Christian and Mrs. Christian

Dear Letha,

Thanks for recommending the essays of Dorothy Sayers. I have not yet read them, but it’s time! I love the distinction her editor makes about male and female being adjectives to describe human, and that the “substantive governs the modifier.” And then when you brought up “Human and Mrs. Human” I think I laughed out loud. That is such an accurate description of what I see happening in several strains of Christianity, only I would say the category becomes “Christian and Mrs. Christian.”

When I discovered faith as a teenager, I remember well that I was not just learning to be a Christian; I was learning to be a “Christian woman.” It was as though Jesus had explained the kingdom of God in blue and pink instructions. If you were a girl Christian, you followed Jesus by being a “lady-in-waiting,” learning your submissive role, nurturing others, and having “a gentle and quiet spirit” (which always seemed to imply a gentle and quiet mouth!)

The timing of these messages was perfect for all of us young girls because we were searching for self-development and curious to understand both our Christianity and our sexuality. I don’t think my story is unique: for many young women today, the Gospel is still getting laced with gender roles that have a significant impact on self-development and self-image.

Gender and the New Fundamentalism

But, I have to admit, compared to what I have been hearing in my late-twenties, the messages of my teens were downright “liberal”!

Recently, I heard a sermon that explained how Christian women are to practice submission and respect what the minister claimed is the “God-given authority of men.” At least in the fundamentalist church I attended in my teens, the pastor explicitly stated that a woman is asked by Scripture to submit only to the headship of her husband—not to all men. (I recall perking up in my seat, thankful for this clarification. As a 16-year-old, I was still nervous about “submission,” but it seemed to me that if I just married a good man, things would be OK. Or at least, that is what I could hope for.)

But the pastor in this recent sermon wanted to emphasize not just a woman’s submission in marriage, but that the nature of femininity is to be submissive—period. I was shocked. He then went on to explain that while Jesus is the consummate male, his submission to the Father models what a women’s submission to male headship ought to look like. Later, I read on this pastor’s blog that he was leading a retreat to teach men to “reject femininity and recover a healthy dose of the masculine spirit in our Christianity.”

So, as you can see, Stephen B. Clark’s ideas that you mentioned in your last letter are alive and well! When you talked about Clark expressing concern that men were being “feminized” by their wives, I thought about the current and quite popular fear surrounding the “feminization” of the church. Have you read the book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity by the Catholic writer Leon J. Podles?

I want to assure Podles not to worry so much—Christianity is still quite a ways from being emasculated. As long as its god remains male, and the category of people who get to speak about that god remains male, Christianity will bow to patriarchy, just as Podles and Clark would like it to. So, he needn’t be losing so much sleep over the “feminization” of the church.

Or perhaps he ought to be worried?

Maybe all those writers—Podles and Clark and all their compatriots—are really canaries in the mine, letting us know that patriarchy is not doing particularly well these days. Maybe we are coming up on a moment in history in which things must and will be changing. What do you think?

Maybe this raging debate still happening about gender roles in the church is a desperate effort to return to the “way we never were” as Stephanie Coontz writes about. Maybe in the midst of so much being redefined about men and women in the greater culture, the strategy of many Christians is to find an “issue” in which Christians can supposedly define themselves apart from the culture. I just wish they would pick something Jesus actually talked about. Teaching women that they follow Jesus inasmuch as they learn to cultivate submission in their femininity is a frightening distortion of the Gospel.

What is Behind the Theology?

I often try to figure out why people like Clark or Podles or Wayne Grudem (of the Biblical Council of Manhood and Womanhood) are so concerned with limiting the work and expression of someone based on his or her gender? What attitudes lie behind the fixation with gender roles? Of course, there is likely a cocktail of many reasons. In her work, Stiffed, the feminist writer Susan Faludi does a fascinating job analyzing masculinity in America this past century, and pointing out how the recent generations have been stripped of a clear sense of what masculinity is. I think some of the strict complementarians are frightened that masculinity will lose its distinction from femininity. And to some extent, I have an imagination to sympathize: I, too, think there are differences between men and women and don’t want those eradicated. But, all this language about men and women being “equal” but with “distinct roles” is so often just another effort to erect hierarchy, because within the roles lies a huge power differential.

And that is why I often think that rigid gender roles get promoted when those in power are scared of losing their power, even if they don’t know they are scared. What drives me crazy about so-called “complementarian” theology is that it pretends equality in the midst of an absurd differential of power, authority, voice, platform, etc. I don’t think the human hoarding of power is a rational or conscious process; it’s deeper. It’s Darwin’s survival of the fittest, if you go that route. Or perhaps it is just our sin. The privilege of power means that the status quo protects those on top from having to even acknowledge the imbalance of the system. If those in power were to open their eyes to acknowledge the harm of the power differential, then they will be in the rather awkward position of having to change and give something up.

