My brother is currently writing his senior thesis on biblical masculinity. This has proven a great excuse to think about a biblical understanding of gender generally, as if I really needed one. Homosexuality and transgenderism are the hot topics of the day, and even before that, American society has always had more than one model of masculinity and femininity in the running. And no wonder–our God-given sexual identity cuts to the heart of who we are individually, touching on every other aspect of our lives, often in the most surprising of ways. It’s a very important, very personal issue, one that bears a lot of thinking about and a lot of discussion.
One of the interesting distinctions that has come about in the wake of the LGBT movement is that between sex and gender. At one point, these two words were considered interchangeable, and for many people they still are. But each has acquired a more specialized definition: sex refers to one’s biology, and gender refers to one’s behavior. Some people maintain that the two are independent of one another, that one’s gender is either a choice, or determined by something other than the raw physical facts. “I’m really a woman,” says man with functioning man parts. One’s anatomy, say some, should not determine what bathroom one uses any more than one’s skin color should.
Objections to this come from a variety of places, and the alternatives offered do not always agree with one another. If males must be masculine, and females must be feminine, how does this work? What does masculinity and femininity look like? Where does it come from?
These are difficult questions to answer, and they’re not made any easier by the postmodernist’s favorite problem: diversity of cultural norms. Masculinity in Hong Kong, or in Tokyo, does not look exactly like masculinity among the San people, or in Beverly Hills, or rural Appalachia. A backwoods Pentecostal from Deep East Texas and a respectable Nigerian woman from Lagos may both think they are feminine, but may not recognize it in each other, or in that girl from Portland.
Those who assert that gendered behavior is more than a cultural reality, that it is tied to one’s biological sex, and that there is a moral component to this—a group among which I count myself—have various solutions to this conundrum. Some ignore or undersell the cultural diversity. Some just shrug it off as the effects of sin on societies the world over, content in the assumption that their understanding of how men and women should behave is the transcendent norm. Others assert that there are certain general trends in behavior, and certain unhealthy deviations, but that it really is difficult to determine precisely what these are. How is one to disentangle healthy human nature from its cultural expressions? Is such a thing even possible?
That project is difficult one, involving a lot of study. It’s easy for Christians to point to the Bible as a shortcut, the divine revelation which lays out right and wrong for us. In one sense, this is very true, but that doesn’t make it simple. Whether it’s a blue-jeans wearing redneck who just got back from work, or a respectable office worker in his suit who just came back to his 2.5 kids and wife in the burbs, we carry a lot of cultural baggage to our reading of the Bible. Half the population is male, and the other half is female, and we’ve spent our entire lives around them. We already have ideas about masculinity and femininity, and which Biblical passages stand out to us as relevant, and which interpretations of them make sense, will be heavily colored by that experience.
There is an added layer of complication when we begin citing accounts of facts as divine commands. Some evangelicals have a bad habit of interpreting bible stories as God’s examples for how we ought to live our lives, without stopping to ask whether they are intended to be interpreted that way. This can get very hairy, and very entertaining, as people try to hash out the truly biblical baptismal practice where no explicit command is given. There are also some downright ridiculous arguments for every conceivable mode of church governance based on vaguely worded statements of what New Testament churches did. None of these have the clarity and power of the Ten Commandments, a straightforward delivery of divine law, or of some of the commands of Jesus in the Gospels. We should keep this in mind when we address any topic, gender and sexuality included.
Some of my favorite discussions of masculinity and femininity come from people who take a look at the psychological and social impact of biology. How does the ability to get pregnant, having a body crafted to nurture new life, and having regular biological reminders of the fact, effect how women understand themselves? How does the disconnect between male experience of sexuality and male experience of reproduction effect how men view themselves? And how do each of these sets of facts impact how one sex/gender looks at the other?
I think this line of questioning is extraordinarily helpful. Chasing down that rabbit trail quickly reveals explanations for general trends in how men and women conduct themselves across cultures, and also sheds some light on the places where those cultures differ, and why. It also offers helpful suggestions as to why we are seeing this sudden trend of acceptance of LGBT culture in America. Some of the things that have long accompanied being a man or woman in America are being eroded by modern medical technology, among other things.
But as I was considering this the other day, another important distinction struck me. If one attaches moral implications to biological realities—a kind of natural law thinking—then a whole new set of questions come up. The fact is, technology does loosen the hold of biology on men and women. Some of this may be negative, but some is assuredly positive. The same hormone replacement therapy used by transgender individuals to more resemble the sex they identify as, is also used by people whose natural bodily functions, through disease, accident, or birth defect, have ceased. And this number is not as small as might be convenient for those of us with Luddite tendencies. Modern medical science has a real impact on gender and sexuality, and not all of it is what a Christian could, at face value, call bad.
