What’s at Stake in the Gender Debate?

Let’s talk for a moment about fear.

Bernard Goldbach, Creative Commons

Bernard Goldbach, Creative Commons

Fear frames the gender debate in evangelical America. You can sense it in many of the comments posted on my recent article about “The Myth of Biblical Manhood.” Fear of dissent. Fear of being wrong. Fear of entertaining the thought that someone who believes differently might be just as biblical as me. Fear of criticizing leading Christian figures. Fear of God. Fear of women. Fear of men.

Fear, fear, fear.

And fear, as we all know, is often masked by anger. That was in the comments, too. In this case, anger that I would question four well-known Christian pastors and writers. Anger that I would presume to criticize their systems without offering an alternative system to tear down. Anger that an ungrayed head would question the teachings of elder statesmen in the church. Anger that I seemingly misrepresented several of these men in my satire.

Fear. Anger. Tied tightly together to charge this discussion with emotion.

I have fears, too.

I fear the gender debate has suffered from rigid, dualistic thinking.

I fear we have applied culturally-specific systems universally.

I fear that there is a misguided demand for an absolute right, a clear wrong, and little room for dialogue.

I fear that we have often stayed within our own camp and have categorically rejected alternative interpretations of scripture which call into question our own cherished beliefs.

I fear that this discussion has suffered from the “Don’t Talk” rule of Christian celebrity, where large groups of Christians follow well-known Christian pastors or authors and subscribe uncritically to their systems. These same celebrities are often buoyed by groups of fellow celebrities who close ranks when one of their own is criticized, and by a Christian publishing complex which frowns on dissent and punishes free thinkers.

I fear that we have lost the ability to think critically and instead have farmed off this responsibility to golden-tongued champions.

I fear we have settled for certainty in an area which involves mystery, tension, and paradox.

I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he encouraged his followers to avoid rules taught by men (Matt. 15:9), or what Paul meant when he disallowed cults of personality in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:12; 3:4-7).

Is it “biblical” to endorse a man-made system and cast aspersion on anyone who questions it? Or is there a better way to frame this discussion which moves from dualistic debate to charitable dialogue? I think that there is.

When the Ground Shakes

An illustration helps. I used to think that in earthquake-prone cities, engineers would try to design buildings which were rigid and unmoving. But the opposite is true: flexibility is the name of the game when seismic shifts happen.

Airlian, Creative Commons

Airlian, Creative Commons

In June 2012, my wife and I stood gaping at Taipei 101, the world’s third-tallest building. We toured the structure while visiting relatives in Taiwan. Rain blurred the streets while scooters buzzed crazily around our yellow cab. I arched my neck back, back, back, but lost the top of the tower in the clouds.

How can such a tower exist in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone areas? I wondered.

The answer is earthquake engineering. Architects designed the building to flex with seismic shifts, and included a device known as a “tuned mass damper” in the core of the structure which effectively stabilizes against violent motion. You can look it up.

Christians can learn a lot from Taipei 101. The Bible sometimes seems to allow a good deal of flexibility when it comes to non-moral seismic shifts in culture. There is a shift between how Israel functioned in the Old Testament and how the church functions in the New. And there are examples of individuals acting in culturally-sensitive ways in non-moral issues. Paul acted differently among Gentiles than he did around Jews (1 Cor. 9:19-23); and he provides guidance for how Christians should relate to one another in disputable matters (Romans 14-15; 1 Cor. 8, 11).

Before you grab your pitchforks, I am aware that much of the heat surrounding discussion about gender roles in the church comes precisely from the fact that many Christians believe that these are moral matters. That you are unbiblical and sinful if you don’t fall within a certain camp. That the Bible is crystal clear in this matter and that only a fool or rebel could believe differently. If that’s you, I can understand your thinking, but I hope you’ll stick around for the next post which will consider this question more fully.

For now, let me offer my hope: Rather than building rigid systems of belief in regard to gender roles, Christians might be better off living in the flexibility afforded by mystery.

You know, mystery, the realm of opposites held in tension, the embrace of paradox, the acknowledgement of apparent contradictions within scripture, the recognition of a spectrum rather than either-or and black-or-white thinking. Mystery gives us the humility and charity to recognize that other believers might have viable biblical interpretations which differ from our own (this of course presumes that there are viable biblical alternatives. We’ll talk about this more in the final post of this series.)

I think that the debate about gender roles in the church has far more mystery surrounding it than most of us have been led to believe.

