Back in February I wrote a plea to pastors seeking to draw attention to the discrepancy between complementarian doctrine and practice in the way we value the teaching gifts of women in our churches. The post sprung from questions I’d long held about how best to train up women in the local church, and the barriers faced by those with a passion for teaching the bible.
The big question I got in response to the post was ‘What does this look like in practice?’, ‘What can we do to equally value the gifts of women and be intentional about training them up?’ It’s really tempting to respond to these questions by producing a list of resources and courses which would be of great value, but I wonder if before we get to this it may be helpful to ask a more fundamental question first: ‘how are we really doing at relating to one another as men and women within the local church?’
Do we really know how to be with one another well as men and women? If we’re not clear about how to genuinely relate to one another meaningfully as men and women in God’s church, then any attempts we make to train up women to minister to the wider body will flounder. We need to get the cornerstones in place before we can build the walls.
You see, complementarians are great at drawing attention to our differences as men and women. We’re so good in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve over-emphasised our differences to the extent that we’re in danger of believing the lie that we’re too different to be friends. Perhaps we even find ourselves fearful of what meaningful friendships with the opposite sex could lead to. Now don’t hear me wrong: purity is vital, but refusing to build friendships is not the key to purity.
Let me ask you a couple of questions: do you have good, meaningful friendships with those of the opposite sex in your local church? Are all your close friends of your own gender? What runs through your mind if you accidently find yourself in a room at church alone with someone of the opposite sex? How would you feel if you were asked to give a lift to someone of the opposite gender who wasn’t your spouse?
I don’t know how you’d answer the questions above, but from my limited observations I wonder if in this area complementarian culture has over reacted to the hyper sexualised climate of the world around us and led us to a place where we don’t really know how to do meaningful relationships with fellow Christians of the opposite sex? We’re so afraid of being unhelpful or misunderstood that we’ve slipped into subconsciously avoiding one another out of fear.
So, what does wisdom look like in this area? Is it possible to chart a path to friendship that upholds both purity and meaningful relationship?
As always, our example should come from scripture, and the New Testament gives us the most wonderful model for how we should relate to one another as male and female in God’s church: before we’re anything else, we’re brothers and sisters first.
The Bible uses familial language when it talks of how we should relate to one another. To quote Sister Sledge ‘We are FAMILY’. It’s that simple. That profound. This is the framework within which our thinking about one another should exist – before anything else – we’re brothers and sisters first.
1 Thessalonians 4 helps us see just how foundational to a healthy church this principle is.
‘As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.’
Then, continuing in v9
‘9 Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more’.
We’re to relate to one another as brothers and sisters. Surely it’s no coincidence that in a passage that teaches the value of purity, of growth in holiness and love for one another Paul speaks to the Thessalonians in familial language.
So from this passage we learn that relating to one another as brothers and sisters is essential for two key things: purity and sanctification.
So often the fear of being inappropriate prevents godly friendships between men and women in the church. But did you notice Paul’s line of argument? First, he addresses the Thessalonians as brothers and sisters and then he tells them that they should be pure. One is essential for the other. Relating to one another as brothers and sisters is the key to purity. Thinking of one another first and foremost as a brother or a sister in Christ will guard us against sexual sin better than any other frame of thinking.
Relating to one another as brothers and sisters is God’s intention for us in the local church. Before we can become anything else, husband or wife, mother or father, we’re called to be brothers and sisters first. Knowing and loving one another as siblings is the strongest way to guard our hearts from sin and it’s the foundation to relating to one another in love.
What is God’s will for us according to Paul? Our sanctification (v3). Again, we must notice that it is in the framework of relating to one another as brother and sister that we’re called to be sanctified. We cannot be sanctified as God intends if we only have friends of our own gender.
Men and women in the church need to be more than just acquaintances because as brothers and sisters in Jesus, we need one another for our holiness. This is astoundingly important as we reflect on our relationships in the local church.
It is not God’s intention that I should grow in grace simply by relating to my husband and other women in my church family. I need my brothers in Christ as well. And, even in my weakness, they need me. We need one another if we’re to mature and grow as God intends. Yes, we employ wisdom but we don’t avoid one another because, according to Paul, our sanctification is at stake.
Relating to one another as brother and sister first is the cornerstone of complementarian relationships. If we can get this in place, we’ll grow church cultures where the gifts of both genders are equally valued and where, as siblings together in Christ, we mature in holiness as God intends.