It is no secret that those outside of the Christian faith are sometimes confused about gender identity. The confusion has reached the point where some cities are mandating gender neutral restrooms for those who do not identify as either. This post really isn’t about that.
One passage that seems to be quoted frequently in the discussions of gender is Matthew 19:4-6, where Jesus affirms that God created humankind male and female, and established marriage as an unbreakable union between a man and a woman. I affirm this.
However, as Jesus goes on, even though God’s standards of purity and wholeness are exactly as they were when he created us, there is the reality of the fall that has taken place since the first man and woman. Now we live in a world where sexual brokenness, abuse, shame, gender dysphoria and the other effects of the fall have twisted and corrupted the original beauty.
Can we, as Christians, uphold the perfect standard of the wholeness of Eden and at the same time acknowledge the reality of the fall and confess our need for redemption? I think we have to, to be consistent with the scripture. We might long for the days of Eden, where marriage was without spot and blemish, for example, and still acknowledge that divorce is sometimes necessary “because of the hardness of your hearts”, as Jesus says.
With that being said, I would like to speak of masculinity and femininity. I am not so concerned with the viewpoint of those outside of the Christian religion, except to affirm the image of God in all, even in those we find distasteful. But I am very concerned about gender confusion in the church.
It seems to me that as those outside move farther and farther away from our cultural norms, and even begin to embrace sinful lifestyles with more abandon, the church seems to respond in fear, beyond the bounds of propriety.
We must remember that our guide for faith, for right and wrong, and for our life is the scripture alone. Jesus forbids us to elevate the opinions of men or even cultural observations to the level of canonical status, but the voices of the loud and authoritarian men often seem to shout down all propriety. I, for example, was once ridiculed as “effeminate” for an online picture in which I was wearing a pink shirt.
So I have taken upon myself of talking a bit about masculine and feminine and will attempt to stay as close as possible to the teachings of our Lord found in the scripture.
The first thing to note is that the scripture seems frustratingly silent on “masculinity” or “femininity” as ethical constructs. In fact, our guide for ethics (the Ten Commandments) doesn’t address it at all, except to acknowledge the reality of male and female in the 5th commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”
Other than that, you simply won’t find instructions on godly femininity or godly masculinity at all. When you find instructions geared towards women (meek, still, submissive, obedient), you will also find the exact same instructions in other places geared towards men.
When men are commended for courage, strength, fortitude, you will find women commended for the same things. I can think of no example of a command in scripture that is exclusively gendered. To clarify, there are case laws and applications that are different for men and for women, but God’s standard is the same for both. The sacrificial system acknowledges men and women, boy children and girl children, but the duty of sacrifice as an act of faith is universal in the Old Covenant, and not gendered.
Again, to keep things sober, our ethical standard is summarized in the Ten Commandments. The distinctions between men and women are certainly acknowledged in the scripture, but the ethical requirements are the same.
I realize at this point that there may be many who will comment “What about…” and bring up something. That’s OK. I will try to answer the best I can as time permits.
However, although ethical standards are never gendered, scripture throughout assumes the distinctions in the sexes. It acknowledges that there are men and women, young men and maidens.
Since God created humankind male and female, there are generally observable traits that are associated with each sex. Sometimes those traits are culturally conditioned. Sometimes they seem to be inborn. Traditionally, men are associated with hunting, sports, competitiveness, aggression, warfare, and power. Women are associated with gentleness, home, nurture, receptiveness, nourishing, softness. Testosterone and estrogen seem to play a role, but there is also mystery. The problem is when we take these generally observable characteristics and make them ethical requirements.
The reality is that even those these traits are more or less observable in the sexes, there are enough exceptions listed in the scripture to throw a wrench into assigning ethical categories to “masculinity” and “femininity”. In other words, there is no such thing as “biblical femininity” or “biblical masculinity” as ethical categories.
