Ask Alex Stark (March 25-29, 2019)

alexstark
(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends, @Interested_In_Ask_RZIM,

Alex Stark, a graduate of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, is currently serving with the UK team as an OCCA Fellow. Of particular interest to me, he has done research on post-structural feminism and Christian ethics.

This is a great opportunity to ask the questions that have been puzzling you - or your searching friends - and get a compassionate, credible answer.

We will all benefit from your courage to share a question - please do share your questions and doubts with Alex!

Carson

Alex Stark’s RZIM biography:

Following his time as a student at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA), Alex Stark joined the Zacharias Trust as an OCCA Fellow. Prior to studies at Oxford University, he had completed a bachelor’s degree in theology back in Australia and went on to begin research on post-structural feminism, Christian ethics, and the public sphere. He hopes to finish that research someday soon. Until then, he is devoting his efforts to communicating the Christian story both clearly and credibly in as many settings as possible.

His current research interests are public theology, secularism, and the influence of big tech in our lives. He also loves football, BBQ, and a great cup of filter coffee. He is married to Kathleen, and together they live in Oxford, UK.

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Cosmin Pricopoaea
(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #2

Hello Alex

What are your favourite books (and authors) that have shaped your walk with Christ besides the Bible? (Theology, Apologetics, etc)

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(Bill Brander) #3

Good day Alex. At seminary as a filler subject I took feminist theology. (I wanted to understand some of my colleagues better.) I know that ‘post structural feminism’ may be vastly different. (Never heard of that until today.) But after my ‘module’ I was left with the view that the Bible is patriarchal and unfair to women.
What do you think?
Thank you
Bill

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(Bill Brander) #4

Alex, this intrigues me. What is the influence of ICT on building the Kingdom of God?
Thanks
Bill

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(Kenny) #5

Woah, you have no idea how much I have been waiting for this, haha.

Thanks @CarsonWeitnauer.

============

Hi Alex,

I have a question which is a derivative of the question of Free Will vs Free Choice:

Is there a difference between “free choice” and “free will”?

This is still an interesting long standing debate between a close friend:

The summary is that:

Free Choice

  • God has set a fix no. of choices that man can do, and we are free to choose within these choices, but not free to choose anything outside of these choices.

Free Will

  • Man can will anything that they can imagine, since there is freedom of will.

I am quite clear that the argument of determinism is definitely self-destructing (especially with so many resources by Ravi Zacharias online already), but the only way I can think of is that Free Choice is a form of moderated determinism.

Not sure if you can share your thoughts on this matter. :slight_smile:

Appreciate much!

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(Sarah) #6

Hi! I’m new to RZIM Connect and I have no idea what post-structural feminism is, so forgive me if this is the wrong place to ask this question:

According to a biblically-based Christian worldview, how can one know if they are living out their male or femaleness to the extent that God wants? For example, is a female who is not good with kids, cooking, sewing, etc and dislikes wearing dresses and “feminine” colors like pink; but who is good with woodworking, outdoorsy stuff, and athletics, and likes bright, bold colors considered to be living out her femaleness to the fullest extent that God wants?

This question is based on the assumption that gender is determined by one’s God-given biology and that gender is dichotomous–you are either male or female. I’m not seeking an apologetic rationale for this view, but rather an answer to how one can know if they are fully living out their femaleness or maleness as God intends when what feels most true to who one is, clashes with traditionally held assumptions for what is feminine or masculine and what is not?

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(Elizabeth Yoakum) #7

Hello Alex,

Wondering why as Christians we follow pagan holidays and the Gregorian calendar. I find myself not celebrating them and more of the Hebraic ones. What are your views? Shouldn’t out churches encourage true holidays over the pagan?

Thanks

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(walter little) #11

Hi Alex: Advice on how to approach a Uniterian (former Catholic growing up)

Thanks Walt from Texas…God Bless

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(Moses) #12

Hello Alex, what are some of the methods you use to maintain a balance between “theoretical Christianity and practical Christianity” (The question of Head vs Heart)?

Thanks

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(Alex Stark) #13

Hi Moses,

Thank you for this question. Ultimately, I think that this is a question of discipleship. I want to address it in three parts.

