forgoing the blessing of children 5 (final)

In this post I’m going to make some conclusions, engage with readers’ comments, ask some questions and respond to Christopher Ash’s book Marriage: sex in the service of God.

Concluding remarks

Of course children are a blessing! Of couse raising and nurturing children to love Jesus is an important ministry, equal to any other! My purpose in writing this series has not been to diminish the ministry of parenthood, but simply to argue that as Christians, we are free to choose wisely on this matter.

Why are we free? Firstly, the purpose of marriage is not to reproduce but to become ‘one flesh’ and so to witness to the coming heavenly reality of Jesus and his Church. A marriage without children is not deficient. Secondly, the purpose of childbirth in terms of God’s redemptive plans for the world has already been achieved through Jesus. Thirdly Jesus has transformed the meaning of fruitfulness and of family  – both these are blessings open to anyone regardless of their marital status and fertility. These blessings are ultimately experienced only through him. It’s Jesus who makes all the difference. Although it is good to have children for many reasons, the ultimate purpose of childbirth is already accomplished. Therefore we’re free to choose whatever may be wisest, most loving, most beneficial for God’s people.

Responses to readers’ comments

Does the Old Testament teach salvation by childbearing?

Yes and no. I think this is one of those things where there’s a tension which is finally made clear in the gospel. Children are certainly a sign of being blessed by God, you could even say they’re a reward for faithfulness in the Old Testament, a sign of salvation. So the promise to the eunuchs of something even better in Isaiah 56 would have been a bit of a mystery – “what could be better than children?” they must have asked.

There’s a sense that salvation will come to Israel through corporate childbearing (ie not I’m saved because I had a baby but God’s people are saved through their multiplying as this led to the Messiah’s birth). They are God’s chosen nation in his plan to redeem and bless the world and so salvation came through their being perpetuated as a people. If you were unmarried or infertile, therefore, you couldn’t participate directly in bringing this salvation.

On an individual level however, no, the Old Testament doesn’t teach salvation through childbearing. God has always wanted faith. The confusion comes in when God blesses faithfulness in the Old Testament by giving people children. Part of the reward for faith was to participate in the procreation of God’s people and hence the redemption of the world. So it became very easy for ancient Israelites to put their hope in procreation (just as they also did in the Law) rather than in God himself.

What about women being ‘saved through childbirth’?

I deliberately avoided this passage because it’s so fraught! As someone almost completely unqualified to interpret one of the most contested passages in the Bible, I’ll just tell you which interpretation I lean towards, but sorry, I can’t give any strong conclusions.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But she will be saved through [the] childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

To me it makes sense that ‘she’ refers back to Eve. Eve’s childbearing was cursed, but God used it, redeemed it, by using it to bring the birth of the Messiah. So those who continue as faithful Christians will be saved because God used women’s childbearing to bring Jesus. Obviously this reading fits best with how I already understand childbirth in salvation history, so there’s probably some confirmation bias operating. I like Tony Escobar’s take on it here.

Does this mean marriage is also transformed in the New Covenant?

Yes! Marriage also changes with the gospel. It’s no longer all important. Marriage (and kids) is no longer how you contribute to God’s plans in history. This is why Paul is able to argue in 1 Corinthians 7 that although marriage is good, it’s actually better to be single. But marriage is not completley done away with because the ‘one flesh’ relationship points us to the future even more clearly than before. Whereas in the past procreation pointed Israel to the hope in a future redeemer, now marriage points us to the ultimate ‘one flesh’ relationship of Jesus and his church. So in the New Covenant, both marriage and singleness are good options and are witnesses to our hope in Jesus. Marriage because it’s an imitation of Jesus and his bride, singleness because it shows that we don’t need worldy families or heirs – we’re looking forward to our heavenly family.

Response to Christopher Ash

In the chapter ‘Children in the Service of God‘, Ash argues that ‘it is God’s general will and purpose that when a man and woman come together in marriage they should have children. The project… is natural and integral part of their service of God in marriage.’ But he is clear to point out that procreation in marriage is not ‘a goal of marriage in its own right’, it’s not an ends in itself but points to ‘the greater goal of the service of God’.

These are the main contours of Ash’s argument:

  • Part of the reason that it was ‘not good’ for the man to be alone in the garden was that he needed a woman in order to procreate. (I just don’t see any Biblical evidence for this claim.)
  • In the post-fall world, procreation of godly offspring is good. But since the world is fallen and only sinful children have been born, the blessing of procreation is ambiguous. (I agree.)
  • When Abraham was called, the universal blessing to humanity of fruitfulness and multiplication was transposed to his descendants. When Israelite couples had children, God’s purpose was that their offspring should carry on God’s task of bringing his rule to his world. (I agree with this too.)
  • The Old Testament is really pro-reproduction! (I also agree)
  • Having children is not just about procreation but also about nurturing them, a task which requires a righteous character. This means that procreation is deeply personal – it involves the couple, the child and God and all their relationships(once again, I agree)

So we’re mostly in furious agreement.

Then he goes on to critique Karl Barth. I had the pleasure of discovering that Barth somehow trickled down to me – what I thought I had come up with myself in this blog was actually just echoing Barth’s argument in Church Dogmatics III.

Ash argues against Barth that:

  1. Israelite reproduction was not solely directed towards producing the Messiah because some Israelites would not have directly contributed to Jesus’ line.
  2. The blessing to Abraham’s offspring is not directed exclusively to Jesus. Instead, the good of procreation in Israel was directed to both the Messiah and the people whom the Messiah will rule. He writes that ‘it is not persuasive that at the “Christ instant” in salvation history the people of God has collapsed into one man’ because of the presence of righteous Jews at the time of Jesus.
  3. Although Paul and Jesus are both silent on the procreational good of marriage, this is because they assumed it.
  4. We need to have babies physically first so that they can be reborn spiritually. We have an obligation to produce the next generation.
  5. Having children is a sign of the Christian hope that God is redeeming the world.

Our main disagreement is about Jesus, the scope of his work and the difference it makes. Here are my brief responses.

