One of the most controversial yet fascinating topics of Scriptural study and application is the relationship between our cultural and society practices of gender, and the way gender and sex are discussed,  practiced, and defined in Scripture. What this essay attempts is a theological response to current debates in the Protestant and Evangelical world from a Kingdom theological perspective, outlining a position centering “cruciformity.” I hope that this essay will be a starting-point for further discussion. As usual, we welcome comments, feedback, and written responses on published content on this website.

  1. What are we talking about? Relating Anabaptist and Protestant-Evangelical Debates

In the gender roles debate between egalitarian and complementarian camps, I believe that the questions at the forefront of discussion are very reflective of the theological structures of those engaged in the debate. For example, in the Roman Catholic purview, women and men are both given charisms (spiritual gifts) through which they serve the body, both as single and married people and a laypersons and those who take on holy orders. According to Witt (2020), the debate within Catholicism around women’s ordination is whether women can officiate the Eucharist and a sacred priestly role when the bread and wine become the blood and body of Christ. Within Protestant-Evangelical circles, there are three main “points” or issues relating to the three hierarchies defined by Luther: politia (society and government), oeconomia (household), and ecclesia (church). Thus, the questions that become central include, “Can women lead governments?”, “Can wives lead households together with or should they be subordinate to a ruling husband?”, and “Can women become clergy/head pastor of a church?”.

Because questions of gender theology have been largely shaped by a theological focus on authority and power, it is important to begin with differentiating the Anabaptist theological framework from Lutheranism and magisterialism. Under a magisterial theological worldview, the central question is always that authority and hierarchy. Thus, the questions presented above primarily operate from this starting-point: that the most important question we can ask is, “Who is in charge?”. This is also central to the “monarchical” view of church leadership and the relationship between clergy and laity, an element of ecclesiology that become a point of sharp differentiation between Anabaptists and Magisterial Protestants and that will be addressed in the next essay in this series.

While many Lutheran denominations today do not hold to magisterialism or authoritarianism, Christian nationalism and mainstream Evangelicalism have often drawn strongly from magisterialism in Luther and Calvin’s writings to undergird a theocratic and nationalist-patriarchal worldview. The ideas that you will see described by Luther have been in recent years re-expressed and developed further by John R. Rushdoony, Bill Gothard, Doug Wilson, John MacArthur, and others.

On one hand, the Lutheran “two kingdoms” doctrine separates the spiritual world from the physical world. One is under God’s authority, the second is under secular government. Luther taught that Jesus’s commands apply in the spiritual realm and spiritual kingdom. A simple analogy would be that in the case where a Christian is ordered to carry out an execution or go to war, he can do so under secular authority, because God’s spiritual authority and commandment applies to the spiritual Kingdom.

The Anabaptist “two kingdom” doctrine, on the other hand, holds that the believer is called out of the world and transferred from the power of Satan to God (Acts 16:18).  The Christian does not bear the sword or hold political office. Thus, the “politia” of the world operates according to a completely different system. Luther used the word “gewalt” for authority, both political/secular authority. Anabaptists drew out the meaning of the “gewalt” in German that carries the meaning of force and violence. They developed a doctrine of nonviolence or “gewaltlosigkeit”. The Anabaptists rejected “gewalt”.

… The crucial component of a civil polity for Luther is not secular law at all, but rulers. Indeed at various points in On Secular Authority he goes out of his way to voice the opinion, characteristic of early modern partisans of absolute monarchy, that a wise prince must have discretion to override the law, must indeed keep it as firmly in the hand as the head of a household keeps under his discretion such rules as he has made for the disposition of the domestic other. What matters is rulers and ruling; it is these that constitute a polity.

The principal organizing idea in Luther’s political thought is Obertkeit… German-speakers of Luther’s time would automatically have resorted to this now obsolete term to translate potestas… or auctoritas, ‘authority’… At many points in the text it has been necessary to substitute ‘superiors’, ‘those in (or with) authority (or power)’, or even the infelicitous word ‘superiority’. For, unlike ‘authority’, the German word cannot fail to call to mind the persons who are in authority, ‘superiors” (die Oberen, also obsolete)…

Luther thus conceives of the polity as a relationship between superiors and inferiors, rulers and subjects, public and private persons…. Rulers are ‘superiors’, ‘princes’ (Fursten), and ‘lords and masters’ (Herren. The emphasis, implicit in the very terminology Luther employs, is throughout on the right to command, the duty to obey, and the mastery over resources to ensure compliance with commands…

The crucial term here is Gewalt, which… means any of all of: power, strength might, efficacy… empire, rule, dominion, mastery, sway, jurisdiction, government, protection… potestas, cultas, imperium, dictio, arbitrium, ius,… potentia, vis, violentia, iniruria, indignitas. Its most prominent meaning, however, is force, power, or might… Gewalt can mean – and often in the text does mean – mere coercion, force, or violence.