  1. Anthropology

A book I found helpful on the topic of discipleship is one by James KA Smith: You Are What You Love. In it, he argues that evangelicalism has been hoodwinked into thinking that human formation should consist primarily in terms of knowing information - something he calls, brain-on-stick anthropology. In its place, he argues, we should think of ourselves fundamentally not as thinkers but as lovers. Thought and belief are essential aspects of being human, but what is fundamental to us is our loves. In other words, we are made for worship (Rom 1:25).

If this is true - and I think it is - then discipleship needs to consist of more than listening to or reading things which inform; it needs to consist in practices which transform. Why? Because we all have had the experience of hearing something life-changing yet find ourselves unchanged a month later. Smith argues that the problem is not information per se, but a failure to recognise that we are fundamentally lovers whose worship needs to be shaped by practices.

  1. Practice

This should lead us to think through two things: (1) what we know intellectually and (2) what our character (or virtue) is like. For most of us in the evangelical world, who have access to podcasts, great teaching, a plethora of resources - our problem isn’t lack of information. Our problem is that we have fallen prey to consuming information and thinking that’s enough to change a life. It’s not. We need to curate our practices.

To get really concrete, think about Paul’s words in Colossians 3:14-17: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” If I were to ask, “How do I translate this from a nice intellectual idea to a reality which I practice and feel?” Smith’s biblical insight would be to think about our rhythms of life and ask, “Exactly where and when can I put on love?” The basic idea is that we won’t see fruit in our lives if we don’t practice our way forward - by the Spirit, under the grace of Jesus.

It’s this type of anthropology which raises the stakes of all of our practices. I think it helps us to see that we aren’t just brains that do stuff; we are hearts whose loves are shaped by the practices we put ourselves into. It should cause our eyes to open to the unquestioned rhythms we involve ourselves in which might be shaping us inconspicuously into something we don’t want to be. It helps us realise that the gap between the head and the heart might not exist because we don’t know the right stuff; it might exist because we haven’t thought about the practices we put ourselves into.

To get even more concrete:

  • Scrolling through an iPhone screen for hours on end doesn’t form us into people who can meditate on a Psalm as easily. Why? Because it shapes us into humans who consume information passively. Try actively wrestling with God through his Word after a few hours where all the information is presented in bite-size by an algorithm which does all the hard work for you
  • Rhythmically going through a Bible-reading-plan without prayer won’t shape our hearts as easily as would Bible-reading with prayer. Why? Because even atheists plow through the Bible - not knowing its power and life. That life comes from the living God, who, if we let him interrupt our plans, can turn the Bible from something we look at to something we look through in prayer with him
  1. Against Legalism

To be sure, this isn’t legalism. It’s obvious that God’s grace cannot be earned. Dallas Willard said it well: “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning.” No amount of right practices could earn God’s love. However, having been won by God’s love, we now get to ask, “How do I take what I know and translate it into life?” Legalism actually expands the divide between our head-knowledge of God’s grace and our practices/heart knowledge. Practices, as those which are birthed out of God’s grace, help bridge that divide. I think of the Psalmist’s line, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (16:5). This is true for us.

Thanks for the question, Moses. I hope this helps!:grin:

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(Alex Stark) #14

Hi Walt, great to hear from you.

I’m assuming that your mention of

(former Catholic growing up)

refers to your friend, not yourself. Either way, my response below is appropriate for the mere Christian, who has found a home in the house of Christianity, regardless of what denominational room they have rest their head. I think it comes down to a question of theology, and therefore God’s revelation and guidance in history. I think we could also say something pastoral. So, I’ll address those three things below.

  1. The Historical

It’s important to recognise that Unitarianism is an evolved Arianism. It came out of the Reformation movement in the 16th century, advocated by those who thought Protestants sacrificed the oneness of God on the alter of his threeness. Like Arius before them, Unitarians reject the divinity of Jesus and therefore the trinitarian nature of God. Historically, their view was rejected by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD when they rejected Arianism. Much more can be said about this, but it should at least be acknowledged that the Trinitarian nature of God was developed into creedal form quite early in the history of the church. The Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council!

