The absurd legalism of gender roles

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Folded up like paper dolls...' photo (c) 2011, Nomadic Lass - license:

In the wake of  the U.S. military’s recent decision to loosen restrictions on women in combat, a 2007 article by John Piper entitled “Co-ed Combat and Cultural Cowardice” has resurfaced and made some waves.

Arguing that all men are “hardwired” to protect, while all women are “hardwired” to be protected, Piper gives a real-life example of how these set-in-stone gender roles should be applied:

“Suppose a couple of you students, Jason and Sarah, were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened you. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.”

If this sounds a bit nutty to you, you’re not alone.

Jenny Rae Armstrong, who is swiftly becoming one of my favorite bloggers on gender equality in the Church, wrote a fantastic response to the article.

Some highlights:

The really interesting thing here is that while Piper acknowledges that gender stereotypes do not always line up with reality, and that clinging to traditional gender roles is not always the most efficient, effective way of getting things done, he insists that it is right to cling to them anyway, even at the cost of life, limb, and a competent woman’s conscience. It seems to me that this is because he views masculinity, femininity, and the relationship between men and women as symbolic, almost a Christianized version of Plato’s Theory of Forms. In this paradigm, the individual is subsumed by the ideal, the here-and-now human relationship by the eschatological one it points toward. It doesn’t matter if Sarah has a black belt, and Jason is physically handicapped in some way–the important thing is that they live up to some cosmic ideal of manhood and womanhood, as a way of representing God and humanity’s relationship with Him.
…This is not to diminish the fact that many men would willingly die to protect their wife, or any woman in the vicinity. But is this because he is a man, because sacrifice and protection is what manhood does? Or is it because he has a godly impulse to defend those he perceives as vulnerable, because he was taught that it is the honorable thing to do? And don’t godly women have that same impulse? Is a man more likely to sacrifice himself for a woman than, say, a woman is to sacrifice herself for a child?...
...Certainly, the masculine and feminine aspects of humanity reveal something beautiful and important about God’s character, and marriage is often used as an analogy of our relationship with God. When masculinity, femininity, or marriage is in some way diminished, our understanding of God is, as well. The human tendency, however, is to take this too far; to sort and systematize and simplify gender until all we’re left with is a dry list of desirable characteristics and behaviors assigned to each gender.
When we force people into gender-based boxes, insist that individuals conform to our concept of what men and women are supposed to be, we lose the wonder, the mystery, and the full-orbed expression of God’s image uniquely revealed in each human being. God created us male and female, yes, but He didn’t just create us male and female; he created us Jenny and Aaron, and Jason and Sarah, and John and Noel. All of us reflect God’s image in different ways. And it is very good.
Here’s what it comes down to for me. My gender is not something I perform; it is something I am. Womanhood is not something I do; it is something I live. Femininity does not define me; as a woman created in the image of God, I define it, in community with my sisters. When we reduce manhood and womanhood to a list of characteristics, behaviors, and roles assigned to each gender, we are not defending masculinity and femininity; instead, we are diminishing and impoverishing them.

You shouting “amen” yet? Be sure to read the entire post. It’s outstanding.

I think Jenny gets to the heart of a major problem with the evangelical complementarianism movement: legalism.

The complementarianism of, say, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Owen Strachan and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood relies heavily on demanding that all men conform to rigid, prescriptive standards of manhood and that all women conform to rigid, prescriptive standards of womanhood, regardless of personality, giftedness, culture, circumstances, and perhaps most ironically, the very complementary character qualities that often make a relationship work!

This is legalism, plain and simple, for it  reduces faithfulness to a list of rules and roles that must be maintained…even when maintaining them is absurd or destructive.

For example, according to Strachan, a man who makes less money than his wife or chooses to serve the family as a stay-at-home dad is a “man fail” because “men are called to be leaders, providers, protectors and women are nurturers.” Women are called to keep the home, according to Strachan, doing “the vast majority of the cooking, cleaning, and managing of the house,” while a man “provides for the family.”

It matters not whether a family’s unique financial position makes such an arrangement desirable or necessary, or whether, for example, a man enjoys cooking for his family or a woman enjoys going to work.  According to Strachan, any deviation from these roles represents moral and spiritual failure.

[It should be noted here that complementarian notions of manhood and womanhood tend to be based on culturally –influenced stereotypes, many of which project idealized notions of the post-industrial revolution nuclear family onto biblical texts rather than taking those texts on their own terms—a topic we’ve discussed at length in the past and will continued to discuss in the future.]

