(This is part 3 in the series “F-Bombs.” To read part two, go here.)
**Before we get started, I want to address a question that some may ask while reading: “Is the word still ‘feminism’? I don’t see how this is about feminism.” This is largely exploring the wide-spread effects of feminist thinking. Because feminism has profound effects on masculinity and gender identity, as well as gender roles. Feminism is about empowering women, including those who want to fit into more traditional roles. They’re still women. They’re still people. So with that in mind: part three of F-Bombs, part two of feminism.**
I had some crazy ideas when I was a youngin’. Some of my best stories come from the time in my life when I felt I’d just figured things out based off of what I’d observed. Like the time I poured water over my head while taking a bath and realized I could still breathe, thus concluding that the “humans can’t breathe underwater” rule apparently didn’t apply to me. I quickly realized upon a more thorough testing of this hypothesis (read: nearly drowning myself in my bathtub full of Mr. Bubble), that that rule was, in fact, universal.
Then there was my idea of gender. And I have no idea where I got this idea, but I have a distinct memory of my notion of how gender worked.
I don’t know if anyone remembers the Q Club, but it was basically just 24 Hour Fitness, but fully invested in the color palette of the 90s. My mom and grandma were both frequent Q-ers, so my brother and I were frequently in tow with one or the other. And that was fine by us because that meant we got to go to the kids’ area which was a paradise of ball pits (in the days before our local Chuck E. Cheese found a used heroin syringe in theirs, prompting every other establishment that had one to do away with their ball pits, proving that heroin hurts people in ways you wouldn’t even think of), slides, rope swings, and climbing nets. And a TV. Most of the kids clung to the TV more than the network of colorful plastic play equipment, an observation I didn’t understand at the ripe age of 4-ish. I had a TV at home. When I was here, it was time for my imagination to run free. But these kids loved the TV and VCR so much that they’d bring their own, stashing away the movies they weren’t watching in the cubby holes for their shoes. And as I put my shoes away one day, I saw that someone had stashed a video in their cubby. Giving into my natural inclination to sleuth about, I peeped at what movie it was.
It was Pocahontas.
Now, that was a nice movie, as far as I could tell, but I’d never seen it. Firstly, it had come out when I was two, so my parents knew I wouldn’t appreciate the cinematic nuances in that film. Secondly, Hercules had just come out, and that was far more appealing to me. And I was told that it was, too. Strong guy beating stuff up? Heck yes. But I also had a Pocahontas computer game at home, so I was interested in the story. Regardless, I vividly remember putting the video back in the cubby and saying to myself:
“I’ll have to remember to watch that when I’m a girl.”
Think of the Children!
Some of you may be wondering what I may have meant by that, what deep nuance is hiding behind that toddler’s comment. Nothing. I literally thought that in human’s mid-lives, we swapped genders. I assume this was because the majority of adults I knew were women and the majority of kids my age that I knew were boys. Along with that, there were “girl things” my dad and his friends liked (we watched Xena together all the time and Xena was a girl. Thus: girl thing), and there were “boy things” my mom and my teachers liked (she could talk dinosaurs and spaceships with me like no other). I just assumed these were like leftovers from their past lives as the opposite gender.
All that to say, not only is that an adorable example of “kids say the darnedest things,” but it’s a lead-in to the first topic of this post which will primarily focus on gender roles and where they fit into society, our perceptions of femininity and masculinity, and the church.
And it starts with the kiddos.
One trend that’s been drawing a lot of attention in the past few years is gendered marketing. This is basically exactly what it sounds like: marketing of products, especially children’s toys, to one gender or the other. At first glance, that doesn’t seem to be too big of an issue. But when you look at it through a lens of gender roles in our society, then gendered marketing begins to appear more problematic. I think this is because the way and what we market to children in way of toys, etc. directly reflects our societal expectation of each gender respectively. That is, girls are bathed in princesses and pink, and boys are showered with sports and superheroes.