  1. The Theological

Ultimately, the response to your friend would be theological. All theology is just language about God (theo, logos). Well, not just language, but you know what I mean. One theologian (Hugh Ross Mackintosh) said it like this: “To know anything of God is to know that which God has revealed of himself. To pretend to understand God otherwise would be to presume upon the incredible position that man can know God without His willing to be known.” So, the question becomes not so much “What makes sense of our intuitions?” but rather, “What makes sense of God’s revelation?”

When the Council of Nicaea discussed Arius’s views, they realised that they couldn’t describe God’s self-revelation any other way: he is one, but he has revealed himself as more than one. Nicaea emphasised the relationship between the Father and the Son using the word homoousios - one substance.

Fast-forward to the Council of Constantinople (381), and that same language was applied to the Holy Spirit: “the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets…”

The technical expression becomes this: God exists as three persons in one being.

Two things stand out to me in the Scriptures:

i. Jesus’ talk of the Father and Holy Spirit (John 14-17; Matthew 28:16-20). Not much really needs to be said here, but feel free to respond to ask for more references of Jesus talking about the other persons of the Trinity.

ii. The way early Jewish Christians reckoned their monotheism with their worship of Jesus. This actually get’s really interesting! Jews referred to God with two titles: (1) Elohim (Gen 1:1), and Yahweh (Gen 2:4). Elohim means “deity,” and so is translated “God.” Yahweh was a special term which is roughly translated “He is,” or, in the first person “I am,” and it’s a term only the Jews used and was only used about the God of their story.

In a prayer recorded in Deuteronomy, the Jews would express their monotheism. They would pray this for over three-thousand years three times a day, morning, noon and night. And it went like this:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Or, to give you the Hebrew:

“Yahweh our Elohim; Yahweh is one. Love Yahweh with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4).

Now, fast-forward a few thousand years and a Jewish teacher begins acting as if he is Yahweh. He claims to bring the kingdom of God; he heals the sick; has authority over the spiritual realm; claims to forgive sins and ultimately claims to be Lord over the sabbath – a Jewish institution created by God.

And then something profound happens. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, expresses the same thing the Council of Nicaea did, but with his distinctly Jewish worldview. He writes,

“yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Or, let me put it this way:

“There is but one Elohim (the father, from whom all things came and for whom we live); and there is but one Yahweh, Jesus Christ (through whom all things came and through whom we live).”

Boom. Mic-drop moment. Paul, who knew the Shema and would have cited it three times per day, takes it, explodes it open, and slips Jesus right into it.

So, here’s what’s going on: the early Jewish Christians who believed in one God had experiences so profound that when they began declaring Jesus is Lord, and began experiencing God’s presence with them by the Holy Spirit, they had to wrestle with how this could be the case. Not only does unitarianism (and Arianism) go against the early church councils; it also goes against the Scriptures and the internal wrestlings of Jewish Christians who had encountered the risen Messiah

  1. The Pastoral

Finally, I think that the Trinity is too existentially profound to not want to be true. It gives us good reason to think that God, who is eternally three-in-one, has always been self-sufficient in himself and has always existed in self-giving loving relationship. If true, it means that conversion isn’t simply an ascent to a new idea but an invitation into the eternal loving relationship between three consubstantial persons. This means that God doesn’t need us, but wants us. For your friend, who is a Unitarian, the question for him is this: “Does he know a God who wants him?

I hope this helps a bit, Walt.

With blessings,
Alex

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(Alex Stark) #16

Hi Isaiah,

What a great question. I’ll answer this on the grounds that you share some of your favourite reads in response?

James KA Smith’s series, Cultural Liturgies:

  • Desiring the Kingdom
  • Imagining the Kingdom
  • Awaiting the King

NB, these are dense to work through, but incredible tools for discipleship and thinking through personal and communal transformation. His popular work is more accessible: You Are What You Love

Other personally formative books were the following:

  • Lectures to my Students - C.H.Spurgeon
  • Humility - Andrew Murray
  • Generous Justice - Tim Keller
  • The Cost of Discipleship - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Books Helpful for apologetics/evangelism

  • A Secular Age - Charles Taylor
  • Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview - William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
  • Seven Types of Atheism - John Gray
  • Can We Trust the Gospels? - Peter Williams

Thanks for such a great question! Please send me things you’ve enjoyed.