For Driscoll, “real men” are “heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes” who enjoy beer and sports and detest anything effeminate or girly. “Real women” are submissive and supportive wives and mothers.  “Real marriage” happens, presumably, when a “real man” marries “a real woman.” Men and women who fail to live up to these gender stereotypes are routinely ridiculed by Driscoll.

You see this sort of language a lot in complementarian literature: “real men,” “real women,” “real marriage,” “hardwired,” “programmed,” “blueprint”—as if masculinity and femininity are rigid, set-in-stone ideals to which we must ascribe, rather than fluid expressions of our unique selves. As Jenny so aptly put it, this approach turns gender into performance. Failure to perform results in shaming.  The goal is to “play your position” and stick with your prescribed role, whether or not it feels right, whether or not it makes sense for your marriage or family.

Piper’s black-belt example may seem extreme, but I’ve seen the same sort of legalism that would require a capable woman to step aside as her boyfriend gets pummeled wreak havoc on real-life relationships.

I’ve heard from women who said they tried desperately for years to quiet their ambitions and leadership skills because they felt those gifts violated God-ordained “femininity.” I’ve heard from couples who were left exhausted and guilt-ridden trying to play by the rules of gender hierarchy that required the man to always lead and the woman to always follow, regardless of gifting or areas of expertise.  I’ve spoken with tearful men who, despite the fact that they love being stay-at-home dads, have been ostracized and mocked by their churches.  I’ve sat through women’s Bible’s studies in which I was taught how to convince my husband that something is his idea, even if it isn’t, in order to keep the hierarchy intact while still getting my way. (I think manipulation is an unintended consequence of hierarchal marriages, which perhaps should be the subject of separate post.) I’ve received countless emails from women who, upon reading about the original intent of Proverbs 31 in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, report that for the first time in their lives, they no longer feel that they are falling short of some sort of impossible standard of womanhood.

Legalism is destructive, certainly. And it is often absurd.  Framing gender stereotypes as God’s will turns too many men and women into actors and too many marriages into elaborate performances rather than genuine partnerships. What we end up with is a black belt watching her boyfriend get beaten to a pulp, a family choosing financial ruin over stay-at-home-fatherhood, the true chef in the house eating hot pockets, the math whizz getting barred from financial planning, a loving father being told he’s not a natural “nurturer,” an ambitious organizer being told she’s not a natural “leader.”

As Jenny puts it, “When we reduce manhood and womanhood to a list of characteristics, behaviors, and roles assigned to each gender, we are not defending masculinity and femininity; instead, we are diminishing and impoverishing them.”

A few months ago, author and blogger Donald Miller asked, “Do women want to be treated like men, or do women want to be treated equally?” 

His question and his post have been bothering me for months…for a lot of reasons. But the main reason is this: The question itself relies on a static understanding of masculinity and femininity that assumes all women are to be treated one way and all men are to be treated another way. We’re back to the stereotypes, back to the cutout paper dolls upon which we list characteristics and roles and rules.

How do I want to be treated?

Like the stereotypical man? Nope.

Like the stereotypical woman? Nope.

What I want is to be treated like a human being, like the unique person God created me to be.

I want to be treated like Rachel.

And thankfully, I married a man who does just that.

Dan knows, for example, that I would rather get tickets to the next Alabama vs. Tennessee game for Valentine’s Day than, say, jewelry or flowers. If he buys me the tickets, is he treating me like “a man”? Or is he treating me like me—a girl who is intuitive and ambitious, needs both love and respect, likes football and hates heels, prefers science fiction to romantic comedy, is competitive as hell and compassionate to a fault? 

Dan doesn’t treat me like “a woman,” any more than I treat Dan like “a man.”

We treat each other like Dan and Rachel.

 And so Dan leads where Dan is strong, and I lead where I am strong. Dan celebrates and affirms my gifts, while I celebrate and affirm Dan’s gifts. Sometimes Dan is the primary breadwinner; sometimes I am the primary breadwinner. One of our shared goals in life is to be work-from-home-parents who share the responsibilities of childcare together. We make decisions together as a team, settling into the roles that suit us best, based on giftedness, calling, and, (when it comes to household chores) who hates doing certain tasks the least. We both look to Jesus Christ as our example. We both love, and we both submit.

To the legalist, this might make Dan a “man fail” and me a “woman fail.”

But for us, it makes us happy, whole, and free.

For us, it's not only practical; it's redemptive.


Be sure to read Jenny Rae Armstrong’s post.

For Dan’s take on all this, check out his article, “Roles, Leadership, and Supporting Your Partner.

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