I loved Mary DeMuth’s courage when she wrote The Sexy Wife I Can’t Be. It struck a chord with many evangelical women. From my perspective, it raised an important question for women in the church: what does it mean for women to be differentiated as wives when we approach the issue of our sexuality in marriage? I could very clearly see Mary's important voice contributing to health, wholeness, and differentiation.
What does it mean for women to be differentiated as leaders and friends within the church? What does it mean for cross-gender relationships? A new book by Halee Gray Scott addresses that question in Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Christian Women in Leadership. Don’t you love that title?
I’m pro-women. I applaud any book seeking to help women flourish in leadership. I’m excited about any positive movement for conservative evangelical women. I tell you, this book would have not been published by Zondervan twenty years ago. Evangelical women have come a long way!
One thing is very clear: Christian men and women are in the midst of this BIG conversation in processing social change regarding sexuality and women in the Church! Just think of some titles in recent years: Liberating Tradition, How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Jesus Feminist, Down We Go, and Pastrix are just some of the titles reflecting thoughts of women in leadership and the massive social change.
We are in the midst of this BIG conversation. Halee Gray Scott's book Dare Mighty Things now contributes to this dialogue as well. For conservative evangelicals the book is going to appear as a breath of fresh air. There is much good in this book.
But those wanting constructive movement in the twenty-first century on women in leadership and cross-gender relationship are going to be disappointed. Scott’s chapter on sex and cross-gender relationships turns out to be very conservative. She characterized the small growing movement of evangelicals I have spearheaded as a “daredevil” approach. According to her, those evangelicals have “low or no boundaries.” This is utterly false. She doesn’t quote me nor does she engage my book or any of posts from my blog to verify her description of me. It just so happens by the end of the chapter, only Scott’s view promotes “healthy” cross-gender relationships for women. Tara Beth Leach recently wrote a guest post on Scot McKnight's blog introducing a new Scott’s book. She just repeated Scott’s approaches. No constructive or critical comments from Leach.
I am committed to an embodied differentiated faith toward God doing something new between men and women.
I know differentiation is a psychological term and not a biblical term but you’re not going to find boundaries in the Bible either! Embodied differentiated (and therapists please correct me if I am off here) faith signifies the boundaries of us as individuals which identify us as unique individuals as different and distinct from others (The Reciprocating Self).
It is precisely this point where perhaps I am so misunderstood. I wholeheartedly support an embodied differentiated faith—even to the extent of God doing something new. Sometimes something boldly new. There is deep conversation about what this new looks like and I'm glad that Scott noticed this growing movement among evangelicals.
This leaves me vulnerable for much misunderstanding and criticism. I know for some they can’t go with me here. But as I see it, my support of this to the broadest extent means that a cookie cutter approach or a shoehorned-one-size-fits-all approach for Christians is unhealthy, unwise, and ultimately not transformational.
Perhaps another way of saying this is that differentiation in cross-gender relationships is not all going to look the same in every marriage, in every friendship and in every faith community because God doing something new can be so deeply personal and not immediately apparent to some.
The fascinating fact is that in the Western world today we are now entering "changing cultures of intimacy" where marriage is not the exclusive form of intimacy it once was in the early twentieth century. Sociologists point out that where many non-marital relationships were marginalized and stigmatized last century we now live in an era where there are a “multiplicity of intimacies” either coexisting with marriage or chosen family-like intimacies. (Intimacies: A New World of Relational Life).
These sociologists point out that our culture is changing from a predominant focus on marriage to a "post-marital" in the sense of welcoming a wide range of intimacies intersecting with marital intimacy.
Scott says in her criticism of my approach that we need to forge them in a manner that is sensitive to how others will interpret them. Then she gives a positive example of how co-pastors sign a contract saying they will never ride alone in a car together. In other words, she stays with twentieth century rules as a means of being sensitive to others. Had she nuanced this that this had to be the case in some existing faith communities, we could have a constructive conversation.
But I think Scott clearly misses the big signs of the massive change in our culture regarding intimacy and what it means for Christian men and women living in a post-romantic world. The politics of intimacy is clearly at the heart of this big conversation between Christian men and women in the church.
Differentiated faith is about seeking the good and the beautiful in the unity and uniqueness within individuals and communities—and being open to God doing something new regarding social intimacy between men and women.
