Or, How Otherwise Bible-Believing Christians Get Gender Roles So Completely Wrong.
In the beginning of this journey into gender roles, of which I have only scratched the surface, I made reference to the idea that gender roles are, by their very nature, oppressive. I have two prongs to this argument, both of which I’d like to cover by way of concluding this series. The first is more so philosophical/logical and the second is theological - not to say that theological and logical are mutually exclusive categories. Maybe it’s better to say that the first is logic based and the second takes a look at scriptural and theological thought.
On the first: gender roles are reductive. They force people – complicated, complex, beautiful people – to be defined by physical features. This is a major problem that we see mirrored throughout history; for example, racism, a force that is not dead but certainly much less socially acceptable, is wrong precisely because it reduces a person to and defines them by their skin color, an element they have no control over.
Prescriptive gender roles are much the same.
Rather than looking at individual skills, gifts, talents, calling, and personality, gender roles say: “You have a penis. Do this. You have a vagina. Do that.” A gender role, God-given or no, necessarily reduces men and women to physical characteristics, which is harmful to both sexes.
And here’s the crux of the argument: Gender roles, especially coming from a place of authority like the Church (here’s looking at you, Messrs. Driscoll, Piper, and Mohler), are abusive, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally, to BOTH men and women.
I know many men who have been hurt, who have been struggling for years with their spiritual walk because they feel like they are not enough as men. I know a ton of women who suffer with the same spiritual issues, myself included. Is there something wrong with me because I don’t want children? Why didn’t God give me maternal instincts? Am I not fulfilling the role God gave my gender because I feel like it’s more important to get an education and I’m more interested in asking questions about the universe than in being quiet? I believe that God gave me intelligence and a natural predilection toward study and thought… Am I wrong to make a career out of these natural skills and talents? Why else would God give them to me? Why do my male friends with the same qualities get a free pass in following their dreams when I feel like I have to fight to justify my decisions?
These are not uncommon questions for Christian women striving to love their God and their neighbors as they are supposed to.
And therein lies the tension, the rub, the division: between what good, Bible-believing Christian men and women feel God has called them to be and the rigid, legalistic, institutional church confused on the issue and what the Bible even has to say. The latter relies on a few verses rather than the complete and cogent narrative of grace and mercy within which the New and Old Testaments are bound. There develops a cognitive dissonance between the God we see revealing himself in our every day lives, in our individual spiritual walks and our relationships, and the God presented to us by men who will never face a situation of abuse, who are in a position of power because of gender roles, and who use vague verses bound by cultural context to marginalize and harm more than half of their congregations.
This dissonance leads me straight into the second part of my argument.
When discussing this with a rather disagreeable conservative friend of mine before this latest vacation (Michigan was wonderful, by the way!), he made the argument that Adam and Eve had gender roles, and since they are the ideal, pre-Fall-World-As-God-Intended-It, then gender roles must be a major part of the Christian life. I realize that this is not representative of the whole range of arguments on gender roles, but it provides me with a solid entry point into the discussion of Biblical and cultural context.
There are a number of things wrong with this position:
- It assumes a lot of things about Adam and Eve, when we have less than 20 verses dedicated to their creation, in two rather conflicting accounts.
- It ignores the influence of sin and the conflict of free will and sovereignty.
- It also places Adam and Eve at a higher level than Jesus in terms of the “ideal.”
On the first, we only have approximately between 15-20 verses from Genesis 1 and 2 in which to learn about Adam and Eve in the garden. In the first, man and woman are created concurrently – “male and female he created them” (Gen 1: 27, NIV) – and both are created “in his image.” He also gives leadership to both men and women, not specifying for Adam when he says “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” (Gen 1: 29b-30, NIV). No mention of gender roles or even the idea that Adam and Eve are “separate but equal” – the “you” and “yours” are not directed at Adam, but follow immediate after “male and female he created them,” suggesting that these instructions are to both Adam and Eve.
In Genesis 2, we get a conflicting account of the creation and this is the one most commonly cited. We’re told that God creates Adam, and says, “It is not good for man to be alone,” and thus creates Eve, his “helpmeet,” from his rib, which (this is an actual argument I have seen used!), because of its positioning on the body (at the side, but under the arm) means not necessarily that women are lesser, but that women are meant to be at the man’s side, in a position of submissiveness.
Talk about reading into things.
Let me propose a maybe-not-so radical reading of the text. We know from numerous studies and avenues of scholarship that this is the only time in the Hebrew Bible that “helpmeet” is used in reference to a human being. In all other instances of the Hebrew word, “helpmeet” refers to God the Father. The immediate reaction to that, to me, at least, would mean that woman is set almost on a higher level than man (not the argument I am making, by the way, just the initial thought), because there is no equivalent term used in the Biblical language for men. This is also the only time in the Bible as a whole that we see “helpmeet” appear in reference to a male-female relationship.
We also know (from theologians Stanley Grenz, Roger Olsen, and others in the Baptist tradition, as expounded upon in the first chapter of my graduate thesis) that imago dei does not necessarily mean that our corporeal bodies are literally what the Father God looks like, but rather, somewhat radically, that the community we create reflects the Trinitarian nature of God. Not being Trinitarian in of ourselves, it makes far more sense to propose that God saw Adam (a single human) as alone and created another like him, NOT because he needed a lover or an opposite or a helper or someone different to cleave to, but rather because being alone is, in itself, not a good state for man in general. We are built for community with others, we are built for relationships, and we reflect the image of a Triune God in the best way possible when we love our neighbors and participate in dynamic, loving, relationships (not just that romantic kind, either).
