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Friday, July 27, 2018

Womanhood and the Story of the Gospel

“What does it mean to be girl?”

Image result for free image of little girl asking father
My daughter’s question was straightforward enough, but it caught me off guard and I fumbled around in my thoughts and my words. If you are anything like me, I imagine you too would struggle to give a simple answer that would satisfy the curiosity of a child. Would your definition span history and cultures? Would you tell her that the differences between boys and girls are merely biological? The more one tries to narrow the definition, the harder it gets. And yet the answer to this question is of paramount importance in light of the current state of confusion surrounding the topic of gender. Some would answer that despite anatomical differences, girls and boys are basically the same. Others would want to focus on the differences, assigning certain qualities to one gender or the other. Others still might question the concept of gender altogether, dismissing the universal binary for a sliding scale. 
Defining womanhood is a great challenge in our day. Our children are exposed to differing concepts of gender early, shaping how they are growing up and thinking about their own sexuality. They are hearing conflicting messages about males and females being interchangeable and gender being maleable. Beyond the rejection of God and his created order, I would argue that strong stereotyping has done us huge disservice and is, at least superficially, one of the main culprits for our gender insecurities. If a young girl prefers stereotypical male activities, such as mechanics or building, and parents and peers try to steer her away from those interests, or worse, belittle her for having them, it is natural for the child to assume one or both of two propositions. One, it is wrong for me as a girl to be interested in boy activities. Two, if I am drawn to so-called boy activities and feel more comfortable with the boys, maybe I’m not truly a girl. The feminist movement, on the one hand, has focused its efforts on debunking the lie of the former. There is nothing a girl cannot do! The transgender movement on the other hand is rooted in the subjective truth of the latter. A girl is not necessarily a girl. Since the perception of gender is shifting from objective to subjective, the transgender movement capitalizes on that fluidity to promise that such a self-transformation is not only possible, it is in fact desirable. But neither the “you can do it all” slogan nor the “you can challenge your biology” mantra is helping young adults wrestle with their gendered identity in a constructive way. Both lead to much disappointment, frustration and pain.

As you can probably deduce for yourself, another layer of confusion is introduced as the transgender movement collides head-on with feminism. Classical feminism is the championing of women based on the notions of objective equality and self-determination. But this kind of feminism is being stretched to include as a part of self-determination anyone who feels she or he is a woman. In the last few years, an intense debate raged at my Alma Mater, a women’s college, as to whom would be granted admission. Is a male applicant who claims to be a woman considered a woman just because he says so? The college ended up changing their admission policy in spite of much opposition. "I think it's a step forward, one that's long overdue," said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "If they say they're women, then saying that they can't attend is denying their identities and marginalizing them."[1] Transgenderism and feminism have also come to loggerheads in the world of sports in which biological women are crying foul.[2]The only place the feminist and the transgender thought intersect is in the notion of an inalienable subjective man- or woman-made identity. Take it away, and their common ground crumbles. The question of “what is a woman?” is therefore first and foremost a question of human identity before it is one of sexuality. Before we can answer the question about womanhood, we need to ask the question about human identity and who gets to define it. Is it determined by each individual’s authoritative self-perception or by something greater and outside of the self? C.S. Lewis once said: “The question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us.”

