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The Story of Gender (5): Enacting Gender

1280Px Ploughmen Fac Simile Of A Miniature In A Very Ancient Anglo Saxon Manuscript Published By Shaw With Legend God Spede Ye Plough And Send Us Korne Enow2 Copy

This is the fifth and final post to a short series on the nature of gender. Click here to see the other posts in the series


We’ve covered a fair bit of ground in our last four posts. We’ve discovered the two origins of gender. We’ve seen why it was made; its consummation and its ultimate significance. We’ve seen how the coming of Christ both enriches its meaning and relativises it.

What does it mean for Christians to live gendered lives in the light of these things? Although this wasn’t the objective of this series—that was to try to define gender and describe its place in God’s story—it might be a good place to finish. Here are a handful of observations and suggestions about gender and the Christian life. Some are recaps, some new.

1. Gendered living draws from the patterns of creation and Christ

To live a gendered life in a biblical perspective means living out the patterns of creation in light of—and in tension with—the higher reality revealed in Christ.

For men that means:

Note that it categorically does not mean seeking dominance with regard to women or compelling other people to submit.

Gendered living for men categorically does not mean seeking dominance with regard to women or compelling other people to submit.​

For women it means:

Not that it does not mean passivity, or putting men in the place of God—as if women were only to relate to God through men. Nor does it ever means yielding to sin or abuse from men—both of which represent betrayals of Christ.

2. Faithful expressions of gender are spiritually significant

When we express, or enact our gender, we honour the God who made us male and female and join with creation’s witness to Christ and his redemption. This is an important aspect of our spiritual life—part of what it means to be filled with the Spirit (c.f. Eph 5:18ff). It can also be:

3. Gender isn’t just for marriage

Gender finds particular expression in marriage. But this doesn’t mean that Christians are meant to relate to each other as neuter outside of marriage. The specific patterns that emerge from Genesis 2, 1Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 can also be expressed in general styles of interaction.[1]

Thus Paul invokes the order and structure of creation—man was created first (1Tim 2)—to explain why men should have primary responsibility for teaching in the church. Thus too the apostle makes woman’s creation “from man” and “for man” the reason why a woman should pray and prophesy veiled (1Cor 11:3-10).[2]

The New Testament gives examples from the male side too.

4. Gender norms intersect with general Christian expectations

Gender is an important part of both human and Christian life. But it isn’t the only factor. Many of the things that we should do as men and women overlap with the things we should do as Christians. Sometimes these general responsibilities soften the sharp lines of distinction. Thus:

In none of these examples should we use the general principle to contradict the specific—that would be a willful and ham-fisted way to handle Scripture. For example, if Paul commands everyone to submit (Eph 5:21) that shouldn’t be taken as a reason to avoid the more specific commands which follow within households.

Yet neither must we reactively allow the specific to overrule the general. The general patterns that apply to male and female mustn’t be tortured to make every woman treat every man like her husband. That too would be a clumsy (and creepy) way to apply the Bible.

We shouldn't use general principles to contradict the specific—if Paul commands everyone to submit (Eph 5:21) that shouldn’t be taken as a reason to avoid the more specific commands which follow within households.

Rather, as we have seen repeatedly in this series, the challenge for both egalitarians and complementarians is to maintain the tensions that we find in the Bible: the individual as well as the corporate; the equal as well as the ordered; the general as well as the specific.

5. Biblical perspectives on gender might help with gender-struggles

And it may be that these different currents in Christian life might also helpful for those struggling with gender identity issues. For the biological male who struggles with the idea of being a man, there is the deeper truth that his deepest identity can be found in belonging to Christ, the true bridegroom. Perhaps the woman who feels estranged from her femininity might find a proper expression of her “masculine” feelings by following the example of Christ—taking sacrificial responsibility for other people’s welfare.

I am not suggesting that either of these is a fix for the deep-seated gender issues. Nor am I offering these as ways for people a way to avoid their biological sex. But I am suggesting that there should be a complexity and richness to the way Christians think about gender, and that this complexity might help people who feel alienated from stereotypical versions of manhood or womanhood. The Bible shows that both masculinity and femininity impinge on our lives in different ways, and acknowledging these might help relieve some of the pressures that we experience in our gender-confused age.

Conclusion

Critics sometimes accuse Christians of being obsessed with sex because we refuse to sign-off on their revisions to gender and sexuality.

If we are tempted by such a preoccupation we shouldn’t be—the Bible tells us that there is a much greater and more permanent reality behind sex. Life, at its deepest level, is about Jesus Christ who loved and us gave his life for us. We find our truest identities in Christ, not in our chromosomes.

Yet gender and sexuality are important. They are part of creation’s witness to Christ; part of the grammar through which God speaks to us about his Son. If we change that grammar—if we lose the distinctiveness of what it means to be man and woman—we should expect it to become harder for us to receive that message.

God has made us men and women.

Some of us struggle with that. Many of us struggle with knowing what that means. But the Bible tells us more than we often realise. It tells us about the origins, structure and ultimate meaning of our gender. It tells us where it came from and where it is going. It helps us discover ourselves in God’s world, and in the story of his Son.


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Images: Detail from Peter Brueghal the Younger, ‘Peasant Wedding’ [head]; Facsimile of detail from manuscript of ‘Piers Plowman’

[1] A template for the kind of thing I mean occurs 1Timothy 5:1 where Paul tells Timothy to “[treat] …older women as mothers.” Clearly Paul is not telling Timothy here that he must now take responsibility for every widow in the congregation—though that’s what Paul expects of children in verse 4. What he’s calling for is a general style of relating which is like, but different from, a literal mother-son relationship.

For the purposes of this discussion, the point of the example is that we might draw general principles from what Paul says to married people without implying that every woman she has to treat every man like her husband.

[2] There isn’t space to explore all the vexed issues associated with these verses, but see Claire Smith’s helpful exploration of the passage here.

[3] I am thinking here of more general exhortations to submit to other believers in 1Cor 16:16 and Eph 5:21. The scope of the latter, is difficult to ascertain. It might be a general charge (akin to Phil 2:3)—yet verse 21 presents as a superordinate clause that governs a number of specific examples: wives-husbands, children-parents, slaves-masters. Again, in each of these examples, it might be that both sides of the pair submit in different ways, though it is noteworthy that the subordinate (wife, child, slave) is presented first—as if verse 21 applies most directly to these.

Andrew Moody is a lay theologian and adjunct lecturer at several colleges in Melbourne. His area of particular interest is the relationships between the persons of the Trinity and what this has to do with salvation history. He is author of In Light of the Son (Matthias Media), The Will of Him Who Sent Me (Paternoster). Andrew and his wife Jenny have two children. Andrew serves as Editorial Director of the TGCA Editorial Panel and manages the Bible and Theology Channel. 

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