Worship and Gender

When it comes to gender and evangelicalism, it is abundantly clear that the barbarians are at the gates.

Christendom’s simple commitment to the creation binary of male and female is being challenged by a new (old) "gender continuum" which, despite loud protestations to the contrary, invariably proceeds to a signal act of rebellion against God and His nature: Gender reassignment surgery, a "procedure" that is advocated even for children—some of whom have just barely avoided the related horror of abortion.

But the revolutionaries aren’t directly storming the gates. Instead, they are playing the old one-stringed violin of fear: Their mournful music announces that the church, with her fossilized categories of fixed genders and roles, risks becoming irrelevant. They are here to help us, and many evangelicals appear to be carrying their tune. Some advocate an urgent reworking of gender norms. Others tell us that after two millennia of settled order, it is now (now!) high time to incorporate women into non-traditional teaching and worship roles. Others go further, calling the church to make unique accommodations for the LGBTQ+ community. Such changes, we are told, are necessary gospel-bridges to a changing world.

But will such changes actually help us bring the gospel to a fallen world? Consideration of an oft-overlooked passage from Paul’s first letter to Corinth (I Cor. 11:216) gives us a clear answer.

Paul’s letter to Corinth repeatedly discusses human sexuality and worship. The apostle publicly calls out sexual sin (I Cor. 5) and notes that real Christians abandon former proclivities, including homosexuality(I Cor. 6:9-11) and prostitution (I Cor. 6:15-20). He also teaches on the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 10 & 11), spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12), and good order in worship (I Cor. 14). In I Cor. 11:2-16, he deals with both sexuality and worship, and is concerned with the way in which men and women, as members of one body, participate variously in the public worship of God.

I don’t think that the apostle was mandating veils, Derby hats, or any other headgear for the ladies of the First Church of Corinth. The grammar makes that case hard to prove as Paul uses verbs and adjectives to describe the act of “covering” or a “covered” head, but only once does the passage use a noun to describe a concrete “thing” to which the verbs and adjectives relate. That noun appears in 11:15b: “for her hair is given to her for a covering.”

This curious mention of hair runs throughout the passage (I Cor. 11:5, 6, 14, 15), and is connected to a profound principle: “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace to him?” (I Cor. 15:14). Paul posits this sexual dimorphism to be a fixed principle in the original created order.[1] He then adds to his rebuke of overly hairy men another commendation of the natural order of things: “If a woman has long hair, it is her glory” (I Cor. 11:15). The passage in its broader context teaches a simple lesson: God intends natural gender distinctions to be visible and obvious in the worshiping assembly.[2]

How does this help us answer our larger question? The case the apostle here makes for visible masculinity and femininity in the public worship of God runs through the New Testament, and extends from the category of appearance to function, roles, and offices (I Cor. 14:34; I Tim. 2:8–15, 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9, 2:1–10). The Word teaches that gender distinctions are important to our Creator, and especially so in public worship of the church.[3]

What reader of the Bible is actually surprised by this? We are told that God made man in His own image, male and female, placed them in a Garden and befriended them. With multi-faceted beauty and giftedness, they were to be fruitful and multiply, tend the garden, and live in communion with each other and the living Lord of the universe. Adam was the head and Eve the mother of all living. Tragically, the Fall shattered everything—communion with God, harmonious yet distinct gender roles, the safety and security of Eden, and the hope of a godly seed. 

Redemption involves the re-establishment of what was shattered: Humanity’s communion with God. In the Old Covenant the place of communion was the Temple; in the New Covenant it is the Church of Jesus Christ. Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone, and her members “living stones...being built up into a spiritual house” (I Peter 2:5). As the Lord God walked in the cool of Eden’s day in the original sanctuary, so now Christ himself walks among the lampstands of his New Covenant temple.[4]

When you gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, God is there (Mt. 18:20). There are heavenly and supernatural transactions taking place. You are not a mere spectator, but called to participate in communion with God, to enter by the blood of Jesus into the holy of holies. You approach the real presence of the original Creator of the universe, the Architect of the natural order.

We are to come as created—either male or female, as Noah and his wife, his sons and his sons’ wives, and all the creatures, male and female, came to the ark for salvation. We worship with visible submission to the gender binary divinely embedded into humanity; God “created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). To be ashamed of God’s works is to be ashamed of God.

This reveals the ultimate tragedy of our present situation. We are not building bridges; instead, our fear-driven accommodations to the gender revolution obscure the creative and redemptive works of God.[5] And the results are predictable: A famine of the Word and dying churches. They may still cry, “The temple of the Lord!”, but the Lord of the temple has vacated the now unrecognizable premises.[6] For where there is the presence of God, there will be the life that God has created. And where there is no presence of God there will be, finally, no life at all. 

The gospel given to the church is the remarkable re-creative power of God: “Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle”[7] The public worship of God is a weekly reminder of Eden and a foretaste of an even better world—so it should be no surprise to look around on a Sunday morning to see that the second Adam is presently doing what the first Adam failed to do. The first Adam defaced the image of God, leading to rebellion against God, gender warfare, confusion, and the breakdown of marriage, family, and society. The second Adam, by the power of His gospel, is redeeming a new humanity after God’s image, restoring true maleness and femaleness, and providing the blessings of true physical and spiritual fruitfulness.

So when the next visitor walks into your Sunday service and notices gender distinctions in appearance and roles in public worship, sees Biblically-ordered Christian families, and notices holy (different) sexual ethics, you should be ashamed to be ashamed. You should be grateful and hopeful. They will be seeing with their own eyes what gospel power does—it brings us to God, and it makes all things new.


Peter Van Doodewaard is the pastor of Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Greenville, South Carolina.


Related Links

Podcast: "A Place to Belong" with Megan Hill

"The Radical Society" by Zack Groff

"Was the Nuclear Family a Mistake?" by Justin Poythress

Family Worship by Donald Whitney

Give Praise to God, edited by Philip G. Ryken


Notes

[1] This coheres with his attendant argument from the creation order of men and women in 11:7–12.

[2] This passage does have practical application to Christ’s church today, not in the manner of fundamentalists who measure hair length or others who insist on some sort of headgear, but in embracing visible and modest distinctions between men and women. The apostle teaches that humanity was created with an inherent sexual dimorphism. This coheres with the sexual dimorphism evident throughout creation.

It is important to note here that while Paul clearly states the equal worth and value of every believer in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28), the same Paul does not obliterate but rather plainly affirms gender distinctions in public worship, body life, and family life (e.g. I Cor. 14:34-35, Tit. 2:1-8, Eph. 5:22f).

[3] The principle in view has broader applications—for example, to cross-dressing (cf. Deut. 22:5) or gender reassignment surgery.

[4] Gen. 3:8, Rev. 1:9-16. See also L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus, vol. 37, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed, D. A. Carson. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015 and Gregory K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God, vol. 17, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004 for in-depth studies of the concept of the sanctuary of God in both the Old and New Testaments, and its connection to Eden.

[5] Paul expected gospel transformation and power to be evident in one of the masterpieces of the Gospel, the renewed Christian home; this is evident in the household codes of Ephesians 5:1-6:4 and Colossian 3:18-4:1.

[6] See Ezekiel 10 for a sobering description of the Lord’s abandonment of His temple.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 577.