Human Identity

The definition of what it means to be human has fascinated philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. Where we come from defines us. This is true not merely culturally and historically, but spiritually as well. Jonathan Edwards, in his treaty on why God created the world, writes: “Creation must have resulted from the way God saw the value of expanding himself: his goodness, truth, beauty, and all the things that are a part of him”. If we can accept the concept of God as creator, we must admit that God is expressing something of who he is and his glory is in his creation, most clearly in the creation of people made in his image. In Genesis 1:27 we read that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This is a summary statement of both God’s creative intent (Let us make man…) and his success in making man and woman to be images reflecting his being.  At a minimum, it means that humans image certain of God’s glorious attributes, albeit in a lesser, more limited fashion. Human maleness and femaleness both originate in God and are included as elements reflecting something of his being, even though God is neither male nor female. How we act and live out our maleness and femaleness flows out of who we understand ourselves to be. There is a movement of men who believe they are dogs. Yes, you read this right! They dress up as dogs and find a partner that will treat them as a pet. They climb up on couches, bark and beg to be fed. What they believe about themselves defines how they act. In a world where self-definition is unimpeachable, no one can challenge their actions without attacking the core of their perceived personal (or doggie!) identity. However, when we believe God the Creator has a perfect plan, our perspective shifts 180 degrees. We understand that his definition of who we are is ultimate and takes precedence over our own self-understanding, feelings and orientations. Rosaria Butterfield left a life of lesbianism behind when she came to terms with this truth. “If God is the creator of all things, and if the Bible has his seal of truth and power, then the Bible has the right to interrogate my life and culture, and not the other way around.”[3] She became painfully aware that God has a much more glorious plan for her than she had for herself. Admittedly, it is neither natural nor easy for us to look to the Bible to discern matters of personal identity, but in the end, we will find great joy and peace when our hearts and lives are aligned with the will of the One who made us. 

Shared Identity

“And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’" (Genesis 1:28). Though the mandate given to Adam and Eve overlaps in part with the reproductive command given to the animals: “Be fruitful and multiply,” God adds the special shared task of subduing and having dominion over the earth and the other creatures. This task mirrors God’s own rule over creation. They are to be responsible, good, innovative vice-regents over God’s world. Adam and Eve need each other’s help for both the exercise of dominion and for the reproduction and filling of the earth with image-bearers who will go to the ends of it doing the same. Adam and Eve share in the three general aspects of the image of God: functional rule over creation, physical form, though man and woman are modally different, and ethical jurisdiction.[4] The image of God is not shared in the sense of splitting a piece of pie between the two of them, rather, each is fully in God’s image. In Genesis 2, we find a second creation account. This one is like the zoom lens of a camera, focusing in on the details of the creation of man and woman as different gendered beings. The question of why woman was made emerges from a presenting problem addressed there. 

Interdependent Identities

Adam is alone.  God calls this state “not good.” (Genesis 2:18) This dissonant statement is an attention-getter. Up until this point in the account, Moses, the author, has presented realms of creation, each with their respective rulers and each has been labeled “good.” All the other animals have their matching counterpart, yet there is no one suitable for Adam. Though the Bible certainly is not gender-specific when it comes to the way people are saved and their value to God (Galatians 3:26-28), showing that the human condition is a shared one, it is descriptive of how the mysterious design of the sexes is integral to both the identity and task assigned to them. They were never intended to be independent creatures. They were made to depend on God and each other. Their interdependent identity and task should not come as a surprise. Why? Adam and Eve are made in the image of a triune God. God the Father, God the Son as the Word and God the Spirit are separate, yet willingly interdependent persons of the Godhead, who work together to create. The Father creates through the Word, in the power of the Spirit. This perfect unity in diversity is a great mystery. Both their being and their work are interdependent, even though they also possess unique character traits and functions. This relational and functional connection makes the triune God’s being more glorious, not less, and his will more potent, not less. [5] Man and woman must work together to create new humans. It is also their privilege and joy. Their separate beings and functions are mutually interconnected and utilized by God for the sake of the task of creation, reflecting the Three in One they image. 

Distinct Identities

Adam and Eve’s interdependence doesn’t undermine their unique, separate identities. In fact, it is because they are very distinct persons that they can be complementary to each other. They are not interchangeable. “Women aren’t just small men with different plumbing…there are differences in all the physiological systems of the body” states Sherry Marts, vice president of the society for Women’s Health Research.[6] Beyond obvious anatomical differences, God has a creative, purposeful and all-wise plan for these differences. If we can believe that nothing God does is haphazard, then we can be sure he is revealing something about who he is through these very differences. If the interdependence of the sexes speaks of the unity found between the three persons of the Trinity, their gender distinctions speak, on a small scale, of the diversity of the Godhead. With this in mind, it might be more helpful to rephrase the question “what is a woman?” to “What are the unique characteristics that God has placed in women in order that we might better understand him and the mystery of his redemptive plan for this world and his people?” Woman is an expression of the wisdom of God. As such, she tells a very special story and it is this story that we want to delve into.

