The Austin Stone Institute’s (ASI) 2019 “Learning to Listen” seminar series is designed to encourage us to consider other people’s perspectives, to give us a theological foundation for speaking with grace and truth about topics such as gender, race, and politics, and to empower us to engage with people who are not like us.
Our first seminar “Kindred Allies” with author and Bible teacher Jen Wilkin occurred on September 12 at our West campus. We were delighted by how many people came—we saw nearly 200 people gather in the auditorium.
The seminar featured two teaching components and one Q&A panel. During the first teaching, Jen explored how men and women are more similar than different. She started by debunking the idea that men and women cannot be platonic friends. Jen undergirded her position with Genesis 1 and 2, saying that God did not provide Eve because Adam felt the lack of a sexual partner. Rather, God provided Eve because Adam was lonely and needed a companion who shared his language and abilities. God made them to “image” Him together, not separately.
Jen then turned to the New Testament and discussed how Jesus redefines and expands the definition for “family.” She referenced Mark 3, which says:
And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
In the family of God, relationships between men and women are not based on husband and wife, but on brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. And, Jen continued, this family of brothers and sisters is told to “one another” over and over in the New Testament. Men and women are to love one another (1 John 4:7), serve one another (1 Peter 4:10), encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32), etc. Men and women are not to divide by gender, with men in the living room and women in the kitchen, but to pursue friendship and unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.
But that is not how life typically plays out in the church or the larger culture. Men and women fear each other—a natural state of affairs considering humanity’s sin and a hyper-sexualized culture. Relationships between genders become fraught with tension. And yet, some relationships transcend it: the bond between a father and daughter, for instance, or a brother and sister who defend each other no matter what. Such relationships give a glimpse of what friendships between men and women can look like. It is possible to be friends with the opposite sex without sexual temptation running rampant.
But for that possibility to become a reality, Jen suggested men and women needed to do some reconditioning in terms of not only how they saw each other but also how they recollected stories in the Bible. She addressed the former in the first session of the seminar and worked through the latter in the second. In it, Jen walked seminar attendees through the example of David and Bathsheba.
Many readings (and commentaries) of the text depict Bathsheba as a “loose” woman delighted to capture King David’s attention. A close textual reading, though, offers something different. It displays an unequal and unbreachable power dynamic, with David having all the agency and Bathsheba all the vulnerability. Reading the text with that viewpoint can be uncomfortable but ultimately healthful; it teaches people to reconsider their assumptions about both the Bible and the opposite gender, to reexamine their understanding of situations, and in some cases, to initiate conversations with men and women about their experiences.
Jen ended her teaching with a panel. Todd Engstrom, Executive Pastor of Ministry Strategies, John Murchison, Managing Director of The Austin Stone Institute, and Lindsay Funkhouser, Program Manager of ASI’s Writer Development Program, joined her. They answered questions from the audience regarding how men and women can be “kindred allies” and gave advice on how men and women can relate to and support one another. For example, Jen and Lindsay said men can open up opportunities to women, while women can remind men that emotions are not weaknesses. Men can also encourage women toward speaking up for themselves, and women offer insights into men’s communication styles.
God designed men and women complementary. Each gender has something the other lacks. By coming together as friends, they can discover how the qualities that seem to separate them enrich each other’s lives and unite them as one body in Christ.