  1. I would say Israelite reproduction was directed towards producing the Messiah. It was, however, as a people rather than as individuals such that those who aren’t actually ‘in the line’ contribute through growing the people and the society from which the Messiah came (in Romans 9:5 Paul credits all Jews with the human ancestry of Jesus even though they weren’t all ‘in line’).
  2. The blessing to Abraham’s offspring is not directed exclusively to Jesus, but it is ultimately for Jesus and through Jesus (see the discussion of the ‘seed/offspring’ in Galatians 3). The people of God does collapse down into just one person – Jesus – in the Gospels. Everyone deserted him, he went to the cross alone, as the only faithful Israelite. Moreover, Jesus does not need a biological people or remnant to rule, he’s building a spiritual people (1 Peter 2).
  3. Whereas Ash presumes that Jesus and Paul are silent on procreation because they presume it, I would say they are silent because they are not concerned about it.
  4. I’m unaware of any Biblical evidence that supports the idea that Christians are responsible for producing the next generation so we can have people to evangelise. There seem to be plenty of people around to me.
  5. I agree that having children is an act of faith that God is redeeming the world, and have some sympathy for this argument. At the same time, however, I think that not having children is equally an act of faith that God will reward sacrifices made for his sake and that our family is ultimately found through Jesus and his Church, not procreation. Interestingly, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 7 is almost the opposite to the argument that we should procreate because we trust God’s good future for this world. Paul argues that since the ‘world in its present form is passing away’ we shouldn’t be too concerned about earthly things like family. We shouldn’t seek to get tied down because what matters most is our devotion to Christ.

Ash then goes on to attack Christian couples who think differently to him and have chosen not to have children. Although he is careful to mention that we need to avoid legalism and that only God knows our hearts, he insinuates that such couples are probably selfish and irresponsible. Such a marriage might not even be ‘real love’ according to him, because they are presumed to be unwilling to love the stranger. Those who choose childlessness for the sake of ministry he dismisses as probable liars. Couples who, for whatever reason, feel unable to have children apparently lack trust in God’s goodness.

Only in extreme circumstances (such as a rare medical condition) may a couple decide not to have children, but it must be a ‘reluctant’ choice such that they feel ‘frustrated in their yearnings’ to have children. This is a concession due to the brokenness of our world. To me this is confusing. He admits that choosing not to have children may be wisest for some, but insists that they should feel some kind of anguish about the decision (perhaps to signal that they weren’t being selfish). That is, they need negative feelings, despite it being the wisest, godliest option! To me, this model seems to doubt God’s goodness as it implies that we should feel conflicted when exercising wisdom in good conscience. That’s not grace.

Some questions

  • What have been your experiences on this issue? Have you chosen to have kids or not have kids as an act of faith?
  • How can we best support parents and infertile couples without implying parenthood is always compulsory?
  • Does this change how we think about sex? Can we dissociate sex from procreation without pornification and objectification? What does ‘one flesh’ really mean?
  • What can we learn from figures in the Bible who didn’t have children? I suspect Priscilla and Aquila had no kids, possibly also the Samaritan woman at the well (which might be why so many men rejected her).
  • What have I missed?

forgoing the blessing of children 4

This is my fourth post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. I’m working through these points.

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

I’m also going to add a final post after this one with concluding comments, responses to readers’ questions and still more questions. A reader introduced me to Christopher Ash’s book Marriage: Sex in the service of God which argues the opposite to me, so I’m also planning on making some comments on his argument.

Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions

Wealthy Christians in the 21st century have a lot more decisions to make than those in the first century. For most people throughout history, your work, your spouse, where you lived was not up to you to pick – so the Bible doesn’t give specific advice on making these decisions (except marry a believer if possible). Now many of us have more technology, more money, better health, better transport and can choose all these things ourselves. We also have very effective methods of contraception and have more control over whether and how many children to have. Obviously the Bible doesn’t consider a situation where you could be married and have control over whether or not to have kids – it’s not a first century question.  Like all the other decisions we now make, we need wisdom in this one too.

I argue that Christians are free to make this decision – wisely and lovingly – just as we make all our decisions in life. Firstly a general principle. Christians are never free to choose anything just out of self-interest. We always consider the interests of others as we seek to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. So being ‘childfree’ simply to pursue the DINK dream is not likely to be a loving option.  That said, it is ok to consider your own happiness in decision-making (1 Cor 7:40). Secondly, just because something is good, doesn’t mean that it’s always wise or loving to pursue it. We see this principle in operation with Paul’s arguments in 1 Cor 7 about whether or not to get married. Marriage is good, but singleness is really good. You can’t be both simultaneously but both options are fine, so we need to exercise wisdom.

If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honourably towards the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin – this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

(On a side note – singleness is also transformed in the New Covenant. To even consider remaining single, and therefore rule out having an heir, went radically against 1st century norms but Paul says it’s the better option. The Gospel has totally changed things for families.)

So the question is, can it be ‘good’ to be married without children. Could that be a good option?

I say yes. First, look at Genesis 2. It was ‘not good’ for the man to be alone, but when the woman was formed (a marriage without kids) it was good. I’ve already argued that having children is not the purpose of marriage and that in terms of God’s redemptive plans for the world, the purpose of childbearing is fulfilled in Jesus.

Second, following Paul’s logic about marriage, I would argue,  it can be good not to be childless. Paul’s logic can apply to the decision whether or not to have children. It’s the same factors which need to be weighed up. It involves choosing between good options – marriage or the freedom which comes with singleness, having kids or the freedom of not having kids. Paul’s principle is wherever possible to choose your relationship or family status with your personal situation, temperament and  what’s good for the Kingdom in mind. However, he does emphasise the benefits of being unattached.

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

For Paul, the downside of marriage is that it can distract from devotion to Christ, so getting married is a decision one should make with caution. How much more does having children present an opportunity for distraction from devotion to the Lord. A parent’s interests’ are divided again; it’s not just the other spouse and the Lord, but now kids too. If you want to be free from concern, having children is not the way to do it! I would say, according to the logic of this passage, that it might be good for some couples not to have children and so be freer to serve the Lord.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it is ‘not good’ for a couple to not have children. But even if it were ‘not good’, this would not mean it is out of the question for Christians. Jesus explicitly calls his disciples to put his kingdom before anything else. This could include giving up good things, blessings from God, including even a spouse or kids for the surpassing goodness of his Kingdom. See Luke 18:

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’

Why might a couple decide to go without children?

