The gender conversation 6: gender, men & women

There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.

Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

P: Let’s talk gender – I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on this because this is perhaps one of the most fundamental questions which underlies all the other topic. Are there differences between men and women? If so what? What significance, if any, should our biological differences carry? What does it mean to be a man/woman? Is gender a social construct?

It certainly is one of the fundamentals, and it’s also one of the things I see people get most irate about and most confused about. There is a huge problem, for example, with confusing “equality” with “being the same”. You get people arguing against gender equality on this point – they will say that men and women are so different that it is not possible and certainly not right. This, in my opinion, is a misunderstanding – equality and androgyny are not the same thing!

P: It seems that we have a common starting point in that we agree that men and women are equal but different. The devil is in the detail it seems. So what we need to work towards are common understandings of what it means to be equal and what it means to be different and how as genders we complement each other. I hear much more from egalitarians on the ‘equal’ bit but not nearly enough on the ‘different’ bit. The opposite being the case from the complementarian side!

I don’t dispute that men and women are different – in some ways – and that this was obviously intended when we were created. We can see this in Genesis; it is clear that God created men and women as distinct but in a way that was supposed to fit together and complement, or complete, each other. However, I don’t believe that Genesis implies hierarchy or authority as part of this. I don’t believe that the “difference” here includes ideas about gender essentialism or stereotypes, which have often been incorporated into Christian teaching and labelled as “Biblical”. These ideas would include teaching that men and women always have certain personality traits because of their gender, or should fulfil certain roles in a relationship because of their gender, and so we get teaching that talks about the way Genesis shows us a picture of a male breadwinner and female homemaker, or a woman’s “inherent softness” and “need to be rescued”. The idea that Genesis 1-3 tells us these things is bizarre. I think you are just as likely to find huge differences in personality and preferred roles between men, and between women.

P: Personally I don’t see Genesis 1-3 in terms of hierarchy or (to a lesser degree) authority but more in terms of responsibility. I’m not saying anything about who is more responsible. Experience suggests it’s probably not the men! What I mean is that the story shows God giving a task to Adam but it’s evident and obvious that man cannot fulfil this task alone. Women being described as a helper, first says to me that as a man I need help. I am not self-sufficient, I can’t do it alone. I think that applies in family life and it applies in church life and it applies more or less everywhere. To fill the earth in the best possible sense with the knowledge of God takes men and women working together. However I’m not yet persuaded that the responsibilities given to men and women are the same. I’m not yet persuaded that the role of father and mother is simply the same as ‘parent’ or ‘husband’ is exactly the same as ‘wife’.

I believe that many of these ideas have come from cultural assumptions we hold about the roles of men and women and that they mean we must fulfill certain stereotypes. I’ve seen Christian writing on the subject that talks of the need to reinforce this in children through what toys they play with, their behaviour, and what they see their parents do around the house. In no way has this got anything to do with the Bible and I find that quite concerning because these are things that are really imposed upon people and come through in books about marriage, about dating, about child rearing…

When it comes to “what it means to be a man or woman” this is something I did a bit of exploration of last year. I asked my Christian friends on Twitter what the words “womanhood” and “femininity” meant to them – and the answers were interesting. They were also all very different, with the exception that quite a few women saw the concept of “femininity” as a stick to beat them with for not fitting inside a neat little box of characteristics and behaviour. You can read my blog post about this discussion here. However you’ll often see conservative women talk about how the concept of femininity is so important to them and how much they want to glorify it. It means so many different things to different people. A friend posted about this on her blog and one commenter replied that to her, motherhood was the signifier of womanhood. This managed to upset quite a few people, as you can imagine.

What it means to be a woman or a man is something that has really been subject to distortions of culture and unhelpful stereotypes. This is why you’ll often hear feminists say that “patriarchy hurts men too”. I think there are more differences between men and women than people think, but that it is clear that we are not “the same”.

P: I read your discussion on womanhood and femininity – what struck me is that no one really has any idea what it is. So it’s no surprise that firstly men are going to get it wrong if there is no ‘right’ but also that my egalitarian friends would do the wider church a great service by do more work in this area. If men and women are equal but different but there’s no idea what that ‘different’ is or means (is it simply physical? I know plenty of women egalitarian or otherwise who would hesitate to stop there). Most of the books I have come across put all their effort into arguing about what the equal bit means, have you read any good books in this area?