Many articles and blogs have been written about this phenomenon, a personal favorite of mine being this one in which the author actually has some statistics and research that she conducted personally. Again, I’ll provide a brief synopsis for those who don’t want to follow the link, and that is that the problem isn’t girls’ liking princesses and pink, but that that is practically all that is being offered to them. And that is an almost undeniable fact. Toy stores have color palettes: girls get pink (and sometimes purple) and boys get black and blue. Go check out the toy aisles at Target and try to argue that observation.
But isn’t all that normal? I mean, there are boy toys and girl toys. That’s just how it’s always been. Sure, but what do toys accomplish? They help kids grow their motor and cognitive skills, but they also play a very real role in their development of identity. And here is where the true problem in gendered marketing lies. It encourages very linear identities and roles for children as they develop. And this is the part where I just drop a bunch of questions on you that I’m not going to outright answer.
What does it say about our expectations for women if all that’s made available to girls are princesses and Barbies? What sort of standard is Barbie setting as far as girls’ expectations for their own bodies (a question that’s been asked and acknowledged many times over, but has still conspicuously not been fully addressed)? And what does that mean when you consider the role of princesses in all the stories we tell? What sort of expectation does that put on boys? What about the boys who don’t enjoy or excel in sports? What do we do with the boys who just want to make some dang Easy Bake Oven brownies, but are hesitant because the oven’s pink?
This issue takes full effect when you consider that it’s bleeding into what should be gender-neutral products like Legos. Also, this writer at juniaproject.com (a site that is devoted to discussing gender roles in the church, and I recommend in the highest) discussed this issue in light of McDonald’s happy meal toys. I also recently had a personal run-in in that sphere when I found that they’re offering gendered Amazing Spider-Man 2 toys. When was it decided that Spider-Man wasn’t for everyone? And in light of the article I just linked to, what happens when the girl wants to take a pass on the pink Spidey clutch in favor of the light up Electro, but the employee asks if the toy’s for a boy or girl?
Everything about the toys we offer our children speak to our expectations of their future selves and future roles in our society. And that may be less of a problem if it didn’t also affect them immediately.
In that survey I conducted, I asked what people would do if their son asked them for a Barbie and wanted to wear My Little Pony shirts and other “girly” attire. Granted, I made one oversight that was frequently referenced, and that is that a My Little Pony shirt carries its own connotations of him being a “Brony” which is a whole other conversation. Along the same line, I asked what their response would be if their daughter wanted a G.I. Joe and to wear combat boots. And the answers were decidedly split.
First of all, it was agreed upon that it is less scandalous for a girl to play more into the boys’ side of things. Which is an interesting observation, and I’d be curious to dig more into the sociological root of that. I mean, we have the “tomboy” archetype specifically designed for that, right? And what’s the implication of that label? What does that say about masculinity and femininity? Interesting stuff, and things I’d love to ruminate over, though not at this time.
Secondly, there was a split, naturally, in response to the boy. There were those that would buy him what he wanted and be done with it, and those who met significant hesitation and apprehension. These responses varied from agreeing, but explaining that they were “girl toys” to refusing because they didn’t want him to grow accustomed to girl stuff.
But in both cases, there was a distinct concern for the treatment of the child. That is, the child was in some sort of social jeopardy for their decisions to (perhaps unknowingly) challenge gender norms. Because, let’s face it: kids are jerks. They’ll be mean about anything and everything. But when it comes to gender roles, reinforced by the expectations of the toy aisle and the gender-normativity in the majority of television and movies, kids are downright ruthless.
And frankly, so are we.
Coursing Rivers, Raging Fires, and What It Looks Like to Be a Man
My dad tells this story every now and again, usually around breakfast, about a non-conflict he once had with a coworker. While pouring their morning coffee, the coworker noticed my father putting in some creamer and sugar like he does. Upon this observation, he scoffed and said “You know how I drink my coffee? Black. Like a real man.” And my pops proved that he’s the hero Gotham needs and deserves by responding “You know how a real man drinks his coffee? Any darn way he pleases.”
I love to poke fun at the modern conception of masculinity. When I list my interests on social media, I include things like fighting bears, bench pressing refrigerators, and catching bullets in my teeth because I want people to know that I am comfortable enough in my masculinity to spit directly in its face. Red meat, guns, and choppin’ wood. That’s what makes a man, I say.
