**If this blog post feels long and a bit formal to you, there’s an explanation! This was a freelance piece I wrote for a magazine this spring, but it never made it to publication. Instead of letting it continue to collect dust in my hard drive, I thought I’d share it here. As always, thank you for reading!
I have concerns about raising my son in the church.
I fret over the Bible lessons he hears. Are they watered down? Or, conversely, will they be too intense for a preschooler? I wonder if familiarity with Christianity will end up being a hindrance to his faith, instead of bolstering it. I question how to raise him with an ecumenical faith, but still teach the positions that matter dearly to my husband and me.
But mostly, I worry about what he’ll learn about gender roles.
When we talk about gender roles in the church, the conversation often begins and ends with what women can do in churches. Denominations have split and churches have divided over whether women can be pastors or elders or deacons or whether they should have any leadership roles at all.
While that’s an important issue, and one that I’m glad is being discussed more broadly, I see a greater failure regarding gender in our churches. Namely, I see a gender divide that is based, not on Scripture, but on traditional cultural norms. There are books, retreats, and conferences all reinforcing the idea that men and women are radically different and, thus, that we follow Christ differently. The result has been to divvy up the list of Christian virtues as either masculine or feminine, allowing little overlap.
Here’s one example of that division. Gentleness has been relegated as a feminine virtue throughout history and, unfortunately, within modern churches. But the Scriptures have a different message about gentleness: it’s for all Christians, regardless of gender. We see gentleness commanded throughout the New Testament. It is in Paul’s instructions to both Titus and Timothy – male leaders in the early church. It’s one of the virtues that make up the fruit of the Spirit. And in Matthew 11:28, Jesus calls himself gentle. These passages clearly show that Christians, regardless of their sex, are called to be gentle. Yet when was the last time Christian men were instructed to be gentler?
This bifurcation of the sexes has an unfortunate byproduct: When we narrow the view of what it means to be a biblical man or woman, we unintentionally shame and exclude individuals who don’t fit our criteria. Rather than praising the Christ-likeness of men who are humble and kind, many churches say that they should “man up” and “be a leader.” Similarly, women who are bold leaders often have a hard time finding a place within churches that expect Christian women to have a “gentle and quiet spirit.” I fear that too many Christians, those who don’t fit squarely into the box prescribed for their gender, are either squelching their natural gifts or leaving to find a place where they will be accepted.
Instead of dissecting what it means to follow Christ as a woman or as a man, we must acknowledge that most of the time following Christ looks the same regardless of sex. While there are passages like Ephesians 5:22-33 and Titus 2:2-8 that address men and women separately, these verses are simply emphasizing commands that were given elsewhere to both genders.
When we view Scripture as a whole, we see the gender divide falling away.
Men and women are both called to humility (Eph 4:2, Phil 2:3, Col 3:12) and to submission (Eph 5:21, James 4:7, Heb 13:17, Rom 13:1, Titus 3:1). Both genders are called to exhort and edify each other (I Thess 5:11, I Cor 14:3). Teaching and prophesying are also mentioned for men and for women (I Cor 11:5, Rom 12:6-7, James 3:1-2). All Christians are told to admonish others (Col 3:16) and to pray unceasingly (I Thess 5:17). Passages we consider to be core teachings of our faith, like the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5) were given to both genders as well. But the clearest sign is that the crux of our faith, Jesus Christ and his resurrection, is the same for both men and for women.
When my fears about raising my son in a highly gendered Christian culture start to surface again, I find comfort by looking to Christ. He was the God-man, perfectly embodying both grace and truth. He preached to the crowds, but also knelt down to talk to the little children. He subverted his culture’s standards for men by initiating interaction with the woman at the well (John 4) and praised Mary for doing the same when she sat at his feet, instead of helping her sister (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus crossed the gender boundaries of his time to give us the perfect model of godliness and he is calling us to do the same.
That’s the message I hope my son hears at church this week.