COLOSSIANS #32: THE JOY OF MALE AND FEMALE

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God created our genders deliberately, and with a purpose. The Bible teaches us how to work with that fact in loving each other and following Jesus. The latest science decisively confirms that human beings are gendered to the core. However, because we are all made in the image of God, gender is something even deeper than biology. Women and men are made to relate to one another in a way that shows the world something of the glory of God. This happens in all sorts of contexts, not just marriage.

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COLOSSIANS #32  Colossians 3:17-18

Before we address our specific verses for today, let’s remember the context. Throughout the end of chapter two, Paul was addressing the problem of legalism. Legalism is all about performing well in order to manipulate God into accepting you, and doing what you want him to do. He explained that in Jesus we have died to performing well in order to get God to approve of us. We do not have what it takes to get God to do our bidding. Instead, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God, trusting in what Jesus  Christ did for us, rather than our own efforts. Next, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, detailed several things from which we are free, because of the death of Christ.

Then, in chapter three, he addressed the problem of lawlessness. Because we have died to the things of this world, and because we have already been included spiritually in the resurrection of Jesus, we are called to live a certain way. We are supposed to draw on the life of the Spirit, and avoid the life of our dying flesh, which is incurably self-oriented.

Paul then explained we need to put off our old sinful flesh, and no longer participate in the sins that we used to love, no longer insist on getting our wants and needs met in our way. He moved on in verse 9, and said we have put off the old sinful self and put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of Jesus.

In verse twelve, he started to tell us what this new life looks like. He explained that the character of Christ wants to shine through us, and what it means to live according to the character of Christ. We considered the several aspects of living that way, like having compassionate hearts, and forgiving each other, and so on.

Last time, we considered that everything we do, all that we say and whatever we’re about, we do it in the name of Jesus Christ.

Now, we are going to get specific. We are still talking about what it looks like to let the character of Christ shine through us. We are still talking about how to do everything in the name of Jesus. The Holy Spirit through Paul, now begins to explain what all of that looks like for different groups of people: Wives, husbands, children, fathers, servants and masters.

When we understand the context, we realize that these are not just random, isolated instructions that cropped up out of nowhere. These verses are there to help us think about how we do everything in the name of Jesus in different parts of our lives. They are not given to help the Colossians fit in with culture of their city – nothing at all in this letter is about how they can be better citizens of this world. It is all about living this life with an understanding that we are already full citizens in the life to come.

So, with that understanding, I give you our verses for the next several weeks:

You wives, put yourselves under the authority of your husbands, because this is what is right in the Lord.

You husbands, love your wives sacrificially, and do not cause them to be grieved, or make their lives bitter.

(My own “amplified” translation from Greek, Colossians 3:17-18)

The more direct translation of verse 17 is: “wives submit to your husbands…”

I want us to take our time with this subject. These are short sentences in both English and Greek, but they represent something that is very deep and far reaching. “Jesus died for your sins,” is also a short sentence, but it might take years of thought and study to “unpack” all of the meaning in those five words. So, these verses are also short, but they represent the end-product of a deep and important subject.

In our culture today, verse 17 sounds ridiculously old fashioned. To many people, it might seem oppressive, and even perhaps hateful toward women. When we encounter any bible passage that disturbs us, we can take one of three possible approaches:

  1. We can study and pray and press into what the Holy Spirit is saying through such verses. With the faith that God knows best, and wants to speak to us through the Bible, we humbly approach the text to learn from it. We may be surprised by what we find, or we may find what we want or expect, but either way, we let the scripture set the agenda.
  2. We can decide that we don’t like it, and so we study and think and work on ways to make the verses irrelevant or meaningless to our life today. Or, we might try and find ways to show that the meaning of the verse is something other than what it seems to say so obviously. But we start with our own agenda, and try to make the scripture conform to that.
  3. We simply dismiss the verse. We ignore it, or we simply decide that we are not going listen to it, or apply it to our lives. We might even try to say that it shouldn’t be in the Bible.