Totally agree! I know a lot of people who think the difference is purely physical (but then you also get into the murky and at present extremely controversial waters of transgender issues) and other who would say it goes further than that (which I also believe) but like me, would hesitate to actually specify *how* because often, “differences” are described by Christians as being in terms of man = provider, woman = homemaker, man = logical, woman = emotional, man = leader, woman = helper – and we don’t necessarily feel that is true. I’d agree that most books put all their effort into discussing equality. I own and have read Elaine Storkey’s Created or Constructed? The Great Gender Debate, which does deal with the concept of difference in detail. Storkey concludes that:

“It would be a mistake to think of sex as creational and gender as cultural…we have to believe in a God who is as interested in our gender as in our biology.” So she is another egalitarian who would say that difference extends further than biology.

She adds:”The New Testament does not tell us how to be feminine or masculine…it offers us one set of characteristics as a guideline for both sexes, the ‘fruit of the spirit’.”

She talks of how the Bible clearly sets out the concept of difference but calls for us to resist stereotypes that have no roots in the Bible – and discusses at length the other three aspects of male/female relationship she sees presented: sameness, complementarity (without hierarchy), and union.

“When we work with all four, we see the sweep of the biblical revelation and the space and scope it gives to us to develop our relationships faithfully and creatively.”

“My argument is that we cannot start from within a pre-modern, modern, or post-modern position [of what it means to be male or female]. The problem is that because the Bible has been dismissed by most of scholarship since the Enlightenment, our culture has been robbed of a powerful basis for beginning again to grasp the meaning of human personhood.”

She goes on to talk about the damage that has been done to gender relations over the centuries and the distortions that ‘pervert’ relationships thanks to the Fall. Aside from this book I don’t think I’ve read anything that deals with what we’re looking for.

Photo by Search Engine People Blog


If you look at the way women are represented in the Bible, there is considerable variation. Jael, Judith, Esther, Ruth, Naomi – all strong and independent women who are different from each other, and certainly not meek and submissive.

I think gender is distinct from sex, and that there is considerable overlap between male and female, masculine and feminine, in terms of both how we express our biological sex, gender identity and other traits.

Hi Yvonne, no disagreement here. Personally I don’t think submission means weakness or inferiority and shouldn’t suppress strong characters and personalities.

I think gender goes beyond sex and there is overlap but there are differences too. Working that out requires patience in conversation to listen and understand one another. Thanks again

Submission has the potential to deprive one of one’s self. Submission can take everything away from you. Everything.

Hi Sue, it’s tricky to talk about the theory in the light of abusive practice. At it’s best though submission is losing one’s self in the best possible way. So Jesus’ teaching in Mt 10:39 for example. We are to submit to God (James 4:7), the church to submit to Christ (Eph 5:24), church members to church leaders (Heb 13:17) and wives to husbands (Eph 5:22) but we’re not to submit to a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1). Husbands, leaders, churches are supposed to model the love of Christ and God the Father. What we do not need to do become slaves to demanding, selfish, dominating and manipulating behaviour.
Again, I’m saddened that your experience has been so far from the true and that you have suffered as a result.

We can submit to God, but to put any fallible human being in the place of God is a supreme evil. It is the most vile thing on earth. It ought never to be done.

An absolute ruler is an absolute evil, and so we reject that kind of leadership entirely, but somehow suggest that in marriage, unilateral submission is okay.

Most complementarians do not practice one way, submission, but those who do follow this teaching as it is taught, do practice evil.

For example, Bruce Ware, in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaches that the Father never submits and the Son always submits and this is the model for human relationships. Clearly this is evil. But complemenatarians do nit repudiate Bruce Ware, and they ought to.

So I maintain that it is not only the abuse of the practice that is wrong, but also the teaching itself. The truth is that the church can not make a husband into a God-like person, so the wife should not be bound by vow and doctrine to submit. Otherwise you are guaranteeing that some couples will live out this evil.

I just don’t understand why men cannot treat a woman as a neighbour. Is there some statement in the Bible that says that you cannot treat a woman as your neighbour? It sure feels that way to me.

Hi Sue
Well we’re in agreement here, no human should be in the place of God and no husband is an absolute ruler of his wife. Neither should there be unilateral submission of course – mutual submission within the church obviously includes (not excludes) the one you’re married to, and a husband is before everything to submit to God and that means to love as Christ loves. Anything other than that kind of love is failing to submit to God and is therefore disobedient.

I haven’t read Ware but I guess the argument would be along the lines of the Son willingly submits because the Father is entirely good, just and loving in all He does. Sadly, no husband can claim and as you said, husbands are not standing in the place of God.

Either way I’m substantially in agreement with you here. Thanks always for taking the time to comment.

I like what you are saying. I just wish that the wrong teaching would be vociferously repudiated because it does so much harm to at least a few women. Don’t these men, like Bruce Ware, have a conscience?

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