Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, Part 5: Masculinity vs Femininity

Opposite signphoto © 2011 Kirsty Hall | more info (via: Wylio)This post is dedicated to the lovely Susan B. Susan, I hope you're reading and I wish we could've had more time together. You inspire me to keep it up! Hopefully we'll see each other again soon.

Now for some more thoughts from Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

Masculinity: “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” (35).

Femininity: “At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships” (36). 


First, I will say that as much as I differ with Piper on his views toward gender, I do respect that he has actually attempted to put some clear definitions to these terms. This is something a lot of people avoid altogether, while at the same time talking very vaguely about their ideas of masculinity and femininity, which is frustrating. It is very helpful while reading this book to actually know what Piper is referring to when he uses those words.

And I know why he’s defining them and so passionate about this topic. He is, like many of us, disturbed by the lack of mature men and women in the church (and in society) and he is seeking to help bring healing in this area. And he wants to be clear as to what he’s calling men and women to when he is calling them into manhood and womanhood. We do need attempts like this because we do need help.

Now onto the definitions themselves. I’ll say that my initial beef with both of these is that they revolve around the opposite gender. While I know why this is--“We are what we aren’t”--definitions of this nature are insufficient to me. Yes, I agree with both of those definitions as statements, but not as full definitions. They are both true in that men and women should behave as described. But, I think they are flat. Women are also strong. And men also should learn to affirm others. But, moreover, men should have “a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect” all people, regardless of gender. And women should “affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy” people, regardless of gender. Right?

To be honest, I’m not sure where these definitions came from, Biblically speaking. Piper goes through each definition word by word, but the explanations often left me unsatisfied or frustrated.

Also, I am having major problems with the definition of femininity. (I made a lot more frustrated notes in the margins of the section on femininity than masculinity.)  I find the definition’s centering on relationships to men to be, quite honestly, man-centric instead of God-centric. For instance, let’s take a look at one section:

“One or more of these roles might stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point. But in any case, regardless of the relationship in which a woman finds herself, mature femininity will seek to express itself in appropriate ways. There are ways for a woman to interact even with a male subordinate that signal to him and others her endorsement of his mature manhood in relationship to her as a woman. I do not have in mind anything like sexual suggestiveness or innuendo. Rather, I have in mind culturally appropriate expressions of respect for his kind of strength, and glad acceptance of his gentlemanly courtesies. Her demeanor—the tone and style and disposition and discourse of her ranking position—can signal clearly her affirmation of the unique role that men should play in relationship to women owing to their sense of responsibility to protect and lead.”

Passages like this are all over this book, and I find myself feeling like we’re just supposed to be protecting the extremely fragile men around us from feeling threatened or insulted. And men are likewise supposed to be protecting us from not just the world, but from their own masculinity. At one point, Piper suggests men “use a gentler tone” when learning to care for the women around them. Sure, many of us can use gentler tones with each other, but I really am feeling more and more like a lot of these ideas are rooted in unacknowledged and unarticulated sexism, or even worse, misogyny. Women are much stronger than men think. Sure, we may, on average, cry more than you. We may handle things differently. But who is the one who decided these were signs of weakness? Seriously. I think crying indicates that something is really important to you, and showing that during life is not always a bad thing.

All in all, these definitions seem to center around making sure men feel like men and women feel like women. And as I wrote earlier, I think that’s missing the point.

Another concern I had while reading these definitions was the strong reactionary tone of some of Piper’s explanations. The world has had enough of passive men, yes. But the world does not need more passive-reactive women instead. We all need to be actively discipling and leading others in faith, right? Somehow his descriptions make me to feel as if I (as a woman) am only valuable in the ways I respond and not in the ways I bring action into a situation in the first place. In fact, they insinuate that I am stifling manhood by being an active force in the world. For instance:

“There is a general tone and pattern of initiative that should develop which is sustained by the husband. For example, the leadership pattern would be less than Biblical if the wife in general was having to take the initiative in prayer at mealtime, and get the family out of bed for worship on Sunday morning, and gather the family for devotions, and discuss what moral standards will be required of the children, and confer about financial priorities, and talk over some neighborhood ministry possibilities, etc. A wife may initiate the discussion and planning of any one of these, but if she becomes the one who senses the general responsibility for this pattern of initiative while her husband is passive, something contrary to Biblical masculinity and femininity is in the offing” (39).