To be continued…


[2] After her eye socket was broken and repaired in seven places and she was given a concussion by a transgender woman, boxer Tamikka Brents expressed her frustration: “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because [he] was born a man or not, because I’m not a doctor,” she stated. “I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life, and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.” (

[4] Meredith Kline boils the image down to three non-negotiable areas: “Under the concept of man as the glory-image of God, the Bible includes functional (or official), formal (or physical), and ethical components, corresponding to the composition of the archetypal Glory. Functional glory-likeness is man’s likeness to God in the possession of official authority and the exercise of dominion. Ethical glory is a reflection of the holiness, righteousness, and truth of the divine Judge (...). And formal-physical glory-likeness is man’s bodily reflection of the theophanic and incarnate Glory.” Images of the Spirit

[5] The Apostle Paul also notes man and woman’s dependence on God and their interdependence on each other: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. “(1 Cor. 11:11-12 ESV)

[6] Marianne Szededy-Maszak, “A Distinct Science,” Los Angeles Times, 9 May 2005, special women’s health section.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Little Engine Mission

Being on the mission field is a difficult, humbling and growing experience. There are many wonderful and exciting aspects to living overseas. But the challenge with missions is that the one thing I am called to do is the one thing I cannot do! Think about it: The Lord commissions us all to “go and make disciples.” Sounds like a simple enough command, right? Well, it is an actual impossibility for any of us. Why? Because we cannot change hearts. We cannot move someone closer to the Kingdom. We cannot argue them into the Kingdom, not even woo them into it. We cannot make someone love God or be attracted to his nature. The work of converting hearts is the work of the Holy Spirit alone. And when he’s not moving in that way, it feels like we are knocking our heads up against a wall. I experienced this for many years, working with atheists in the former East Berlin and praying fervently for their salvation. There were times I doubted that the Gospel was really God’s power to accomplish it.

Image result for the little engine that couldNo amount of Little Engine that Could pep talks can help. “I think I can-I think I can-I think I can“ doesn’t work. In fact, if we start thinking this way, our engine backfires because we are denying certain core truths inherent to the Gospel. We believe people are dead in their sins and cannot respond to God unless he regenerates their hearts. We believe that when He calls them, they respond because His voice is compelling and His work effective. No amount of my screaming to a corpse can make it come alive again. We even believe that outside human agency is not always involved in this process. All of these facts might lead us to believe that God doesn’t need us at all. And yet, God chooses to use his people in the process, mostly through their desperate supplications of behalf of their friends. It is a mystery I cannot truly comprehend.

Through my recent work with the refugees, I have been reminded repeatedly of God’s sovereign work and hand in people’s lives. Their needs are so huge, I know I’m helpless to help. My resources are naught, my compassion quickly exhausted, my control over situations illusory. Because of this, I am cast to my knees and so are they. The beautiful truth that this has shown me and them is that God is able. In the face of the terrible housing market, God has opened doors because we prayed. After a few months of asking God together, one of the ladies called and said: “Jesus gave me an apartment!” when a real estate agent called her out of the blue with a place for her and her family. She realized it was the Lord. Another woman said that during her journey towards the Christian faith she had started to pray that God would reveal himself to her so that she would know who he is. One night she had a dream in which a man stood behind her and spoke in a language she did not know but somehow understood what the man said: “all you need to know about me is that I am who I am.” She only realized later that this was Jesus. God has brought these precious people into our midst and I know full well I can’t…I don’t even think I can. My conclusion is the God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still the same today. He can still bring people back from the dead. That leads me to want to shout over the rooftops: “I knew He could-I knew He could-I knew He could!”