My previous post seemed to prompt a myriad of other questions from readers and from my own ruminations. There can be little argument that gender roles have been and will continue to be an issue for much of the Christian church for many years (perhaps generations) to come. This all prompts the beginning of what has become an important exercise for me. Whenever I get into the middle of a polemical debate, eventually I want to know what people are protecting; and, so, I begin deconstructing the various arguments trying to find out what is at stake for each group in the argument. Unfortunately, sometimes the breadth of the issue extends beyond my personal expertise. The argument over gender roles is quickly turning into one of those discussions that obviously has pertinence in a variety of fields – effectively dismantling my ability to efficiently tease out the prominent theological issues. There seems to me to be clear interference in identifying theologically sound gender roles coming from cultural narratives. Even the soft sciences point to the fact that much of our gender identity comes from environment. Consequently, the loop I get stuck in comes, in part, from the fact that those soft sciences identify religion as one of the environmental factors that produce sexism (here is an example of what I mean). So, what are the questions that best identify what is at stake when we discuss gender roles and their practical impact on Christian theology? Here are a few of the things that I have been thinking about and researching as I try to identify some of the root issues.
1. To what extent, if any, does the biological function of gender play? Namely, there are some writing from the Christian perspective that seem invested in framing gender roles within the confines of anatomical differences, why? There are, of course, a series of questions that follow – and this will require the most exploration, because I know the least about it. Does your reproductive function (your maleness or femaleness) actually have bearing on anything outside of, well, reproduction? In other words, does having a certain anatomical characteristic extend beyond the anatomy’s actual function? In an entirely biological sense, I am a male because my body produces “small, typically motile gametes, esp. spermatozoa, with which a female may be fertilized or inseminated to produce offspring.” Is that the end of gender distinction? Do the hormones that cause my body to serve a certain reproductive function also program my personality to only serve a certain social function? Does that programmed social function constitute the will of God for my life? In fact, by the 1990’s we have an interdisciplinary field trying to explain how these questions get answered – sociobiology.
2. Are some Christians trying to prop up their bibliology? Here, I must confess a personal bias. I have read many evangelical scholars that essentially paint themselves into a corner on this issue. Many have attempted to defend certain notions of inerrancy and infallibility in our modern translations only to retreat to defending them in the manuscripts, only to retreat to defending them in autographs, only to defending them in “essential” New Testament material (see this text by G.K. Beale for a discussion of the “erosion” as he calls it)
3. Are some Christians trying to prop up their ecclesiology? Let’s be honest, the huge ordination debate centers on the fact that traditionalist understandings of gender roles prevail in most churches. A few articles that interact with some different nuances of the issue are here, here, here, and here.
4. Are some Christian men trying to prop up their patriarchy? Here is an even-handed text that addresses these (and other) kinds of questions.
5. What is the real (if any) significance that Jesus was male, and how is that significance offset by a robust Mariology in the Church?
6. How much of Scripture’s account regarding this material is meant to be prescriptive; and how much is, by virtue of context, only descriptive?
I don’t currently belive that there is a clear-cut answer to all of these types of questions. I think gender and gender identity is created by a variety of things, but I can assert with certainty at least one thing: whatever differences gender identity and roles introduce, there is no value difference between men and women and to the extent that our theology allows men to be held above women our theology is wrong.
So, what do you think is really at stake in the debate over gender roles? What do you think people are protecting?