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Gender Roles, Context, and the Church – Who Decides? – Guest Post from Natalie’s Narrative

Locating the subject in theo-ecclesial debates is often determined by who frames the question. Such is often the confusion when inter-changing sex and gender. What would a “minority voice” consider as important in the discussions that often turn rancorous?

Today I offer a Guest Post from Natalie originally published over at Natalie’s Narrative. Her title, “Who Gets To Be the Arbiter of Gender Roles in the Church?” Since contexts are important it is not enough to appeal to a certain type of biblicism – see Christian Smith, Bible Made Impossible. Before jumping to that read, consider Natalie’s Narrative on the subject.

I wonder whether there has been thorough reflection on biblical definitions of gender roles translated into today’s terms. I wonder whether North American cultural norms have been uncritically adopted, which then gets clothed in biblical language, immune from criticism as it’s been equated with Scripture itself.

October 10, 2011

Who gets to be the arbiter of gender roles in the church?

I’m looking forward to Rachel Held Evans’ book based on a year-long project of following Scripture’s instructions to women.  Some with traditional views of biblical womanhood have criticized the book, even though it’s not yet available.  While I don’t believe time travel is possible yet, some critics have brought up arguments that are common when defending traditional gender roles:

No serious effort was being made, as far as I could tell, to truly translate into our day and time something that may have made perfect sense to people living in those conditions 3,000 years ago but leaves US scratching our heads. And so Rachel camps out, constructs sashes, and stands in front of the city limit signs with a placard saying what a great guy her husband is — because the Bible supposedly says she should. I am left scratching my head at what anyone is supposed to learn from such antics.

Baptist Press article I’ve previously linked to notes, “Today’s young men need to hear the words of King David to Solomon, ‘Be strong, and show yourself a man,’ (1 Kings 2:2) and today’s young women need a generation of modern-day Abigails to emulate (1 Samuel 25).”VanHeusenTies

The article also refers to John Piper, who says a godly man is “sensitive to cultural expressions of what is considered masculine, and mature masculinity adapts its behavior to fit what is culturally masculine.”  It’s clear most complementarians acknowledge that Scripture must be translated to our current setting.

However, why do many Christians feel they have a copyright on what these modern cultural expressions look like?  How can they have so much certainty when defining gender roles?

For instance, Al Mohler unequivocally stated, “Those who believe that the Bible is indeed the inerrant and infallible written revelation of God are obligated to perpetuate and honor the pattern of leadership ordered within the text of Scripture.”  And the Unlocking Femininity website states, “Because God is good and only does good, if we believe that hierarchy and patriarchy are evil, then we’re saying something about the character of God.”

Complementarians tie traditional gender roles to a faithful reading of Scripture, so to question them is tantamount to questioning the Bible and God’s goodness. Interestingly, it is exclusively male denominational leadership, seminary graduates, and pastors who determine these non-negotiable gender roles for the North American church.

I wonder whether there has been thorough reflection on biblical definitions of gender roles translated into today’s terms.  I wonder whether North American cultural norms have been uncritically adopted, which then gets clothed in biblical language, immune from criticism as it’s been equated with Scripture itself.

Perhaps holding up a sign at your town’s entrance that praises your husband is not required of Christian women today.  I doubt that is Evans’ point.  Hardly anyone thinks we should literally follow every biblical command to women, i.e. wearing headcoverings during prayer or being saved through childbearing.

The question then becomes, what does the role of biblical women and men look like in 2011 in North America?  And who in the church gets to decide these roles?BiblicalFemininity

Learning about non-North Americans has revealed gender as a cultural construct. Biology still plays a role, but what is considered feminine here is often not the case outside North America.

I’ve shared details before from ethnographic studies.  Among the Mur­ik of Papua New Guinea, women andmen are allowed to show aggression. Generally, Indonesian men are viewed as emotional and full of passion.  Women are thought to be more stable, rational thinkers who handle business transactions.

Looking briefly outside our North American context, we learn there is no one, universal definition of gender roles.  Biblical womanhood is expressed differently, depending on the church’s cultural context.  Allowing husbands a “trump card” and barring women from leading men may seem absurd in some non-North American cultures.

Although not all complementarians would agree, Mark Driscoll has said Paul’s instructions resulted from women being “unfit,” “more gullible and easier to deceive than men.”  Driscoll also frequently describes women as emotional.

Or, when North American Christians oppose anti-bullying measures because they eliminate gender roles, these Christians fail to explain why certain characteristics are male and others female, and to ground this explanation beyond our particular culture’s assumptions about gender.  BiblicalMasculinity

I know a culture-less reading of Scripture isn’t possible.  But perhaps we should more thoroughly look at how and why women and men appear to be different in our culture, and why they should act certain ways to be good Christians.  Perhaps the church should stop painting women and men with such broad brushstrokes.

Rather than marginalizing those who do not fit the North American mold of femininity and masculinity and who have not conformed to particular roles, could the church community make room for them?  As Joy Bennett wrote in a great post over at Deeper Story, “just because a woman’s strengths don’t fit the typical female patterns doesn’t mean she doesn’t fit into the body of Christ.”

I wish the church would take a closer look at our definitions of masculinity and femininity.  Are they informed more by North American culture than anything else?  Humility on all sides would also be helpful, as it’s pretty bold to think your interpretation of gender roles is precisely what God commanded, and questioning this interpretation disrespects the Bible and God’s character.

I am left scratching my head when biblical gender roles just happen to match up with traditional twentieth-century North American gender roles, and that one exclusive group has decided to be the arbiter of these roles.  Let’s take a closer look (and stop reviewing books before reading them), shall we?

Credit - first photo

Credit – second and third photos

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