Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or our Similarities?

Male and female he created themOne of the basic tenets of hierarchical complementarianism—an ideology that, among other things, restricts women from some functions in the Church—is that men and women are different, and that the sexes complement each other. I agree that the sexes complement each other. Hopefully we all complement each other with our various strengths, gifts, and talents, but I don’t think that men and women are as different as some hierarchical complementarians assert. Men and women are not exactly the same but we share many things in common. In fact, I don’t know of any non-biological trait that is exclusively male or female.

Personality and Spirituality

Our personalities are not solely, or even largely, determined by our sex: there is not a male personality or a female personality.[1] Over the years I’ve needed to do a few personality tests for work and ministry reasons, but there was never a question in these tests asking whether I was male or female.

A person’s sex does not give any indication of his or her personality or ability.

And remember the surveys and questionnaires about spiritual gifts that many churches did in the 90s? I don’t recall that there was ever a question in these surveys asking whether I was male or female. Which is just as well as the Holy Spirit gives his gifts without any apparent regard of a person’s sex.[2]

A person’s sex does not determine his or her spiritual or ministerial aptitude.

Masculinity and Femininity

It is usually straightforward to classify a person according to their sex: male or female. Classifying certain traits according to gender, either masculine or feminine, is much more difficult. Masculinity and femininity cannot be precisely defined because different cultures have different parameters of perceived manly and womanly behaviour. For example, my attitudes, actions, and aspirations are more similar to those of the men in my family and the men in my socio-economic group than those of women living in the mountains of Papua and New Guinea.

Masculinity and femininity cannot be qualified or quantified by a neat set of parameters, rules, and roles because every man and woman is unique. Ideas such as “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” or “all men are leaders and all women are followers”[3] are gross generalisations and over-simplifications which ignore the complexities and diversity of individuals. We each have our own personality, our own talents and tastes, our own strengths. This is especially apparent for people who live in western society where individualism is nurtured and prized.

Rather than a prescriptive definition of masculinity and femininity, or of manhood and womanhood, the reality is that, especially in western society, there is a broad continuum of manly and womanly behaviour. Moreover, on this continuum, there is a large overlapping area of behaviour that is not especially gendered.

Bone of my Bones and Flesh of my Flesh  

In contrast to Christians who emphasise the differences between the sexes, when Adam saw Eve for the first time he noticed their similarities and exclaimed:

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called woman, for out of man this one was taken.” Genesis 2:23.

Adam marveled at the profound similarities he shared with Eve. He also recognised that the source of this first woman was his own body.[4]

Adam wasn’t the same after the creation of Eve. Something of his was missing. God had taken something out of Adam and it had become an integral part in the making of the first woman. When Adam and Eve joined together they became reunited as one flesh. Protecting and cherishing this one flesh union should be a priority of all husbands and wives.

Jesus quoted from Genesis 2:24 and added a bit:  

“For this reason a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:5-6 and  Mark 10:7-9

Adam focussed on the similarities between man and woman, and Jesus emphasised the profound unity between husband and wife. It seems to me, however, that some complementarian Christians are not only emphasizing the differences between men and women, they are polarizing the sexes. Some well known ministers seem obsessed with gender differences and are promoting an unnecessary distinction and division between brothers and sisters in Christ [see endnote 5], and between husbands and wives [see endnote 6]. 

Diversity but not Division

As Christians we all belong to the same family; and we all belong to the same body of Christ. We should be encouraging and appreciating a diversity of functions in the body without promoting or enforcing a division of rigidly prescribed roles or ranks (1 Cor. 12:4-31).

We are part of the New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17 NIV). As part of this New Creation each one of us belongs to the royal priesthood, so we should be eschewing distinctions that indicate a priestly, privileged class of men. Instead, we should be living with New Creation values and creating a new culture where the physical and outward distinctions of sex, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, while still visible and real, do not cause discrimination and inequality within the church community (Gal. 3:27-28).[7] Instead of emphasizing gender in such a way that it promotes division and exclusivity among believers, we should be promoting unity and inclusivity. And, like Adam, we should be recognising and marvelling at our similarities.


Endnotes

[1] Hormones can affect our personalities. Men and women have both androgens (male sex hormones), such as testosterone, and estrogens (female sex hormones) in varying amounts.

[2] All the New Testament passages which speak about spiritual gifts, including the gifts of leading and teaching, are gender inclusive, or gender neutral, in the Greek. Verses which mention Spiritual giftings: Acts 2:17-18; Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-11 & 27-28; 1 Cor. 14:26-33; Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 2:4; 1 Pet. 4:9-11.

