Gender, God, and the Imago Dei

On Saturday, I had the privilege of attending a friend's ordination. I've been to several ordinations in the past few years, but this one made me happy for more than the usual reasons. And not just because she had a "pick-up" choir and I got there early enough to sing with them. And the liturgy was very well done, with good hymnody and an eclectic setting, and I like that. And it's always nice to see my friends installed in calls near me, especially when they have families to help support. It's especially nice to see friends situated in congregations that affirm and support their calls to ministry.

And did I mention the new pastor is a woman? Do I really have to? Does it matter? For us that isn't the big deal, because we've been ordaining women for decades. But while I'm mentioning things that don't make any difference to the God who calls, let me mention why this ordination made me more than usually happy. The new pastor's partner is also a woman. Their daughter just turned 3 recently -- it's amazing how fast children grow up when you're not looking! Anyhow, the thing that makes me so happy about this ordination is that, in spite of all the trouble some in our church have caused over issues of gender and sexuality, the perfectly ordinary beauty of congregations and pastors coming together goes on, and I love it.

I wanted to share that as background for how far outside of the Evangelical discussions of complementarianism I find myself. My friend Kait has been dealing with recent material from Mark Driscoll and John Piper, and perhaps I don't disagree with it quite as viscerally as she does, but that's only because I'm an INTP. I don't really do visceral.

In responding to these men, Kait raises a good point: arguing gender with them misses the point. It isn't an argument that can be won on the grounds of social constructions of gender. Which is a tough thing to realize about complementarianism -- because isn't it about sex and gender? The answer, as with so many things, is "not once it becomes theological." We tried the same approach with sexuality. It convinces those who are inclined to be convinced, but bounces off determined prooftexting from the historically dominant group. Which should surprise nobody.

Dominant socio-religious narratives are hard nuts to crack -- and they enable communities that hold them to fight back viciously. In the ELCA, CORE and WordAlone have been doing so for years, even before the majority of the church elected to apply the same standards to homosexual clergy as we do to heterosexual clergy. Once the argument becomes theological -- which prooftexting achieves immediately -- the argument is about God and God's mandates for created order. God's will for the creation. God upholds the dominant social construction of gender and sexuality, generally because God created it, and God also punishes deviance from it. Deviants cease to be recipients of divine grace. For Driscoll this is most baldly evident in his assertion that church growth is the key metric for divine grace, and women just don't have it.

I have a real problem with this, because it seems self-evident to me that the real grounds for this position are social, and only become theological later. It's a whiteness problem -- the gender construct is so unquestionably, systematically normative that it must belong to nature. It must be common, and therefore universal, and therefore divine. Because all we see is increasing difference from it, which we characterize through narratives of sin as failure to live up to this self-evident natural law. We don't see, because we can't, that this position is just as arbitrary, just as bound up in creaturely self-assertion and worship of creaturely self-image. We dare to call the self-image by the name of the imago Dei because it is ours and so is God.

But if we want to counter the position, we can't attack the gender construct -- even though it fathers the theological construct and so becomes its own grandpa. And the reason we can't attack it is that the position automatically erases all evidence of its self-grandfathering. There is nothing behind the text, and the text has become scripture. The text has become the word of a God-concept that cannot be questioned because the text is our sole valid witness to divine self-revelation.

How can we do it? Bruce McCormack gives me the best example I have at the moment, from his opening lecture at Wheaton last semester. We deal with the connotations for who this God is. We make explicit what is implied for the doctrine of God by the anthropology and the ethics. We walk backwards in the argument as made in order to be able to walk forwards through the real dependencies of the argument. And Bruce goes through Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology, and he deals with Piper and Grudem and subordinationism, but he doesn't really hit what feels like the mainspring of the argument for complementarianism. And that's where I'm still groping for a solid answer -- the doctrine of creation, not of Christology. The implications in Christology are real, and the arguments from analogy to the subordination of the Son to the Father are real, but they feel too much like symptoms to me. They are not the disease. The disease sits somewhere back in the first article, not the second. And it can, oddly enough, because there isn't much of anything in the first article of the creed -- "God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; of all that is, seen and unseen." It's a blank slate, but it becomes more than that -- it becomes a "green screen" on which we project our world, our cultural Christianity and its perfections.


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