I’ve been stewing on this for a while.

As an English major, I’ve studied some Feminist theory and think it’s a fascinating mental exercise (I also think it’s lazy academics, most of the time, but that’s another issue). As the daughter of conservative Christians attempting to revive/reinvent orthodoxy (“reinvent” in the sense that they didn’t grow up in the Church and were trying to create a coherent theological praxis for life) in an age marked by the Church’s decline, I grew up reading books like Let Me Be A Woman by Elisabeth Elliot, What’s The Difference by John Piper, and reading magazines and blogs which highlighted the beauties of femininity and the home.

Some of that reading was handed to me by my parents, some was required study for church groups, some was just motivated by my own earnest hunger to learn more about God and what it means to be a Christian. I’m almost always hungry to think things through and study issues that pique my curiosity, and “Biblical gender roles” has always been high on that list.

From an email I wrote to a friend last month:

My husband and I had a silly fight last night. [edit: It was my fault. This is not uncommon. I am a girl, I have a temper, I tend to over-think everything, and I tend to over-think everything out loud. Poor guy. Good thing for me, he’s patient. Anyway, we had this fight.] And I was being irrational and ranting at him, and he made reference to Proverbs 21:9 (the contentious wife/better to live on the corner of the housetop, etc.). It was fitting, I admit.

However, my retort then was, “If the Bible had been written in any part by women, there would have been verses about hard-hearted husbands in it, too!” …which was silly and rude, but the thought had never occurred to me before. And I sheepishly admit that I still think it’s true–the Bible is a male-dominant text, and if women had been educated enough to be in a position where they could have contributed to the Canon, there might just have been proverbs about husbands, and there might have been a lot more poetic books.

I was musing about how my husband and I have a relationship that’s really not based on “headship” and “submission”  or even “initiation and response” (key phrases for those subscribing to “Biblical Complementarianism”). As I wrote to this same friend:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word “helpmeet.” Apparently the original words  [in Hebrew] mean something more like someone who is a highly skilled and practiced partner in battle–like in a partnership where both understand and respond to each other fluidly and adroitly, and they are working strongly together for the same end.

“Mutual submission” is a phrase that the proponents of “egalitarian marriage” like to use–the husband and the wife are equals, each submitting to each other to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe the wife does some typical “manly” jobs around the house (or vice versa), because she’s just better at them than her husband–maybe she’s an accountant and he’s an artist, so she manages the finances and he decorates. Or maybe he cooks breakfast for her every morning, and she keeps the schedule moving.

Complementarians like to be specific. They tend to like stereotypical gender roles as patterns to emulate. Vision Forum’s catalog is a pretty standard example of this played out to its logical extremes. Blogger Libby Anne does a nice job of picking this apart. This gender role specificity in conservative America/conservative Christianity can result in weirdly stiff ideals or models for marriages, parenting, and relationships in general. Girls who are tomboys feel out of place and stifled, boys who are more bookish or indoorsy feel insecure and unmanly.

The same sort of thinking about “gender roles” results in experimental gender neutral schools. An ideal of a certain sort of gender role (here it’s none and all) is held up, and kids are raised in ways that encourage them to be just like that ideal.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is this: gender roles in the Bible were partially social constructs (that is, defined by cultural norms and assumptions) and partially God’s design–women couldn’t own property, women weren’t well-educated, women weren’t respected (the Pharisees regularly thanked God that they weren’t “born a woman or a slave.” Oh, yeah, and slavery isn’t directly condemned by the Bible…).

Gender roles in the 1950s or 1980s (yes, opposite ends of the spectrum) were partially social constructs and partially God’s design. Even those gender-neutral schools are exhibiting something that’s attempting to be largely a social construct  (homosexuality/any sexuality is cool) and a little bit of God’s design (everyone is unique).

God did design men and women to be different. God did design all humans to be equal. God did design all humans to be individually unique. God didn’t design women to be subservient doormats, and God didn’t design men to be tyrants. Conversely: women are not to be power-hungry bitches, and men are not to be whiny couch potatoes.

Perhaps the phrase “Biblical gender roles” ought to be laid aside. After all, no two women will quite be alike in skills, interests, or character. And no two men will mirror each other closely enough for there to be detailed rules about how a Christian man ought to act. There are definitely Biblical guidelines for how to relate to other people, and there are Biblical guidelines for how men and women are to care well for each other in marriage–Christ is the model there.

But I’m just a little tired of tidy “Biblical gender roles” being the answer to all relationship problems. And maybe I’d like to remind patriarchal Christians that there was at least one female bishop/regional elder in the early church. Her name was Junia.  What do you make of that?

  • Love this post. I think it’s great that you point out Junia here in your post. I feel like the Orthodox churches honor women much more than the churches I attended growing up. Granted, some of their homage to women becomes a bit idol-like, but at least they recognize them? Just my two pennies.

  • “After all, no two women will quite be alike in skills, interests, or character. And no two men will mirror each other closely enough for there to be detailed rules about how a Christian man ought to act.”

    This reminds me of a really helpful article I read ages ago using the color wheel as a metaphor for men and women and how they relate with each other in marriage. The article was inspired by a woman who was fed up with comparing herself and being compared to other wives in the way they expressed their femininity and related to their husbands. A quote from her testimony said, “Instead of treating each man and each wife as individuals complementing each others’ own strengths and weaknesses, encouraging them to fill in and support each other as needed, whatever that may look like, many influential church leaders have chosen one single example from from the host of possible complementary relationship styles and set it up as a pre-fab model for all Christian men and women, expecting them all, no matter how different they may be, to conform to it.”

    (I don’t know how you feel about Tim Challies but the whole article is here: http://www.challies.com/christian-living/whose-wife-are-you)

    • Challies is generally good, but sometimes he plays his cards a little close to the chest and by absence of defined opinions aligns himself with thinkers whose assumptions I may not respect. He’s getting at what I’m talking about, a little bit, with his color wheel, but he doesn’t give enough credit for women figuring this stuff out on their own–if his wife reads a book about submission and starts “submitting” in ways that don’t serve him, it’s somehow his fault? There’s responsibility on both sides here, and there ought to be mutual deference as well (as opposed to the loaded term “submission”).

      [end soapbox]

      • EMSoliDeoGloria

        Challies has written some things that are better than the worst patriarichalists (like this and his review of the Pearl’s books). But often he is part of the problem when it comes to stereotyping men and women into assigned gender roles. His Sexual Detox and Aileen Challie’s companion ebook (False Messages) for women on sexuality are just full of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations (not to mention poor biblical exegesis) about what women want and what men want.