It is in this connection that ‘the sword’ should be mentioned. For Luther this is the symbol, emblem, and substance of secular authority.

(Hopfl, 1991, pp.xii-xvi)

To Luther, the home and the church were hierarchies in the exact same way as empires and governments ruled by force. Central to this was the condemnation of the Anabaptists who called for Christians to reject worldly power and dominion, both in his writings and in the Lutheran Augsburg Confession.

Conversely, Anabaptists held that there there is a separation between the authority of the “kingdom of the world”, both its offices and the means it uses to enforce authority, and the kingdom of God. This is known as the doctrine of separation of Kingdoms. On the eve of war between Catholic authorities and Protestants lords and princes, an Anabaptist (likely Pilgram Marpeck) wrote a pamphlet calling for a cruciform response to power struggles, saying,

“I present the so-called evangelicals and their teachers and preachers no other alternative than the crucified, patient, and loving Christ.” 

“True Christians never use their “liberty” to rule over the godly or the godless. They use no kind of force, but rather allow themselves to be ruled over. They suffer force and violence with patience and love until the end of the world”

Here the way of Christ, as emblematized by His cruciform death, is contrasted with the way of the world: fighting for the “liberty to rule” over others. Pilgrim Marpeck was appealing to both reformers and their political supporters to refrain from starting a war, a war that was fought to win political authority and self-rule within individual Catholic provinces. He identified within Protestant magisterialism and the language of authority the desire to rule and submit to none. This is, in fact, why Luther emphasized the politia: he had allied with princes and nobles who could become autonomous rulers apart from the larger Holy Roman Empire. 

According to Blough (2001),

Who was now justifying a refusal to obey divinely ordained political authority?… What the Reformers wanted, according to Marpeck, was the best of all imaginable worlds: a civil authority that protected them and acted only on their behalf. They wanted protection and security, but at the same time they did not want anyone to have authority over them if they should happen to disagree on theological matters.

This is important because the fundamental Anabaptist concept that defines a theology of power and authority is that of the separation of two kingdoms. Here is a brief overview of some scriptural texts that highlight this separation:

  1. Acts 26:18 and Colossians 1:13 show that we are saved from the power and authority of Satan to the power of God and the Kingdom of His Son, Jesus. We are redeemed and rescued from darkness to light. 
  2. Luke 4:1-13 shows that Jesus was offered the kingdoms of this world by Satan, if he would submit to his authority and worship him. John 18:36 shows that Jesus defines His Kingdom as “not of this world”, precluding his servants from fighting. Jesus thus rejected the offices and means (violence) of this world’s kingdoms.
  3. John 8:44 and 10:1-18 demonstrate how Jesus’s way differs from the authority of Satan. Satan deceives, murders, kills, steals, and destroys. His way is driven by wrath and lust, and his followers/children are driven by the same desires. When we were under sin, we too were driven by the lusts and desires of the flesh. However, in Christ, we operate according to love and the fruit of the spirit as gentle, peaceable, and submissive children of our Father in heaven (Ephesians 2:1-3, 1 John 2:16, James 3:13-18; Galatians 5).
  4. Anabaptists believe that when the church compromised by gaining power in the kingdoms of this world, they departed from the way of Christ. A significant example of this is the union of church and empire beginning with Constantine in the 4th century. There is a distinction between the “Kingdom”, cruciform, way, and the lustful, violent ways of the Satan’s “Empire”.

