Separate but Equal?–Sacred Sexes

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“If we are a holy community, each of us touched by the presence of God, then why do you set yourselves above the rest of us?”

The question could easily have been asked by any of us who wrestle with the question of gender and roles. I read the equivalent sentiment in much of the literature I am sifting through in preparation for the Women in Leadership and Ministry course I will be teaching this summer. Its underlying assumption is that if we distinguish between groups of people, reserving certain roles for some (and withholding them from others), then we are necessarily introducing a hierarchy in which some people will be attributed greater value than others.

And it doesn’t take long to find painful examples that support this assumption. The appalling treatment of African-Americans under the banner of “Separate but Equal” unmasks the self-serving intentions of those who promoted it. But is the position itself untenable?

Does differentiation necessarily result in subordination?

They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”
Numbers 16:3

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram certainly thought so. This was the essence of their complaint against Aaron and Moses. If the whole nation had been set aside as a kingdom of priests, then why were only Aaron and his sons wearing the special robes? If God was with all of them, then why could only Moses speak authoritatively to the assembly on His behalf?

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”
Numbers 12:1-2

Funnily enough, the same complaint had been raised just a few chapters earlier, this time by Miriam and Aaron against Moses. Each of these three siblings had played a significant role in leading God’s people out of Egypt. And each of them had a significant ongoing role in the nurture and oversight of the assembly. But the fact that certain roles were being withheld from them made Miriam and Aaron feel threatened and inferior.

All three of them had partnered together and risked much to give birth to this fledgling nation, but now Moses was acting like he was in charge of everyone, including his older brother and sister. Sure, Moses was the one God met with face-to-face. He was the one to whom God had given the law. But hadn’t God spoken through them in powerful ways, too? Somehow the authority invested in Moses, no matter how humbly executed, made them feel like he was being treated as better than them.

“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor.
Exodus 28:1-2

Moses could have felt the same way when God picked Aaron and his sons to be the priests, not him. All this time he had been functioning as high priest for the nation, offering up sacrifices on their behalf, instructing them in the law of God, and carrying their needs into God’s presence. He could have felt threatened or demeaned when God bypassed him and gave this special honor to Aaron and his descendants.

Likewise, Aaron could have been jealous of the way that God revealed Himself to Miriam in visions and dreams. He could have been threatened by her powerful woman’s voice, speaking God’s word and leading the multitude in Spirit-filled songs of worship.

At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them went out. Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words: “When there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
Numbers 12:4-8

The point was that each of these siblings had been chosen by God to function in a particular role, no one greater than the other but each one distinct from the other. God spoke directly to each of them, but that didn’t make all of them equally prophets, priests, and kings. The authority invested in Moses had come from God, not himself. His use of it was a faithful outworking of His service to God, as were Aaron’s privileged position in the tabernacle and Miriam’s intimate encounters with the Spirit. God answered definitively: To question or deny the distinctions He had set up was to go against Him.

Thankfully things ended better for Miriam than they did for the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And I trust God looks mercifully on us as we wrestle through similar questions. So much social oppression has been perpetrated in the name of God and authority that I think it fitting for us to step back and question the basis of the role restrictions we have traditionally assigned to women. To the extent that these are man-made distinctions, fabricated by our historic cultural values rather than assigned by God, we reflect God’s heart for the oppressed when we question and tear them down.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. …those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. …But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
1 Cor. 12:4-5, 18-25

At the same time, I reject the assumption that to maintain any distinction between male and female roles is necessarily to slot one under the other. Is not differentiation possible without stratification? Rather than picture one particular role over another, with greater assigned value or superior spiritual power, I think the kingdom of God functions with both the distinction and equality of the Trinity. As we each function according to the particular gifting and unique calling God has placed on us, we do so in direct service to Him and, Lord willing, in humble love for each other.

What God has joined together, let none of us tear apart.

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4 thoughts on “Separate but Equal?–Sacred Sexes”

  1. Sacred genders, sacred colors, sacred ages. All humanity is sacred to our God; we are called to treat each other with the love, honor and dignity with which we were made by our Creator.

    1. Yes! My tendency has been to see these distinctions as a bad thing which divides and degrades us. While we still have a long way to go in integrating and honoring each other, I feel the need to recapture the unique contribution and glory that God had in mind when He created these different “kinds” of humans.

  2. I agree with you, it is possible to have differentiation without hierarchy, but I think Western cultures are particularly structured this way because binaries are often in opposition, rather than permitted to be connected. Often, many have used Christian theology to support this kind of “oppositional” thinking. I think where I wonder is if this kind of differentiation is something we can determination together? is our “strong” culturally creation of Western gender (not gender in and of itself, which I liken more to genre or conditions of life) the best way to differentiate these differences, or is there a difference that is more faithful to the notion of “male and female” other than our culturally formed notions of “men” and “women”? I like to think that calling, what calls us out of ourselves, as well as our bodies,ought to matter more than gender stereotypes, which I would argue, are narrower than the expansive concept of “gender” that one can read in Genesis and elsewhere. It would be delightful to talk on this more!

    1. What an honor to hear your voice chiming in on this one, Ruthanne! I agree that our polarizing, oppositional tendencies have really muddied the waters on the gender issue. We want to emphasize either our differences or our sameness without holding on to both. I remember you talking about some of the more continental philosophical approaches to femininity several years back and wishing I could hear more.

      In my ongoing quest to suss out what God had in mind when He created male and female (in other words, what does it mean to be woman? to be man? what are our unique parts in His story?), I am increasingly aware of the confusing way we have conflated power with authority. Somehow I think that God has invested us with both, but in in differing levels, to together use in the governance of His earth (including within the microcosms of family and church). And our sad human propensity towards rolling both power and authority together into oppressive, hierarchical structures where those on top dominate those on bottom confuses things further. I have to believe there is a way to hold together the dignity and uniqueness God has invested in male and female each, while not denying our fundamental oneness either.

      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts!

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