Cheers,
Alex

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(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #17

The books I enjoyed the most so far have been John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, Ravi’s Can Man Live without God, J. Warner Wallace’s God’s Crime Scene, and Mere Christianity.

I own A Secular Age and James KA Smith’s accompanying book How (Not) To be Secular. I haven’t read them yet but I’m hoping to sometime soon (I’ve got a long list of books I want to read sitting on my bookshelf).

I enjoy pretty much any book on Christianity from a wide range of topics. I like books on philosophy, theology, ethics, atheism, intelligent design, historical Jesus, early Christian history, other religions, etc. I also love literature and hope to study English in university in fall.

I’m sorry if I didn’t shorten the list at all, but I’m open for pretty much any suggestions.

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(Moses) #18

Thank you Alex! Helpful :slight_smile: God bless your ministry

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(Ted Kilcup) #19

2 questions on justice.

  1. What is it Biblically? (The reason I’m asking is I’m unsure about the way the phrase is starting to get used in the church).
  2. Is a distinction between what we’re required to do (justice) and what we’re required to love (mercy or faithfulness) at all helpful or Biblical? (I think so and want to be corrected if I’m missing something).

Those are my questions. So you can answer the questioner and not simply the question, I’ll put some of my other thoughts below so can know where I’m coming from on this.

I’ve thought of justice as an eye for an eye. A punishment that fits the crime. There’s an equality aspect to it. Equality in judgement is another definition I think. Ex: a teacher grading papers cannot use a different standard for one child over another. Those are two definitions I think of when I think of justice. A further characteristic is that it is mandatory. Micah 6:8, Do justice. Justice has to do with rights. Your life and your property are sacred. Each man and woman made in the image has a right to their property and their life. When what is sacred is violated there is injustice.

In the current culture the phrase social justice gets thrown around a lot. And clearly people in the US and other cultures have disadvantages and advantages many of which are due to serious past injustices. How we make past injustices right is a really complicated question that I’m not asking about. I’m more asking about the starting point for that conversation. Simply what is the definition of justice?

A primary concern of mine is that “social justice” is starting to mean things like mercy, compassion, and love which I don’t see as part of “justice” proper. In the interest of clarity, it would be nice to keep these things separate. I see mercy/faithfulness as something that is mandated for believers to love. However, how that plays out seems less cut and dried than justice. There seems to be a line between what is required to do “justice” and what we are required to love “mercy”. Or as the CSB says, “Love faithfulness”. It seems like there could be a misreading of scripture if we believe there is a command to “do mercy”. No doubt loving mercy will result in doing mercy. But I think the distinction still matters. The danger that I see in believing in a command to “do mercy” is that we might think we are entitled to mercy from God or others. My understanding is that justice is something we are entitled to. God will provide justice in the end. But mercy is something that is given that we can only be thankful for and we are in no way entitled to.

Another place I see this applying regards state involvement in human affairs. I see justice as a responsibility of the state to a certain degree (punishing evildoers and whatnot). I say to a degree because perfect justice will only come with the Kingdom of God. But I see mercy and love as virtues each believer is to embrace. Love and mercy are not necessarily things to be legislated. Maybe they could be, but justice absolutely must be legislated according to the Biblical view.

Christ is merciful in coming to save us, but in a significant aspect this has little to do with justice. He sacrifices himself for us not because justice demanded total equality, the rich (Jesus Christ) to give himself for the poor (me), but rather because he showed mercy to me. He voluntarily gives up his riches, but it is not “required” of him.

I want to be careful that this isn’t taken to be a argument against something like reparations. It isn’t. I honestly don’t know where I stand on those things, because justice is complex in these situations. Really appreciate any corrections or thoughts on the concept of justice.

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(Alex Stark) #20

Hi Elizabeth,

This is a fascinating question. If I’m honest, I haven’t given it too much thought. But, I could say a few things.

First, I love your desire to think through how you live your life. I’ve always thought that the way we live our lives tells a story about what we fundamentally believe about the world, life, and God. James, the brother of Jesus, made the same case when he said, “Faith without works is dead!” (2:14-26). So, keep thinking through things like this - especially if it’s primarily about your witness to the culture.

