The Great Equalizer, Illustrated

15 Jun

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “equality” lately. You can’t do even a cursory study of the gender debate without running across this word a lot. There are so many arguments about it — what groups are actually equal with each other; what groups need to be; what groups claim to not have equality, but really do; and, “well, what is your group to tell me that my group doesn’t need it anymore?” etc. etc. There are tons of ideas of how to achieve equality, countless articles searching for the cause of its absence, and lots and lots of finger-pointing and/or self-pity regarding those who get the short end of the stick. It is such a dicey subject.

On one hand, I definitely agree with the overall concept of equality. We in the church are supposed to love, honor, and submit to one another in Christ, so we really should not be seeing vast swaths of people who are being systematically oppressed. We need to treat even unbelievers with kindness. Defending the oppressed is biblical, and it’s a great thing.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to justify by the Sermon on the Mount how it’s okay for any of us to stand up and demand our fair and equal rights. Although it’s right for us to be treated well, it’s not our job to fight tooth-and-nail to make sure that happens. The Bible actually seems to assume that we’ll be mistreated (Matt 24:9; John 16:33; 2Cor 4:8-11; 2Tim 3:12; 1Pet 4:12…just to list a few)! And then it tells us to do ridiculous things like turn the other cheek! But shouldn’t we stand up for what’s right?

Holy ideological minefield, Batman! What do we do now?

As I was mulling over this topic the other day, it struck me how I was coming at it from completely the wrong angle. The Bible actually gives us a really clear picture of what Christ-centered equality looks like. And it looks something like this: 

If you know your way around woodworking tools, you might recognize this as an awl. And if you were in a life of servitude in ancient Israel, it would have some particular significance as well:

And if it happens that [your servant] says to you, “I will not go away from you,” because he loves you and your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do likewise. (Deuteronomy 15:16-17)

The awl was instrumental in taking a servant (“I have to work for you for seven years, so I’m putting in my time, and then I’m outta here”) and making him/her a bondservant (“You’re wonderful and I want to be with you forever”). Bondservice was, in a very real way, voluntary slavery. It meant that the master was kind enough, generous enough, and worthwhile enough, that the servant wanted to continue in their service forever. That’s saying something pretty significant — only in part about the servant’s loyalty, and almost entirely about the awesome qualities of the master.

We usually think of equality as trying to elevate everyone to the same level. I propose we find it instead when we all humble ourselves to the depths of servanthood. I’m provoked by how Paul, one of the most unquestionably influential apostolic fathers of Christianity, described Himself:

Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God… (Romans 1:1)

Paul. As in, the Paul. As in the open-vision-of-Jesus, went-to-the-third-heaven, wrote-most-of-the-New-Testament, rebuked-Peter-to-his-face, PAUL. This is a man with a lot of authority in the church, with a lot of people being trained by him and looking up to him. And his view of himself was that of a bondservant. Or to put it in less noble, less familiar terms: a slave for life, forever consigned to the lowest level of the social strata, because he loved his Lord that much.

We could also look at James. James was another significant church leader, and, like Paul, wrote a book of the Bible. He was also the brother of Jesus. I mean, if there was ever someone who had good cause to name-drop in the introduction, it was James. And here’s his intro to his book:

James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ… (James 1:1)

No pedigree, no badge, and not even a winking, “Hey, my bro says to tell you all hi for Him.” Just, “bondservant”.

If we begin to live like bondservants, and view ourselves that way, suddenly arguing about who gets what rights, and in what form, looks really, really silly. It’s worth noting that none of the apostles who went on to write books penned any passages quibbling about who was the greatest. And these were some of the same men who got caught doing just that in Mark 9:34 and Luke 9:36, 22:24.

Really, how ludicrous is it for one to say to another, “Okay, so maybe we’re both slaves-for-life, but I’m a way more important and elite slave-for-life than you are!” Although fallen human nature might still incline us to such absurdities, it fails the common sense test pretty spectacularly. Two people with no rights are simply two people with no rights. There’s not any up or down to be had on that spectrum. This also means we don’t even need to protest, “But I’m just as important of a slave-for-life as you!”, because who really feels a need to prove that they are a totally and eternally rights-less, non-self-determined person? What sort of mark of honor is that?

It isn’t. Not by earthly standards, anyway, which are the standards that give place to all the bickering.