I don’t want to be too prescriptive here because I want to emphasise our freedom as people under grace to make wise and loving decisions.

What factors might influence the decision whether or not to have children? Children open some doors and close others in terms of ministry. Cross culturally they can help build bridges between cultures, but then again, children’s educational or health needs might put a limit how much cross-cultural ministry parents can do. Some couples may already have responsibilities as carers and not be able to take on parenthood in addition. Some couples may not have children for health reasons. I want to emphasise that their marriage has not failed to achieve its purpose if they feel unable to take on parenthood. Some may want to continue a ministry living an area which is not appropriate or safe for children. You also don’t need much money when you don’t have kids. For me, at the moment, not having children means that my husband are free to be a bit financially ‘irresponsible’ as he trains for ministry. There are many reasons why, for some couples, the wisest, most loving way to serve the church may involve not having children. Indeed, the way for them to be the most ‘fruitful’ might mean not reproducing! I think we can thank God for reliable contraception so that they can make this decision.

Finally, this is not to say that some couples ought not to have children. Having children is never selfish or wrong. I want to reaffirm that children are a blessing. Also, there’s every chance God will send ‘surprise’ blessings – getting married always means being open to the possibility of children. However, the choice to forgo the blessing of children is a valid choice for Christians – it still goes against the grain of our culture as it points to a hope in our heavenly family – so it is a decision we should support and respect.

abortion – not a victory for feminism

Abortion’s been in the news a bit this week. There’s the Gosnell trial and Tasmania’s bill to legalise abortion passed in the lower house. Now I’m a feminist. Feminists have a bad name among Christians for various reasons, a lot of it has to do with the conflation of feminism with being pro-abortion.

You may be surprised then, when I say that I think that the pro-choice lobby is actually anti-feminist. I’m an anti-abortion feminist. The way I see it, abortion might be a win for individualists, but it’s not a win for feminists.

Let me explain.

Our society is a masculinist or androcentric society. Masculinism is the privileging of masculinity and ‘masculine’ activities over femininity and ‘feminine’ activities. That is, we tend to value the masculine over the feminine (hence mateship, footy, ANZAC).

The thing with being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding is that they’re very feminine activities. Only women do these things. I’m hardly one to essentialise femininity and say all women are ‘x’ or ‘y’, and don’t hear me say that giving birth is what makes women women (because plenty of women don’t). But men simply don’t get pregnant (except Arnie) . In fact, the process of being pregnant and giving birth is probably the most feminine activity in our culture because men can’t do it. And it’s pretty amazing – getting pregnant, making a baby inside your own body is an incredible ability of women’s bodies.


Back to abortion.

When feminists praise abortion as the solution to women’s inequality, I believe they’re selling women short. When abortion is presented as the solution to the injustices and inequalities faced by women it plays into the lie that women only deserve the same treatment and opportunities as men when they become like men. The way you get a qualification, get a job, succeed at your career, whatever, involves not being pregnant. By treating pregnancy as an obstacle to be overcome, women’s bodies and their feminine attributes become the problem. Women’s bodies become the source of women’s inequality. Femininity is to blame. The problem of our society which rewards masculinity and men over femininity and women is ignored and obscured.

I looked at a Melbourne Uni report from 2009 on Women’s Experiences of Unplanned Pregnancy & Abortion59.5% of abortions were women aged 18-29.

In considering their own needs, desires, and capacities, the well-being of potential children, and their responsibility for children and adults already in their lives, these women were making considered decisions to terminate or continue their pregnancies, based on multiple and contingent factors. Each woman assessed her capacity to be a good mother and to provide adequately for the potential child; women thought about their relationships and the man concerned; and those with children considered their needs. some women said explicitly and others implied that their pregnancy occurred at the “wrong time”; had it happened at a more propitious time, they could have continued.

Some of them would have liked to continue the pregnancy but, due to complex social and financial circumstances, felt they could not. But given the circumstances of many in this age-bracket, who could blame them for feeling like they had no real choice? The uni-student who worked hard to get into medicine or law and finds herself pregnant . Even if she could get a childcare spot for the child, the fees were more than her rent and certainly impossible on Youth Allowance. Her course – like many of the most competitive courses – has no flexible or part-time option.  It’s drop out,  give all she’s worked for, or abortion. Is that a choice? The young worker, just starting her career, on a casual or short-term contract. There’s no maternity leave for her. It’s the job or the baby, and how would she care for the baby? Is that a choice? The 20-something who lives in a sharehouse and there’s no way she’d be able to get a rental place on her own in the current market. Move cities to live with her parents, away from work and friends? Or abortion. Is that a choice?

When our masculinist society measures ‘success’ mainly in terms of work and career – no wonder women feel they have no choice but abortion to be ‘successful.’ But the choice is one that erases any trace of femininity, that makes ‘feminine’ activities the barrier to ‘success’. If abortion continues to be the default option for women in these difficult positions, we’ll fail to address the structural issues which make women feel like they have no choice but to abortion. It will seem like the problem is gone, but we’ve just swept it under the rug.

So while many consider abortion to be a feminist victory, I don’t see it as the solution to inequality. Instead, it reinforces our cultural preference for masculinity over femininity.

Instead of making abortion the solution, I want better access, improved efficacy and education about contraception (bring on the male pill too, I say). More importantly, I want a society where being pregnant, or nursing a child is not a ‘disadvantage’. That would mean better childcare options, maternity leave, flexible study options, affordable housing, reversing the casualisation of the workforce (gen Y want jobys!). It would mean a much healthier respect for ‘feminine’ activities of giving birth and caring for children (at the moment we live in a culture where mothers and pregnant women are constant targets of criticism – they can never get it right. How about showing them some respect!).