There are four significant ways the separation of Kingdoms affects the gender roles theological debate:

  1. Relationships within the Kingdom of God are defined according to Jesus’s teachings. They are not to be fashioned according to and conformed to the ways of the world.
  2. Christians are to reject the lustful pursuit of greatness and power. They are to reject trying to use power to influence, control, or direct politics and society.
  3. There is never the belief that political authorities will always be favorable to Christians. There is always the potential for persecution and suffering from the rulers of this world. However, Christians are to love one another and anyone who violates the law of love is contrary to the way of the Kingdom. This means that submitting to secular authority is behaving in peaceable and honorable ways (1 Timothy 2:2, Romans 13, 1 Peter 2). Submitting to one another (1 Peter 5:5, Ephesians 2:21) is a  manifestation of a “cruciform” relationship dynamic of Jesus’s upside-down Kingdom, a relationship of laying down our lives for one another and washing one another’s feet.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:3)

For Kingdom Christians, the ecclesia and oeconomia is as distinct from governmental power (politia) as light is from darkness, and Satan from God.  Being in the Kingdom means a new world of ordering one’s life, with households and marriages responsible for enacting analogical spiritual truths: husbands and wives are to reflect Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross, and the relationship between parents and children is used as a metaphor for leadership and discipleship of new believers, their upbringing from infancy to maturity in the household of God. There is thus a dynamic relationship between church and home, ecclesia and oeconomia. 

2. What consideration should be at the center of the “gender” debate? The image and glory of God as a primary metric.

The overarching message of Scripture is how mankind begins in the Garden, falls away, and is finally redeemed to belong to the City of God. Man and Woman begin as characters in this story. Even in their fall, the promise of salvation is already embedded: Woman’s heir will one day crush the serpent’s head. 

Man and Woman began as image-bearers. Redeemed by Jesus, they are called to be message-bearers of the gospel of salvation. Finally, they will be glory-bearers. Men and Women will form the body and bride of Christ, they will be seated with Him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2;6) and made into a kingdom of priests. 

  • For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)
  • who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:21)
  • and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, (Colossians 3:10)
  • Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2)

From Eve to Mary (Genesis 3:15) and from Adam to Christ (Romans 5:13-18), Men and Women are integral to the Biblical salvation story. We see this in the life of Jesus where he pointed to a crowd of disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48). 

It is significant that men and women were made in the image of God, and now in the Kingdom, having been born again into Christ, we are to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14). As seen across the New Testament, the image and glory of God are significant, and these should be at the center of our concerns when we study both sex and gender. 

We believe that in Creation, God made male and female and gave them a commission which can only be fulfilled in a state of complementary interdependence and partnership, “to be fruitful and multiply”. The implication of this is that the dominion and authority over creation that God gave together with this command was to both Adam and Eve jointly. Jesus affirmed God’s design for marriage between a man and a woman in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, as well as the intention that husbands and wives become “one flesh”. Thus, there is a clear distinction of biological sex. This becomes a type of the Great Commission, which Christ gives us the Spirit and spiritual gifts that we must use as one body, working together, to carry out.

Since death came to the world through the sin of the first man, Christ inaugurates a “new creation” that supersedes the old. Where men and women, and the distinctions of sex and gender, were reflections of the image of God, we shall be fully incorporated into the body of Christ, in whom dwells all of the fulness of the Godhead bodily. 

Biological sex aside, there arises the questions of distinctions between the gender of male and female. These are often related to identity (“Who am I as a man/woman”?) and shared cultural beliefs about gender differences. 

Here is the central consideration for Christians: “Male and female” are an expression of the image of God. Thus, there must be a deep seriousness and reverence regarding how we discuss, define, and practice the question of gender. We must be carefully rooted in Christ, and not in the world and the fallenness of human ideals. We should not dare to even venture to define gender according to ideals not found in the Scriptures, that are of our own making, or that are drawn from or in reaction to the ever-changing winds and tides of the world. Gender as a “social construct” is a collection of man-made assumptions, but gender (differences between men and women that encompass other aspects of being apart from biology) as a reflection of God is not. A simple Scriptural principle is that we should not base our understanding of who God is on humans and human expressions of male and female. Instead, we should base our understanding who we as humans should be on God who is. 

This is perhaps a simplification of a hard-to-define truth, but while we bore the image of God in part, from creation, as men and women, that part of us (including our sex and gender) will find even greater fullness in the New Creation. In this sense, Galatians 3:26-29  does not reflect a “cancellation” of gender and sex distinction but a transcendent completion of it. We will no longer bear the image of God in a limited capacity, but completely; not merely individually, but as one body in Christ. 

