Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part V: Living it Out (Practical Applications)
Chapter 25 – In Search of Holy Joy: Women and Self-Esteem. Joan Burgess Winfrey.
(This is essay is the first of five in the Part V of the book, the final section.)
Dr. Winfrey, a psychologist, writes:
It is my strong conviction that the work of ministry and the ministry of work are, for women, vital determinants of self-esteem; yet the internal and external constraints that drive their life choices will likely dilute their access to those sources of fullness and purpose. (431)
Winfrey finds that women frequently believe they are less intelligent, less capable and less valuable than men. This negative self-evaluation diminishes the work of half the body of Christ at work in the world.
Winfrey is careful to make a distinction about “self-esteem” disconnected from a Christian view. She writes:
Ellen Charry states that “the autonomous, secular self, a product of enlightenment and popularized post-Freudian psychology, … stands in tension with the Christian view that we come from God, return to God, and are therefore to glorify God in thanksgiving.” The self in self-esteem is a psychospiritual reality, rich with biblical meaning. (433)
Winfrey points to the idea that “esteem” essentially relates to showing respect or recognizing worth. As Winfrey points out, “surely the incarnation is the ultimate act of esteem or regard for toward humans.” (433) Our competence at dealing with life’s challenges over time in service to God, help reflect that positive esteem back to us.
But Winfrey notes that:
Without some discussion of the image of God in humanity and the implications of the fallen nature of humans, gender studies are a hopeless perplexity. (435)
Winfrey identifies sociability and accountable dominion as two aspects of being in the image of God. She points out the most Evangelicals believe that men and women were created to exercise dominion over creation and are joint heirs of salvation in Christ. She believes the curses pronounced in Genesis 3:16,
…foretells an reciprocated desire for intimacy on the part of the woman and a tendency to abuse power in the case of the man. The result for the male (well documented in history) is the propensity to let dominion run wild. The result for the female, whose inclination is toward relationship and affiliation (also well supported in decades of psychological literature), is surrendered responsibility. The particular female sin is to use preservation of relationships as an excuse not to exercise accountable dominion. (436)
Winfrey goes on to say that loving and working are the are the actions corresponding to relationship and dominion. But for women, reflecting this image has been a challenge partly because of the tendency to proscribe the full expression of the image bearing qualities and partly because of women’s willingness to relinquish their work in the kingdom.
Winfrey then turns to the whole notion of gender roles. The ones being held up in the church have much less to do with the Bible and much more to do with mid-twentieth century perceptions of femininity. She notes the role of structural-functionalist sociology’s influence in the development of “role theology.”
Proponents of role theology in the church have cranked up the deep-freeze dial for women. In a three-part study of role theology, Del Birkey points out that “the Bible does not address femininity and masculinity as independent realities because they are constructed and reconstructed in learned relational behavior in the world’s cultures. ‘Role theology’ rebaptizes secular sociocultural and radical biologically deterministic theories of gender power into a Christian theology. But ‘role theology’ is unequivocally not biblical doctrine.” Birkey emphasizes that spiritual gifts, agape love, servant leadership and mutual submission are the determinants of Christian ministry, not gender, gender roles, authority or hierarchy. (440)
An unhealthy reaction to this unhealthy sanctification of sociological models led gender feminists to then deny all differences between male and female except for that which is explicitly biological.
Winfrey notes that biology and culture do not exist independent of each other and we are still learning much about how false biological determinism creates false division in the sexes and yet false cultural determinism denies the particular strengths and needs of men and women. But there are strident forces on both sides pressing just these kinds of determinisms.
Winfrey notes that most of the psychology literature indicates, “It is in relationship that core female identity is shaped, and concern for relationship underlies the life patterns and choices of females.” (442) This relational tendency can bring much health to the lives women touch but Winfrey reports that women in counseling routinely report instances of giving themselves away at the expense of their self-respect. That said, Winfrey is also very leery of our tendency to see things in dichotomies instead of shades and continuums. We must resist the tendency to concretize women as one camp and men as another.
Winfrey mentions an experience of hers as a speaker at a conference where a young man asked, “What is it that women want?” Here are six things that she believes are on women’s wish list. (445-446):
- We want to enter the Promise Land and participate freely in the unfolding drama of redemption.
- We want to love and work as those who inhabit the City of God.
- We want to be honored as anointed vessels in God’s plan of reconciliation for the world, free of internal and external reproach on our bodies and minds.
- We want honest dialogue with the men in our lives about the things we hold sacred.
- We want to listen and to be heard.
- We want to ripen into Christian adulthood and grow up gifted in the name of Jesus.
Joan Burgess Winfrey received her Ph.D from the University of Denver. She is professor of counseling at Denver Seminary and a licensed clinical psychologist. She has contributed to a number of volumes on the subjects of domestic violence and abortion and is involved in a national research project on victim assistance and communities of faith in partnership with Denver district attorney’s office. She has served for a number of years as a deacon at Meadow Hills Church, a North American Baptist church in the Denver area. Joan is married and has two daughters.
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