My friend Paul Matzko is a doctoral candidate at Penn State studying the intersection of religion and politics in modern America under Philip Jenkins. Paul agreed to do a guest post, writing an immensely helpful article arguing that evangelicals often get their conception of gender roles from cultural norms rather than Scriptural principles. I’m really grateful he’s allowed me to post it here. It’s well-worth your reading.
Lately, the conservative evangelical blogosphere has been abuzz about gender. The underlying question that is being debated is whether or not contemporary evangelicals are allowing culture or Scripture to shape their gender norms. “Gender norms” is the label we give to a group’s understanding of how men and women ought to behave. Every society or sub-culture has a set of gender norms, even if those norms are informally expressed or not openly discussed. Of course, gender norms vary greatly from society to society—from American soccer moms to Maasai mothers—and their ideal forms change over time—from John Wayne to Leonardo DiCaprio. These are just a handful of the thousands upon thousands of variations in gender norms that exist in the modern world.
For the evangelical Christian, a series of logical questions follow: If there are so many different expectations of gender, which is right? Does the Bible mandate a particular kind of manhood and womanhood? Should Christians imitate broader cultural standards of masculinity and femininity? Do my gender norms conform to Scripture?
My purpose in writing this essay is to caution our small conservative evangelical subculture from answering those questions too hastily. It is tempting to fit Scripture to our ideas rather than the other way around. All too often, we try to legitimize our beliefs by ignoring contradictory opinions and rationalizing away inconvenient evidence. As harmful as that tendency is in politics, education, and family life, it is devastating when it shapes our interpretation of the Bible. Moses’s warning that the children of Israel should not add to or subtract from the law (Deut. 4:2) condemned them for allowing anti-Biblical cultural biases to inform their behavior. The blending of Yahweh-worship and Baal-worship was relatively easy to spot in an age in which physical idols denoted divine allegiance.
Our modern day version of adding to Scripture is subtler but just as dangerous. We read back into Scripture (eisegesis) our contemporary cultural biases, informed by a mishmash of questionable tradition, faulty memory, and secular assumptions. When we do so, we allow cultural practices to accrete onto the gospel like battery acid building up around the terminals in your car. Eventually, the accretion becomes so dense that the terminal is completely covered by corruption and the battery can no longer power the engine. When we add to the gospel, we impede its progress in hearts and in society by placing additional burdens on people’s sanctification beyond what the gospel demands. That treads dangerously close to the path of the Pharisees who so swaddled the law in additional rules and regulations that the more important matters of the law—promoting justice, mercy, and faithfulness—were neglected! The Pharisees’ intentions may originally have been honorable, a desire to avoid violating God’s law in even the slightest way, but their good intentions paved the way to heresy and hypocrisy (Matthew 23).
This is not an exhaustive list, but I would like to enumerate two areas of particular danger for modern evangelicals.
We idealize middle class Victorian domesticity. Victorian domesticity promoted a “two spheres” conception of gender in the late-nineteenth century. Society was divided into public and domestic spheres. Men worked, socialized, and politicked in the public sphere, a zone where they might be forced to interact with unsavory people and dangerous ideas. Women—whom Victorians assumed had a more delicate and virtuous nature—were relegated to the domestic sphere where they could avoid besmirching their virtue. This Victorian gender ideal was restricted to the middle and upper classes because these domesticated women did not need to work for pay. Lower class women did. Thus, middle and upper class reformers questioned their virtue, honesty, and basic maternal compassion for their families.
So how does this middle class Victorian domesticity filter down to us today? Modern evangelicals—who are disproportionately middle class suburbanites—continue to idealize the role and virtues of the housewife. Although we accept that many wives will have to work outside the home at some point during their lives, whether to help pay their husband’s way through school or to save for a down payment on their first home, we idealize women who work solely at home. The ideal evangelical wife—often spotted playing the piano at church before her husband preaches—is one who prioritizes the home over paid work. For women, the family should come first. That means only working when absolutely necessary and quickly moving back into the domestic sphere when it is not. The home is the proper realm for women leaving men to engage in the public responsibilities of work, politics, and commerce. Men should provide income while women provide a comfortable and nurturing home.
Perhaps while reading the previous paragraph you thought, “Why is this a problem?” If so, compare the gender norm I have just described with that of Proverbs 31 in which Solomon gives us his picture of the ideal woman. Several of the behaviors and virtues of this ideal woman clash with the Victorian domestic ideal.
10 A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
The Proverbs 31 woman manufactures goods, trades those goods at market, makes capital investments in land, oversees the planting of a vineyard, keeps track of her profit margins, works late into the night providing for the family, and is known for her public charity. All of these actions win her public acclaim from the governing authorities. Today, we rightly quote Proverbs 31 to honor our wives and mothers, yet our subculture discourages many of the behaviors described in this passage! Solomon makes no division between public and domestic spheres for the Proverbs 31 woman. She provides family income, works outside the home, and is a smart businesswoman (and a bit of a workaholic). She is not a housewife in the Victorian meaning of that word.
