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Part 12 (of 15): Egalitarianism and The Kingdom Community

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd

As we saw earlier in this series (see: post 7), Peterson argues that social hierarchies among humans are as natural as they are among lobsters and every other species of animal on the planet. Whenever there is anything worth doing, anything of value, some people will be better at doing it than others, and they will be more richly rewarded for it by society. Peterson grants that we should work to eliminate injustice, discrimination and abuse from social hierarchies as much as possible, and he believes society should strive to provide equal opportunities to all people. But he believes the deconstructionists goal of eliminating the unequal distribution of resources through social engineering is a dangerous utopian dream. You can only get rid of individual inequalities by denying individuality, which is in essence what Totalitarianism does. Life is inherently unfair, but according to Peterson, forced attempts to make it completely fair, in terms of the resources people enjoy, make life unbearable.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, I think Peterson is right about this, at least as it concerns society as a whole. Yet, as we saw in the previous post (post 11), what is natural for the culture at large should not be assumed to be natural for the kingdom community that Jesus inaugurated. Indeed, we saw that many of the biologically based norms of culture must be regarded as temptations that Jesus-followers are called to resist. For these norms are manifestations of a corrupted creation and a fallen humanity, and in Christ we are called and empowered to transcend them.

In what follows, I will make a biblical case that the hierarchical structure of society, and, more specially, the archetypal masculine structure of society, is a result of the Fall and thus should be regarded as a temptation Jesus-followers are called to resist. We shall see that God intends the kingdom community to subvert the culture’s hierarchical norms in order to embody God’s original egalitarian dream for humans.

The Egalitarianism of the Genesis Creation Accounts

While God’s original ideal for creation included hierarchies – e.g. humans were to be submitted to God and were to exercise dominion over the earth and animal kingdom (Gen 1:26-28) —there are a number of biblical considerations that indicate that social hierarchies among humans was not part this original ideal.

To begin, it’s significant that in the Genesis 1 story of creation, both the “male” and “female” are equally made “in the image of God.” Moreover, God gave the instruction to exercise loving dominion over the earth and the animal kingdom to both the man and the woman, and nowhere in this account is there any suggests that any human is to exercise any sort of dominion over any other human (Gen 1:26-28).

It’s true that in the second creation story, the woman is said to be the man’s “helper” (ezer) (Genesis 2:18), which traditionally has been interpreted to mean that the woman was to be a subordinate assistant to the man. In reality, however, the word ezer implies nothing of the sort. Indeed, this word is frequently applied to God, who is said to be humanity’s “helper” (e.g., Ps 30:10). It’s thus apparent that, while the pre-fallen man and woman were obviously biologically different, they were nevertheless equal in every respect. I should point out that Peterson agrees with this interpretation (e.g., see: “Just What is Marriage About?” see: video).

An archetypal masculine hierarchy only arrives on the scene after the Fall and as part of the curse. The Lord told the first couple that, because of their offense, the woman would “desire” the man, but the man would “rule over” the woman (Gen 3:15). The Hebrew word translated as “desire” (tĕshuwqah) has the connotation of desiring to control someone, as when in the following chapter the Lord tells Cain that sin’s “desire is for you” (Gen 4:7). On the other hand, the Hebrew word for “rule” (mashal) has the connotation of subjugating someone.

The use of these terms make it clear that Genesis 3:15 isn’t a declaration of how the Lord wants marriages to be. It’s rather a woeful declaration of how marriages are unfortunately going to be as a result of the Fall. Because of the Fall, the Lord is saying, his beautiful “one flesh” egalitarian ideal for marriage would now be reduced to a power struggle, with the wife trying to control the man, but with the man ending up subjugating his wife. It’s a woeful declaration that has proven all-too-true throughout history.

Israel’s Original Theocracy

God’s egalitarian ideal for humanity is also reflected in the fact that Yahweh originally would not allow the Israelites to have a king, telling them instead that they were to consider him to be their only King. As a theocracy, Israel was supposed to model for the rest of the world what it looked like for a people to be ruled by God, as God originally intended, rather than being ruled by another human.