1) Um, wouldn’t something “contrary to Biblical” calling be happening if the man did all these things and the woman simply reacted to him? Aren’t they both called to be laboring for the Kingdom of God in all the ways they can? Women, Biblically, are not called only to affirm strength, but to have it, too. Think about Mary the mother Jesus. I think our gender-role pendulum has swung a little too far (due to reactions to past sin) if we aren’t expecting women to act like Christians, too.

2) What irritates me the most about this passage is not the descriptions of roles, but the assumption that if women are initiating, men are being passive. But I think this hits on a bigger issue I’ve wanted to address for a while. How to begin?

I’ve discipled quite a number of women in the past. One of them, whom I love dearly, said to me one day, “Some people are saying you’re a feminist.” This began a long conversation about gender roles within the church, home, and society. Long story short, we found ourselves on very different sides of the issue. At one point I literally asked, “So, do you think men and women are equal?” and the answer was a shocking, “No.” I was sitting there not knowing how to proceed after that response, not only in regard to the topic, but moreover in regard to the discipleship relationship. But, slowly the topic of conversation turned from the theoretical to this woman’s personal family history. Her mother and father, both Christians, have a very dysfunctional relationship. The husband works three jobs so that the wife can spend money as freely as she likes. The wife doesn’t work, but rather watches TV all day and is severely obese. Moreover, the wife is verbally abusive to the husband and the children, while the husband does nothing. As you might imagine, the whole family is pretty dysfunctional. Now, after figuring this family background out, I point blank asked, “Are you so afraid of becoming your mother that you don’t want to be given freedom?” And her answer was a very honest, “Yeah, now that you say that, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.” So we began a conversation about Gospel-centered alternatives to brokenness that don’t involve lack of agency, responsibility, and freedom.

All that to say, I often pick up on subtext within this debate on both sides. On the conservative side, the subtext is often “But if we don’t do things this way, we’ll end up with passive men and abusive (or manipulative) women.” And on the feminist side, the subtext if often “But if we don’t things this way, we’ll end up with passive women and abusive (or manipulative) men.” And these fears don’t just come from history, but from real things people have seen in their own lives. Our brokenness is real and when we live defined by our brokenness or the brokenness we’ve seen in others, we are not living out of the wholeness of Christ. Living a life of "I won't be like that" is living out of our brokenness instead of our wholeness in Christ. Christ died to give us freedom, not just to make us better people.

I would like to propose that both of these are missing the mark. We need freed men and freed women, living, loving, and serving together, not opposed to one another. I have seen amazing marriages where the husband and wife are true partners laboring together, spurring each other one, sharpening each other. Both are coming toward one another, and both are responding to one another.

I think this will conclude my unsettling first reading of Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. I literally could probably write a post about something on every page I’ve read so far, there were so many things that just didn’t make sense or were too flat. But, I won’t. I’ll get back to this book after I do some other reading.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: Part 4, Gender Shame

Laura and I, on the island of Inis Mor off the western coast of Ireland. 2004.


I am currently in San Francisco and about to attend the wedding of my beautiful friend Laura and my brother-in-law Tim. And oddly enough, Laura pops up in this post, so what better day to post it? I wrote this post over a week ago, but have been reluctant to post it. I am posting it now, not in an attempt to say that I'm sure about it, but just to get it out there and get feedback. My own husband didn't react so well to it, which made me wonder what I should do. But, here goes...