Because our culture automatically rejects verses like “wives submit to your husbands,” many Christians have taken approaches #2 or #3. They start with the desire to make the Bible conform to 21st century Western cultural ideas about gender. This is a very flawed way to read and understand the bible. Instead of letting the text lead them wherever it goes, they already know where they want it to go, and so they try to make it go there. Or, they find ways to say that we don’t need to pay any attention at all to such teachings. Christians who want to “neutralize” bible verses like this believe that they are champions of gender-equality, and so they call themselves “egalitarians.” Sometimes they also call themselves “evangelical feminists,” or “Christian feminists.”

Christians who read these verses in a basically straightforward way call themselves “complementarians” because they believe that the bible teaches that men and women were created uniquely different in order complement each other. I believe that gender is all about reflecting the image of God to the world, so I call that idea “imagism.”

I have studied the issues surrounding this verse, and the other verses like it, for a long time. In fact, I wrestled with this subject for fifteen years before finally submitting to what I believe the Bible teaches. I desperately wanted to be able to be an egalitarian in good conscience. I did not want to appear to be oppressive to women, and I wanted this subject to be a non-issue. I wanted to fit in with our culture, including a lot of church culture, and not rock the boat.

Unfortunately, what I have learned convinces me that egalitarians are wrong. Even worse, the way they treat the Bible in order to make it conform to their ideals is extremely flawed, and dangerous to true Christianity. If we treated the entire Bible the same way egalitarians treat just these texts about men and women, it would make Christianity meaningless.

Now, of course, I might be the one who is wrong. However, if I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to be truly open to the alternatives. If I am wrong, it’s not because I have a prejudice against women. if I had any prejudice to begin with, it was in favor of feminism. If I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to diligently study what the  Bible says about gender, nor have I failed to study and understand what egalitarians say, and how they interpret the scriptures. If I am wrong, it is not for lack of wrestling in prayer and crying out to the Holy Spirit to speak to me about this subject. In fact, I have prayed numerous times, over a period of years, “Lord, change my heart and my mind! Show me how I can return to being an egalitarian!”

As I say, all of my study and prayer doesn’t automatically make me right, but  I would like to challenge those who disagree with me to put in some significant time and effort on this subject before dismissing what I say, and to have the integrity to let the texts lead you wherever they go, regardless of whether or not that’s what  you want. If you want to learn more about why I think egalitarianism is such a problem, or if you want to discover, in depth, what the Bible says about gender, please get a copy of my book, In God’s Image,” available on Amazon (kindle version also available). The link will take you there.

Although these are just two simple verses, they represent an understanding of human nature that is rapidly being lost in today’s world. These verses tell us that men and women are different in certain ways, and so as we relate to one another, we should be conscious of those differences, and live accordingly. In short, the Bible teaches that God created human beings in two genders, male and female, and both of the genders are vitally important for human flourishing, and also for showing the world what God is like. Consider Genesis 1:26-27

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

(ESV, Genesis 1:26-27)

You see that God intended human beings to display “his image;” that is, show the world what he is like. It sounds at first like it is only talking about “man,” but verse 27 makes it clear that in order for the image of God to be displayed in the world, both male and female are important and necessary. This comes in the very first chapter of the Bible, and we learn several important things:

  • Human beings are created to display what God is like
  • In order to show the world what God is like, both male and female are necessary
  • Therefore male and female are not the same, and the differences between them are important
  • Since God does not have a body, our gender, to display his image, must be at least partially spiritual.
  • Male and female are therefore equally important, equally valuable.

One of the great weaknesses of egalitarianism is that it confuses “equal” with “the same.” But, if the Bible is true, our masculinity and femininity make us different, and those differences are good and right and important and valuable. We aren’t just androgynous souls poured into either male or female bodies – we are male and female right down to our essence. We are male and female, even spiritually. The way that we relate to each other is supposed to be a reflection of image of God.

I realize that to write this in 2020, I sound like a horrible bigot. This is one of the areas where Western culture has been running away from God at a screamingly-fast pace. Even ten years ago, very few people would have found what I just said to be offensive. Twenty years ago, people would have told me I was crazy if I thought that in the year 2020, people would call me a bigot for saying that the male and female genders were intentionally created by God, and that the differences between the two is profound.