There’s a role for churches too. Instead of moralising, telling women off and getting into debates about when personhood begins, we could re-focus on supporting mothers, removing any stigma of single motherhood and helping create real life-options. This would take a lot more than just organising a meal roster.

But what about women’s right to choose, to have autonomy? I’m very sympathetic to this argument because I believe women can and should make choices, but as I see it, this is an individualist argument, not a feminist argument. It’s an argument about individuals in a free market with ‘choice’ as the highest good (mistaking ‘choice’ for freedom). Feminism is a movement fighting to give women full opportunities, rights and respect as women, not merely as ‘individuals’. This means undoing our preference for all things masculine, creating a society where ‘feminine’ is not an antonym to ‘successful’.

Here’s more, if you’re interested, Pro-life feminism.

(for the record, I believe abortion should be safe, legal and as rare as possible; that it is never desirable but sometimes is the lesser of many evils; that women, when properly informed, can and should make complex moral decisions for themselves; and finally,  that God is judge, not me, not anyone else)


On easter

Michael Bird Raised for our justification

ABC Radio The cross and the atonement with Ben Myers, Chris Flemming and Michael Jensen.

On busyness and laziness

Morgan Guyton It’s okay to be Martha

On advertising


Tracey Spicer Chicks sell cars, not drive them. Duh

On sex & porn

Alyssa Goldstein When women wanted sex much more than men – and how the stereotype flipped

On apologetics

John Lennox has a website now –

On disability

This is just appalling. City Rail claimed it was unreasonable to do audio announcements so that people with vision impairments can use the train. They lost. Jacob Saulwick Disability case costs Railcorp $420,000

On euthanasia

You may have missed the story this week about Beverly Broadbent – the healthy, apparently happy 83 year old who recently took her own life. She had no terminal illness or disability. These were her words:

I can’t understand why people who really want to can’t have the means to go with the help of a doctor in a dignified manner at the time that they choose. ‘They are not asking anybody else to do it, they don’t want to pressure anyone else to do it, they just want to have the right to do what I’m doing. I hope people can see how sensible it is and that I’m not stupid, I’m not depressed, I’m not sad. I’m having a good life that I’m enjoying right to the last minute.

Michael Vagg Choosing when to go… the human right that nobody can work out how to give

On Alzheimer’s

Ellen Painter Dollar Meet David, as he blogs his way through Alzheimer’s

David Hilfiker was diagnosed with Alzeimer’s last year. He blogs at Watching the lights go out

We tend to be scared of Alzheimer’s or embarrassed by it. We see it as the end of life rather than a phase of life with all its attendant opportunities for growth, learning, and relationships. We see only the suffering and miss the joy. We experience only the disappearing cognitive abilities and ignore the beautiful things that can appear. This memoir, I hope, will not be a sugarcoating of these next years. I wish I did not have Alzheimer’s and would sacrifice a lot to be rid of it. But that’s not one of the possibilities. So I will welcome this period of my life. In fact and unbelievably, this has so far been one of the happiest periods in my life.

On childcare

Andrew Whitehouse Child care and the damage myth

On rabbit hunting

women’s dessert nights and men’s breakfasts – is gender a useful category for ministry?

I was involved in a mission last week which meant I dutifully went along to a women’s desert and coffee night and my husband to his men’s breakfast. This was the second time in six months.


I confess. I don’t like being around large groups of women. Women’s events mean another night not shared with my husband. There’s too much oestrogen. Perhaps it was the all-girls high school which ruined it for me… I couldn’t help thinking this does feel a lot like going back to school… So I wondered, when else do large groups of women meet together? When else do we segregate according to gender? Why?

  • In school – that has to do with different stages of development in young male and female brains, and trying to keep horny teenagers focused on their learning.
  • In sport – that’s because of the different bodies of men and women (thoughwe could see less segregation in sport – and Steve Waugh thinks so too – especially in kids’ sport).
  • In the Country Women’s Association, the Mother’s Union and the Girl Guides…

But it’s actually kind of weird these days to separate men and women post-puberty. We don’t do it in any other forum? Why do we do it at church?


While sipping my juice (who drinks coffee at night anyway?) I looked about at all the women in the room. There were teenagers, retirees, mums, students, workers, grannies, aunties, widows, divorcees, wives, fiancées and single women. There were plenty of anglo-Australian women, but there were also Chinese women, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Japanese. Some were Christians, some had been missionaries, some had never come to church before, some only came for the cake.

The only thing we had in common was that we were all women. Actually, I felt I had much more in common – in terms of interests, experiences, struggles – with the single male students who were helping in the kitchen than the stay at home mums across the table from me.

Whenever I go to a women’s event there’s talk behind the scenes. Someone’s sick of cake/craft/flowers/pink, ‘why are these events always so girly?’ ‘why can’t we go camping/shooting/gaming/[insert ‘masculine’ activity]?’. Then someone suggests we think of an event which would appeal to all women, not just ones who like craft and kittens. That just about kills the conversation. What appeals to all women? … no… nup… I’ve got nothing. So coffee and dessert it is.

The thing is, you can’t create an event that appeals to all women any more than you could have an event which appeals to all people. And if you could, why wouldn’t you invite men too?

In our post-second wave feminism society ‘women’ as a group have very little holding them together as women (not that women were ever a homogeneous group). There is no ‘typical’ woman. Women’s experiences are so diverse that I’m not sure that segregating men from women is useful.

Titus 2 (the ‘women’s ministry passage) might help.

Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

Notice the that the older men and the older women are to model much the same qualities. Yes, the women are told to teach women. But they’re teaching things which are particular to the women’s shared experience. Older, more experienced women are teaching young wives and mothers how to be wives and mothers in their context. It’s not a picture of taking all the women aside – widows, single women, mothers and child-free alike – and teaching them the Bible at a convention or desert night. It’s particular to the older women’s expertise and younger mothers’ needs. It is not arbitrary segregation but segregation because these groups face particular issues. The aim is to be respectable to outsiders so that there are no barriers to hearing God’s word.