See, when we step back from gendered marketing, we see more clearly that there’s an issue with how we view masculinity, as well as femininity. In fact, my boi Andrew Garfield even got called out recently by his girlfriend, Emma Stone, when he implied that sewing was an inherently feminine thing, saying that Spider-Man sewed his costume, but that was ok because he made it into something masculine. Meanwhile, sewing is sewing. Sewing isn’t girly and shouldn’t have to be qualified in a masculine respect. And that is applicable to arguably every activity that our society deems either feminine or masculine.
And this is where I want to get back to words and why they matter, and kick off of some of the stuff I said in the last post.
I’m going to speak more candidly here because I’m a guy speaking to guys.
What does it mean to “man up?” And I know you know I know what it means, so I’ll skip past the passive-aggression in that question because I bet you know where I’m going with this.
“Man up” is crap. And I know this seems like another instance of “wow, you’re reading way too far into this,” but the fact is that it’s not reading very far into it at all. At it’s very surface, phrases like “man up” and “be a man” and, as an inverse, “don’t be a girl” or “stop being a (synonym for cat)” are ways to put manhood and masculinity in a box. When you say those things, you only mean one thing: be tough. Meet society’s expectation for a man. And what is that? Physical strength? An insatiable hunger for steak? A refusal to cry? Regardless of the answer to that question, chances are it was singular in nature. And masculinity, femininity, and gender are anything but singular. They are each and all complex which makes it so tragic that we put them in boxes like that.
Also, it suggests something offensive and derogatory to women. Because, if you’re not “being a man” then, according to the gender binary that’s become implicit in our society, you’re being a woman, or behaving like one. So is that not desirable? This goes back to the “that’s so gay” debacle we discussed in part one. By saying “be a man” or “man up,” you’re simultaneously, if unknowingly, implying that being a woman is lesser and below you.
But why is “man up” synonymous with being tough and being tough synonymous with being a man? Are we gonna hold our wives hands when she’s delivering our children and tell her to “man up” and power through it? In that respect, our mothers have us beat any day of the week. Every day of the week.
Like before, I’m not condemning anyone who uses those phrases. But I also challenge us not to settle for the “oh, I don’t mean it that way” trap. Because, as I’ve said in every post and again now: our intention doesn’t determine the effect our words have. I of all people understand what it’s like to say things without thinking them all the way through. It’s not a request to scrutinize every phoneme before you say a word, it’s simply a request to understand and appreciate the gravity that everyday phrases can carry.
In this respect, I stand with my the essence of what my father’s coffee said: masculinity lies in your understanding of self, and confidence in that, whether it fits the expectations of others or not.
Taking It Home
Another question I asked on this by now infamous survey was what the roles are of a husband and wife. This is where I’m going to get a little less conclusive (because I am not, in fact, married, and therefore only have a limited pool of experience from which to write) and more Christian-centric. But hey, even if you’re not a Christian, I encourage you to stick around because you may have questions and points to raise as well.
This was the question that made me grin the most, I think, because it appeared that everyone was on the same page. And that is that no one really played into the Leave It to Beaver expectations of husband and wife, but instead spoke into this sort of revolutionary acknowledgement that:
Husbands and wives are both really just people.
And with that comes all the uncertainty that comes with dealing with people in general. But it decidedly isn’t about men mow the lawn and bring home the bacon while women clean and rear the kiddos. Instead, it’s agreed upon that they play to one another’s strengths, wherever those may lie. Which is amazing because that goes back to that earlier comment about tasks/interests/activities being neither inherently masculine or feminine.
There’s also a running theme of mutual submission, which is one that can get muddled sometimes. There are a lot of different takes on mutual submission, so I encourage you to google it and read much more scholarly opinions than my own (you know, on Google…). But I will speak into it some.
The passage most often cited in this conversation is Ephesians 5:22-28. It’s the one that puts husbands as the “head of the wife” as Christ is head of the church and that wives should submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. Likewise, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. Now that is some seemingly abrasive verbiage, verbiage that is off-putting to many. And rightly so. This passage has been unfortunately misused and taken out of context to work directly against the purpose for which it was written. It’s been used to put the power in the husband’s hands.