The Israelites proved incapable of this level of trust and began to insist that Samuel “appoint…a king to govern us, like other nations” (I Sam 8:5). The Lord reluctantly accommodated this request, but he told Samuel that by insisting on having a human king, the people had rejected him as their king (I Sam 8:7). Whatever else we take away from this episode, it’s clear that, to the degree that we place our trust in any human to reign over us, we are not trusting God as our sole authority. And to this degree we are falling short of God’s egalitarian ideal for humanity.

Jesus’ Egalitarian Ministry and Teachings

Yet, the clearest and most important manifestation of God’s ideal for humanity takes place in the ministry of Jesus and the kingdom community he inaugurated. We see this in the very fact that Jesus treated women, the poor, the lame, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, and others who lived towards the bottom of the social hierarchy of first century Palestinian culture with the dignity usually given only to people at the top of this hierarchy. We see this as well in the fact that Jesus prohibited anyone lording over anyone else in the kingdom community the way people do in the world ( Lk 22:24-26). The same thing is evident in Jesus’ many reversal teachings, e.g. the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the one who serves is greater than the one served (Matt 19:30; 20:16, 24-8).

Some have argued that the fact that Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles indicates that he wasn’t fully egalitarian, at least as it concerns the roles of men and women within the kingdom community. I rather contend that this is only because the patriarchal structure of first century Jewish Palestinian culture was such that no one would have acknowledged the apostolic authority of a woman. Giving a woman apostolic authority in first century Jewish culture would be a bit like sending a western female missionary to plant a church in a Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan. It’s much more likely this unfortunate missionary would be beaten, raped and/or stoned to death than that she’d get anyone to look up to her as their pastor. Striving to be an egalitarian community does not mean we don’t need to ask practical questions about how best to engage with the non-egalitarian realities of whatever fallen culture we find ourselves in.

The Egalitarianism of the Early Church

Since it was established by Jesus, it’s no surprise that we also find God’s egalitarian dream for humanity beginning to be played out in the early church. For example, while there is a legitimate debate about the degree to which the church in book of Acts should be considered a template for how the church should operate at all times, we catch a glimpse of the radically egalitarian heartbeat of the early church when Luke reports that “[a]ll who believed were together and had all things in common,” for “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2: 44-45; cf. 4:32). This was not a imposed socially engineered redistribution of resources. It rather happened voluntarily, simply because the Spirit of Jesus was working in the hearts of believers.

The radical egalitarianism of the early church along gender lines is apparent when Peter taught that the pouring out of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost fulfilled Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32) that someday the Lord would pour out his Spirit “on all flesh,” with the result that both sons and daughters would prophesy, and even “slaves, both men and women,” would receive God’s Spirit and would prophesy (Acts 2: 17-18). We’re thus not surprised to find that Philip’s four daughters each possessed the “gift of prophecy” (Acts 21:8-9) or that Paul allowed women to prophesy in church (I Cor. 11:4-5 ).

Along the same lines, in Romans 16 Paul lists a number of women who played significant roles in the early church. Phoebe is a “deacon” (vss. 1-2); Priscilla is given equal status to her husband Aquila in their ministry (vss. 3-4, cf. Acts 18:26 where both are described as teaching Apollos); Mary is described as a hard worker among believers (vs. 6); Andronicus and Junia are said to be “prominent among the apostles” (vs. 7); and Tryphosa and Persis, are described as “workers” in the Lord (vs. 12). Elsewhere Paul refers to Euodia and Syntyche as “co-workers”– as much so as Clement or any man (Philippians 4:2-3). The inclusion of women in these important roles is remarkable when assessed by the norms of first century Jewish culture.

Just as remarkable is Paul’s instruction for husbands and wives to be “subject to one another” (Eph 5:21). The cultural norm was for the wife to be subject to her husband, but no one ever taught that the husband should also be subject to the wife. Because the culture regarded the husband as the “head” of the wife and gave him all the power, Paul tells him to initiate this mutually subjecting process by laying down his life for his wife, as Christ did for the church (vs. 25). And rather than taking advantage of her husband’s self-sacrificial submission, Paul instructs the wife to respond to her husband the way the church responds to Christ (vs.24).