In light of this, I can understand the value in holding separate events or conferences to talk about parenting, being a student, being single, managing work – different life stages or particular circumstances. I can understand separating men and women to talk about sex so that people feel comfortable. I can also see the value of meeting with someone of the same sex to discuss personal issues. But I’m not sure what it is that all women in common today that men don’t which would make it necessary to segregate men and women when teaching the Bible generally.

The speaker at this dessert night talked about the need to be dependent on God not self, on the need to confess our sin and on the forgiveness Jesus offers. This is true for all of us! It’s a shame the men weren’t invited. They missed out.

It’s not just an issue of creating extra work and extra events (although I think we’re often in danger of that). It suggests that we’re not united, that in Christ maybe there is still male and female.It suggests that men really are from Mars and women from Venus rather than both made in the image of God. It suggests that either we’re so different that the Gospel is different or has different implications for women and men. It suggests that we’re primarily Christian women or Christian men rather than just Christians, people who follow Jesus.

So why do we segregate ourselves?

I have two ideas

  1. It’s about babysitting. We do separate women and men’s events so that each parent has a chance to go something. I’m not sure that childcare logistics justify separating men from women, especially if what’s being heard is relevant to both parents. Perhaps we need to think laterally. Moreover, single parents can get overlooked it the assumption is the other parent will mind the kids. This is easy for me to say – I don’t have kids! Perhaps parents find separate events helpful. Any thoughts, parents?
  2. It’s about women preaching. There are so many gifted female preachers, but because many people do not believe they should be allowed to preach to mixed groups, we artificially create segregated events so that these women can use their gifts.
  3. It’s a hangover from the time when it was normal for women and men to gather separately (Mother’s Union etc.) because of the gendered division of labour.

Any other ideas? Why do we segregate ministries according to gender? Are these good reasons to separate men and women? Do you find segregated events helpful?

‘God’s good design’ or ‘The message of women’

It was my birthday last week and I found myself in the possession of an amazon book voucher surveying all the tantalising books that could be mine.

For the record I got the Economy of Desire; Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World and  Justice in Love (I don’t normally do philosophy, but apparently this one’s so well written that it’s worth reading just as an example of philosophers communicating clearly). But to max out my shipping (this is the only time I wish I lived anywhere but Australia – internet shipping costs) I needed one more book.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’d know I’m trying to work out what the Bible teaches about gender. Two books came out last year on the Bible’s teachings on women:

  • Tidball & Tidball The Message of Women which is about ‘women in Scripture’
  • Smith God’s Good Design which sets out to explain ‘what the Bible really says about men and women’

I was only going to get one. Both have the intro available for free online (here and here) to help me make my choice. This is what I learned from their introductions.


First up, the Tidballs implore the reader not to skip to the end to the bit on women in leadership because they’re concerned to understand what the whole Bible says about women (not just leadership).

When playing Monopoly the unfortunate player may be instructed to ‘Go to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.’ Regrettably we fear that many who read this volume will fall into the equivalent trap and go straight to the chapter on women in leadership, bypassing all the other chapters en route. We beg you not to do so. One of the most interesting reflections on writing this book is how many people have assumed in conversation that it was about women in leadership rather than women in Scripture. While the issue of women in leadership, Scripture has much more to say about women than whether they can be ordained or not. Moreover, we would contend that it is by isolating this issue from the rest we are liable to misunderstand what Paul was teaching.

Claire Smith, on the other hand, begins her book with that very issue, starting at  1 Timothy 2 – women preaching in church. The following chapter is on 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings) then 1 Corinthians 14 (women speaking in church). The books’ theology of men and women is entirely built on the difficult and contested passages. She explains her selection of content in the introduction:

 This book is a text-by-text, verse-by-verse, and sometimes word-by-word look at passages that many of us have put in the ‘too hard’ basket.


The Tidballs structure their book according to the Bible’s own overarching narrative (creation, fall, new creation). It’s a Biblical theology of women.

The book is divided into four sections. First we lay some crucial foundations about women in creation and in the new creation. Then we survey the rich Old Testament material concerning women…The third section examines the Gospels…The final section deals with both the practice and teaching of the early church and fully examines some of the more controversial (and misunderstood?) writings of Paul.

Smith structures her book according to our 21st Century questions about women – what’s their ‘role’ (not a Biblical term) in church and marriage? She does the opposite to the Tidballs; she deliberately does not consider passages in the light of each other so that each chapter can be read in isolation.

The book falls into two parts. The first looks at those texts that deal with the roles and relationships of women and men when Christians gather together for what we call ‘church.’ The second section of the book focuses on their relationship within marriage, and in God’s original design for creation. Each chapter is written as a discrete unit dealing with a particular text, and so can be read on its own or as part of the whole.


What’s their approach to interpreting the Bible? The Tidballs say it’s difficult and complicated. Smith says it’s straightforward and that any difficulty is due to sin and our cultural biases (i.e. feminism).

This is what the Tidballs said about interpretation:

When we approach Scripture with integrity we find it speaks on the issue of women in ways which are diverse, complex and particular. Diversity demands we look to the range of the Bible’s teaching and do not merely select those passages which suit our particular viewpoint. Complexity demands we study the text carefully…Particularity means we must locate the text in its original cultural setting and the issues that were around then…before we consider how it applies to our very differenct cultural context and questions today.

And Smith:

The problem [of the difficulty we experience in understanding the Bible’s teachings on men and women] is not really with God or with his word. The problem is with us. The difficulties we have with those texts that deal with the responsibilities of men and women lie in us – not in the clarity or goodness of God’s word. We can expect God’s word to speak clearly. And it does.


The Tidballs are going for a more academic tone (though still very accessible), whereas Smith is writing for a popular audience. The Tidballs seem careful to explain their position with humility and graciousness towards those who understand the Bible differently.

Humility demands that we eschew calling one another names. Sadly a good deal of name-calling goes on in the church and some feel that labelling an opponent’s view as ‘feminist’ or ‘reactionary’ is sufficient not to consider thoughtfully what they are saying. This is part of a wide cultural trend which finds moral discussion difficult and thinks all questions are resolved by labelling those with whom we disagree. Such a trend…is deeply unworthy of the followers of Jesus Christ.