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

This means that the part of God’s image reflected in our gender points towards our eternal destiny in union with Christ. We were not created to be an “ideal man” or “ideal woman”, but to be the body of Christ and rule and reign with Him eternally (2 Timothy 2:12; Ephesians 2:6; Revelations 1;6) . The image of God is our only archetype, our ultimate destiny. To focus on “manhood and womanhood” without bearing this in mind will result in pursuing anything but Christlikeness.  Syncretism between Scripture and culture result in poorly grounded teachings about men, women, and marriage. This is why cruciformity is the essential core of “gender theology”.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is helpful to point out that the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament did not operate according to the belief that both men and women were created according to the image of God, or even that they were distinct in the same way as Scripture presents. Instead, they held to “natural law” as described by Aristotle.

  • Unlike the Scriptural belief of Man and Woman as created in the image of God, Aristotle’s natural law held that man was a more perfect being in body and soul. Instead of God being at the center of his narrative, man was. He assigned males the ideal of rationality, while females were (and since) demeaned as irrational, emotionally driven, and lacking self-control. They were conceived by ill winds, as a mistake and a mutilation. Aristotle’s primary distinction between male and female was thus superiority and inferiority, reflective of his belief that women were made to be ruled, and men to be rulers.
  • Aristotle’s natural law made “rule” and “superiority” central distinctions from birth, not only between men and women but also between Greeks and inferior peoples (Barbarians and Scythians, for example). This became the justification of colonial violence and genocide (Lantigua, 2020) and 19th century racial science.
  • “Gender polarization” and “biological determinism” in modern-day Western society is based on Aristotle’s natural law. Masculinity and femininity are believed to be “polar opposite” based on dominance and subjugation, ruler and ruled. Men and women are believed to have biologically determined traits according to this dichotomy.
  • Aristotle’s natural law was taken on by imperial Christendom and theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas. Up to the Reformation period, this was the assumed truth: that men were superior and women inferior. Central to superiority was dominion. Reformers and their predecessors struggled with the idea that women were created in the image of God as much as men were, primarily because they were trying to reconcile Aristotle’s “natural law” with Scripture (Vorster, 2016).

What then is the natural order as far as gender relations are concerned? In his 1554 exposition of Gen. 1:26 Calvin clearly struggles with the fact that 1 Cor. 11:7 seems to ascribe the imago Dei only to the male, while Gen. 1:26 awards the image to both male and female. Calvin’s predecessors and contemporaries struggled with the same problem and provided various solutions. Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Gratian’s Decretum understood 1 Cor. 11:7 as positing that women do not bear the image of God. Augustine and Aquinas, in contrast, described the image of the woman as secondary in nature. Augustine harmonized Gen. 1:26 and 1 Cor. 11:7 by stating that the women is the image of God as far as the soul is concerned, while the man is the image of God with regard to both soul and body. Adam, after all, was created first as vir, while Eve was created as femina, that is, as derived from the male. Since the female body is inferior, and the passive receiver in the act of procreation, her body cannot be regarded as the image of God. Augustine also distinguished between the higher masculine part of the soul, that contemplates eternal things, and the lower feminine part of the soul, that reflects on earthly things. Aquinas, in turn, applied the secondary status of the woman’s image to her subordinate status to the man in the family.

Calvin’s contemporaries generally attempted to find ways to grant women the image of God despite 1 Cor. 11:7.The result was theories that contained a mixture of equation and subordination. Musculus held that the woman shares God’s image through her participation in the man after marriage, while Capito posited that the woman reflects the glory of the man, while the man reflects God’s glory. Melanchthon argued that though the woman originally possessed the image in terms of reason, righteousness, and her knowledge of God, she holds it to a lesser degree than the man because she does not own the same kind of dominion as the man. Thus, Melanchthon thinks in terms of dominion and degrees of honour. Luther attempted to harmonize the two texts by distinguishing between the image of the woman as far as spiritual affairs are concerned, and the image as far as external issues are concerned. With regard to spiritual affairs, she possesses the image in equal measure, but in external affairs she displays the image to a lesser degree. This position is closely linked to Luther’s doctrine on creation and justification. Luther rejected any form of female dominance in the worldy regiment, because this would subvert the natural order of things.