Christ did not follow Scott’s call to be sensitive to the Pharisees and surrounding community as he engaged women. What gives many Christian women hope and longing for something better is that Jesus introduced something new: he viewed women as differentiated personal beings, not as property or undifferentiated beings immersed and bound in cultural scripts. So yes, I do look to Christ as a game-changer in the midst of this BIG conversation. The Church should be leading this conversation about how men and women relate to each other.
Christ did this in two revolutionary ways: 1) the way he related to them, met with them, and engaged them when no else was around and, 2) the way he drastically altered bonds between men and women in the Kingdom. They would be called into sibling bonds and intimacy—brothers and sisters. Christian men and women would marry their brothers and sisters. This new social meaning for men and women has eschatological meanings for sibling intimacy and closeness between men and women not married to each other.
Are men and women open to the Spirit doing something new in their marriages? In their social relationships? I have greatly appreciated seeing women like Rachel Held Evans, Jonalyn Fincher, Lilian Calles Barger, Sara Miles, Kathy Escobar and so on, open to God doing something new in their lives and their interpretations of faith. These are all new expressions of differentiated faith in different communities.
Are men and women as followers of Jesus open to God’s continued presence and activity in engaging the world? Following what differentiated faith means in this context is to embrace differentiated faith in the presence of others? Are we closed to God raising up men or women with interpretative boldness to counter entrenched notions of unhealthy romantic absorptions? Could God being doing something new as with this massive shift in how our culture is turning toward changing landscape of intimacy in America?
Today’s reconciliation between men and women is not going to look like yesterday’s (metaphorically speaking) reconciliation. God forbid men and women remain stuck in relationships that look like television sitcoms from the 1950s. Of course, there is a need for differentiated wisdom. But the boundaries for many faithful Christian marriages today look very different from the boundaries in 1950s.
For me, constructive movement in this conversation is not committing the fallacy of confusing differentiation in closeness with low or no boundaries.
This is precisely the fallacy Scott commits when she turns to platonic friendships. Differentiated men and women practice clear and wise boundaries in very close relationships. Can we agree that we all are deeply interested in clear and wise boundaries? In my experience, in my research I find some evangelicals familiar with differentiation (usually therapists or sociologists).
Differentiation does not require physical segregation and distance in order for it to be wise and healthy. Differentiated men and women can choose intimacy, sibling-like intimacy, everyday closeness precisely because they make healthy distinctions within their social identities of marriage, friendship, and healthy intimacy. Differentiated faith is not a boundaryless faith. I’ve lost some friends because I had to choose healthy boundaries.
There are some conservative evangelicals who continue to confuse/conflate emotional fusion (low or no boundaries) in platonic relationships with healthy differentiated authentic intimacy. In other words closeness between male and female friends must mean "low or no boundaries."
Scott identifies a "daredevil" approach as a posture that, "Because of grace and Christ’s death on the cross, boundaries aren’t necessary." I know of no one who holds to the robust notion that men and women can enjoy healthy close friendships who would say this. This is a ridiculously false interpretation.
If Christian men and women as leaders model a "differentiated faith" (The Reciprocating Self) we will help others not commit this fallacy. In a differentiated faith, we learn the richness of "unity and uniqueness." In a differentiated faith, we are all at "different levels of maturity--cognitively, socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually."
Using New Testament language (and reality) what's at stake here is personal and social discernment of the Spirit versus the letter. Christ has sent us the Spirit--this is the essence of the New Covenant. Both men and women have received this Spirit. Both men and women are being transformed from glory to glory. We are a new creation in Christ. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Becoming self-aware of the Spirit's work in our lives and in this world could be called the process of a maturing differentiated faith. What we need is a deeper conversation about differentiating faith in this changing culture of intimacy.
There are many New Testament passages and themes which Leach and Scott overlook in their criticism of a "daredevil" approach characterized as "low or no boundaries." The leaders of the church should be calling men and women to the powerful and necessary work of discerning the Spirit in a differentiated faith.
The fact is we are going to miss out on the Spirit doing a powerful work between men and women if we remain closed to how to he can birth personal communities marriage and friendship through intimacy—intimacy of differentiated faith. A differentiated faith prizes wise and clear boundaries. They’re just not the social boundaries of last century.