Letha, I struggle with the last sentence I wrote, because it is exactly the tension I feel when my privilege gets pointed out, too. I like being able to get in my own car and conveniently use all the gas I like to go to a store I like so that I can buy the exact product I like from among the other 30 or so similar products, some likely made by the hand of a child working in a sweatshop or an adult getting paid awful wages— but the bottom line is I get what I want for $3.99. And I have the privilege of not having to think abouthow I got what I wanted for $3.99. Change that system of economics? Change that distribution of resources? I am not entirely sure I want that. It is so much easier not to let myself become aware of what I’ve got—and especially what others do not have, which is always the corollary.

And I think that principle is in part why we still have Human and Mrs. Human, Christian and Mrs. Christian. There is always a cost to living out actually equality, whether we are talking about sexism or the other host of “isms.” Real justice will disrupt the balance of power and resources: I suspect that behind all this language about “biblical gender roles,” men and women are both afraid of what it might cost to embrace true equality. I know that as a 27-year-old woman, I am still struggling to become who I am, not someone else’s version of who I ought to be.

I always feel like there is so much more to say in these conversations! But for now, I better finish up this letter. I look forward to hearing from you.

Your friend,
Kimberly

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Kimberly George
Kimberly B. George directs Critical Social Theory Consulting, an innovative business that brings specialized academic theory on power, privilege, and social justice (including the tools of feminist, critical race, and queer theory) into spaces such theory is not traditionally taught. Kimberly holds an MA (summa cum laude) from Yale University, where she was a Merit Scholar from 2009–2011, and a Postgraduate Associate in Gender Equity and Policy from 2012–2013. She’s currently a doctoral student, where her scholarship focuses on structural violence, psychic life, and creative pedagogies. Kimberly is also a writing consultant, supporting both creative and academic writers. Her own writing has appeared in such publications at The Feminist Wire, NewBlackMan (in Exile),The New Haven Register, The Washington Spectator, Feministing.com, and The OpEd Project’s ByLine Blog.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Kimberly, I’m dismayed that in your own lifetime you can observe the increasingly oppressive message to women: “…compared to what I have been hearing in my late-twenties, the messages of my teens were downright “liberal”!

    But I recall that I too as a 16-year-old new Christian was handed a whole doctrine on male-female roles and requirements that was presented as part of Christianity.

    My solution to the “wives obey their husbands” message was, “I will never marry. I will be like the woman missionary from Wycliffe who visited our church, single and free and dedicated to learning languages and translating the Bible.”

    Seven years later when I married, the supposed conflict between Christianity and women being agents of their own lives reached a crisis in my life… but after two years of searching, I read All We’re Meant To Be in 1974 and was relieved to learn that men and women could be equal in their marriage and in the church.

    Anne Eggebroten

  2. I have always had trouble dealing with fundamentalist teachings. My feeling was why would I want a God who was masculine, jealous, and angry. I thought God was supposed to be loving and kind and fair. I beleive that most churches are really just a way of getting people to behave “properly”. Except that what’s “proper” is not about what Jesus said but about what later leaders of the church wanted. And I beleive that a lot of that involved male dominance.

    I fully agree that “rigid gender roles get promoted when those in power are scared of losing their power, even if they don’t know they are scared.” That is actually where “macho” came from; it originated with Mexican male peasants who were put down by the Spanish conquerors.

    I don’t know what the cost of true equality of genders would be. I would imagine it would require a totally different view of society, and the role of each gender within it. I don’t think people can deal with that much change over any short period of time. Finally, I certainly agree that it is essential for all of us to “become who I am, not someone else’s version of who I ought to be.”

  3. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck just released a great book on the growing Socialist Christian movement and what a load it truly is. Why We’re Not Emergent. It is a must read.

  4. Kimberly,

    Great observations. When I first read “The Way We Never Were” (for a women’s studies class), I immediately saw the church’s desperate attempt to recapture a mythical time when homes were ordered and genders knew their place. This idealized model is wrong on too many levels to explain here. It is not biblical, even if it did exist.

    I grieve the most when I see sincere women, trying to live for God, who believe this narrow model is the only way to be godly.

    Your discussion about power is interesting here. I said on one of my posts that, “When there is a threat against the status quo, the “haves” (those in power) often grab hold of what they possess and, in fear, hang on for dear life. This is true whether discussing issues of gender, race, economics, or (sadly) ministry in the Church.”

    You are right that often this hoarding of power is not conscious. However, it is especially egregious when we attach a spiritual significance to our preferences and power up on women, using their fears of not being in God’s will against them.

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