Seeing ourselves as bondservants also drastically changes why we do what we do. Because we love our Lord deeply, we are committed to doing what He says to do. It is not just our duty (although it is certainly that); it is a deep-seated desire and drive to walk fully pleasing to Him.

I can’t help but think of another ego-upsetting statement Paul made:

For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

If Paul had wanted to, he could have gotten a bit defensive about his right to preach the gospel. After all, he was like one who was “born out of due time” (1Cor 15:8), not having really met Jesus until after His resurrection. We see that his ministry got off to a bit of a rocky start (Acts 9:26), as almost nobody was ready to believe that he could actually be trusted. But he did not start a Paulinist movement to prove that ex-persecutors could be just as legitimate of preachers as the old-school disciples. He didn’t talk about his right to preach, but his burning compulsion to do so.

I think this is incredibly important for anyone in the gender debate. All too often, the argument basically devolves into, “But it’s my pulpit, too!” “Is not!” “Is too!” “Nuh-uh!” “Uh-huh!” “Dad says that only boys can use the pulpit!” “Well, Dad told me that you’re supposed to share!

But what if the conversation went more like: “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel!” “I know what you mean! Woe is me, too, if I don’t preach the gospel!” Platforms, college degrees, and authority structure don’t even register on the radar. There’s nothing really to argue about. All that’s left to do is rejoice that Christ is being preached (Philippians 1:8).

Or, even if the other person is arguing about it, that’s not enough to topple a real, honest-to-goodness “woe is me”. If I am living like a bondservant, my life signed away to the One I’m deeply in love with, I can’t be turned aside from doing His will because my neighbor doesn’t think I’m right for the job. That may not dull the sting of rejection, but it will keep me from a) retaliating, and b) throwing in the towel. If I’m a bondservant, it’s not my right to get praised, appreciated, or recognized for my labor of love (Luke 17:7-10). However, because my Lord is amazing and humble, I know that He sees it all and will reward me Himself (Luke 12:37), so I’m still driven by love, not mere duty alone.

But back to the point at hand: Everyone is on equal footing when they’ve had an awl through their ear. We have nothing to boast in and nothing to revile each other for. Biblical equality is not about elevating everyone to the same high level of prestige and privilege, but it comes from each one of us embracing the lowest place, forfeiting our rights to the only One who can steward them well, and seeking His glory above our own. Equality comes when when we are burdened to preach (1Cor 9:16), compelled by love (2Cor 5:14), poured out like a drink offering (Php 2:17), and following in the footsteps of our own Lord who made Himself of no reputation (Phil 2:5-11). We are not called to ministry to have our deeds trumpeted in the streets; we, in our various expressions and outworkings of it, are called to be bondservants. And it seems like that settles quite a lot.


Posted by on June 15, 2010 in Theology, Women in Ministry


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7 responses to “The Great Equalizer, Illustrated

  1. Timmy V.

    June 15, 2010 at 7:47 am

    Interesting point, Amanda.

    I find the bondservant image to be a little like all Christians being Sons of God, Bride of Christ, Bondservants of Christ. Each represent a cherished way we are to relate to God, all of us, as Christians.

    I personally don’t see it as pertaining specifically to ‘offices’ or ‘roles’, per se, but they absolutely inform how we are all to relate to each other. As I believe what you know I believe by now, I don’t ever think that my leadership in my home should be ‘domineering or onerous’ (‘as it is with the gentiles’), but rather servant like as Jesus and all of the early Church leaders demonstrate over and over again. We all should seek to take the lowest place and fulfill the calling God places on our lives.

    Thanks for continuing to publish your thoughts on this!

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 16, 2010 at 3:52 pm

      Definitely, I don’t see “bondservice” as conditional upon office or role. Of course, in every sphere, there are going to be people who are leaders and people who are not. I was more focusing on how easy it can be for anyone, of any theological viewpoint, to get caught up in making their particular expression of bondservice really about them and their prestige and honor and personal fulfillment. There’s a big difference between saying, “Woe is me if I do not preach” and “Outta my way! It’s my right to preach!” That’s true no matter what side of the argument you land on.