Paul is, in essence, teaching that Christian marriages should move in the opposite direction of the earlier discussed fallen marriage described in Genesis 3:15. Whereas marriages in the fallen world tend to be power struggles with both the husband and wife trying to lord over one another, Christian marriages are to be characterized by husbands and wives submitting to one another. And in teaching this, Paul is simply telling spouses to act toward each other the same humble, other-oriented, Christ-like way Christians are supposed to relate to all people (e.g. Phil 2:4-11). Any community in which every individual placed the interests of others over their own interests is going to be egalitarian not only in its marriages but in every area of life.

Finally, the radical egalitarian nature of the kingdom community is perhaps most clearly articulated by Paul when he proclaims that everyone who has been “baptized into Christ” has clothed themselves “with Christ.” Hence, he says, in Christ “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-8; cf. Col 3:10-11). Paul is saying that, for people who have their identity in Christ, all distinctions of gender, race and social standing, which the culture infuses with so much significance, are to be considered devoid of significance. And in this way, the kingdom community is to be a community that embodies God’s original egalitarian dream for humanity.

It’s of course true that apostles, elders, pastors, prophets and teachers are depicted as exercising authority over others in the New Testament. But these roles are not construed as official privileged positions that certain fortunate people get to occupy as they rule over others. They are rather simply descriptions of the way people who are gifted and called in these areas serve the body of Christ. Whatever authority these people have within the body is a natural outflowing of their calling and giftedness and is freely acknowledged by the body. It is not something demanded on the basis of an office that a person holds.

Moreover, these roles are not considered more important than any of the many other roles that people play in service to the kingdom community. To the contrary, Paul taught that those gifts and roles that seem to be the least important are to be given greater honor (I Cor 12:14-24).

What About Paul’s Prohibition on Women in Authority?

If the kingdom community is supposed to be thoroughly egalitarian, then, one might ask, why does Paul tell Timothy that he doesn’t permit a woman “to teach or to have authority over a man,” since “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived” (I Tim 2:12-13)? Four things need to be said about this.

First, the fact that we find women playing authoritative roles in the early church, as we saw above, already suggests that Paul’s instruction to Timothy is not a timeless or transcultural instruction. There must have been something specific to Timothy’s ministry situation that required this instruction.

Second, the culturally relative nature of Paul’s prohibition is reinforced by fact that it is the last in a list of prohibitions that are obviously culturally relative. Paul tells Timothy that women shouldn’t braid their hair, wear gold or pearls, or wear immodest or ornate clothing (1 Tim 2:9). Paul’s rationale for giving these instructions to Timothy isn’t hard to discern. Timothy was ministering in Ephesus, where the infamous Temple of Diana was located and where ritual prostitution was practiced. The things Paul prohibits Christian women from wearing were things these Temple prostitutes wore to advertise their trade. Paul is thus simply saying that Christian women shouldn’t dress like prostitutes, but should instead adorn themselves “with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (I Tim 2:10).

Paul’s prohibition on women teaching or exercising authority over men comes immediately after this. Since the four prohibitions that immediately precede this prohibition are clearly culturally relative, shouldn’t we be inclined to suspect that Paul’s prohibition on female teachers and leaders is also culturally relative?

Third, some have argued that what distinguishes the prohibition on women teachers and leaders from the previous four prohibitions is that Paul grounds this latter prohibition in the fact that Adam was created before Eve and Eve was deceived, not Adam. In response, we have to first wonder what Adam’s chronological priority to Eve in the Genesis creation account has to do with the prohibition on women teaching or having authority over men? If chronological priority grants one authority over what follows, then we should be ruled by vegetables and animals, according to the Genesis 1 account. We also have to wonder what Eve being deceived first has to do with Paul’s prohibition. Are women being punished for what the first woman did in our prehistoric past?