Yet, I wonder whether you could clarify a few things for me:

  • What do you mean by “true holidays” over “pagan” ones?
  • What’s your issue with the Gregorian calendar? Do you imagine an alternative, like the Julian?
  • What do you mean by the Hebraic holidays? Do you mean events like passover, the festival of unleavened bread, etc?

I’ll respond more broadly now, but if you could clarify the above things then we can converse with a bit more detail :slight_smile:

  1. Defining Pagan

I’d like to point out the the word “pagan” has a lot of negative cultural baggage, which we would be wise to dismiss. Paganism is, most broadly, a catch-all term for cultural spiritualities outside the Abrahamic faiths. The moment we make that clarification, we are able to see that the negative connotations often associated with the term are unwarranted. Mostly, this is because paganism isn’t a unified system. It’s just a descriptor of those spiritualities (whatever they look like) which are not Abrahamic.

That aside, pagan spirituality is obviously very different to Christian spirituality. Pagans uncover their spirituality in this earth; Christians discover their spirituality in God. Pagans emphasise spirituality at the expense of doctrine and dogma; Christians emphasise truth with the joy of that truth being the person of Jesus. All that to say, our differences are huge but we should be slow to infer negativity upon anything called “pagan,” for the same reason we would be slow to infer anything negative upon other aspects of culture which don’t necessarily have a label.

Within this definition, Bank holidays are “pagan.” Or even holidays which celebrate the founding of nations (like Australia Day, or Inependence Day). They’re pagan because they’re not Abrahamic, per se, and so we should be slow both to adopt them or reject them. We need to think critically.

  1. My Personal Formula

When I think about cultural engagement - with any topic - I usually sift it through the “Reject, receive, redeem” filter.

i. Reject : Something is completely at odds with Christianity. There is no way around it. Things within this category we might explicitly label “sin,” or they are acts which an onlooker might use to completely disassociate you with the name Jesus. Christians would reject these types of things. The caution with outright rejection of things in culture is this: always be aware with how your rejection of something might affect somebody else. God’s injunction to love our neighbour, although it doesn’t mean capitulate to their culture, does mean that even as we disagree we might take the time and effort to journey with them so they understand (and maybe even be attracted to the reason for which we make any decisions in the first place - that is, Jesus).

ii. Receive : Something is completely harmless toward Christianity. Take, eat - enjoy!

iii. Redeem : Something is ambiguous, with both negative aspects and positive aspects. Christians should think about how they can engage it with intentionality and purpose.

Something I find interesting is that, the more I think about it, the more I realise that everything outside of blatant sin needs to be not simply rejected or received, but redeemed. Take any good thing, receive it excessively and you’ve spoiled it. Take any questionable thing, reject it outright and you might close the door to a hearing of the Gospel - and, you could give people the impression that Christians are superstitious and nervous about things for which we need not be. But, take something questionable and redeem its function and engage it in a way that witnesses to Jesus’, and you’ve become an active participant in the Lord’s prayer - that is, you’ve responded to God’s invitation to be someone who does on earth what will be in heaven.

  1. Christmas Holiday

So, take Christmas for example. The early church never celebrated Jesus’ birth. Historically, the two main celebrations of the church were for (1) Epiphany - which commemorated the arrival of the Magi after Jesus’ birth - and (2) resurrection Sunday. It’s not exactly clear when Christmas began being celebrated, but the best case is for the 4th century. This was after Constantine came to power. Many people think that Christians in the 4th century replaced the pagan festivals of sun-worship with the Christian commemoration of Jesus’ birth. This is probably the case, but it’s really not that important.

What is interesting is that long before the Christian celebration of Christmas began being held, pagans would hold celebrations around December 25th. To get through the wet, the cold, and the night of the never-ending winter, pagans would hold parties and feasts. But, once the Winter solstice was over – 21st of December; shortest day of the year – they would begin celebrating the lengthening of the days. They’d do this by lighting big bonfires to mimic the return of the sun .

So, here’s the question: Should we reject, receive, or redeem Christmas? And I think the answer is, clearly, redeem it.

In one way, the historical institution of celebrating Jesus’ birth itself is a redemption of a pagan holiday. Whereas those in Rome wanted to celebrate the sun, Christians wanted to celebrate the Son; whereas pagans wanted to worship the return of warmth, Christians wanted to remember the presence of God; and whereas pagans wanted to pretend they had hope because winter was over for another year, Christians wanted to remember their hope that the winter of the soul would never come again.