  2. territippins

    June 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

    I agree with you Amanda. But, the reality of living tells us that there will always be a sense of ‘entitlement’ that men perceive, that makes them aware that they will really NOT have to be LAST after all (as they can keep women below them). It is mighty big of a person that stands above another to preach, Jesus did not consider equality a thing to be grasped after, and neither should you………that is how power and authority is maintained by those of privlege. This makes those on the lower rung (in the chain-of-command philosphy) feel like they are rebellious and sinning to even consider that all people are eqaul before God. The fact that women have to fight (for lack of a better word) just to serve God in visible leadership positons is an embarassment to Christianity as a whole……..and sinners see it.

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 16, 2010 at 4:03 pm

      There’s a sense of entitlement that all of us — men and women, in the right or in the wrong — have to battle giving place to. It is profoundly human to see something we want, or even something we’re called to, and develop a sense of entitlement towards it. Phrases like, “I deserve”/”I have the right to” often betray that kind of attitude.

      I am all for women stepping out and preaching. I understand that it means a lot of people will become angry at them, and make all kinds of wrong judgments about them, and that the woman will probably have to face down some significant opposition for just doing what the Lord is telling her to do. But how we conduct ourselves when we’re under that pressure is the important thing. The world’s way of doing it is to kick and scream, vehemently defend one’s own rights, and tell the others exactly where they can get off–i.e. “You can’t stop me; I know my rights!” God’s way of doing it is, “Woe is me if I don’t preach,” and doing it in obedience, bearing the stigma of it, blessing those who curse us. The first is, “I can, because I have a right to,” and the other is, “I must, because the love of Christ compels me.”

      By all means, women should keep preaching. By all means, it’s important to learn, study, and teach biblical truth regarding the gender issue. By all means, it is fine, and sometimes necessary, to refute wrong teaching and take a strong stance on it, both for our sakes and for the sakes of other women struggling. But the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, and we don’t “win” by taking out the opposition through our own grit and determination. We “win” when we become so sold out to Christ that we are willing to do whatever it takes to be His fragrance on the earth — whether that’s a stay-at-home-mom or a preacher (or both) — no matter what others think about us, no matter how much others revile us. It’s not our job to fight the battle; it’s our job to act in obedience and commit our cause to the Lord.

      Undoubtedly, it will lead to some conflict at some point, but the heart-attitude makes all the difference in why we take a stand.

  3. Deborah

    June 15, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Amanda, I so love the spirit of this. However, I struggle w/ the outworking not only for those of us called to preach but for many who never even begin to feel free to acknowledge that real calling (or who, as you noted previously in looking at IHOP interns, perhaps back away from that calling in fear or confusion). I see soooo many girls and women who just seem to be shells of themselves. And then there is all the abuse and oppression in the Church that I know many, even most, thoughtful complementarians do hate but which, I feel, is one thing that such a vantage directly or indirectly enables. I really took to Dr. Sarah Sumner’s teaching on marriage early in my progress toward egalitarianism precisely b/c she so strongly emphasizes the points you make here (to the point where she won’t even call herself egalitarian despite theology that is hard to separate from egalitarianism for concern that this would be out of a non-Christian interest in rights and power). But I *am* concerned for the rights and power of the woman next to me.

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 16, 2010 at 4:16 pm

      It does get tricky, and it requires talking to the Holy Spirit a lot as to how to walk it out in a spirit of gentleness, wisdom, and integrity. I believe it’s crucial to build up the women around us by encouraging them that God approves of them and their calling, because at the end of the day, that’s all the “permission” we need to obey Him. We need to be treating the women around us in a pastoral way, caring for their hearts, encouraging them in the journey.

      And I think there is room for defending them, as well. The Bible does tell us to plead the cause for the poor and needy (Prov 31:9), but it also prohibits us from being self-defensive (Matt 5-7). There’s a big difference between standing up for one who is weak, versus demanding our own rights. And whatever the controversy and however we need to take a stand, it should always be governed firstly by love of God and the glory of His name, and secondly by love for God’s people. It keeps us from getting selfish and vindictive, even if we have to be blunt in our words and deeds (notice Paul did not generally mince words). That’s the heart of a bondservant. Making a strong stand is still coming from a place of humility and love, a life laid down, rather than seeking to save our own lives/reputations/callings.

      I hope that’s helpful!

      • Deborah

        June 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm

        Thanks. That is helpful. It helps me to see that we are applying the concept of servant-mentality in similar ways and not *just* saying our lives will speak, but we’re not going to take a proactive stand as God calls it forth, etc. Some would take the concepts you mention in this particular post and say that therefore we shouldn’t stir the waters… even when God may be calling us to.


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