[3] John Piper defines masculinity and femininity purely in terms of leadership and submission. He believes that leadership is an intrinsically masculine quality and that God has ordained all men to be leaders. He also believes that the women’s role is to be fundamentally submissive and responsive to the leadership of all men. Piper’s definition is inadequate and potentially dangerous. See chapter one of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Westchester, Il: Crossway Books, 2006)

[4] Eve had been, quite literally, “taken out” of Adam. Adam was the source of the first woman, but all other men have come from a woman, their mother (1 Cor 11:11-12). We share a lot in common with our male and female biological and spiritual family members. [My article The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 here.]

[5] John Piper has recently been recorded as saying that a Christian woman can teach a man as long as she is not standing in front of a man showing her womanhood. (Source) The implication is that women are somehow offensive or threatening to men and their manhood. John Piper seems obsessed with emphasising gender differences. On the other hand, the Bible mentions kings, generals and other men who received instruction from women without concern. These men are listed here.

[6] Our first loyalty, and the priority of our confidences, should be to our spouse, not to our buddies or girlfriends. Some ministers, such as James MacDonald, are teaching men not to share their burdens with their wives. (Source) I am the main support of my husband, not other men. Isn’t that what being a helper (ezer) is really all about? It concerns me that there seems to be no place for women in MacDonald’s life unless he’s protecting, covering and supporting them. He doesn’t speak of women as partners. (There is no biblical basis whatsoever for the notion of “covering”.)  [My article Protecting the Weaker Sex here.]

[7] Qualifications for ministry in the Old Testament priesthood were physical; qualifications for ministry in the New Covenant church are spiritual and moral.  [My article Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers here.]

One more note: Women are excluded from some ministries in some churches because of inadequate interpretations of a few verses that are genuinely difficult to exegete. [More about “the difficult passages” here.]

Image credit: Gender Symbol ©ewg3D (iStockphoto) 


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Posted April 8th, 2013 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

25 comments on “Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or our Similarities?

  1. Deborah says:

    Marg, Once again, well done!

  2. Marg says:

    Thanks Deborah! 🙂

  3. Traditions are simply hard to shake, even and especially in understanding a Book that is inspired. Satan likes to see to it that man has filters; they guarantee an interpretation consonant with desires that turn out later not to be so godly as some have thought.

  4. Kathryn Elliott Stegall says:

    Amen, Margaret! You have hit the nail on the head with this commentary. You’ve touched on something I’ve been feeling but not been able to articulate. Thank you.

  5. Marg says:

    James: That is very true, and we are all guilty of it. Many people are set and stuck on their interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 but they completely ignore Paul’s other instructions in 1 Timothy chapter 2.

    Very few churches insist that men raise their hands when they pray despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:8. Very few churches forbid women to braid their hair, wear gold or pearl jewellery, or wear expensive clothes, despite Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9. They ignore Paul’s instructions in verses 8 and 9, and dismiss them as culturally limited, but insist that verse 12 is universal and timeless (despite us not knowing what authentein really means here.)

    Kathryn: Thanks 🙂

  6. Marg: Part of the problem is the inadequate scientific method that is being used, analytical, it cannot handle a situation very well that involves more than one truth. In fact, the present scientific method runs into a real problem, when the null hypothesis is also true. What we need is a synthetical method, one that can handle two apparently antithetical truths at the same time. I remember once talking with a science educator about the problem. She looked at me in amazement and asked, “How did you know that?” Meaning how did I know there was a problem with the present scientific method, supposedly, being a dumb preacher. I ran into the problem more than 40 years ago, when I was writing a thesis for a Master’s degree in Intellectual History, where the truth was two-sided and apparently contradictory. That led to a consideration of the method and the conclusion that it was flawed. The present establishment has ways of compensating for the problem, but it is still lacking in a synthetical methodology. When folks learn to think outside the box (something the Bible does teach by the way), then we might get some who are able to look at truth from more than one angle. I was pleasantly surprised about 12 years ago by a pastor who had been trained in a bible school and had been in the navy. He reminded me that God told Abraham to do what Sarah said, one of those exceptions that demand a more synthetical approach. I had a friend who founded a church and gave it to Southern Baptists and was assured by them that it would never be admitted that she had had a hand in the founding of that church. I knew her as a woman most dedicated to her Lord. A great servant of Christ.