In another way, Christmas today has many things wrong with it. The consumerism, the idolatry of family, the anxiety, the placing of our hope in rest and relaxation, and even the centring of our lives around earthly joys. But it also has many things good about it: family, though not God, is good; gifts, though not ultimate, are expressive of genuine loves between people; rest, though not final, is participatory in Sabbath and is best done in community.

Historically, December 25th was a day when pagan holidays were celebrated. Today, it’s when Christmas is celebrated. The problem we face isn’t whether it’s legitimate because it was historically a time when people worshipped the sun (the fact that early Christians replaced that with Christmas is a good thing!). The problem we face is how we have let our Christian holiday now become pagan, again - by centring Christmas Day on things other than Jesus. We all need to redeem Christmas, I think.

Anyway, please do come back to me on those questions I asked at the beginning. It’d be great to hear how you’ve engaged this question for yourself, Elizabeth.

Warmly,

Alex

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(Alex Stark) #21

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for your question. I appreciate the sensitivity of this question, and I hope that what you read below both stirs your mind and comforts your heart. I think this topic is getting bigger and bigger in our cultural moment, and so most of what I’ve written below serves to step back from the conversation to hear again from the Scriptures. Please know that I’ve tried to share what I think is the best wrestling with the Scriptures - both seeking to follow what they command without adding to them :slightly_smiling_face:. So, without further ado…

Given that the term Post-structuralism is in my bio, I should probably explain myself! Post-structuralism is an area of thought which, like postmodernism, defines itself in terms of what it is against. Structuralism says that we can study culture by looking at underlying structures. So, poststructuralism says that even those underlying structures aren’t neutral, and themselves should be studied. The basic idea is that whatever topic we are looking at - in this case, gender - is part of a larger structure of thinking and context which itself needs to be thought about, queered, and deconstructed. The key feminist philosopher within this stream is Judith Butler :woman_teacher:, whose seminal book Gender Trouble has become a key text with which all students in the humanities wrestle when discussing topics of gender.

I thought it might be helpful to recommend some resources before I pretend to have a perfect response to your question. Three books I have found helpful are the following:

  1. Elaine Storkey - Created or Constructed: The Great Gender Debate
  2. Andrew T. Walker - God and the Transgender Debate
  3. Mark Yarhouse - Understanding Gender Dysphoria

I’m just finishing Andrew Walker’s book now, and would highly recommend chapters five and six which seek to unpack Genesis 1-3 in order to understand the creation of male and female and how the text speaks into the gender/sex distinction we work with in our contemporary setting.

To begin with, I think it’s necessary to say that the litmus test for the Christian knowing whether they are living out the life God intends for them is not whether they are becoming more male or female, but more like Jesus. The thing which was hammered into me growing up in the faith were these words: God’s priority is your character, not your calling; prioritise your character, and you can sustain any calling. I think this has import for how we think about sex/gender. God’s role for our lives will always be, first and foremost, becoming more like his Son. This doesn’t dismiss the gender discussion, it just relativises it. In a world which is perpetually discussing gender and increasingly angry/anxious about opinions, the Christian is given the invitation to find first our humanity as image-bearers of God following Jesus.

  1. Mapping Out the Terms of the Discussion

It’s important to recognise that the Bible doesn’t make a distinction between gender and sex. The reason for this is the same as why Plato, or Luther, or John Locke, or any other writer before the 1900s wouldn’t have made that distinction: because it’s a new distinction. The distinction arose in the 1900’s from within the social sciences. Particularly toward the middle-end of the 20th century, feminist thought underwent three waves, ending with the poststructural though of Judith Butler. I’ll briefly discuss those waves below (keep in mind, that discussing them doesn’t mean I endorse them!).

i. Pre-Modern:
Pre-Modern ideas of gender maintained that gender was determined by biology. This has come to be known as “essentialism.” The problem with it is that it reduces the complexity of human relationships to biology, which fails to explain how differences in masculinity and femininity could arise and how culture influences the way we relate one another.