So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. How do these Victorian separate spheres percolate down into our churches? One example that comes to mind is our tendency to design women’s ministries around the needs and interests of housewives rather than those of careerwomen, perhaps by holding women’s bible studies during the day on weekdays when housewives are able to attend but women with full time jobs are not. Also, I have noticed that women who are unable to attend a church function because of work obligations like a conference or training seminar receive less sympathy than those who are unable to attend a church function because a child is sick. (I have observed no such distinction for men.)
These are just two manifestations of the two-sphere gender norm, but you can probably think of many others. I do not critique the Victorian two spheres gender norm in order to denigrate housewives, who honorably provide for their families, but I do want us to ask ourselves whether the contemporary feminine domestic ideal is being shaped by modern culture rather than by Biblical precept.
We too readily incorporate secular ideas of masculinity and femininity into contemporary evangelicalism. In my introduction, I briefly mentioned that ideal of mid-twentieth century manhood, John Wayne. Tall, commanding, and taciturn, Wayne’s manly cowboy shot first and asked questions later. For Wayne, emotions other than anger were for sissies. The same was true for Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name.”
While writing these thoughts, my mind immediately jumped to Mark Driscoll’s identification of Mixed Martial Arts as an expression of masculinity. Mixed Martial Arts may well be a Biblically-defensible activity, but what I want to draw your attention to is Driscoll’s casual equation of masculinity and violence: “I don’t think there is anything purer than two guys in a cage, no balls, no sticks, no bats, no help, no team, and just see which man is better.” Driscoll’s Biblical justification is slim: “Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict and dominion.” Men are made for combat? Somewhere up in heaven, Jael—praised as the “most blessed of women” for driving a nail through an enemy’s skull (Judges 5:24-27)—is laughing.
Driscoll’s idea of aggressive, violent manhood stands in stark contrast to the manly virtues listed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22-24. Paul exhorted his “brothers and sisters” in Galatia to walk in the spirit and be filled with “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” rather than the fruits of the flesh, “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-24). Neither the fruits of the Spirit nor the fruits of the flesh are gendered. Yet in many churches, we have feminized the fruits of the spirit. We expect women to be kind, gentle, and self-controlled while giving men greater license in those areas.
To return to the original debate between bloggers, Douglas Wilson has argued forcefully that manly worship was worship with martial themes. Wilson posed a series of answers to the titular question “Your Worship Might Be Effeminate If…”, including the following gems:
Your music and sermons almost never contain references to judgment, wrath, battles, enemies, Hell, the devil, or apostasy.
Your music minister is more concerned that the choir trills their r’s correctly than that they fill the sanctuary with loud sounds of battle.
The worship team gravitates toward “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs, and their facial expressions while up front are those of guys in the backseats of their cars, having just gotten to second base with their actual girlfriends;
The minister wears a robe, but the effect is not that of being robed for battle. If that same minister were to wear a kilt, everybody would think it was a skirt from a nearby all-girls private school. But, contrariwise, if the minister were able to wear a kilt in such a way as to terrify sinners with the imagined sound of skirling bagpipes, and the sounds of a small version of Armageddon across the misty moors, and the sermon text were a claymore whistling over their heads, then that kind of man could think about a robe if he wanted.
Notice how Wilson uses words of battle and violence to describe his masculine worship ideal. Those men who do not delight in battle are wussy emoters. To repeat, violence and aggression are manly, intimacy and emotions other than wrath are feminine. Of course, the God of the Bible delights to do battle against his enemies; He is a warrior indeed (Isaiah 42:13)! Yes, Christ will return on a white horse with fiery eyes and a sharp sword (Revelation 19), but he also suffered the little children to come unto him (Matthew 19:14). Nor was Christ afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve; he was a man of sorrows, much acquainted with our griefs. He wept with Lazarus’s friends (John 11:32-36) and sorrowed over those in Jerusalem who would soon crucify him (Luke 19:41-42). Masculinity can be martial, but it can also be tender, emotional, and intimate. Our ideas of manhood should reflect Christ’s robust masculinity, not be reduced to a militant caricature more informed by spaghetti Westerns than by Scripture.
So what is our takeaway from these examples of evangelicals reading culturally-informed gender norms back into Scripture? First, we are fighting the wrong battles. A large segment of conservative evangelicalism has decided to die on the hill of traditional, Biblical masculinity when that hill is neither all that traditional nor necessarily Biblical. Rather than fighting to keep our wives at home, we ought to be showing how the gospel applies to women in the workplace and to men at home. We do not make much of the gospel by shifting the focus of our preaching and teaching to the defense of questionable gender norms. Second, we need to denounce evangelicals who stray into unbiblical rhetoric and behavior because of their elevation of contemporary gender norms to the level of Scripture. Unfortunately, evangelicals were not the loudest voices condemning the recent words of Baptist Pastor Sean Harris. Third, if we want to understand which of our contemporary gender norms are the products of broader cultural influences, then we desperately need evangelical gender historians. As it is, we typically cede gender history to those who are the least sympathetic to evangelicalism. Similarly, we need to send vastly more conservative evangelical women to seminary, training them as professional theologians rather than shunting them off into “Women’s Ministries” degrees. Fourth, let us avoid turning the complementarian position into a kind of “complementarianism+,” which defends culturally-constructed gender norms as vehemently as it does the gospel itself. Male ecclesiastical authority can stand on Scripture alone.