Biblical Egalitarianism (Part 03) - Sin-Curse Effects after the Fall

08/03/2009 08:06


I call them mindset ruts—those unthinking perspectives we subconsciously apply to life that lock our interpretations into some pattern for no really good, logical, supportable reason. They can be dangerous things for Christians because they tend to skew our perception of truth. Take, for example, the comments on race of some eminent conservative Christian theologians of 150 years ago.

Robert Dabney was a Southern Presbyterian theologian who just happened to write a fine Systematic Theology. But according to Dabney, biblical society consisted of a single Caucasian race that ruled over other inferior races. God, by divine providence, placed blacks in America for their own good—to gain the benefits of Christianity and civilization. But as a result of northern interference in the South’s “peculiar institution,” Dabney argued that evangelicals should not work for racial equality but for separate organizations based on racial markers. In addition, he taught that white southerners ought to withstand progressive plans to educate blacks; instead, young blacks ought to be taught their God-ordained place (or, role/function) in southern society as the laboring class.


Another example is James Henry Thornwell. In regard to slavery he stated, “The Presbyterian Church in the United States has been enabled by the Divine Grace to pursue, for the most part, an eminently conservative, because a thoroughly scriptural, policy in relation to this delicate question. It has planted itself upon the word of God and utterly refused to make slaveholding a sin.”

Dabney especially seemed to think that (1) the white race was superior to other races, (2) the Bible seemed to promote slavery, and (3) a hierarchical order among races was important for the social structure of civilization. Although astute in most other areas of biblical exegesis, these theologians clung to surface-level interpretations of some biblical passages for their support.

Changes in attitude and even practice occurred over the next 100 years so that by the 1950s and 1960s white Christians began to agree (at least outwardly) that races should be considered equal. But even with this conclusion, a new slogan issued forth—“separate, but equal.” Calling races equal was easy as long as it didn’t interfere with life. Thus, the white Christian, in his/her mindset rut of racism, thought “separate but equal” or “equal in being while separate in role” actually made sense. Through the next couple of decades, light continued to expose the faulty logic. Arguing for role distinctions without purpose revealed that an underlying, unspoken (perhaps even unrealized by its proponents) bias actually did exist—that of a continued mindset rut of racial superiority.

The gender debate has followed the same path. Theologians of years past argued for hierarchy based on a misunderstanding (that the woman was not fully God’s image or intellectually equal) and a surface-level appeal to Scriptural support. In more recent years, the purpose of the position (inequity of women) has been discounted. Yet now, even without purpose, PCs remain entrenched in the mindset rut, echoing the past’s “separate but equal” with the new slogan “equal in being but different in roles/functions.”

But even those of us who have begun to climb out of the mindset rut to embrace a clearer, more logical, and more biblically satisfying understanding, must be aware of the dangers of those ruts. We stumble upon such things as the predominant patriarchal society of the Old Testament and receive a slight bump, falling back into the rut. And we could just say, “Well, this is more comfortable. I don’t have to struggle. I’ll just accept it.” But accepting unbiblical ideas because it’s easier is just plain wrong.

On this issue, whenever bumped back toward the rut, the focus should return to the Garden. It was in the Garden that the ideal was presented. Clearly returning the mind to the ideal should assist us in avoiding mindset ruts. God’s focus in creation was on unity. The creation ideal is perfect relationship between man and woman / husband and wife. The pre-fall scene provided us with a look at the three blessings of that first covenant between God and humanity: (1) perfect dominion over the rest of creation, (2) the perfect relationship between husband and wife, and (3) the perfect relationship between humanity and God.

Sin and the curse showed us the destruction of those blessings. With regard to husband and wife, we find discord—a clamoring for control with the husband as more dominant. Why the dominance? The dominance came about because of the distinction of his gender--a structure suited for physical force.

To understand the change from complementary use of gender distinctions to antagonistic use, let me offer an analogy for illustration. God’s knowledge exists in three categories (see the blog Romans (Part 9) – God’s Sovereign Election). God has necessary knowledge, which is absolute truth that eternally exists. He has free knowledge, which includes contingent truths dependent on His will. And He has a knowledge of potentiality, which is knowledge of what might have been. For example, we see that knowledge of potentiality expressed by Christ in Matthew 11:23, where he said, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” How did Jesus know that Sodom would have remained? Because of his knowledge of potentiality, he knew what would have happened to Sodom if things had been different. It is with this knowledge of potentiality that God created the world. God designed all of us with our individual traits and personalities for that perfect world—the one without sin, where the ideals of perfection (including perfect relationship with God) would forever exist. But, in actuality, sin marred that world. With the corruption of sin, those traits we individually possess, created for the perfect blend of individuality and harmony, now endured a violent twisting within sin’s grasp. Our individual responses to the revelatory work of God are influenced by those individual traits.

So, then, we can take this same idea to the subject of gender distinctions. God created the gender distinctions for good—for the ideal world. They were not designed as the means for people to dominate other people. They were truly complementary in that they were designed for equal image-bearers to jointly perform their commanded task to exercise dominion over the world. Sin corrupted. Now, the gender distinctions are turned against the harmonious relationship, and we have men, based on their gender distinctions, dominating women.