Years ago, while visiting my friend Laura (my soon-to-be sister-in-law) in CA, the topic of manhood came up. She and I were discussing with two of her male friends, so it made very interesting conversation. I remember saying something ripped from John Eldredge in Wild at Heart: “Boys go to women looking for strength; men go to women already having found their strength and offering it to her.” I remember that really resonating with her as a woman. As women, we feel when men need us in ways they shouldn’t need a woman. So, in Christian circles, I feel there's been a big push toward male bonding. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I feel like men are now going to each other to find what they are told they shouldn't find in women. But, I will further Eldredge by saying that I don’t think that men should find that assurance of strength in the company of men either. While being around men is good for men, I think finding one’s identity through male bonding is also idolatry. Of course men (and women) should affirm each other, but I think there's a vital step to the process that I've never really seen done. (That doesn't mean it doesn't happen.) But I think it's too important to not explicitly bring up. 

I am very unsure of what I’m about to say, but it’s been rolling around in my head for a while, so I’m going to try to articulate it. In college, I was introduced to a lot of language in regard to manhood and womanhood, mostly from my Christian circles. This language was deeply related to issues of shame and largely rooted in Wild at Heart and Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge. I read them both a long time ago and don’t want to review them now unless I look back through them, but what I will say here will undoubtedly reflect on those books. Okay, here goes:

A couple of years ago, I did a brief study of the booklet Shame. The essence of the booklet was about sharing the Gospel with today's generation via the more resonant theme of shame, as opposed to the older model of guilt and sin. One of the recommendations of the booklet was to affirm, not dismiss, the feelings of shame people have about themselves. In fact, if we dismiss the feelings of shame, we deny people the opportunity to feel the weight of their need for God. Our need for God is great and shame is one of the few remaining reminders of that in today’s generation. We feel that something is not right within us, that somehow we are wrong, not only that we’ve done wrong. And this is true. We are broken and poor images of what God created us to be and we feel it. And not only do we need to feel it, but that feeling should translate into a deep knowledge of our need for God and our total undeserving natures.

Now in regard to Christian psycho-theology on gender, I’ve begun to realize we might be missing the mark. Maybe. (This is where I am afraid people are going to throw rocks at me through the computer screen.) We often hear rhetoric that goes along these lines:

Man #1 has a crisis of identity, specifically a crisis of manhood.
Man #2, trying to build him up, says something like, “You ARE a man. You have what it takes.”

Or

Woman #1 is having a crisis of identity, specifically a crisis of womanhood.
Woman #2 says something like, “You ARE a woman, the crown of creation. You are beautiful and God is enraptured by your beauty.”

(Now, just to be clear, I think this rhetoric could use a healthy dose of gender-neutral language, but I am simply discussing the reality of the situation.)

And while I know what these things mean, I am beginning to think that perhaps we dismiss feelings of inadequacy in regard to gender too readily. It is not true that men “have what it takes” on their own power to be the man God originally intended for them to be. They cannot just reach down to the depths of their soul and find this hidden strength they’ve never known and own it. Men are, as all sinners are, inadequate before God. We are all lacking. We all need. Right? Isn’t it counter-productive to our theology to say “you have what it takes”? Shouldn’t we be saying something like, “You’re right. You have failed and you lack all the strength you need, all the wisdom you need, all the love you need to be a man. But you have been crucified with Christ and you no longer live and it is Christ who lives in you. And He has it all, in abundance. Be willing to admit to your inadequacies and glorify Him by living a life of humility and dependence.” Okay, so maybe that’s a mouth-full to tell someone in an identity crisis, but you get the point.

The same would be true for women. I know I want to hear that I’m beautiful and captivating. But, the reason I want to hear this so badly is because I know deep down that I have an ugly heart. And that’s true. I do have a scarred, broken, and festering heart. And I need the Gospel to heal me, not affirmation that I am in fact beautiful when that is just a band-aid.

Disclaimer: My thoughts about this might be related to how I receive love, and also how I receive the Gospel. “Words of affirmation” is probably my lowest love language, so perhaps that is affecting how I feel toward the above scenarios.

Now, my question is when do we stop affirming shame and start affirming life in Christ? As much as I don’t think we should deny our gender-shame from the onset, neither do I think we should constantly be weighed down by the reality of our condition apart from Christ. Read that again. I am NOT saying that we should just be so concerned with our own condition that we forget the grace and freedom of life in Christ. And in Him, we all find complete masculinity and complete femininity. For He is the Divine and we genders are both reflections of God. The truth is that we are now in Christ and are adequate through Him.