  7. Well said. I especially like your idea about the new creation. If in fact we are new creations, why are we looking to the past or even to the creation of Adam and Eve to understand gender? Shouldn’t we be expecting something new? “See, I am doing a new thing!” Isaiah 43:19

  8. […] Adam focussed on the similarities between man and woman, and Jesus emphasised the profound unity between husband and wife. It seems to me, however, that some Complementarian Christians are not only emphasizing the differences between men and women, they are polarizing the sexes.  […]

  9. Marg says:

    James: Yes, in Genesis 16:2 of the Septuagint it says that Abraham obeyed (from hupakouō) Sarah’s voice.

    Elizabeth: Thanks for leaving a comment. I truly believe Paul’s frame of reference and hope in relationships was the New Creation, this is especially evident in his earlier letters. But too many Christians interpret his letters through the lens of patriarchy.

  10. J. Stahl says:

    Thanks again Marg! I’ve shared this one.

  11. Karin says:

    Thanks for highlighting that aspect of the creation account. I hear more and more rallying cries in my denomination that Christians should combat “an ideology that denies gender differences”. While I am aware that those who cry the loudest believe the answer is in the 1950s-70s, I’ve also started wondering what a biblical view of gender is. I know from the social sciences that there is a huge learned component in gender and that the Bible speaks a lot more about being godly than about being a typical man or woman. It is good to see that God cares more about (comm)unity than about maintaining gender differences.

  12. Marg says:

    Karin: Such a good comment.

    I think the Bible is completely silent about what a typical man or a typical woman is like. (The idealised woman in Proverbs 31:10 is hardly typical.)

    The very few passages that indicate certain behaviors for men (e.g. 1 Tim 2:8) and certain behaviours for women (e.g. 1 Tim 2:9ff) merely give us insight into the culture of the time and reveal specific problems that certain churches faced. The Bible passages about ministry and how to live as godly people are gender inclusive.

    In many parts of Western society the prevailing culture is egalitarian. If we want to take Paul’s principle of not giving the church a bad name (the reason for his instructions in Titus 2:4-5 and 1 Tim 5:14 ) we should be promoting egalitarianism in our churches. Hierarchical complementarianism and patriarchy are giving the church a bad name.

    [I have a few comments about Titus 2:4-5 and 1 Timothy 5:14 here.]

    J. Stahl: Thanks for sharing.

  13. Sharon Letchford says:

    Marg, another excellent article! In fact, I think this one is my favourite of yours! Will definitely be sharing.

  14. Karin says:

    I am curious. What do those of you who have children or work with children teach/model about gender roles? Are there any behaviors you are more likely to encourage/discourage/tolerate in boys or girls? How do you react when a child assumes a stereotypical gender role (beyond a short period of exploration)? Do you try to provide a wider perspective?

    And an observation. I’ve seen churches pray a lot (and give thanks for) for male volunteers in youth work “because boys need role models” and most workers in that area are women. There definitely is a shortage of adult female leadership figures in churches. Don’t women also need role models? Why aren’t the churches that pray for more male youth leaders not also praying for more women in leadership?

  15. Marg says:

    Hi Karin,
    (1) I have two grown sons and my husband and I have never taught them gender roles. My husband and I have divided responsibilities according to our abilities and temperaments. Some of these responsibilities are shared according to traditional roles, but others are not. For example, my husband does the shopping and cooking because he enjoys these activities and I don’t. I think my sons are well rounded, healthy, sane, capable, caring individuals. (It’s a big subject, probably too large to address here.)

    (2) I was at a regional meeting for churches in my area recently. We sat around tables that accommodated about six-eight people each. At one table was a male senior minister with four young men from his congregation. They seemed to be his protégés. I couldn’t help wondering why he wasn’t encouraging young women in his congregation to be part of this group. It bothered me!

  16. […] for women? Busy at Home: How does Titus 2:4-5 apply today? Working Women in the New Testament Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or Similarities? Role or Rank? Instant […]

  17. […] Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or our Similarities? […]

  18. […] Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our differences or our similarities? […]

  19. […] Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or our Similarities? […]

  20. […] More on the biblical manhood and womanhood movement here and here. […]

  21. […] Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our differences or our similarities? […]

  22. […] Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or our Similarities? […]

  23. […] Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or our Similarities? […]

  24. […] GENDER OBSESSIONS: EMPHASIZING OUR DIFFERENCES OR SIMILARITIES? […]

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