Am I just a bigot? Are Christians crazy to say that men and women are deeply different? Thankfully, whatever the culture says, facts are facts. Today, we know more about the physical facts of being male and female than ever before, and the more we learn, the more it is confirmed that humanity is gendered to the core, and the differences are profound. You can choose to believe the earth is flat, but that does not make it so. You can choose to believe that genders are fluid and there is really no such thing as male and female, but that does not make it so.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a researcher and clinical child-psychiatrist, presented some of the recent research in his 2005 Book, Why Gender Matters. Boys and girls, women and men, are profoundly different at a fundamental, biological level, and the biggest differences are found, not in sex organs, or even hormones, but in our brains. The very tissue of our brains is different, depending upon our sex. Sax writes:

Scientists analyzed thirty samples of human brain tissue collected from different areas of the brain and different individuals. The scientists were not told the sex of the individuals from whom the specimens were taken. But just by analyzing the expression of two different genes in the brain tissue, they were able to correctly identify the sex of every one of the thirty specimens, female versus male. Female brain tissue and male brain tissue are intrinsically different.

Sax cites research that demonstrates that girls and women see color distinctions that boys and men are incapable of perceiving. This is not because of socialization – it is the result of different nerve and brain pathways that are hard-wired by the time babies are born. Every step in every neural pathway from the retina to the brain is different between males and females. That means that men and women literally, physically, see the world differently.

Females have more sensitive hearing. This is simply fact. Also, the mechanisms for sensory perception, particularly pain, are different between females and males. To put it another way, men and women experience pain differently, at a cellular level.

Not only is our brain tissue different, but the brain is organized differently. Men seem to have a distinct division in brain function between the left side of the brain and the right. The left side of the brain, in men, is the center for language. This is not the case for women, who seem to distribute functions equally between each side of the brain.

Dr. Sax, who is both a clinical child-psychiatrist and a scholar, writes:

Girls and boys play differently. They learn differently. They fight differently. They see the world differently. They hear differently. When I started graduate school in 1980, most psychologists were insisting that those differences came about because parents raised girls and boys in different ways. Today we know that the truth is the other way around: parents raise girls and boys differently because girls and boys are so different from birth. Girls and boys behave differently because their brains are wired differently.

Later, he adds:

Human nature is gendered to the core. Work with your child’s nature, work with your child’s innate gender-based propensities, rather than trying to reshape them according to the dictates of late-twentieth-century political correctness.

What is true of boys and girls is, obviously, also true of women and men, perhaps even more so. Our verses today start with that understanding: Women and men are gendered to the core. Therefore, the Bible teaches us how to work with our innate gender-based propensities. In our text today, the instructions to wives are different from the instructions to husbands. God understands our gendered natures – he created them for a purpose! Therefore it should be obvious that men and women need to focus on different things in order love each other well, in order to do all in the name of Jesus.

We have a lot to chew on so far, but we have only just laid the foundation. Don’t worry about the s-word (submit) for now. Instead, for this next week, take time to thoughtfully appreciate the gift of your gender, and also the unique things about the opposite gender. When we do this with an awareness of the Holy Spirit, we can appreciate without either lusting, or wonder without getting frustrated with things we don’t understand.

We are both indispensable to God’s plan to show his glory. Not only that, but each gender needs the other in order to fulfill that purpose. Men cannot display the image of God without women. Women cannot do it without men.

Women: know, and enjoy that God created you to bless the world as a woman. Men: know and enjoy that God created you to bless the world as a man. Both women and men: know that you cannot bless the world the way God intended without your opposite gender.

By the way, when I say that, I don’t mean that everyone has to get married, or they won’t be fulfilling God’s purpose. Jesus himself never married, nor did the apostle Paul, and maybe not Barnabas either. Jesus also taught that some people are called to be single (Matthew 19), and Paul passed on that teaching in 1 Corinthians 7.

When it comes to displaying the image of God through male and female, even single people are usually connected to families, and singles also have friends of the opposite sex. The point is, the way men and women interact with each other in all sorts of different contexts shows the glory of God, if we let Him.