Smith, on the other hand, is ready to insinuate that egalitarians have a low view of scripture and are therefore unfaithful pastors.

Why would God’s word say one thing and yet mean the opposite? This is, in fact, what the various ‘egalitarian’ interpretations do. They claim to be uncovering the true meanings of these texts, and yet their conclusions fly in the face of the words themselves….

Sometimes…Christian brothers and sisters who at other times have been beloved and reliable teachers and shepherds in their sermons and books…tell us that these words of Scripture cannot be taken literally or that they no longer apply today, or that the evangelistic turn-off of these texts is baggage the church cannot afford to carry and that being missional means moving with the times and fitting with our culture.


Well, no prizes for guessing which book I bought after comparing their introductions. I am actually  surprised that Smith’s book has received so many recommendations (if you do recommend it and have read it please feel free to let me know why) when, as she indicates in the introduction, she starts with the contested, difficult passages and uses them to work out a theology, rather than interpreting the hard bits in light of what we know for sure from the clear passages, the Gospel and the overal story of the Bible. If her aim were simply to exegete hard passages, that’s fine, but to base her teaching of ‘what the Bible says’ on only the hard bits worries me. A Biblical theological approach, starting at Genesis 1 right through to Jesus’ New Creation – using the Bible’s own framework – seems to me to be a more reliable way of understanding what the Bible really says.


You may be interested to read some reviews of people who’ve actually read the books.

Reviews of God’s Good Design

Reviews of The Message of Women (couldn’t find any negative reviews of this one, perhaps it’s slipped under the complimentarian radar because everyone’s been so busy dealing with John Dickson)

the death of Christian Britain

Death of Christian BritainI read Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain this week. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything particularly interesting – I was reading it for study, not for fun. You know the story: the Enlightenment, Darwin, the world wars, the end of Empire, the 1960s. After all that British Christianity dies a death of many cuts.

He got my attention when he argued that this story, the one I expected, is pretty much an invention of the 1950s and 1960s and that Britain actually went secular around the very same time as these stories were being spun.

How British Christianity got to the state it is in the year 2000 is currently understood almost universally in terms of the theory of long-term secularisation which was developed academically initially by sociologists, but since the 1950s has been adopted in whole or in part almost universally by historians. The theory of secularisation posits that relgion is naturally ‘at home’ in pre-industrial and rural environments and that it declines in industrial and urban environments. The rise of modernity from the eighteenth century… destroyed both the community foundations of the church and the psychological foundations of a universal religious world-view. Secularisation, it is traditionally argued, was the handmaiden of modernisation, pluralisation, urbanisation and Enlightenment rationality… For most investigative scholars of social history and sociology, British industrial society was already ‘secular’ before it had hardly begun.

In the 1950s and 1960s…British people re-imagined themselves in ways no longer Christian – a ‘moral turn’ which abruptly undermined vritually all of the protocols of moral identity. Ironcially , it was at this very moment that social science reached the height of its influence in church affairs and in academe. Secularisation theory became the universally accepted way of understanding the decline of religion as something of the past – of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The 1960s viewed itself as the end of secularisation. But by listening to the people themselves, this book suggests that it was actually the beginning.

Brown reaches this conclusion because his approach is different to the social scientists’. Instead of counting things – bums on seats, Sunday School enrolments, confirmations, ordinations (he claims this is a shallow Enlightenment way of understanding religion) – he looks to what people were saying and thinking, how people framed themselves and their society in Christian terms. He finds that Britain was Christian until the 1960s

What changed?

This was the other surprise. He says women.

Women were the bulwark to popular support for organised Christianity between 1800 and 1960s, and it was they who broke their relationship to Christian piety in the 1960s and thereby caused secularisation.

Brown takes us back to the nineteenth century and traces discourses of  evangelical femininity and piety.

One of the great mythic transformations of the early nineteenth century was the feminisation of angels. Until the 1790s, British art and prose portrayed the angel as masculine, or at most, bisexual – characteristically muscular, strong and even displaying male genitalia, and a free divine spirit inhabiting the chasms of sky and space. But by the early Victorian period, angels were virtuously feminine in form and increasingly shown in domestic confinement, were no longer free to fly. Women had become divine, but an angel now confined to the house.

17th Century Angel

17th Century Angels

19th Century Angel

19th Century Angels

In the Middle ages and early moden period, the way for women to model Christian virtue was to act ‘masculine’. ‘Icons of female piety, such as martyrs and ascetics, had been represented as ‘masculine,’ while femininity, menstruation and childbirth were regarded as dangerous and polluting to piety’. Women were considered prone to superstition. From the 1500s, he explains, ‘a wife’s feminity was a threat to piety and household, and a husband established his moral status by controlling her’.

But around 1800, as the re-imagining of angels reflects, religion became a feminine attribute and masculinity the antithesis of religiosity. Women, now, were to control the immoral ‘masculine’ tendencies of men. Women were the cornerstone of the evangelical scheme for moral revolution – their moral and domestic qualities would sanctify the home  and thus the nation as a whole. He does, of course, address ‘muscular Christianity’ as an ‘attempt to redefine manhood’, concluding that it never managed to change the dominant negative discourse on male religiosity.

Whereas in the nineteenth century, pious women were believed to have a positive moral and converting influence on men through providing a happy home, by the twentieth the happy home became the ends in itself.

The artefacts of male temptation – drink, betting and pre-marital sex – were no longer the problem: it was the discontented rather than immoral manhood which the woman had to combat in the home, and to do this she had to make the home an unremittingly happy place…

Women were no longer being required by discourse to challenge men into submission to a pious domesticity, but to provide a contented domesticity for them.

Femininity, your identity as a woman, was so tied to Christianity and morality that, though men had been gradually leaving churches and Christianity for a while, this was not really an option for women.

From early in the twentieth century, there is plenty of evidence…of men disavowing churchgoing, and even rejecting Christianity. But for women, this type of personal journey away from religion was extremely difficult and comparatively rare before the 1950s. It was difficulty because a woman could not just ‘drop’ religion as a man could; her respectability as a woman, wife and mother, wether she liked it or not, was founded on religion whether she went to church or not.

