Forays: Initial Thoughts Towards a New Critique of “Biblical Gender” (I)

Couple embracing in home

The notion of ‘biblical’ manhood/womanhood – in its contemporary evangelical context — utterly befuddles me. Let me say: I’m sure that a no–holds–barred egalitarianism vis-à-vis ‘gender roles’ in the church is not exactly the ideal scenario, since God did indeed create two human sexes and the existence of two things – even if there is complete parity between the two of them – does suggest, at the very least, some notion of difference by virtue of their non-identity. Though what exactly this difference is (or these differences are), for men and women, apart from biological function(s), does not appear self-evident to me. I have difficulty seeing how what is commonly called ‘complementarianism’ makes very much sense. It would seem like the whole movement is intentionally obscuring and therefore conflating the problems created by 1) late capitalism viz. “the sociological problem” and 2) theological speculation about gender dynamics.

My criticism isn’t so much that it is impossible for there to be patterned roles for men and women, but that there are virtually no indications as to what these roles should look like—for what the ‘ideal’ Christian man and woman should be doing—in late capitalism. The Bible is not a rule book, it is a narrative that leads to Christ, who has redeemed and who is redeeming us. I sincerely have no idea what it looks like for Jesus to redeem our fallen sexualities and genders this side of heaven. And if there is indeed no marriage, and by extension no sex, in heaven (Matthew 22:30), a large part of this debate may be chalked up to a lack of imagination, and a lack of eschatological vision.

What do the injunctions of the Christian right against these social issues mean for the church and for the world? What is desired? That people should stop feeling that the gender with which they were assigned at birth does not match how the very core of their being would seem to identify? Or what of other individuals who feel no particular attachment to any gender identity at all? Should they start feeling more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’? Are there certain things that they should be doing? Why is it that the clarion call for biblical manhood and womanhood is virtually indistinguishable from a white, 1950s suburban paradise? The moralizing of much of the Christian right raises a few questions about its motivations, some of which are surely good. Others, such as Wayne Grudem and his disciples’ heretical preaching on the alleged Eternal Subordination of the Son, would seem to have less pure motivations.

Some evangelicals would seem to want to read Paul with great delicacy, perhaps more than is necessary. Some read him and either ignore or explain away as contextually dependent his discussion of things such as the proper length of hair (1 Cor. 11:3-15), but adamantly suggest that female silence from the pulpit and marital submission should look exactly the same today as they did in the Mosaic covenant era. But the existence of female judges in the OT, who would have had at least some contribution to the liturgical life of Israel, would seem to create a disturbance in what looks like, at times, a simple Amish gender paradise. These aren’t good examples, I know, and there can be (and has been) much debate about this question.

This is a foray, an initial inquiry, and perhaps may not go anywhere beyond this post. But my readers know that I thoroughly enjoy sharing my thought processes and the questions with which I am struggling. For example, why are appeals to Genesis in Paul somehow more sacrosanct than appeals to other things? There seem to be very serious questions that have not been addressed at a lay-level about the historical strokes of genesis and the extent to which we can build a theology of human, anthropological gender from this text.

The popular Q&A evangelical website “Got Questions,” writes this in light of the question of hair length:

“While hair length is not the main point of this passage of Scripture, we glean the following applications from it: 1) We should adhere to the culturally accepted indicators of gender. Men should look like men, and women should look like women. God is not interested in, nor does He accept, “unisex.” 2) We should not rebel against the culture just for the sake of rebelling, in the name of some sort of Christian “liberty.” It does matter how we present ourselves. 3) Women are to voluntarily place themselves under the authority of the male leadership of the church. 4) We should not reverse the God-ordained roles of men and women.”

I would argue that this sentiment is now, by definition, tongue-in-cheek. What does our culture say about gender? Why should we care, moreover, about why anyone should care about the standards of culture developed by advertisers and marketers in late modern capitalism? Why shouldn’t we rebel against the World for the sake of rebelling against the world? God is fighting a war against the World and has won it in his own time. His war is against death and the consequences of Satan’s skullduggery, which are embodied in the dying planet—why should we not fight against the World to save it?

As far as I am concerned, this is an open question about best practices that can be informed by gleaning from scripture properly interpreted. It is not a question of people clearly sinning against God by doing certain things in a way that differs from rigid interpretations of ancient modalities of the oppression of women, which still exist today in various forms. The question for the Church must be how we are going to read Paul, and if we read Paul in such a way as to infer a rigid gender hierarchy, or even a vague indication of different kinds of activity among men and women, then the implications will be momentous.

Are there differences in the ontology of men and women? I don’t think so. Are there biological differences? Generally yes, but there do exist individuals who feel excluded when any of these conversations occur—namely people who are intersex, and in a different way, those who identify as trans. Simply dismissing what a great number of people experience because you don’t experience what they do does not make much sense.