Those grey areas, the twilight zone of these discussions, are not the only place that natural law arguments for gender norms encounter rough sailing. Say a young man growing up in the rural South went to an evangelical church every Sunday, attended a Christian school, listened incessantly to Focus on the Family, and filled his head with country music lyrics. Take another young man and raise him on Canon Press books, let him soak up courtship culture, expose him to John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and let him attend an ACCS school in the Northwest. In the grand scheme of world cultures, the two are not far apart, but ask them to point out feminism, or what headship means, and you’ll get answers that look nothing alike.
Obviously, this is an experiment I have conducted the entertaining way. Both of these individuals might agree that God has expectations regarding gender, might tie these expectations back to biological realities, and might generally agree that American culture is currently nuts on the issue. But that northwestern individual makes me very uncomfortable with his views on a woman’s place. I expect, based on experience and (I think) biblical precedent that a woman is fully capable of doing, and doing well, lots of things which that guy would say she should not do based on the fact that she is a woman. God has made men one way, and women another, and therefore women should not infringe upon masculine territory. His view of gender roles is far more ironclad than my own, in a very significant way, despite all the similarities we might have in common.
Should women initiate a relationship? Should she give a potential mate who is taking too long to pop the question a subtle hint, or leave such things to her father? Does her father have authority over her once she is old enough to provide for herself? Should a woman ever go out and provide for herself? Once married, should she take a job outside the home? Does the type of job matter? Should women be in the military at all, even in supporting roles? Is it acceptable or even desirable for a woman to be more intellectual, or even wiser than her husband? Should wives be willing to tell their husband they are wrong? How far is obedience commanded? Should marriage look more like a partnership, or like the relationship between a parent and a particularly competent child?
If you are not a woman reading this, imagine you are a woman reading this. See? This is where feminism comes from—two college guys sitting around debating the place of women. Maybe women should have a say in all this. But wait, isn’t this an issue of biblical interpretation? Are women allowed to talk about this stuff? I Timothy 2? See, it gets hairy quickly. Strong feelings are had.
At any rate, in my contemplation of the issue, and my consideration of past discussions, I realized the need for a crucial distinction. There is a big difference between saying someone is doing something which nature does not ordinarily allow them to do, and saying they are doing something which contradicts, twists, or denies their nature. Most men don’t run all that fast, yet Usain Bolt exists. Ordinary people can’t solve a Rubik’s cube in under sixty second, blindfolded. Yet these people exist, and I would hesitate to castigate them for it.
This distinction between acting contrary to one’s nature and being on the extreme end of it is an important one. One might argue from biology or from general observation of humans at work that some activities are far more normal for men and others for women. Yet I hesitate to say that this means women should not participate in activities ordinarily dominated by men, if they have the capability and the inclination.
That semi-imaginary northwesterner and I might both be on the conservative end of these issues, but, to cite a biblical example, he finds the prophetess Deborah a real inconvenience. Women are not supposed to be prophets. How can he explain this away? Maybe no men were doing their job at the time, so a woman had to? He likewise frowns disapprovingly at the apocryphal tale of Judith. I, on the other hand, think it’s pretty cool. Is it because I’m a sellout to radical egalitarianism? No, I just maintain a distinction he does not. Deborah and Judith may have been unusual, but they were not a perversion of femininity.
This places me in a position I am very comfortable with. I do not necessarily have as many pat answers as the self-proclaimed patriarchal crowd to the one side or the people who make gender entirely a social construct on the other. Their systems are much tighter than mine. But I can, on the one hand, embrace masculinity and femininity as beautiful things, as positive virtues, and, on the other hand, be perfectly content with the fact that a woman might be a much better scholar than me, a better leader, or play a much meaner game of volleyball. Especially the volleyball thing. I hate volleyball. You go girl, just leave me out of it.
This is certainly a perspective that includes serious expectations and even hard and fast rules, but it’s also a far more relaxed. Maintain this distinction, and you can take the people as they come, giving a little consideration to the fact that they are God’s servant, not yours, and there may be more than one way to be masculine or feminine, and there may be more going on than what you see at first blush. It allows you to—dare I say it—accept the fact of your own ignorance. And it’s charitable. I like that. It’s nice.
Also, what madman would want to get rid of Judith? Judith is freaking awesome.