The logic of Paul’s thinking in this passage only becomes clear when we understand it against the backdrop of ancient Judaism. Ancient rabbis noticed that Adam was given the instruction not to eat from the forbidden tree lest he die before Eve was created (Gen 2:16-17). Since the instruction isn’t repeated to the woman, these Rabbi’s assumed it was Adam’s job to pass this instruction along to Eve. The fact that Eve was so easily seduced by the crafty serpent suggested to them that Adam didn’t carry out this task very well, which is why they placed the primary blame for the Fall on Adam rather than Eve.

The fact that Paul also blames Adam rather than Eve for the Fall (Romans 5:12-20; I Cor 15:22, 45), despite the fact that he stresses the fact that Eve was deceived, not Adam (2 Cor 11:3; I Tim 2:14), suggests that Paul is aware of this tradition. And in light of this tradition, Paul’s reference to Adam’s chronological priority in creation to enforce his prohibition on female leaders and teachers at Ephesus begins to make sense. In Timothy’s cultural context, women were generally not given the same educational opportunities as men, especially when it came to biblical training. This placed them in the same position as Eve prior to the Fall, according to this rabbinic tradition. They were uninformed and therefore susceptible to being led astray, which is precisely why Paul says that they should “learn in silence with full submission” (1 Tim 2:11). And Paul’s concern about women leaders and teachers becomes especially understandable when we recall that female leaders and teachers in Ephesus were associated with the Temple of Diana with its ritualistic prostitution.

In this light, it’s apparent that Paul’s prohibition on woman leaders and teachers was motivated by the same (culturally relative) concern as his instruction that Christian women not dress like prostitutes. As such, this prohibition does not subvert the egalitarian vision of the kingdom community. Rather, as is true of Jesus choosing twelve men to be his original apostles, it simply illustrates how practical ministry concerns sometimes prohibit this egalitarian vision from being immediately and fully lived out in certain cultural contexts.

Utopian Dream or Reality?

There are several senses in which Peterson is egalitarian. While I take issue with his archetypal association of order-with-masculinity and chaos-with-femininity and think that it privileges masculinity over femininity (post 7), it also is the case that Peterson explicitly affirms the equality of males and females. Moreover, he believes every individual has a “spark of the divine” that confers on all individuals an equal inherent worth (see: video). And, as I said before, Peterson believes society should strive to provide equal opportunities to all individuals. Nevertheless, because of the innate inequalities of people’s abilities, he believes that social hierarchies are as natural for humans as they are throughout the rest of the animal kingdom. I don’t deny this is true for the broader society, but I’ve argued they should not be considered inevitable within the body of Christ.

Hierarchies are inevitable in the broader society because fallen people naturally compete with each other to further their own self-interests. Hence, there are inevitably winners and losers. But Christ-followers are called and empowered to imitate Jesus by putting the interest of others before themselves. And in such a community, there can be no losers, only winners.

Similarly, hierarchies are inevitable in the broader society because fallen people naturally prefer to cling to and enjoy whatever privileges they can accrue for themselves and to not be particularly bothered if others don’t have these privileges. By contrast, Christ-followers are called and empowered to follow the example of Jesus (Phil 2:5-7) by not clinging to whatever privileges nature and society has conferred on them and to instead share them with those who are under-privileged.

So too, hierarchies are inevitable in the broader society because fallen cultures naturally tend to infuse significance into gender, race, class, and a multitude of other factors that distinguish people groups from one another, judging some to be better than others. By contrast, Christ-followers are called and empowered to find their identity in Christ and to therefore find no significance in, and make no judgments about, the many things that distinguish people groups from one another.

And, finally, hierarchies are inevitable in the broader society because fallen people naturally try to get life — viz. their sense of having worth, being significant, and being secure — from what they can accomplish, the wealth they manage to accumulate, and the people they impress. Christ-followers, by contrast, are called and empowered to get our life from Jesus Christ alone, which frees us from trying to get it from our accomplishments, wealth or respectability.

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