Women were pious and piety was feminine. British Christianity itself rested on a domestic ‘Christian’ womanhood.

the 1960s

You can see where this is going. Everything changed in the 1960s.

The 1960s was a key decade in ending ‘the Enlightenment project’ and modernity. In its place, the era of postmodernity started to mature. Structural ‘realities’ of social class eroded, and there was a repudiation of self-evident ‘truths’ (concerning the role of women, the veracity of Christianity, the structure of social and moral authority)…

Just as environmentalism and the anti-nuclear movement started to challenge science in the sixties, so post-structuralism and feminism would come within a decade or so to challenge social science.

But the immediate victim was Christianity, challenged most influentially by second-wave feminism and the recrafting of femininity.

We know what happened. Women find new ways of being women – strong and invincible.  Women started finding their identity in work, rather than home. They secularised their identity. Women pointed out the double standards, the freedom men enjoyed and the restrictions they endured. Women stopped going to church. They had had enough.

The keys to understanding secularisation in Britain are the simultaneous de-pietisation of femininity and the de-feminisation of piety from the 1960s.

Before 1800, Christian peity had been a ‘he’. From 1800 to 1960, it had been a ‘she’. After 1960 it became nothing in gendered terms. More than this, the eradication of gendered piety signalled the decentring of Christianity – its authority and its cultural significance.

Brown isn’t sure if this is what happened in Australia and New Zealand, but it seems likely. North America was a bit different, he argues. Over there, the discursive challenged has emerged but not triumphed – there is still a conflict underway.

concluding thoughts

I have never quite understood the evangelical reaction to second wave feminism, the complete disdain for a movement which, as I understand it, was mostly a good thing. Of all things to hate, why feminism? Why not consumerism or materialism or something else? Equal pay, equal rights, equal respect, equal opportunities and equal moral standards – justice – all seem perfectly compatible with Christian belief to me (I would even say they originate in Christianity). But, if feminism was the blow which took out Christian Britain (and Christian Australia?), then I understand the gut reaction to all things feminist and the zeal of the current complimentarian movement.

A better response to this experience, I believe, is not to try and turn back the tide and restore femininities and masculinities to what we imagine they once were (whether you find ‘Biblical’ gender roles in the 1950s, 1800s or 1730s). As we have seen, pinning certain virtues onto one gender or another is a dangerous path: it ends up excluding some and burdening others. Righteousness is neither masculine nor feminine, it’s for all Christians, women and men (as is submission, gentleness, patience etc. etc.).

Instead, we need to think about what might be other ideas and identities we have put our faith in and called ‘Christianity.’ The reconstruction of femininity in the 1960s, I believe, was a good thing. The problem was that Christians had allowed their faith to be so attached to a culture of moral, domestic, idolatrous femininity that when this was challenged and abandoned, Christianity no longer made sense. What beliefs or identities other than ‘follower of Jesus’ are we relying upon today that, were they to be challenged or swept away, would risk bringing Christianity down with them?

What do you think of Brown’s analysis? I’d love to hear what people who were actually there for the 60s think. What other identities or ideas do we risk pinning our faith on now?

cheapening submission

‘the buck stops with him’

‘he makes the call’

‘he takes responsibility’

Sometimes headship and submission get reduced down to a trump-card: the husband wins any argument.

Headship sometimes involves tie-breaking authority. I would say maybe more than sometimes—it’s rarely—involves tie-breaking authority. But it does. In a marriage, you only have two votes; so the occasions do arise when there’s like an impasse, “Yes; no.” Okay, how do you break the stalemate? It can only be broken if one party has the authority to overrule; but there can’t be a misuse of that so that it’s done so that, “I can get my way.” The only time that a husband can use his authority to overrule is with knowing he has the responsibility and the accountability to God to only be doing it in order to serve and to take care of his wife and his family. Tim Keller

Now I haven’t resolved my thinking on headship and submission in marriage. But since submission  is a virtue for all Christians (as is sacrificial love), women and men, I feel pretty comfortable saying it’s something wives should care about, regardless of whether their marriages are complimentarian or egalitarian (see who cares what paul meant there, I’ll submit anyway).

But submission isn’t particularly inspiring. It’s normally defined in terms of what not to do. It sounds so passive. I’ve wondered, what do I actually do while I’m waiting around for this marriage stalemate to arrive? Then if it does, apparently I just roll over, and that’s it. Really? So while my husband is busy being a ‘head’ my contribution to our marriage is merely not to get in his way. Hardly something to get excited about.

I suspect we women (and men too actually) have been short-changed on submission.

I want to restore submission – making yourself low – to the high calling that it is.

Firstly, when submission is defined in terms of  ‘tie-breaking’, ‘over-ruling’ or who takes the blame we’re conceiving of marriage as essentially a power-struggle, a competition between spouses rather than collaboration. This is deeply problematic. It assumes division within the ‘one flesh’ that God has made. Yes we are sinful and do argue, but installing the office of ‘tie-breaker’ in marriage assumes that disunity and use of force are good and normal in the relationship. When we talk about marriage this way, assuming a power-struggle, I worry we’ve already lost the plot!

Secondly, the idea that submission means letting the husband make the final tie-breaking call on big decisions or that ‘the buck stops with him’ simply isn’t supported by Biblical evidence as far as I can see (reading it into the ‘head’ metaphor goes beyond the text). Where does it come from? Who knows.

Thirdly, reducing submission to a tie-breaking trump card strips submission of its relational value and turns it into a transaction, a contract. The relationship is reduced to a set of obligations, like a job description for an employer/employee relationship, where a wife has certain duties to the husband, but they’re a function of her position as wife, not of her relationship to her husband. It cheapens submission.

Most complimentarians say that submission is something the wife gives voluntarily, rather than something a husband can demand. Yet by then going on to define submission in definite terms such as the buck stopper or the tie-breaker, women are effectively told how they are to submit (and normally by a man). This robs her of her ability to freely and creatively submit to her husband, expressing her submission in ways which are rich, meaningful, even exciting, for her and her husband.

