We’ve spent a few weeks focusing on Genesis—the beginning of our story as Christians—and seeing what cues we can draw from it regarding our continuing discussion of women’s roles in churches. Having done that, I thought it might now be helpful to check out what implications the end of our story might hold for us.
After a few generations of bad (or incomplete) teaching, Western churches are, I think, reconnecting with the accurate Christian doctrine of heaven. The sense I get is that more and more of us are regaining the belief that the final heaven is not some abstract, ethereal, disembodied existence, but rather this material earth and these physical bodies renewed and re-imagined.
That future New Heavens and New Earth is one that is marked and defined by all of those super-idealistic prophetic pictures of life found in the Bible. It is a world marked by justice and equity; where losses are restored and sins forgotten; where tears are wiped away and rewards are given based on that which is eternal and most important. It’s a place of love, peace, and joy where every wall that divides us is torn down and intimacy is known with the One for Whom our souls were made.
It’s also a place where we will have physical bodies that are not marred by sin. Scripture speaks of a great Resurrection of ourselves in which we receive new, “glorified” bodies.
But let me ask you this: is gender part of sin? Do you think that gender distinctions are done away with in heaven? (P.S. See footnote below)
I would say pretty clearly that that’s not the case. Not only do these prophetic pictures of heaven refer to men and women, but in the Christian story, gender was given to humanity before sin entered the world. Also, when Jesus experienced his Resurrection—a foretaste and example of our own—he was still fully male, and his gender never seemed to be in question.
Now how about this: will there still be male headship in heaven? Why or why not?
I think most Christians—both Egalitarian and Complementarian—would say that no, they don’t think there will be those sorts of gender role distinctions in heaven. Why?
Well, I imagine Complementarians would give a few reasons why. They might say that the true picture of which male headship and leadership is meant to be a shadow—Christ’s headship and leadership of the church—will be fully realized. There would be no more reason for that picture to stick around, right? Or perhaps other conservatives would say that the limitation of a woman’s role is limited to church and family life—two things that the Church has traditionally believed would not quite be in the New Earth.
First, there are lots earthly shadows of heavenly realities that will apparently be in heaven, forever glorying the truth they were designed to represent.
Eating, a picture of God’s goodness and provision and a symbol of our hunger for him, will be around in spades, especially during the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Economics, politics, governorship, art, study, community, neighborhoods, ethnicities, and languages appear to all have a place in the world to come, and these are all things that flow from, speak to, and point back to heavenly realities about the nature and presence of God—all things that will be “fully realized” in heaven. Why are they still there?
Further, in a sense, there will be church in heaven. The New Earth will be a place where Heaven and Earth become one. Another way of putting this? The “sacred” and the “secular” will become one. Sunday will flow into Monday through Saturday. Everything will be “church” and “worship” and “liturgy” (which is a Greek word meaning “the people’s work”).
People will conduct their business, economics, vocations, and politics as if they were the rhythms, worship, and liturgy of church itself. Peter’s declaration that we are all—male and female—a kingdom of priests (and priestesses) will be realized (ever notice the merging of the political with the ecclesiastical in that verse?). All things will be sacraments, all clothes will be holy vestments, and every word will be a Gospel-infused sermon.
And so all the female Presidents, Employers, Artists, Farmers, Teachers, and Leaders in heaven will be conducting their work as Priests set aside by God for this Churchly work—in all its fullness and fulfillment.
Catholics have a beautiful doctrine of their Mass in which they believe that, during the service, the curtain is pulled back on the World to Come. They believe that the priest is “sacramenting” Christ’s authority to us, the Eucharist is sacramenting his sacrifice, and our voices are sacraments of the angel’s praise.
In other words, church is where we dance in the rhythms of the future world and invite it to flood the present. This is why there is a mass going on somewhere in the world at every hour of every day—they want heaven to flood the earth every moment.
And that brings me to my conclusion.
How we conduct church and community life are meant to sacrament the future world into the present. When we create beauty, love sacrificially, govern lovingly, and live purely, we’re actually bringing Heaven into Earth–we’re realizing the world as it will be in order to bring this world closer to that one.
And so, if Heaven is a place where we don’t lose our “ordination” as the people of God, but rather fully realize it as those Christ will have on his heavenly throne, ruling and reigning (both men and women), what does it look like to help usher this future reality into the present?
To me, not only is complimentarianism and exclusively male ordination/church leadership not a clear conclusion of Scripture, but moving against the present gender inequalities in the church is precisely one of the ways that the People of God can obediently be the citizens of heaven that they are.
So with that in mind, may we work and endeavor to bring the future glory into the present. May I humbly submit that one of the first ways we can do that is by recongnizing our fellow co-heirs with Christ as the gifted, ordained leaders that they are?
Seeing both men and women flourish together as elders and pastors is a foretaste of every glory that we anticipate, celebrate, and narrate each Sunday in the presence of our God.
I understand the discussion of “sex vs. gender” and the complexities of gender expression. I’ve written about that before, but for the sake of this discussion, please just go with me on this and allow me—just this once—to simplify this to refer to the traditional binary “man and woman” discussion.
[image credit: “The City of Paris” by Robert Delauney]