Power in the husband’s hands…
Power is never mentioned in this passage.
But Kevin, if we’re talking about submission, someone is conversely in power. You’re right. Luckily, in this situation, the person in power is Christ.
It seems like a cop-out to give women a role of submission, but men a role of love. After all, the name of love is one that has been abused for years. People do all sorts of things “out of love” without really having that be at the heart of the matter. But the love that husbands are called to, and even their position as “the head,” is in the context of Christ.
And when we talk about Christ, we talk about love in and through submission.
That’s the whole point of the Gospel: Christ was the embodiment of God’s power through a path of submission.
That’s what Christ’s love looks like when portrayed by a husband: submission to the wife who is also submitting to him, each expressing their love in the very same way Christ did. And this is Ephesians, by the way. So those comparisons to the church? Remember this is the book that explores the church as the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose. Add that to the equation, and I hope that gets you as excited about sharing life with someone in Christ as it gets me.
But again, it’s important to reiterate that marriage should be centered on the spouses as individuals and how they work together, what they work together toward. Especially in a Christian construct, it is not a power struggle. If we’re going to claim to pursue Christ in that way, that should be at the forefront of our minds.
Men, Women, Epistles, and Sunday Mornings
And now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for: gender roles in the church.
I feel I should preface this by saying that when it comes to Christianity, we need to look at how we look at things. Whoa, meta, man. So imagine, if you will, a pyramid. And that pyramid has three (or more) tiers. On the bottom, widest tier are the most basic and fundamental beliefs necessary for determining Christianity. This is stuff like “Jesus died to wash away our sins” and “Jesus is the son of God.” The bare bones. Then the second tier gets a little more complex in terms of faith development and spiritual maturity. Stuff like the Trinity or role of prayer, spiritual disciplines, personal relationship with God, etc. And then the third and smallest tier is where things like gender roles and issues concerning homosexuality, and all that is located. And isn’t it interesting that that’s where we like to spend a lot of our time and energy.
I say all that for the purpose of establishing an environment of the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think this is the stuff of making or breaking your faith. Not in the least. However, that stuff on the third tier is incredibly important because it is the part closest to the society we’re in. And unfortunately, that’s what we’re most visible in. The book UnChristian explores perceptions of the church from the perspective of unchurched people and one thing that’s easy to see when that conversation begins is that we are not perceived in a terribly positive light. There’s some sort of disconnect between the messages that are actually being sent and the messages that need to be sent in order to show Jesus to the world. For example, the church is largely seen as anti-gay. That’s a third tier issue. We need to change our message to more clearly show our first tier beliefs to the world. Those are the things that are going to change the world.
So with all that said, I still think it’s important to discuss these issues. It forces us to think from different perspectives.
Gender roles, specifically women’s, in the church are for the most part pretty stringent. Now, this varies depending on denomination, so don’t read too far into that generalization, but don’t read too far out of it, either.
I asked in the survey what a woman’s role was in the church, and what sort of things they should or shouldn’t be permitted to do. And it’s interesting to see some of the trends that arose in responses to this question, as well as the biblical backing to them.
First, when looking at what women can and can’t do, there are varying lines that different people draw in that camp itself. From preaching to serving communion to leading Bible studies and classes, it’s difficult to see how some lines are drawn as opposed to others.
Common references to the limitations on women’s roles in the assembly lie in 1 Timothy, specifically chapter 2. Instructions for women to remain silent and not being allowed to preach are made pretty plainly clear. Especially as modern churches look to the first century church for cues as to how to do church and follow Christ as an assembly, that seems pretty hard to get around. These instructions are in pastoral letters, after all, letters meant to instruct on the conduction of church assembly.
But something that’s often overlooked when discussing that (and the majority of Paul’s letters if we’re being honest) is context. Now, don’t take that to discredit Paul’s writings. If we start doing that, we lose a solid chunk of the Bible and a whole lot of guidance that have proven to further the Kingdom for centuries on end. But when we fail to look at the context surrounding these letters, we flirt with losing the tone and meaning of the text entirely.
