Gender and ministry 1: what is gender?

I want to come back to Cherith Fee Nordling’s article on Gender in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology. I think it is one of the best short treatments of the issue of gender and women in ministry that I’ve read anywhere.

She asks what is gender?

And argues that it is “one’s bodily and cultural identity as male or female”. In other words, it is one’s sex (male or female) AND “assumed gender expectations regarding that person’s behaviours, personality, perceptions, motives, reactions, activities and attitudes.”

Here’s a key point: certain understandings of gender have dominated evangelical debates about men and women in ministry.

A ‘premodern’ view (which she locates as prior 1960) sees sex and gender as a natural given. There is a fixed natural order of things, a core way of being a man or a woman. There is a divinely ordered ‘essence’ of being male or female. (sounding familiar?) This is an essentialist approach that assumes a male and female nature that is universal and constant across all cultures and times.

A modern (post 1960) perspective rejects this. Gender is seen as more of a social construct, reflective of underlying cultural power structures. Gender and sexuality in this view are constructed according the values of those who have the power shape those structures. So those concerned with equality will work to change the structures to level the playing field between men and women.

Postmodern gender debates go further to stress the endless diversity and plurality of cultures, personalities, people, values and ideologies so as to show the impossibility of any universal values or meta-narrative – including the biblical narrative. Everything is local and contextual. Difference is stressed and any innate hierarchy is rejected.

So what to make of this?

Studies across cultures seem to affirm bits of all three views. People do learn very different ways of being feminine and masculine in different contexts globally. Yet these studies do show that there are at least three consistent things about gender:

The first two are rather obvious and universally agreed in all cultures : gender matters and there are two genders. The third is that there “are certain ways that males and females think, feel and act.” Yet this is this one that is hardest to pin down.

What are specifically male ways of thinking and feeling and acting? What are specifically female ways of doing the same? [sounds like an invite for some bad jokes]

The more you push this the more it becomes clear that there is no obvious or easy way to define what are ‘male’ ways of thinking, feeling and acting as opposed to ‘female’ ways of thinking feeling and acting.

Go on – have a go at trying! Are males uniquely ‘decisive’? Women uniquely compassionate? Males uniquely strategic thinkers? Woman uniquely networkers? This is where Piper’s ill defined supposed ‘masculine’ Christianity begins to fall apart. It is a subjective arbitrary set of assumptions and a model that is without biblical warrant. The Bible just does not set out to define ‘masculinity’ and then propose it as an essentialist model for the Christian faith.

Have you noticed that where Christians try to do this their version of ‘biblical masculinity’ or ‘biblical femininity’ ends up mirroring the assumptions of their own sub-cultures? So, for example, you get middle-class 1950s American assumptions about gender roles presented as the ‘biblical’ model of manhood and womanhood.

Instead the Bible celebrates that in Christ there is no male or female.  Men remain men. Women remain women. But in Christ deep religious, social, power, and cultural differences are overcome through common faith in Christ and the subsequent reception of the Spirit of God for all believers whatever their gender [Galatians 3-4].

Nordling puts it this way: men and women represent two hugely overlapping forms of humanity. It is impossible to draw clear lines between nature (sex) and nurture (experience). Such dualisms do not work. Being a man or a women is both having XY or XX chromosomes AND learning to be masculine or feminine [cultural constructs].

What God does call all his people to live in right relationships with each other and with Him, whatever their gender.

To be continued …

Comments, as ever, welcome

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12 thoughts on “Gender and ministry 1: what is gender?

  1. Patrick.
    Attacking Pipers view of what is biblical masculinity is a good thing to do but i feel like your are saying that with him out of the way its an egalitarian path for all of us! Am i wrong in that? What i am trying to get at is that Piper’s view on gender have little to do with whether God has given different roles for men and women. It doesnt matter a toss if the sexes have specific characteristics or not, if God wants men and women to do different things that is his prerogative!

    Also although you might think it would be hard to hold to an essentialist view of gender with the proliferation of gender-identities and our current scientific knowledge of the complexity of what makes one male or female yet i always find it interesting that even when say for example you go to countries where they have an accepted “third sex” tradition those people who identify as such often live the preferred gender according to type!

    But again what does it matter? The debate in society as with the debate in churches has little to nothing to do with characteristics. Arguing from such a viewpoint actually plays into the hands of Piper as it forces the debate to look for an answer in human behaviour rather than God’s word.

    • The point is that some evangelical views of gender roles are rooted in certain (usually unspoken) assumptions about gender itself. This post is simply discussing that such assumed ‘essentialist’ definitions of gender may not as obvious or clear as their proponents make out.

  2. “Have you noticed that where Christians try to do this their version of ‘biblical masculinity’ or ‘biblical femininity’ ends up mirroring the assumptions of their own sub-cultures?” This was an interesting point to think about as was your next paragraph. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment.

  3. Have you noticed that where Christians try to undermine conservative versions of ‘biblical masculinity’ or ‘biblical femininity’ they up mirroring the assumptions of their own sub-cultures?

  4. Reblogged this on Christus Victor and commented:
    I posted my Friday Five yesterday, but this morning I read this article about “masculine” Christianity and the socially constructed nature of gender identity. It is well worth reading, and let’s call this an interesting way to do a Saturday Six.

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