Guys and Dolls: Exhibit B for the absurd legalism of gender roles

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'doll faces' photo (c) 2006, normanack - license:

A couple of weeks ago we discussed the absurd legalism of gender roles, as exemplified by John Piper’s illustration that a woman with a black belt should not intervene if she and a male friend are attacked, for according to Piper, it is the man’s divinely ordained role to protect her.

Piper is one of the founders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—a flagship organization for the complementarian movement in America—which is now led by Owen Strachan. (Strachan made headlines not too long ago when he referred to stay-at-home-dads as “man fails.”)

This week Strachan provided yet another illustration of legalistic gender roles by critiquing an episode of Sesame Street in which the character “Baby Bear” is told he should not be embarrassed for playing with a baby doll. Strachan pointed to this scene as an example of how “the basic foundations of the Protestant worldview are under assault.” Sesame Street, he says, is on “the frontlines of the gender wars” and this scene represents a “disastrous teaching on sexuality and gender.”

Caryn Rivadeneira wrote an excellent response at Her.Meneutics that says just about everything that needs to be said about why we shouldn’t shame little boys for nurturing and caring for baby dolls. (As did Kristen Rosser.) But I also want to point to a response from Micah J. Murray entitled “Boys and Dolls: A Father’s Response

Micah writes:

At the heart of Owen Strachan’s argument is the idea that Baby Bear’s actions are contrary to Biblical manhood and womanhood. I’ve read the Bible. And I agree with Owen that God created men and woman as equal but distinct, with unique strengths and callings. The problem is, “biblical” as Owen Strachan uses it, really means “Protestant America in the 1950′s according to Norman Rockwell” (my words, not his). The Bible never says “boys shouldn’t play with dolls.” That’s a cultural construct that Owen is projecting back onto the Bible.
You know what is Biblical? God says that He will comfort His people “as a mother comforts her child.” (see Isaiah 66:13) Jesus says that He longed to gather the children of Jerusalem “like a mother hen gathers her babies under her wings” (see Mathew 23:37). The Apostle Paul described himself as a mother in labor, struggling to give life to the church. (see Galatians 4:19). The concept of gender differences is Biblical. What’s un-Biblical is the idea that caring for a baby is somehow not masculine...
This is why it matters, Owen.  Because you and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are in the midst of a very important conversation about how to live out our masculinity and femininity in the twenty-first century. But instead of approaching it as a conversation, you’ve defined it as a battle. Those on the other side of the issue from you sometimes accuse complementarians of wanting to revert to outdated patriarchal notions of gender roles. And when you write things like this, you validate their accusations.
Because this isn’t about “what the Bible says about masculinity”, it’s about your assumption that “dolls are for girls” and your assertion that anyone who disagrees is attacking our moral foundation. If you want to blog about that, about your opinion that we should raise our kids according to some rather arbitrary gender stereotypes, that’s your business. But you dragged the Gospel into it. You claimed that the Bible supported your assumption. And it doesn’t. Read the rest of the post.

It was encouraging to see someone from a more conservative perspective weigh in on this…and with a wise and thoughtful post.  But it does point to the problem of inconsistency within the complementarian movement.

When I write a post about gender equality, for example, I try to point to very specific quotes from complementarian leaders in order to avoid creating a straw man and to focus the conversation around one or two ideas. But it never fails: Any sort of engagement with complementrarian ideas is immediately followed by the accusation that “that’s not what complementarians really believe” or “you’re pointing to an extreme example” or “you’ve created a straw man.”

Now, today’s example comes from the leader of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which I (and many others) consider to be a mainstream expression of complementarian values. And yet I have a feeling that there may be complementarians out there, who, like Micah, do not consider it “foolish” for boys to play with dolls and who are concerned by how these sort of gender stereotypes are put forth as “biblical manhood.”

So my question for complementarians is this: Does the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood represent you? Does Owen Strachan? If not, what organizations or leaders do? What do you see as the future of complementarianism? If I’m not engaging folks like Strachan, Piper, Driscoll, and Grudem, whom should I be engaging? Mary Kassian? Tim and Kathy Keller?

And, by way of a challenge: Since there is diversity within the movement, I think we could all really benefit from seeing more of it in the form of complementarians calling out the most extreme expressions of that view. Sometimes I get the idea that there are complementarians who are concerned by some of what is being taught, but are afraid to speak up.

I’m sticking to my position on gender equality in the home and Church—(which doesn’t mean I don’t think there are differences between men and women, by the way; it just means I am reluctant to declare those differences universal and prescriptive or indicative of some sort of God-ordained hierarchy between men and women)—but I want to “fight fair” if you will, especially with folks I consider to be my brothers and sisters in Christ.

So who are complementarians looking to for leadership these days? I know what the internet says (by way of stats), but I’d like to hear what you say.

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