Firstly, remember that these are letters. They are written to specific people and churches with specific problems and questions. As far as the issues raised in 1 Timothy, consider that this is direct advice from Paul to Timothy, a young disciple who’s in need of guidance in conducting his church.
Next is an understanding of where women were at the time. Women have, up to this point, been marginalized as far as the church is concerned. The Jewish tradition was very largely patriarchal, and the inclusion that came with Christianity came as a shock to that culture. Women were in the assembly. They were called to be a part of something, and a part of something for themselves. However, they weren’t used to this culture, much less the theological and spiritual discussions taking part in the gatherings.
A good chunk of the issue Paul’s addressing is one of disruption. That is, since the women were the “underdogs” in these gatherings, they had more questions than the men who were used to religious talk and terminology, etc. It was like inviting someone who’d never been inside a church before to a conference for Biblical Scholars. I’d venture to say it was almost exactly like that. The problem probably looked a lot like women interrupting discussions and lessons to ask about basic stuff. And you can see where that would be legitimately detrimental to the assembly. What would your response be if while your preacher was giving a lesson, people kept chiming in asking things like “What’s a Jesus?” and “who is Baptism?”
Hyperbole? Sure. But you get the idea. There’s a time and a place to address those questions, because they are important. But for the assembly to go deeper as a whole and focus on digging deeper, the most obvious immediate response would be for those who aren’t following along, to let the rest stretch themselves. In this case, it was largely women who were in this position.
Another issue that comes up is spiritual gifts. Paul writes plenty on spiritual gifts, and again we see that a lot of it concerns its effect on the assembly as a whole. Those who speak in tongues should have an interpreter, not only to confirm the legitimacy of what they’re saying, but also because if no one can understand you, you are frankly just being a disturbance.
But what room does the church in its current state make for women’s spiritual gifts? This is where I have the most trouble justifying the gender roles that are currently in place.
One response suggested that men and women might have different spiritual gifts. And I’ve done my best to consider that, but I can’t think of a single spiritual gift that has been historically gender-exclusive. Well, maybe one gender is just better suited to some gifts than others. Maybe, but if you look at one gender alone, there’s a wide variety of spiritual gifts there. With the variance of giftedness in each respective gender, the proposed variance between the two is sort of small potatoes (I also realize I’m speaking about gender binarily here, so I apologize for that normativity).
I just cannot come to terms with the idea that spiritual gifts are gender-specific. If that were the case, why would women feel a call into ministry and leadership at all? And what seems increasingly ironic is that women are allowed into leadership positions, but titles for these positions may be withheld.
Serving communion may be prohibited for women. I’ve still never had that quite explained to me. Isn’t that a service? Is service now reserved for certain genders? Especially when we look at what communion represents (which is several things). For one, it’s a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. Which we openly offer to our sisters, right? And it’s a time to come to the table, a time for community where we claim all are welcomed. So am I the only one who spots the irony in denying some the ability to facilitate that time? That doesn’t seem communal at all.
Being raised in the church, I had 2 male Bible class teachers in all my time up to the 7th grade. Every other one was a woman. And those women are allowed to plan and teach each other at their own retreats and conferences, but somehow that’s the cut-off point. Now, granted, there is some merit in that in the same way there’s merit in men getting away together and discussing the Bible with just them. Biblical manhood and womanhood are concepts that have inspired countless books and studies, and are necessary pursuits. But my concern here is that we put women in leadership positions, but with pretty deliberate stipulations. And when that stipulation appears to be that women can teach children and each other, but not men or the masses, that has terrible and alarming implications about what the church says about the value of women. Not only the value of women, but the value of their minds and their experiences in Christ.
I know that’s a lot to throw out and this is a touchy subject. And I apologize if I’ve been inflammatory in the things I’ve pointed out. That’s not the intention. The intention is to get people to think about what is being said by the roles we put women in in the church. And to talk about that, to talk about why, and what that looks like in a Kingdom that is moving for change in the world.
This next bit is gonna be hard to swallow. It’s hard for me to, too, but we simply can’t ignore it.
The church is a huge contributor to patriarchy in the world. And that shouldn’t be read as saying that the church is woman-hating (because the church shouldn’t be anything-hating), but that the way we treat women echoes throughout the rest of society. When you get down to it, it’s not surprising, given that the Bible was a book written entirely by men.