Esau was a hairy outdoorsman, his father’s favorite because Isaac loved the hunting stories. Jacob was a homebody, his mother’s favorite. But God loved Jacob and rejected Esau, not because of gender categories, but because of God’s promise and election (Romans 9). There are condemnations of Jacob’s deception, but not of his personality. Esau’s murderous rage was condemned, as was his unbelief, but not his “masculine” traits”
One of the things you see when you read the scripture without the lens of sexism and misogyny, is that believing men and women have many different personality traits. All of these gifts are given to them by God. Whatever gifts these men and women are given, they are commended if they use those gifts faithfully, and condemned if they use those gifts treacherously. Gender roles don’t come into it.
But we shame men for not conforming to our self-declared masculine stereotypes, and we shame women for not conforming to “biblical femininity”. The question is this, “On what basis are we shaming and condemning those who don’t conform to our norms?”
On what basis to we condemn a woman for being competitive, a strong leader, single, headstrong or having strong leadership qualities? Which commandment is she breaking?
On what basis do we condemn a man for writing poetry, playing music, despising sports, no stomach for hunting and no love for stag parties?
And this brings me to minas. Jesus told a parable about a nobleman going away to receive a kingdom and giving his servants minas. He commends the ones who invested his gifts, and condemned the one who buried his gifts.
Christ came to set us free to serve him without fear. It seems to me that it is contrary to the Christian faith to require someone to act a role or pretend to be something that they are not. Either directly or by shame and exclusion, the culture of the church is requiring believers to bury their minas. Men must act in the approved manner, and women must act in the approved manner. The books are multiplied and inflicted on fearful believers. “Here is how to be Masculine men and Feminine women and if you don’t do it right, you deserve to be shamed, beaten, outcast and miserable”. This is how you must be to attract a mate, to be accepted, to fit in, to be approved.
In the extreme, those who step outside of the prescribed roles are mocked and even cast out. Women who wear pants and like to compete in extreme sports. Men who shave and don’t follow sports and really just want to be home, or whatever nonsense is currently being spouted.
Here’s my point. Instead of burying your mina in the ground, use that gift for the glory of God. Instead of teaching our boys and girls that there are “things that boys do” and “things that girls do”, we should instead teach them to use whatever gifts God has given them to encourage, edify and strengthen their neighbor and glorify God.
When men and women are free to be who they are, to invest their gifts without fear, the glorious diversity of the people of God will truly shine.
The Psalmist said, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”. Perhaps instead of teaching our gifted and beautiful children that God somehow made them wrong if they don’t conform to our extra-biblical gendered stereotypes, we should teach them to use whatever gifts and personalities they have faithfully and without fear, serving God and one another. If your girl wants to fix cars, let her. Teach her. Praise her for her strength and teach her to be industrious and honest. If your boy loves fabrics and colors, teach him to design, to develop, to create and to be industrious and honest. And above all, teach them both that the fruits of the Spirit are so, so much greater than the fear of man and enforced conformity.
Let’s create safe spaces for our children to thrive. There is already enough risk and fear in the investing of our gifts without heaping the risk of exclusion from the community of God’s people for doing it wrong.
And one more thing:
The scripture generally uses the masculine pronoun to refer to God, while at the same time acknowledging that male and female do not apply to him, as he is spirit. Attributes generally associated with the feminine are ascribed to him, such as nurturing, sheltering, mothering, birthing, and nursing, to describe the indescribable and incomprehensible God. And attributes generally associated with masculine are ascribed to him, such as kingship, fatherhood, husband, bridegroom, and so on.
These descriptions are anthropomorphic. They are words given to us by God designed to reveal something about himself by way of analogy. God frequently uses human terms to condescend to our level so that we can understand him. He speaks of his arm to describe his strength, even though we know he does not have a physical arm. He speaks of his eye to denote his omniscience, even though we know that he does not have any organs, since he is spirit. And he also uses both masculine and feminine characteristics to describe himself, even though he is neither male nor female, but a spirit, a wholly other, incomprehensible, transcendent being that has revealed himself in his word.