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Will the “Real” Man and Woman Please Stand Up?

Monday, 8 April 2013  | Megan du Toit

International women’s day was celebrated recently and I departed from my usual Facebook staples of food pictures and kid anecdotes to make a couple of posts to mark the day. What dismayed me about some responses was the concern that somehow men were being left out. “Why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?” was the cry. The problem with this was twofold: firstly that there IS an international Men’s Day (November 19th) and secondly, that people were somehow unaware that oppression of women is still very much an urgent issue. Others responded to the ensuing debate by wondering how as Christian parents we could foster a healthy gender identity in our kids with an awareness of gender issues.

This experience fuelled my growing concern that gender identity isn’t being constructively discussed by Christians. Sure, we argue enough about women in ministry to make many heartily sick of the debate. And there are some of us who like to talk a lot about marriage roles. But these are merely specific examples of the much broader issue of gender identity.

Last year John Piper caused a furore when he announced that God had given Christianity a masculine feel (Desiring God conference, Jan 31, 2012). While some no doubt felt this was a necessary correction to the perceived feminisation of the church, others were concerned that this would make women feel excluded. And many pointed out that the way he explained this statement came close to suggesting God was male. In August 2012, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen supported his views on different gender roles in marriage in both print (Sydney Morning Herald) and on television (7 news, ABC) by talking of masculinity/femininity and real men/real women.

What struck me about both Piper and Jensen was that they seemed to be a lot more certain than I am about what masculinity and femininity are. What is a “real” man and a “real” woman? The conversation about what are inherently masculine qualities and what are inherently feminine qualities has been a fraught one. It has proved remarkably difficult to separate out what is a result of culture and what is innate. A plethora of gender brain studies in recent times have been used to suggest that some gender differences are hardwired into the brain. But increasingly, researchers are realising that the brain is a lot more plastic than was once thought – that is, the brain changes in response to the environment (see e.g. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=girl-brain-boy-brain).  History and cultural studies abound in evidence that these qualities are conceived differently in different societies.

Now, evangelicals such as Piper and Jensen might refer to science as supporting data, but they will want to base their arguments primarily in scripture.  As an evangelical myself, when I set out to write a sermon series in 2012 on gender, I turned to scripture. Here I found myself somewhat at a loss. There is very little explicit teaching about the inherent qualities of the genders.  There is no use of terms for masculinity and femininity.  This does not mean the concepts aren’t there, but does tend to suggest they aren’t given prominence, especially when there is very little teaching about gender attributes. The Bible, in my view, is much more concerned in speaking about what it is to be human, rather than what it means to be male or female.

One example of a verse used by some to speak of biblical masculinity is 1 Cor 16:13, which says “act like men” (ESV) or “be courageous” (NIV).  Bill Mounce, a New Testament Greek scholar, argues that this verb which originally meant to act like a man, because of the cultural link between masculinity and courage, came to be a verb for being courageous that could be used of either gender ( http://www.teknia.com/blog/%E2%80%9Cact-men%E2%80%9D-1-cor-1613). In a similar way, we sometimes tell women to “man up”. This verse then has got hijacked into a discussion on gender identity, when in all probability it has more to do with the Corinthian church (both men and women) being courageous in faith. The Bible also abounds with examples of courageous women (Esther, Deborah - the list goes on). This verse then isn’t Paul teaching that men have more courage, but using a word for courage that has gender etymological roots. We need then to be careful that we employ sound exegesis and hermeneutics as we examine the way the genders are presented in Scripture.

A better place to look when it comes to inborn gender difference is the creation narratives. What these have to say about gender is a matter of some debate, but I think the exclamation of Adam when he sees Eve for the very first time is telling – “This is now bone of my bones  and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Adam finally has found a companion like himself. The emphasis at creation is not on gender difference, but on human commonality. We need to ensure that we don’t emphasise gender difference in such a way that we open up a rift between the genders that God never intended.

Many who support distinct roles for men and women argue that contemporary society has caused gender confusion and the church needs to alleviate this. Certainly, the roles of each gender are no longer cut and dried. Yet we must be careful that we don’t simply reach back into a particular cultural heritage to arrive at gender identity. These past traditional gender identities are no more sanctified than the present ones.

Neither should we throw our arms up in the air and declare it all too hard. For what we say about this will have multiple effects. A person’s gender identity affects their self-worth, their sexuality, their relationships, their ministry. A mother of 2 sons, I have been concerned by the gender stereotypes still entrenched within our culture. One of my sons has little ability or interest in sport. Already, there is pressure on us as parents to make sure he is sufficiently masculinised by giving him the experience of team sport. There is an added implication that this disinterest in sport is ether the cause or the result of same sex sexual orientation. Interestingly, the Bible has very little to say on sport, and what is there are metaphors for the Christian life of both genders. I want to affirm my son’s God given maleness as independent of his leisure pursuits, rather than allow his male gender identity to be weakened by unhelpful stereotyping.

Similarly, there is a movement within the church to organise separate male and female ministries and activities. There are benefits to aiming a ministry squarely at one group. Different groups do often have different needs. Yet, there are cons to this approach that are often not appreciated. When we separate men and women, if it becomes the default option, we are undoing part of the work of Christ (Gal 3:28). We are reopening the gender rift, and drifting back towards the pre Christ days of a gender divided temple or synagogue.  Also, we can tend to start encouraging gender stereotyping which excludes those who do not fit the mould. The woman who finds craft a bore, or the man who can’t stand the aggression of paintball may start to feel themselves lacking, rather than as a unique creation of God.

What I would like to see is a discussion of gender identity by the church which is aware of cultural conditioning. One which celebrates the differences women and men bring, but avoids boxing people into narrow, unhelpful gender stereotypes without scriptural warrant. Let me as a woman use a sporting metaphor: the ball is now in your court.



Tom Mayne
April 15, 2013, 8:38PM
Without wishing to attack Sydney, I must endorse what Megan has to say. My main concern is that while ever Complementarians are pushing their views they are - even if unwittingly, exacerbating the problem of violence towards women specially in in developing countries. When one of the Pacific Island nations signed up to the UN Convention ending discrimination against women, one Christian pastor responded (unblushingly), "Now I won't be able to beat my wife." In another instance, after a Nigerian female evangelist had the temerity to preach to a mixed congregation, her personal belongings were thrown into the street and the Church was trashed - no, not by Muslims, but by Christian men.
Megan du Toit
April 16, 2013, 9:26AM
Tom, I live in Sydney and so know many Complementarians who have a deep respect for women and loving marriages. However, I agree what we say about gender has broader implications for how each gender will be treated. So, if one gender is perceived as of lesser value, and to be controlled, gender violence is a possible outcome when these values combine with sin and other cultural factors.
Brian Stone
April 16, 2013, 11:47AM
Well argued Megan. I trust our churches will discuss these issues more seriously.

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