My gut says it’s just like sin: admit your need for Christ daily (or more often) and walk forward in boldness and assurance of His provision. I think it’s just a specific type of repentance, right? “I am what I shouldn’t be, I’m not what I should be, and I need You Lord.” We never get rid of our sin, but Christ frees us from the weight and prison of our sin. I believe Christ can also free us from the weight and prison of our gender-shame. And part of our gender-based prison can be the need for constant approval in regard to our gender, either through only doing things that our gender is supposed to do, or by looking to others to affirm our gender and not looking to God. If constantly going around looking to others for approval is not also idolatry when we're talking about gender, then I'm confused. Is that not being enslaved to our own nature, to constantly be seeking others instead of God for our affirmation?

After this, I want to dissect the definitions Piper puts forth for masculinity and femininity. I’ll save that for the next post.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: Part 3, Giftings


Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, by John Piper and Wayne Grudem

"A true partnership must be true to who the partners are" (34).

Finally something that I can agree with. He goes on after this quote to lay out the masculine and feminine partner roles, which of course I totally disagree with, but nonetheless, I found something good in there! And that quote launches me into a topic I have been meaning to write about for some time.

We all have gifts, and temperaments, and skills. And while many of them are signs of brokenness, many of these things are signs of God's hand of design on us. So I often wonder how we reconcile God gifting certain women with leadership if He doesn't want them to exercise these gifts, or why He gifted some men as decorators if that is something women should attend to. This just doesn't make sense to me.

Now, I posed this problem to some women a couple of months ago. I think I said something like "Why would God gift women as teachers if He didn't want them to teach within the church as well as outside of it? Aren't we all supposed to use our whole selves to glorify God? Isn't it very anti-Shalom to say that women can be one type of person somewhere but must be another somewhere else?" The response I got wasn't entirely unexpected: "Well, is it really good for that woman to be exercising these gifts?"

This is kind of the response I find: Women must be disobeying God, giving into sin, or expressing their brokenness when they want to teach, lead, or do anything else that is a "man's job."

But, to be quite honest, I feel like I am most glorifying God when I am doing what He has made me good at instead of trying to fit myself into this box of what I should be good at. I feel like it is my freedom in Christ to find those things that I love and embrace them. I like to do "feminine" things like cook, cry at commercials, and hold babies. But I really want to jump out of bed when I know a piece of Scripture is waiting to be studied and then taught to other people. And when I try to primarily fill my time with things I don't love, my soul slowly dies. That is in part why I'm doing this project. I know it will keep me accountable to do things I love: reading, writing, dissecting, etc.

At our staff conference in May, we did an exercise where we came up with a short phrase to describe our passions in life. A lot of the staff had something like "Walking toward Jesus with people". Josh and I came up with ours pretty easily because the past two years have been adventures and misadventures in figuring out what makes us come alive.

Mine: "Absorbing, processing, and communicating truth."
Josh: "Understanding, accepting, and loving broken people."

So, "The glory of God is man fully alive," no? Being fully alive doesn't mean we are always doing things we love. I talked about what happens when we do that in the Princess Complex post. Don't worry; I'm not deceived that we should only embrace our gifts and try to avoid the things we're not good at. But, we should be serving the world in the ways God had designed us to serve, no? (And how He has actually designed us, not how He's designed us in theory.)

I'm quessing that there are people out there thinking that us women who are passionate about teaching should relinquish this gift to God and submit to His will concerning our role in this world. Yes! True! We should ALL go through this process of turning our gifts back over to God day in and day out! And we should all submit to His will concerning the role He has prepared for us. I want to do those things over and over again in my life. But, I'm just unsure that His role for me is truly what people are telling me it is. When I spend time with Him, I feel more boldness to be myself and not worry about what people think. People keep saying things about submitting ourselves to God, they are hinting at the fact that I must not have done that if I desire to teach within the Church.  I feel like every time I submit myself to God He gives me a green light for being myself. So, I'm conflicted inside.