ii. Modern:
Modern ideas of gender evolved to say that biological sex is created whereas gender is culturally constructed. This happened around the time of the sexual revolution: liberation of women, suffrage movement, contraception, etc. This was good, because it afforded women access to parts of life which would have otherwise remained out of reach: voting, working, etc. The problem with it, is that it actually relies upon biological essentialism by saying that the greatest good a women can be afforded is the goods already afforded to men. It fails to make sense of the good type of difference between men and women.

iii. Post-Modern:
Postmodern ideas of gender completely deconstructed gender altogether. This wave of thought argued that even biology is seen through a lens which is cultural constructed. If true, not only is gender culturally constructed, but so too is biology - because we never think about biology without already having made conclusions about it. The problem with this is manifold, but let me point out two. First, it wrongly suggests that human thinking is perpetually stuck in relativism - like a rat on a hamster wheel: we can’t escape and we’re going nowhere. Second, it completely dissolves categories that Christians think are meaningful; most particularly, sex and gender!

So, here’s the question: Does the Bible ask us to think of gender as biologically determined by sex (pre-modern and modern), or culturally constructed in such a way that, to be free from all the pain this discussion has caused, we should get rid of the categories of sex and gender altogether?

  1. What the Scriptures Actually Say

The poetry of Genesis 1 describes pairs that work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, male and female, and finally God and humanity. God’s design is such that four things are always present in the pairs: difference, sameness, complementarity, and union. This climaxes in the Genesis narrative when, in chapter 2 (verse 24), male and female are united together to become one flesh. Notice the ingredients:

  • Difference: without difference, there’d be nothing to behold
  • Sameness: without sameness, there’d be no means by which to behold
  • Complementarity: without complementarity, the larger scope of God’s mission (the cultural mandate) wouldn’t be accomplished
  • Union: union is the climax of male/female relationships, as an image for what God’s already doing with himself and humanity as well as heaven and earth

All that so say, what’s going on in Genesis 1 and 2 is much more simple than the gender debate we want to have in our current climate, but also much more profound. What we want to do is ask, “What is the content of masculinity or femininity by which I can value myself as a human?” Whereas Genesis 1 and 2 want to say, “Here is the story of God by which you are given your status as an image-bearer, and here are your options to live out that story: as a man, receive your woman; as a woman, receive your man. If you’re not attracted to the opposite sex, be single and await the day where the reality to which all heterosexual marriage points eclipses your earthly loves.”

The Bible doesn’t ignore the category of sex, so we shouldn’t dismiss it. It acknowledges that men can be united to women sexually and visa versa; that men are fathers and women are mothers; that childbirth is something women do. All of this is grounded in biology, anatomy, chromosomes, etc. Which means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories (Tim Keller’s words) — they each see and do things that the other cannot.

At the same time, the Bible doesn’t exhaustively outline what it means to be a woman or a man. So, we would be wise not to hold a woman to account for things which might actually be culturally constructed. For example, I love to cook and my wife doesn’t. I love the colours, smells, and result of all the foods. I also love cleaning. Because I work with my mind, it’s actually really nice to sabbath with my hands. Because it’s too cold to do garden-work in England, I usually clean on the weekend. It’s a nice break! I’m still a man, and one for whom my wife is incredibly appreciative. We need to be careful not to fill in the difference”we read about in the created order with details particular to our cultural moment.

In short, dissolving sex and gender would be disobedient to the Bible. At the same time, adding unhelpful stereotypes to gender roles would be just as disobedient. If I were to say, “Gender doesn’t mean anything,” I’d be saying less than what the Bible says. Conversely, if I were to say, “Being a man means being strong, promiscuous, and the bread-winner,” I’d be saying more than what the Bible says. We must be careful to avoid both. We must maintain difference, sameness, complementarity, and union - all as temporary expressions of what will one day be true about the universe, that God would unite himself with us.

To get really concrete and answer your original question: it is not unbiblical to be a female who is not good with kids even though she might be good at athletics. Now, hear me fully though: it would be un-Christlike, however, to be a terrible mother because you’re spending all your time doing athletics. But, the same is true for a man: it would be incredibly un-Christlike for me, as a male, to be a terrible father because I spend all my free time running track. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you can’t be good at athletics or that you have to like pink. I would say that these are culturally constructed and unhelpful, forcing men and women to value themselves through additional criteria which God hasn’t asked us to.