I’ve been studying feminist criticism of the Bible some this semester for my Pentateuch class. And one thing that that has made fully clear to me is that women play an integral role in the Bible. The trick is digging those stories out. Don’t believe those stories need to be dug out? Check out Genesis chapter 34. The heading usually reads that this is a story about Dinah. And when you read it, the character that you see the least of is Dinah. Same with the account at the end of Judges with the Levite’s concubine.
These are things we have to acknowledge in our Bible. If we’re going to reconcile what the Bible says about women’s roles in the assembly and put that into action, we also need to reconcile these stories, and emphasize the importance of women in God’s eternal purpose.
Breaking the Chains
A common contrast to what’s said in 1 Timothy 2 is Galatians 3:28 where Paul identifies 3 dichotomies (Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female) and says that they no longer apply as we are all one in Christ. It’s one of the most-cited calls to equality in the church. And it has its fair share of criticisms and analyses as well. And this is in Galatians, Paul’s angry letter. What an interesting place to find this!
In the bigger picture, Paul’s discussing our freedom in Christ as opposed to the binds of the Law, ultimately concluding that Christ’s power surpasses all other calls made by the Law. And when you look at that as a contrast to 1 Timothy, they’re trying to accomplish two different things. This passage addresses our life in Christ, while the other gives insight into managing a church setting. So, without being too passive-aggressive, I wonder which is closer to the bottom tier of that pyramid of priorities.
The world is looking at the church. Whether it’s good or bad, they’re watching us to see if we’re selling what we’re pitching. And when we recognize that the church does, in fact, perpetuate patriarchy, we have to understand that we are then associated with everything that stems from patriarchy. And that can and does get in the way of what the purpose of the church is, whether that’s on us or on the people who have that perception of us.
Remember my story at the beginning? As silly as it sounds, if you think about a world that worked the way I thought it did, it sounds like it has a better shot at love than this one. If we did switch genders halfway through our lives, think of what power would look like. Would women be treated the way that they are if the young men knew they’d be women one day? In that respect, this world and that one vary only in one aspect: in that one, everyone would be forced to understand how terrible that kind of oppression is (hopefully leading us as a society to end it). In this one, we have to make a conscious choice to try and observe and understand the oppression that we perpetuate. And I sincerely hope that once we do understand, we take the necessary steps to see it done away with.
I’m not suggesting that gender reform in the church will solve the issues of patriarchy. But we have to address how we act as a structure in regards to what we’re wanting to see in terms of the Kingdom moving in the world.
And that has to start with talking about it. Talking about it honestly and candidly, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That’s how we ensure those conversations are held in an atmosphere of love.
At the end of the day, the number one thing to remember is what Paul tells us in Galatians: that our salvation, our freedom, everything we are, is dependent on nothing else but Christ.
There’s so much more to be said about this. How Jesus treated women, the history of the church’s treatment of women, and all sorts of other good stuff. But of I put all of that here, what would be left to talk about? That’s been my goal from the start, and I’m sure you’re sick of hearing it by now.
So I’m going to stop saying it.
But I do so with the hope that you’ll start, and that you’ll encourage others to do the same.
Share words, share love, and share life.
That’s kingdom work.
That’s God’s word to men. And to women. And to the world.
Reader, thanks so much for sticking through this series! I have been both very stressed and very blessed while writing it, and I hope you have been, too! If you’ve liked what you’ve read here, and if you’ve disliked what you’ve read here, I encourage you to share it. Share it with people who you know have similar views as you, share it with those you know have dissimilar views, and share it with people whose views you have no clue about. And as always, feel free to contact me directly about these topics! Either on facebook, twitter, or the feedback box here. Let me know what you think. Definitely let me know about things I missed! And after a while, I’ll post revisions about specific things that were brought up. Also, please do include your name so I know who I’m talking to.
Again, thanks for reading, and I hope these posts have been a blessing to you in some way.
With that and a sigh of relief, I say: this has been F-Bombs, and we now resume your regularly scheduled blogging schedule.