So knowing these two bits of thought – that “helpmeet” is also used to refer to the Big Guy in the Sky and that our human community is the reflection of the imago dei – what conclusion can we draw?
Certainly, at this point, the idea that women are in a position that is “separate but equal” doesn’t make any sense. We have no indication of separately defined gender roles in Genesis, at least not pre-Fall. The language is ambiguous at best and indecipherable at worst. The only thing we know for sure is that, pre-Fall, pre-sin-entering-the-world, there are no gender roles. Everything – literally, everything – about gender roles that is based on Adam and Eve, extends not from what is actually in Scripture, but from a number of assumptions, leaps in logic, and blatant ignorance of the societal, literary, and narrative context.
I mean, if we’re going to go by the “Adam was created first and therefore he’s more important,” what then do we make of the fact that Eve is the first of the two given words to speak? What do we make of the fact that Adam is almost entirely silent, pre-Fall? And what do we make of the indication that, in Genesis 1, no order for the creation of man and woman is actually given?
And this segues nicely into part two: we only see gender roles appear post-Fall. In other words, with the introduction of sin, God introduces specific roles for men and women – and they’re, quite distinctly, not good. Man now has to work, he has to put himself in a position of possibly abandoning his community and his family in order to provide for them. Women, on the other hand, shoulder the burden solitude and creation by having pain in childbirth. Across all orthodox denominations, these things – these prescribed gendered roles – are referred to as “the curse.”
We frequently refer to Jesus’ appearance on Earth as the culmination of the Law, as the being that erases the need for the Law because it re-orients humans back into a communal environment, with a heart focus over rules of the faith (“I came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it”). Because of him, we’ve got sin conquered, we don’t have to worry about sin damning us mortally anymore, we don’t have to give sacrifices like in the old cultural system in order to make things right with God. We recognize that there are a lot of old rules, old systems of thought, and old ways of thinking that are overturned by the presence of Jesus’ sacrifice. We have no problem with writing off sections of the Old Testament as unnecessary when we place Jesus in proper narrative context – the Levitical laws, for example. I mean, when’s the last time you refused to wear a shirt that was made of mixed fibers or to eat shellfish (I particularly love shrimp, so that rule would sting for me).
Why, o why, then, do we hold on to gender roles?
Oh yeah, Paul. Pauly-Paul-Paul.
A single man telling me how to be married. A man who was devoted so fully to the church that he displays little understanding of male-female relationships beyond a ministry perspective.
A man clearly writing into a cultural context instructing women who were not allowed to be educated in that time period not to go about educating others (I wouldn’t want to learn math from a teacher who hasn’t learned how to count, either), but who also praises women leaders in the church. Paul, the man who draws the parallel to Genesis in the first place (check out Timothy), a very Jewish reading that is not surprising, considering he used to be, well, a zealous Jew.
I realize this is an area I’m never going to convince some people on. The presence of Paul in the canon, for many people, is enough to support the idea that God supports gender roles, even though Paul’s arguments can easily be explained by cultural context or as archaic interpretations of Genesis. The only thought I have for those who place Paul in such high esteem is to wonder why in the world Paul’s words to the Corinthians and to his protégé, quite frequently, get a higher billing than the actual actions of Jesus.
Paul says that women need to be quiet in the church, a cultural comment referring to the way the church was set up in that time (men and women sat separately, and women would yell across the aisle to their husbands, interrupting the service).
Jesus spends a good portion of time talking to a woman of ill repute and offers himself to her without condition.
Paul comments that women shouldn’t teach men, something that makes a bit of sense when you realize that women (and most laity) were uneducated and therefore could easily go astray, not to mention the patriarchal system of society that would balk at a religion preaching equality.
Jesus appears, after his resurrection, his glorious conquering of death, to women, making them witnesses to the most important event in Christian history. All this during a time when a woman’s word meant less than nothing – a woman’s testimony in court was worthless and she had no recourse if a man disagreed with her. Jesus’ appearance to women first, making women the first witnesses, overturns a patriarchal system.
Throughout the Gospels, we see a Christ who calls both men and women, praises the work of both men and women, describes himself in both feminine and masculine terms, and who functions to radically overturn the view of women as less-than. Christ is, decidedly, our example to follow, that being which we are supposed to imitate and honor in our actions. So, why, on this particular issue, do we trust the ambiguous words of one of his zealous followers, a man who never met Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime on earth, over the words and actions of the risen Lord?
Because, honestly, when you try to support universal gender roles from Scripture, when you say that these sorts of things are God-given and God-prescribed, and use verses from Paul and the tales from Genesis, as your basis… be aware that this is what you are doing: You are taking a few words from Paul over the actions of your risen Lord. You are ranking Adam and Eve in their “ideal world” as higher than Jesus the Christ, our professed Lord and Savior.
And if you don’t have a problem with that, it might be time to do some serious introspection and reassessment.
Gender roles are a remnant of a patriarchal society that was overturned by the appearance of Jesus. Gender roles are God-given – as a curse; in our new forgiven state, we are more free to pursue a community that is a reflection of Triune-love with God-given talents and skills, regardless of gender. Gender roles only appear after sin enters the world and are part of the evidence that sin exists; as Christians, we should have nothing to do with them, as they are necessarily and naturally oppressive.
We are called to fight oppression in all its forms. What, then, are we doing perpetuating it?
Note/Disclaimer: If gender roles work for you and your significant other, fine, good, but be sure that is something you are choosing because it is what works for your relationship, not because you feel some sort of holy betrayal in being an independent woman or a stay at home dad. That is the sort of coercive, prescriptive, and oppressive form of gender roles I am speaking against.