  1. Difficult Texts

There are certain texts worth doing more research into (1 Corinthians 11, 14, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 3). However, I won’t do that here. There was a series published by Zondervan a few years ago, addressing these passages in minor detail. It consisted in three books, each of which addressed the passages differently, seeking to be faithful to the authority of the Sciptures. I’d recommend the books to you. They’re only 50-70 pages long each, so you can blitz through them:

1. Bird, Michael. 2012. Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 
2. Dickson, John. 2014. Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons (rev. ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
3. Keller, Kathy. 2012. Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 

Do engage these, I found them incredibly helpful.

All that said, Sarah, I hope you have found this helpful. I wanted it to be incredibly clear that you know that you’re living out God’s call for your life not when you’re trying to become like the type of female that we might culturally construct, but when you’re aiming at becoming more like Jesus. Part of that means grounding gender in biology, such that we’d never say a man can be a woman or visa versa. At the same time, it means acknowledging that the Bible doesn’t exhaustively tell us what it looks like to be a male or a female.

Blessings to you,
Alex

6 Likes
(Elizabeth Yoakum) #22

Hello, Alex,

Thank you for answering. I wish to clarify a bit more in hopes it reveals my train of thought. I’m on the path of a more Jewish lifestyle and the holidays and calendar since it was followed in Jesus’s days. The Jewish holidays and calendar are what was and followed. The holidays, like Christmas, was a political move to satisfy multi-god worshipers and Christians alike. The tree, Yuletide logs, and wreaths are all pagan (multi god) symbols. I also believe the Jewish calendar is one that truly represents Gods time.

(Elizabeth Yoakum) #24

Hello Alex,

My apologies for cutting my communication back to you short. I understand your formula of redeem and with Christian holidays, I see your point, however, is it pleasing to God? I believe our bible is very specific when it comes to worship and avoiding what man adds or subtracts to Gods word. If we redeem a solitice holiday and avoid true days of worship that in the Old Testament where practices and by Moses asked to continue, does redeeming the holiday that is set by man on a pagan celebration satify our Father? He gave us set Judaic (jewish) holidays. He asked us to continue to follow them. Jesus followed them. I am sure this goes deeper
Into history, culture and politics as well as religion, however, how clever satan has gone to make us feel justified to change and worship as we please and hide our Gods timing presented in His calendar. Certain similar events, and I’m sure you know better than I, being a new comer, have happened on the same Jewish/Judaic months and date across history with different years. It’s a debate that my husband and I have often. Whereby, I feel we should embrace and practice as Jesus did and remove the division that so many try to keep concerning the old and new testament. A embrace the old to continue the new sort of thinking. I see that the more we research, ( meaning whomever$ the more we embrace those ways. We begin learning Hebrew or Greek. We celebrate Passover and other holidays. We share Shabbat and so forth, however, the leaders in our faith are afraid to openly say it’s okay to do so. I adore Ravi and has followed him for years. I just wanted some perspective as to why.
I feel the devil did a surburb job in hiding God and we should do our do diligence to uncover the coverup so to speak.
Thank you so much for your time and thoughts

Liz

( KIRAN KUMAR) #26

Hi Alex
I am from India, and I am interested in civil services (Indian administration service) who serves for the country. But in reality these civil officers are in high pressure from politicians in India and these politician makes these officers to do wrong things sometimes. As a Christian what should I do?
Some of them stand but they are threatened by politicians. Many go in wrong path.
This thought came a month ago and In between I thought of quitting of becoming a civil servant but from that day
I am continually haunted about the notifications about the exam, and about the people’s achievement etc…
23rd night I had a dream. In that dream I was asking civil toppers about the job etc about about corruption I didn’t remember the dream exactly…
But the next day I prayed and opened the bible
Haggai 2:20-23 …and the date was 24…
And I went to church…I said Lord please speak to me about this.

And the message was about Daniel and his three friends who are in government administration, which struck my heart directly, How they obeyed God in test of trail. And God lifted them.

After the church I went and spoke to the pastor
Told everything about what had happened and about this thought of becoming civil servant.
He said to pray for two weeks or a month about this and take a decision.
But I days are very less for me to take a decision.
Can you help me in this
I will be thankful to you