I wrote these words in the Spring to a woman I respect deeply:

"I've been realizing that a lot of my hesitation to reading Scripture about women in a new light is very related to what people will think of me. The [organization I work for], as an organization, has very traditional gender roles, not only in practice but also in their values. The church I go to, though very progressive in many ways, still does not allow women to teach. And these two main families of faith have helped me in so many ways, I feel scared of what they'll think about me. I think [a different conviction about women] would be easier for me to embrace publicly if I were a man, because I feel like it's so "in my own interest" to hold this different conviction. And I'm so afraid my conviction is self-motivated instead of God-given. And more so, I'm afraid it will come across that way to others. Oh, how clear it's becoming how much I care about what others think."

I don't know what to say to conclude this post. I think the only way to sum it up is by saying that the more I see people's true giftings and passions, the more I doubt gender roles as proposed by complementarians like Piper and Grudem. And this inconsistency is not only evident in my life, but also in hundreds of men and women out there. I don't think that's enough reason to disregard traditional church teachings, but I think it is enough reason to look at them with new eyes.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: Part 2

Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, by John Piper and Wayne Grudem

If you haven't noticed, I've been busier now that the school year has started up. (For those who don't know, I work with a campus ministry.) Not only has that slowed me down, but the simple dumb-foundedness I feel about this book has slowed me down. I don't know where to begin because I don't even feel like I can approach it with reason.

I have decided to stop reading it for now and move onto other books and come back to it chapter by chapter in the coming months. I will then deal with each chapter at a time (this shall work well as they're authored by different people and on different topics), and work through the book slowly.

Some thoughts before I move on, though. I need to process these before they suck the life out of me internally.

1) "If we can wrest egalitarianism from the Bible, we can pervert it to say anything we wish" (xii).

There are so many frustrating claims like this in this book. All I know to say is that it is, in my opinion, a shameful scare tactic aimed at making people feel as if they must adhere to the authors' view points to be on God's side, or "right", or even truly Christian. That really makes me angry. To use the word "pervert" is to equate their views with holy and the other views as unholy. I don't know about you, but the last time I had a monopoly on absolute truth was um, never. Let's humble ourselves to the point of respecting others instead of degrading them. We are all still Christians, even if we disagree.

These scare tactics happen a lot in this debate, and I will deal with the issue in depth when I read Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. But, saying that the traditional interpretations of certain Scriptures about women cannot be re-interpreted or else "it's a slippery slope" simply ignores the capacities God has given us to apply our brains to the Bible. There are Biblical principles to be found within the whole work of Scripture that can help as we interpret smaller passages of Scripture. And these Biblical principals and other guiding pieces of Scripture vary from topic to topic. So, while many egalitarians might disagree with complementarians on issues of gender, they don't pervert the Word of God to say anything they want. They are, in the same way, pursuing truth as informed by Scripture.

I don't feel like I'm articulating why that type of thinking irritates me so much, but in short, it's because it employs fear, implies the other position is evil, and uses unsubstantiated claims.

2) Piper talks about how his dad travelled a lot and how his mom was very competent while he was gone. I think he was doing this to make me feel better. He said things about how it was good that she could manage the money and do household chores and discipline them. But, "When my father came home he was clearly the head of the house. He led in prayer at the table. He called the family together for devotions. He got us to Sunday School and worship. He drove the car. He guided the family to where we would sit. He made the decision to go to Howard Johnson's for lunch. He led us to the table. He called for the waitress. He paid the check. He was the one we knew we would reckon with if we broke a family rule or were disrespectful to Mother. These were the happiest times for Mother. Oh, how she rejoiced to have Daddy home! She loved his leadership. Later I learned that the Bible calls this "submission"" (32).

Okay, two points. First, I'm really sad this is what Piper thinks submission is. To me submission is not a bad word, but a high calling. And it is a much higher calling than that picture. I will probably get into exactly what I see submission as later. Secondly, I'm sure Piper's mom was glad to have dad home doing all of those things. But, maybe it was more to do with the fact that he was home and she finally had a partner in the home to give her a break than gender roles. She was probably exhausted and saw those times as her down times.

I have more thoughts, but I think that is enough for tonight. My next point is turning out to be rather long, so I think it deserves it's own post.
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