In the modern-day, Evangelical “complementarians” have expressed similar views that evidence the syncretism of Aristotleain philosophy. We see in Melanchthon, Augustine and others a kind of “double-speak”, an attempt to reconcile the worldly view of male supremacy and dominion with Genesis, which teaches that both men and women were made in the image of God. Here is an example from John Macarthur:

I mean this: a man is the highest manifestation of God in the earth. Why? Because man has been given divine dominion. Man has been given divine dominion in the world… Now, God created man initially to rule over everything in his world. He gave him dominion. Man is king of the earth. Throughout the history of humankind, men have ruled the world. They have run the governments; they have run the businesses; they have run the economics; they have run the education; they have run the social aspects. Men have been the ones in charge because God originally invested within them dominion. Man then becomes – and I don’t mean generic man; I mean sexually male man, just the maleness of man – that man, from the sexual viewpoint has been given the dominion of God. Man is a sovereign in the world. He is the delegated authority and majesty of God.

In other words – listen to this – in other words, the woman was made to manifest man’s authority and man’s will as man was made to manifest God’s authority. The woman is the vice regent who rules in the stead of man or who carries out man’s wish, as man is the vice regent who carries out God’s wish. That’s why, you see, 1 Corinthians 14 says, “If a woman needs to know something, tell her to go” – where and ask whom? – “her husband.” Because man is the sun and woman is the moon. She shines not so much with the direct light of God, but that derived from man.

Natural law is inimical to Anabaptists, not just because it is the basis of the just war theory developed by Aquinas and Augustine to justify “Christian” participation in and enactment of warfare, but because it justifies violence and the lust for dominion by rejecting the innate value of human life as created in the image of God.

In conclusion, we have identified three significant issues in the gender roles debate:

  1. The lack of distinction between the Kingdom of God and that of Satan and the world he rules, which in turn affects our view of force, authority, and dominion.
  2. The conflation of “dominion” in the sense of the world’s governmental powers, with Christ’s leadership and headship.
  3. The influence of Grecian “natural law” which denies the complementarity and mutuality of the sexes and their bearing of God’s image and glory.

The next essays in this series will address the evolution of church leadership and shepherding into sacerdotalism and monoepiscopacy under Constantinian influence. Moving on from Ancient Greece, we will look at the Imperial Roman influence on historic gender theology in order to understand the revolutionary nature of Christ’s cruciform death. Then, we can become to ask the question, “How do we practice cruciform headship and submission?”

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Barbara Roberts

    Thanks Rebekah for this thoughtful article.

    I’m no expert on Luther, but I do know he preached and taught a lot about the theology of glory vv the theology of the Cross. He deplored the theology of glory, which he said many believers were following. He encouraged people to live out a theology of the Cross. So you might want to nuance what you said about Luther.

    Also, I’m no expert on Natural Law, but it strikes me that there may be other theories of Natural Law than that which derives from the Aristotelian tradition. If I’m right, those other theories might not be so inimical to the Anabaptist position.

  2. Donald B. Johnson

    I figured out that the protestant denominations that were comp, had a root cause of misunderstanding authority in the Kingdom of God. I also agree that Constantinian compromise resulted in a corruption of part of the church, as now claiming to be a believer was a path to power. While I agree that a believer can choose to be a pacifist, I do not think this is required.

  3. Donna

    Rebekah, I find this essay, in itself, to be a deeply thoughtful and powerful addition to the recent gender debates, even though you present it as an introduction to other essays. I appreciate the framework of Anabaptist v. Lutheran views of 2 kingdoms. It gives substance to the argument against a “power over” conception of gender relations. As an aside, it also enlightened my understanding of the Anabaptist theology.
    Here are some further thoughts that occurred to me when reading your analysis of male and female being made in the image of God. In spite of God revealing himself as three distinct persons, we must never make the mistake of thinking that we can find dividing lines between the persons. I think that unity is reflected in the unity and diversity of male and female. We cannot afford to draw hard lines between the natures, characteristics, or functions of male and female. We can recognize various distinctions which make them complementary; but we dare not see them as different in power and glory.
    I eagerly await the next installment.

  4. Ben

    This was instructive in a host of ways. Grateful to learn about your work. One note on Aristotle: I don’t see him using the term “natural law” in the passage you link, and can’t recall him doing so elsewhere. Is he a foundational figure for later, medieval natural-law theorists? Of course. But “natural law” is not a central Aristotelian notion, if it occurs in his corpus at all. He doesn’t really think in terms of law, except in the sense of positive or conventional law–as the very passage you cite illustrates, with its contrast between law and nature.

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