Gender & Power – Selfish vs Servant

Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (ESV)

Even though I’ve been living under a metaphorical rock called “university work” for the past few weeks, it has been difficult to miss the recent resurgence in discussion on gender. The horrifying sequence of murders in Santa Barbara, motivated by one man’s horribly warped understanding of the relationship between men and women, has prompted many people, women in particular, to speak about the broader distortion in gender relationships. As I finally resume posting on this blog, I feel drawn to temporarily deviate from my planned series to write a mini-series zooming in on gender as it fits into the Christian worldview.

It would be wonderful if it were simple to talk about gender from a Christian perspective. There are certainly Christians who try; for some Christians, Galatians 3:28 isn’t merely true, it’s the entire, comprehensive truth and there is nothing more to be said on the matter. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in the Bible as the inspired, inerrant word of God, and Galatians 3:28 is absolutely true, but I also believe that there is more to the story. It’s interesting to examine two of the other groups that Paul refers to in this passage: slave and free. Despite writing that “there is neither slave nor free” (ESV), elsewhere Paul gives instructions for how slaves and masters should conduct themselves (Ephesians 6:5-9), and these instructions are different. Apparently, to Paul, giving different instructions and assigning different roles to the slave and the free man, despite the fact that they are equal before God, does not constitute a contradiction. This is something I will examine more closely in a future post; for now, it is sufficient to recognise that Paul could state that different people in Christ can have different roles while still being equal in Christ.

Another passage that often appears in the gender debate is Ephesians 5:22-33. I consider it to be one of the most beautiful passages about marriage in the entire Bible, but its beauty is often overshadowed by the controversy associated with daring to define different roles for husbands and wives. It is hardly the only passage in the Bible to do so (see 1 Peter 3:1-7 as one of several other examples), but it gives one of the most comprehensive descriptions of both the roles and their underlying reasons. When this passage is discussed, the focus is often focused on verses 22 to 24, describing the wife’s responsibility to submit and the husband’s identity as “head of the wife”. Modern readers, particularly women, tend to recoil at this teaching; this is not entirely without reason.

To fully discuss the difference a Christian worldview makes to understanding Ephesians 5:22-33 will take a number of posts. The necessary starting point, however, is to discuss the Christian understanding of power and authority. Outside of Christianity, power is generally perceived as something that is of benefit to the person who holds it. Those who wield power are expected to use it in line with their own interests; those who are fortunate enough to influence who comes to power are expected to select those whose interests align with their own. If power is being used in such a way as to cause harm, the proposed solution is rarely to change the way that power is used; instead, the proposed solution will generally be to support transferring power from whoever currently possesses it to a someone promises to act in line with the interests of those calling for change. In such a mentality, submission is an incredibly dangerous act. To submit to the authority of another is to allow them to use you in such a way as to best suit their interests; you become little more than a tool. Coming from such a mindset, Ephesians 5:22-24 is declaring women to be worthy of no more than being used to fulfil the interests of men.

The problem is, of course, that to do this is to bring a non-Biblical understanding of power into the Bible. In the very next verse, Paul elaborates on what the husband’s authority looks like: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (ESV). Elsewhere, Paul describes in more detail how Christ loved the Church. In Philippians 2:1-11, we read that Christ was prepared to step down from his eternally glorified position in heaven, to take on the likeness of men, to obediently serve, and to have his service culminate in the most shameful death of all, death on a cross. Christ’s leadership of the Church manifested itself in serving the Church at the greatest possible cost to himself; here we see the foundation of the Christian understanding of power.

Christ, when teaching his disciples, clearly contrasted the way the Gentile kings utilised power with the way they were to use power (Luke 22:25-27). The disciples were instructed to follow Christ’s example of servant-leadership, not the Gentile example of selfish-leadership. James states that few should seek to be teachers because of the burden that a teacher accepts; teaching is not for the benefit of the one who teaches, but for the benefit of those who are taught, and thus a teacher who fails to benefit those being taught accepts greater punishment (James 3:1).

Even in the Old Testament, the leaders of God’s people are called to a show this same servant-leadership. When Israel are crying out to God for a king, God gives them a warning through Samuel about the type of king they would receive (1 Samuel 8:10-18). The problem was not one inherent in monarchy – after all, God had allowed for a king in his covenant with Israel (Deuteronomy 17:14-15), and is later able to appoint a king that he declares to be “a man after my heart” (Acts 13:22 ESV). However, continuing in Deuteronomy 17, God gives a list of prohibitions in verses 16 and 17 against a future king abusing his position for self-interest. The same activities God warns about in 1 Samuel 8 are those prohibited in Deuteronomy 17; the problem wasn’t that there would be a king, but that he would be a self-interested king. God always calls leaders to be servant-leaders.

Now, the Bible contains many examples of people who use power selfishly. Even David does so, leading to tragic consequences for both he and his family (2 Samuel 12:1-23). There is no denial of the historical reality that those with power often abuse it. Men, using passages like Ephesians 5:22-33, have asserted their headship over their wives and proceeded to use that power selfishly throughout much of history. I do not deny this, but nor would I concede that they have been using the passage faithfully. Using power this way is always Biblically condemned. The only perfect man ever to walk the earth, Jesus Christ, consistently and perfectly used his power and authority to serve others. This is the Biblical standard. There are some interesting parallels here between power and wealth. Wealth is something that is intended to be used for the service of others (Ephesians 4:28). Additionally, there are great risks associated with both the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10) and the love of power; both lead to many evils, as people use them for selfish gain rather than Biblically, for the benefit of others.

Having reconsidered power and authority, submission takes on a new meaning. While submitting to selfish-leadership may be an invitation to be used, submitting to servant-leadership is an invitation to be blessed. Christ himself spent his entire life in submission to God the Father, teaching his disciples to pray that God’s will would be done (Matthew 6:10); Christians are called to submit to Christ (Ephesians 5:24) and to one another (Ephesians 5:21). If power truly is for the benefit of others, and submission entails openness to the blessing of being led, the Ephesians 5 model of marriage does not devalue women simply because it defines husband as leader and wife as follower. The husband and wife have different roles, but neither is the “better” role. An incorrect understanding of power leads to an incorrect understanding of Biblical marriage.

This post does not cover every objection to Ephesians 5:22-33, but it deals with the one that I feel needs to be dealt with first. No matter how well one argues that it is not discriminatory to assign different roles for men and women (a discussion for a future post), it is difficult to defend unless the roles are equal in value. A worldly view of power will always lead to the male role being seen as the superior role, because power itself is seen as desirable and self-benefitting. A Biblical understanding of power lays the foundation for a Biblical understanding of gender; power is something that exists to be used to bless others, coming from a Christian mindset that rejects selfish ambition and conceit, seeing the interests of others as greater than the interests of self.

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