Talking about gender as a matter of prohibitions, or as essences, is not enough. When it comes to this topic, many Christian writers think it sufficient to rehearse some of the Bible’s commands about it or to find the “true marks” of gender in their experience. But these don’t do it. Since the issues of gender are complex, and now considerably contested, we require a deeper dive to ground ourselves and to address the culture’s contradictions. We need Scripture’s rich presentation.
The occasion for this reflection is an invitation to speak this Sunday night for the Sunday Theology Series at Christ’s Church in downtown Westchester, Pennsylvania. It is unusual in that it is a church doing a long-form forum for exploring topics theologically. It starts early and runs, including the Question and Answer time following, upward of an hour and a half. The pastor, Raymond Johnson, is the culprit. His heart is to encourage people to seek answers for vital issues in the Church. And he runs a venue like this to do it, to explore a topic more deeply than can usually be done on Sunday mornings.
And so I am delighted to be able to do this on Sunday with gender.
One very influential Christian book, a compilation of different authors, lists the marks of real masculinity: assertiveness, self-confidence, independence, self-control… While I appreciate this book’s exhortation to men and its spiritual direction, these essences cannot be what masculinity distinctly is. Thinking so will eventually lead us into problems. Does Christ want a woman to lack self-confidence? Should self-control not be a mark of femininity? Titus 2:5 explicitly urges it for women. So if it is to be a womanly trait also, what does it mean to say that it is a mark of masculinity? Maybe, more importantly, do we really want men to aspire to independence? Is that what gender is for?
Another author pair, at the end of their book, reveal that “true womanhood…[is] a distinctive calling of God to display the glory of His Son in ways that would not be displayed if there were no womanhood.” Okay. This doesn’t say much. Thankfully, they do say more than this. And while some it is good, the book does not do a great job of showing how its advice to the woman displays the Son’s glory.
Another very popular author is, at least straightforward, at the beginning: “At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.” This is better, and I think gets some things right (like how gender is about relationship), but precious little exegesis backs up the key words of the definition.
I could multiply these examples. Because I used to read many of these books while I was deciding that something different needed to be written.
So here is what I will seek to show on Sunday night. The Church needs to get theological about gender. She needs to stay close to the Bible’s way of talking about men and women, which will enable Her to say more about the relation of body and soul. Chiefly, She needs to ground gender in being made in image of the Triune God, as Moses and Paul explain. The real life stories of women and men bear this out.
Then we can counteract gender disintegration. Then we can answer our culture’s confusion. And then we can know the why of God’s commands. They can become what they should be to us, a cause for celebration.