When my husband and I were engaged, we read a lot of marriage books. While these books were all helpful in some way, they became less helpful when the advice in them was based on gender stereotypes. For example, we read that husbands need to be willing to communicate their feelings, that wives ought to thank their husbands for providing for the family, and that women should accommodate the higher sex drives of their husbands.
These things were frustrating to read, because Josh and I are the opposite of typical gender stereotypes in many ways. He prefers to deal with emotions, I prefer reason. He prefers things for form, I favor function. He likes to shop for fun; I only like to shop if I have something in mind. He is more relational, I am more, um, not. We do fulfill typical gender predictions in some ways, but overwhelmingly we stick out. And that irks me, not only because it’s frustrating for us, but because I don’t know that these typifications are helpful.
The problem became more clear to me at a conference when I came across a handout from a workshop that contained lists of these “Male Characteristics” and “Female Characteristics”:
– Initiate, provide, protect
– Big picture focus, macro
– Objective decision-making
– Words used to convey facts
– Compartmentalized view (filing cabinet)
– Emotions less influenced by hormones
– Intimacy: physical
– Respond, give life, nurture/care
– Detail focus, micro
– Subjective decision-making
– Words used to convey feelings
– Integrated view (white board)
– Emotions influenced by hormonal cycle
– Intimacy: emotional
What struck me wasn’t so much that these lists are not accurate. While I personally find them offensive, I can put that aside and admit that they are probably true for many people. But, regardless of the accuracy, I believe that the pervasive use of gender stereotypes in the Church is actually destructive.
1) It is destructive for those who don’t fit the stereotype.
People who don’t fit the mold begin to think, “Am I not a real man?” or “I guess I’m not a true woman.” While these are normal thoughts, we should be evaluating them on the basis of Scripture, not on the basis of a cultural norm. Men should doubt their manhood when they are lazy or abusive because those behaviors are sinful and characteristic of immaturity, not because they experience intimacy through emotions, or are intuitive. Those characteristics are in no way sinful or immature. The same is true for women: we should doubt our womanhood when we are sinful, not when we stand out from other women.
On a personal level, gender stereotypes are hurtful because they communicate to me, the one who doesn’t fit the mold, that there is something deeply wrong with my design. I’m not talking about sin here, I’m talking about the redeemed person that God is bringing to the surface slowly but surely. When I sit in a group of women, I often feel that the true me is wrong. In moments of discouragement and frustration I catch myself thinking, “God, it seems you made some mistake here. I think I was supposed to be a man.” That is hurtful to my heart and breeds a lovely playground for Satan.
I can accept that this pain is part of life in a theoretical sense. But I get angry when I see it affect those I love, especially my husband. When he is made to feel unmanly for the way God designed him, I grieve for the hurt and isolation he feels. For the comfort and convenience of the masses, those of us who exist on the fringe are made to feel more excluded instead of included. But Jesus did the opposite: He invited in those on the fringe, often making the masses uncomfortable. Not only did He invite them in, He sought them out as well– changing His schedule for them, interrupting the conversation for them, going into their homes.
2) It is destructive for those who DO fit the stereotype.
Those who fit the mold often excuse or make light of sinful behavior because it is stereotypical. People can be permissive toward sins that fall into the dominant paradigms for male or female. Gender normative sin is more easily accepted not only by culture at large, but also within the Church. The gravity of sin is lost. Take the cliché example of a man struggling with pornography. In culture at large, this is acceptable. Within the Church, struggles with porn seem to be expected of men, and when talked about, the dialogue is about “men being visual,” not about men being sinners.
People who fit the gender-normative mold begin to feel more secure in their manhood and womanhood simply because they fit the mold, not because they are maturing in Christ. Men who like sports and don’t work well with others start to think, “Hey, I’m a man!” And women who like to decorate and have coffee “dates” think, “Hey, I’m a woman!” I think this is akin to putting one’s identity in what one does rather than in one’s position in Christ. Are we Christians because we are loving others and being charitable and praying? Certainly not! We are Christians because God loves us even when we act horribly unlovable. Likewise, we should feel assured of our manhood or womanhood when we are in a fruitful relationship with Christ, not on the basis of societal validation.
3) It is destructive for the Church and the advancement of God’s Kingdom.
The beauty of the Gospel is lost when we cater to the masses instead of to the outcasts. The lineage of Jesus was passed down through Leah, the unloved, unattractive sister instead of Rachel the beloved. The Jews were commanded to carry the Gospel message not only to other Jews, but also to their oppressors (the Romans) and “ugly step-sisters” (the Samaritans). In choosing the predictable road (gender stereotypes), we are not living up to the creative beauty displayed in the story of God.
When the Church promotes gender stereotypes, it alienates non-Christians: especially those who value society’s movement beyond gender norms and those who don’t fit the mold. Seeing Christianity modeled mostly by Christians who encourage stereotypically gender normative behaviors and beliefs can be an unnecessary hurdle to jump to become a part of the family of God. Regardless of their beliefs about gender, non-Christians should “trip over nothing but the cross” when they are considering faith in Christ. I cannot even begin to count the amazing people I know who are searching for truth but feel uncomfortable searching within the community of the Church for these (and other) reasons.
To be clear, I am not saying that there are no differences between the majority of men and the majority of women or that we should ignore them. I am saying that highlighting these differences as we minister does more harm than good. I know that your two-year-old boy probably wants to shoot things and your two-year-old girl probably wants to carry around a pretend baby doll. But for all of the two-year-old boys who want to play dress-up and the two-year-old girls who pretend they’re adventurers on the high-seas, can we do better? Can we give them a fair shot at growing up as loved, accepted, thriving members of the body of Christ?
(Adapted from an original post dated February 24, 2011 on lauraziesel.com.)