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False (Gender) Ideals


Instead of the recent pattern of using biblical stories to draw out lessons, this week, the Adult Bible Study Guide loosely focuses on the stages of life and offers advice on success. To those maturing into adulthood: know thyself before getting married. On Tuesday, the lesson reflects on the challenges of the roughly four decades that follow. It calls these “the earning years” and offers encouragement to be biblical through all the financial challenges that accompany this stage of life. On Wednesday, it covers “the last phase,” but this is mostly just a list of things that need to be in place to call it successful. “In an ideal situation the parents have raised their children to become independent adults, the home is paid for, the transportation needs are met, there are no lingering debts, and there is a sufficient income stream to provide for the senior family’s needs.” That word “ideal” is doing a lot of work in this scenario. In fact, it creeps up throughout the lesson in telling places.

I really wanted to enjoy this lesson. It’s mostly a harmless mélange of common-sense advice, the sort of thing that made me nostalgic to hear my Grandma remind me, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” At family gatherings, we love retelling of the time my late Grandpa got a Q-tip and repeatedly dipped it in paint to cover the heads of the finishing nails in the trim around the screened-in porch. Taking pride in one’s work can be one of the deep joys in life.

But then I read this.

In many cases, the husband is the main breadwinner, though often both spouses work. Of course, unexpected circumstances can arise—sickness, economic downturns, whatever—that make this ideal difficult. People need, then, to adjust accordingly.

It’s only pretty bad things—and “whatever”—that might interrupt this male breadwinner ideal. There’s that word again. “Ideal.” My wife makes more money than me. I like that! I’m proud of her successful career. I can think of half a dozen buddies of mine whose wives make more money than them. A lot of this is a generational thing. Educational opportunities and economic structures have changed. One would think that a carefully reviewed and professionally edited global Adventist publication should recognize this fact. On top of all the other things that this church does to alienate anyone outside the halo of the General Conference, we learn that women working hard enough to make more money than their husbands is not an ideal. Wouldn’t it be inspiring to see a few leaders in the church put out a disclaimer about this part of the lesson?

All this time, the anti-women’s ordination crowd has been telling everyone that their opposition is about “spiritual authority.” This official denominational study guide shows that our current church leaders also believe that—ideally—men should earn more than women.

Last month, one of Spectrum’s outstanding writers, William C. DeMary, published a deeply researched two-part series on the history of headship theology. (Here’s part one and part two.) This modern constructed complementarian approach to gender roles not only plagues Adventism. This week, the Southern Baptist Convention disfellowshipped one of its largest and most successful churches, Saddleback, which has over 23,000 members. Why? Because they are out of compliance with their denomination because they have ordained female pastors on staff. Four other Baptist churches were kicked out of the denominational structure for the same reason.

One of my lingering disappointments with this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide is that the focus is on the individual. There is little attention to corporate responsibility. This week’s focus is on success. In fact, the Teacher Comments section provides some rich etymological detail.

One word used in the Bible for good fortune (in Hebrew: sakal) can be translated in various scriptural passages as “good success,” “to be prudent,” and “to wisely understand.” . . . All wisdom and prudence that lead to real success come from God (Prov. 9:10). This Bible truth may be the reason the same words (sakal) in these examples can be translated both as wisdom and success.

Sure, being successful includes wisdom and prudence. Connotative meanings of these words include carefulness, use of reason, and discretion. I aim for that. But what about the leaders of the body of Christ? With all the winds of change blowing, does the long-term success of Christian denominations lie in cutting off churches and unions?

In a 2021 interview, historian Beth Allison Barr notes that those who think of men as the only or ideal heads of institutions misread Paul. They also ignore the role of women in the early Christian church.

Because patriarchy is so central to everything we do, and because we look for the points in Paul that seem to support the world around us, we inevitably see Paul supporting a patriarchal world. But if we read Paul in his context, rather than ours, we see that he was calling Christians to be unified and to use their skills in God’s service. We see him celebrating women in positions of leadership. This includes Phoebe, to whom he entrusted his letter to the Romans. She was the carrier of that letter in the same way that Timothy had been previously, meaning that she would have taken it around and read it to audiences. In other words, the book of Romans was first preached by a woman, with Paul’s blessing. We miss those details when we read Paul in this post-1970s understanding. I want readers to know that you can be a faithful Christian and read Paul differently.

In the video below, Barr explains how this sort of thinking harms women and is not the biblical ideal.


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Title image: George Minne, Les saintes femmes au tombeau (Three Holy Women at the Tomb), carved before 1918.

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