vaughan Roberts’ example, let’s say the gift of playing the bassoon. If we then said that men were not allowed to play the bassoon, it is true that we would be saying that men were less valuable. But even if we don’t say that, we have to say that those who do not have the gift of the bassoon are less valuable. So the only way to rescue things is to say that although only some have the role of bassoon-playing, one’s value in the church does not stem from having that role.
    3. Let’s consider, now, those who are disabled or unwell. Such people will have a host of roles that they could not take up. But nobody would want to suggest that they are less valuable as a result. So we must also abandon the notion that, because certain roles are unavailable to men, or certain roles are unavailable to women, they are less valuable. (But, maybe we are more horrifyingly consistent here than we are willing to admit. Maybe many people do think that the long-term unwell or the disabled are less valuable because they have less to contribute, but would never admit to that in so many words. If so, let’s take this opportunity to put that to rights – value does not come from function).
  4. This example brilliantly illustrates one very important principle of how we interpret and apply the Bible. The Bible often gives us principles to apply to every-day life. We are not at liberty to take those principles, and apply them in ways that contradict the explicit teaching of other parts of Scripture. For example: I’m sure many instances of adultery have been justified, in the minds of those involved, on the grounds that the people love each other and that is a good thing in God’s sight. But we cannot take the principle that we are to love one another, and apply that so as to contradict the 6th commandment. Similarly, we cannot take the (true and valid) principle that there are no differences of value in the church, and apply them in ways that contradict other passages that teach differences of role.
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