As we now begin to work our way through the Old Testament following the fall and sin’s curse, we notice the change. A patriarchal society develops. In fact, male domination appears in every aspect—family structure, national political structure, and also religious structure. Even the genealogies follow the male line of descendants. Is this God’s design? Well, he is sovereign, and the Bible is his Word. Should we not therefore understand from this that it is God’s intent that man not only does dominate, but should dominate?

Before being swept away by that thought, we should take a broader look in order to fit the Genesis accounts into the movement of God as a whole. (In other words, let’s not miss the forest for the trees.) Genesis, as a whole, contains two themes. One is that sin thoroughly permeates humanity. The other is that God will begin his covenant of reconciliation through his choice on the basis of faith.

Genesis is not a mere history book. God’s intent is not simply to recount everything that happened. This is obvious because so many chunks of time are replaced with genealogies that skip over generations of people. Immediately after the expulsion from the Garden, the story turns to the full grown sons of Adam and Eve. Surely much activity happened between the fall and the births and growth to manhood of Cain and Abel. But I believe God chose the one event recorded to bring to our attention the third major principle of existence. Remember that His first principle is found at the end of Genesis 2: the husband-wife relationship is the strongest human relationship that exists. Principle 2 followed in chapter 3: although the husband-wife relationship is strongest, the individual’s obligation to God remains paramount. Now, in chapter 4 verse 7 we find the third principle: Sin remains an ever-present force to dominate humanity; but even though condemned, we are still under obligation to God to keep from sin. This is an important principle. But, we are totally depraved. How can we keep from sin?

God demonstrates that He will help. Genesis 3:15 gave the first hint at redemption. God’s keeping Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life shows God’s direction in turning people from their own futile efforts for life to His plan. God’s discussion with Cain shows God’s interest in the course that we humans follow. That interaction by God, although in the early chapters of Genesis not yet fully revealed in all that He would do, is enough to demonstrate His interest and give people motivation to trust him.

But the events of chapter 4, sadly picture a continuation of the pervasiveness of sin. We have pictured for us further degradation of the covenant blessings originally given. God’s curse on Cain and his activity in farming once again emphasizes the loss of the original covenant blessing of humanity’s perfect dominion over the rest of creation. Further along in v.19, we see Lamech taking two wives, further corrupting the perfect relationship God intended between husband and wife. And Lamech’s claim in verses 23 and 24 to be avenged without a call to God or a contrite heart shows a further degradation of the perfect relationship between humanity and God. These events—this chapter—is not provided to us by God for mere historical interest. We are being taught the downward spiral that humanity travels in the wake of sin.

By the end of chapter 4, a breath of hope enlivens. Seth is born, and in his line we see people calling on God. Chapter 5 sweeps past generations to bring us to Noah. And at the beginning of chapter 6, darkness returns to almost snuff out that glimmer of hope we saw in Seth. His descendants—those who cared about calling on the Lord—are slipping away. These sons of God are turning their interests to the daughters of men, forgetting God and seeking their own interests. And so God brings judgment. But God is not at wit’s end here in commanding the Flood. God is not emotionally strung out so that He strikes back with unthinking anger. God’s point in these chapters is to show the pervasiveness of sin in humanity and that the sin must ultimately be punished. God’s plan of reconciliation still remains. We see that in His choice of Noah.

Was Noah a perfectly righteous man? No. We see his failure immediately after the flood. But that is the pattern put forth through the rest of the book. The backdrop of sin constantly remains. God chooses the exception, but not based on sinlessness. His choice is based on faith. So although sin grows again after the flood, God chooses Abraham—one who sins, but one who looks to God. Sin continues in Sodom, but God chooses the sinner Lot who through faith is known in the New Testament as righteous. And thus the pattern continues of sin dominating, but God choosing those of faith to continue His plan of reconciliation.

Our purpose in this discussion, however, is to concentrate on the relationship of men and women. Particularly, we are interested in God’s intended relationship between men and women in this sin-cursed world. The patriarchal society develops immediately after the Fall. This is clearly a result of gender distinctions. Males were created with general superiority in physical force. They could, therefore, impose their wills over the less physically forceful females. But also in this sin-cursed world, the men could use their gender distinction to produce and to maintain security. The women would, then, rightly attach themselves to the men for assistance in the necessities of life and for security.

But although this natural result of the gender distinctions brought men and women together, the patriarchal system did not represent God’s ideal. Notice some elements of the structure of patriarchy. Patriarchy demands adherence to the eldest of the male line until death. Thus, a woman (1) leaves her family, (2) attaches to the man, and (3) now with the man, becomes a part of his family. But contrast that with the Genesis 2 ideal. In v. 24 we are told that not the woman, but the man leaves his family; we’re told the man is to hold fast or cleave to his wife; and the man and woman together are established separate from the parents. The patriarchal system violates the created ideal in every one of those points. Likewise, the focus on the male as head does harm to the created ideal of man and woman as one, exercising dominion over the rest of creation.

Based on both the discord between the man and woman as a result of the curse and the elements of the patriarchal system that violate God’s intent for husband and wife, it makes more sense to view this patriarchal system as part of the backdrop of the book of Genesis that emphasizes the pervasive sweep of sin and its consequences across humanity. God does work with his choices based on faith, but to assume anything in this backdrop of sin as God’s intent and created ideal is a serious departure from proper exegesis and must therefore be rejected.