The irony is, that in these passages in Ephesians and Colossians, Paul is making a radical move of addressing women as moral agents. Yoder explains it in The Politics of Jesus.

The admonition of the Haustafeln is addressed first to the subject: to the slave before the master, to the children before the parents, to the wives before the husbands. Here begins the revolutionary innovation in the early Christian style of ethical thinking…The subordinate person in the social order is addressed as a moral agent. She is called upon to take responsibility for the acceptance of her position in society as meaningful before God. It is not assumed, as it was in both Jewish and Hellenistic thought, that the wife will have the faith of her husband, or that the slave will be part of the religious unity of the master’s household. Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes them decision makers. It gives them responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simple meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, as an issue about which they can make a moral choice. 

When submission is reduced to ‘tie-breaker’, women are stripped of the full revolutionary agency Paul attributes to them. They are no longer allowed to work out in relationship with their husband how they will best submit, how they can best honour and serve him. They are told ‘submission is x’.

The thing is, however, it’s much simpler to resolve to be the loser in any argument, thus ‘fulfilling’ your ‘submissive’ obligations, without actually honouring your husband. It’s something you can tick off. You could let the man make the big decisions while continually manipulating, undermining and dismissing him (see Why you should stop treating your husband like a toddler and actually respect him). Cheap submission is easy. What’s harder is thinking of ways to honour someone, to put yourself beneath them, to serve them above yourself. That kind of submission is never finished.

Instead of a contractual obligation, I imagine a vision of submission based in relationship with the other person, a rich submission which is thoughtful about how best to serve them, to honour them, how to put oneself beneath the other, how to lower oneself. This is a beautiful thing. It will look different for every couple, for every relationship, because it’s submission to a person, nor an office. Morgan Guyton describes submission well, distinguishing it from ‘service’ (which can be ticked off like cheap ‘submission’).

When Jesus says to be a slave of all, he is talking about the radical self-abasement that he models in washing his disciple’s feet. In our era of volunteerism, we have learned how to engage in service towards needy people without submitting ourselves to them as servants. Service without servanthood is almost more oppressive than not serving at all; it creates shame and dependency rather than empowerment.The person “serving” can leave feeling good about themselves for putting in their quota of compassion for the month, but nothing about the underlying power structures in the world has changed as a result.

Servanthood on the other hand means submitting yourself to another person for the sake of lifting him or her up. When Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, He is not just helping or serving them; He is putting Himself beneath them. So Christian leadership is not service in the sense of making decisions for other people or doing what they don’t know how to do for themselves; it is putting ourselves beneath others for the sake of their empowerment. True Christian leadership, as described in Mark 10:42-44, is submission.

This is a rich submission I can get excited about.


Happy Friday everyone.

On the atonement

I’m halfway through these lectures from Fuller and loving them. What DID Jesus Do? The Atonement Symposium Videos

On the weather and climate

Tim Flannery As Australia burns, attitudes are changing. But is it too late?

On lust

When it comes to dressing modestly, I generally think that if my conscience is clear and I’ve dressed to attract no one else but my husband, then if a guy lusts it’s his own problem. Morgan Guyton Lust patriarchy and capitalism made me re-think this.

On church growth

Nathan Campbell Spurgeon v Augustine; Egyptian gold, “faithful preaching”, equilateral triangles and church growth

On good books

I confess to having read none of these books. But I will. Scott Stephens Why the best books of 2012 were so good

On the trolls

Jon Acuff Proverbs 9

On violence

This one’s a challenge. I mostly posting it because I read Nahum last week and am still in shock – I had much the same concerns. Wil Gafney God, the Bible and rape

Also, on the recent shootings and masculinity: David Leonard The unbearable invisibility of white masculinity

On compulsory voting

Mungo MacCallum Visionary voting reform if it works in your favour

On women in ministry

Michael Bird has written a response to Peter Bolt’s review of his book – The Achilles heel of two complimentarian objections

I’ve been pretty disappointed by the responses to Dickson’s book (Lionel Windsor excluded). Dickson’s been dismissed out of hand with little engagement with his argument – a little embarrassing from people who should know better.

On alcohol

This is from Prohibition, what did they do with all the booze? Literal rivers of booze.


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Lo and behold, it’s the end of the first week of work and the blog remains unattended to. So how’s your week back been? Here are some highlights.

On climate change and mental health

Corey Watts Hot Australia takes a toll on mental health

On women giving sermons

If you haven’t seen it yet, Lionel Windsor has written a response to pot-stirrer-in-chief, John Dickson.

As has Peter Bolt (without actually engaging with John’s argument so I’m assuming this is just a warm up).

Also we have Luke Collings (who shows a curious fondness for Capital Letters).

I haven’t found a response from a woman as yet (Claire Smith where are you?). Perhaps it’s too personal for us.

Dickson has promised a response to Windsor sometime this week.

On capitalism and church

Tim Gombis Values of capitalism and the Church

On the history of marriage

Radio National Marriage Australian style

On equal pay for equal work

Wendy Harmer This is totally unacceptable

Tracey Spicer Hey blokes! See you and raise you

and on ‘boys vs girl’ marketing, Corinne Grant Boys vs Girls marketing? Not buying it!

On the Arab Spring

Rupert Shortt In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has given way to a Christian Winter

On putting things into practice

Tim’s Blog We need a lot less Bible study and a lot more Bible action

On les Miserables

Chris Berg A revolution for our times

and on disability and being able to actually watch the movie

Gary Kerridge CaptiView: A raw deal for cinema goers

On the beach

From Dave Macca

The sea was sparkling,
the water was cool,
the surf was a good size.

I took off on a wave,
felt it pushing me forward,
and rode it to the beach.

My lungs were working hard,
sucking in every breath,
it was exhilarating!

Ride after ride,
heaving hard,
gasping for every breath.

Two years since I’d caught a wave,
last year I barely got wet,
and now I’m body surfing!

Simple things,
swimming and surfing,
smiling with joy.

I felt like I’d been given my life back.

Thank you God!