What’s at Stake: Why These Systems Can Hurt Men and Women

A number of commentators have asked in good faith what harm John Piper’s views have caused. How has John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart, damaged some men? Yes, they say, Mark Driscoll is edgy, but really, who has he hurt? Isn’t each Christian responsible to follow only what is biblical and not allow a Christian author to hurt them with their teaching? Surely we can’t hold these authors responsible for the abuse of their ideas, can we? And if hundreds of thousands of men have (presumably) benefited from their books, is it fair to negatively compare that benefit with the hurt of some few thousands who may have misread the books and allowed themselves to be wounded? Come now, what harm have these systems of “biblical” manhood caused?

These are great questions, and they help to further this discussion.

Here are five reasons I believe that “biblical” manhood systems can hurt people—both men and women.

1.) They can caricature people. By universalizing culturally-specific expressions of gender roles, they create caricatures of men and women. Many men who try to follow these 300- or 500-page books end up acting in stiff, stylized ways, always second-guessing their behavior and secretly wondering if they are measuring up to the standard. They may feel that God is displeased with them, that they can’t do anything right, that they are living in sin because they just can’t seem to match the image of a man found in Wild at Heart or defined exhaustively in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Women, for their part, are ordered in some of these systems to crucify their own desires when they conflict with the standard portrayed in these books. They must forsake certain giftings in order to remain at home in quiet, supposedly submissive ways. They must let their fathers choose their husbands. They must avoid any occupation which would take them out of the home, or any job which would place them over a man. They must refrain from questioning their husband.

By caricaturing men and women into certain gender roles, these systems can make people less than God intended them to be.

2.) They can elevate the rules of men into commands of God. The best example comes from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Piper writes the first chapter. In it, he offers two criteria by which all men and women everywhere should relate to one another in order to avoid the sin of offending their God-recovering_biblical_manhoodgiven manhood and womanhood. The two criteria he offers are in regard to how women may exercise authority in modern culture both inside and outside of the church. The criteria are on a spectrum from personal/non-personal and from directive/non-directive. Insofar as a woman has non-personal, non-directive authority, she does not offend a man’s manhood, Piper says.

These criteria are Piper’s own invention. By laying as a foundation for a book on “biblical” manhood and womanhood his own criteria for how men and women should relate, Piper puts his own cultural interpretation ahead of what the Bible teaches. This is similar to what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. This hurts both men and women who mistake the opinion of a man for the heart of God and who live in bondage to these man-made constraints.

3.) They can impoverish the church. When 50% of the population at church is categorically denied the most influential positions of leadership based on gender rather than on Spirit-gifting, the church may not always receive its best leadership. Men who are not gifted as leaders may be shamed into taking on leadership responsibilities while women who are gifted leaders and administrators may be excluded. In these systems (some more than others), men who fail to lead–and women who choose to lead–are labeled as rebellious sinners and are either cast out of the church or ostracized.

4.) They can impoverish families and may lead to abuse. Hard Complementarianism is also known as Christian Patriarchy, where men fulfill all leadership positions in the church (excepting certain Sunday School teachers or women’s group leaders) and are told to lead their families spiritually. Wife and children are usually told to submit to the man in everything (excluding direct sin). This can result in a spiritually-weak man or a physically abusive man “leading” a family with a wife who is rendered powerless. Unfortunately, the stories of abuse coming out of the Christian Patriarchy Movement are numerous.

5.) They can block truth-seeking. By stating explicitly–or inferring–that their system alone is truly biblical and that it is God’s model for everyone everywhere, the creators of these systems disallow people from thinking critically about what they say. To do so is to become a sinner, a heretic, or–even worse–a “liberal.” These are thought-stopping terms used to intimidate detractors into silence.

These are the stakes.


In the next post, we’ll talk about some important questions which help to frame the discussion on gender issues. Then I’ll offer some possible alternative interpretations of the relevant passages about gender roles in the Bible.

What you won’t find in any of these posts is an alternative system to follow. I believe that the Bible encourages us–both men and women–toward Christlikeness, and doesn’t spend much time defining gender roles.

My plea is that each person hold fast to scripture and to a good conscience, and have the charity to give fellow believers the same grace.

17 comments on “What’s at Stake in the Gender Debate?

  1. Wow, Stephen, I don’t know how long this comment of yours has been in the making, but I found it both hope-inspiring and challenging.

    I guess I fall outside of your ‘target group’ (if you even have such a thing), because I am a single man living alone, after many years of predominantly happy married life with two beautiful children. But, struggling as I am in this unfamiliar world of being alone and seeing my children only occasionally (well, they are pretty much adults now), I don’t find myself searching the bookshelves for any guide titled “The Divorced Man – A Biblical Guide to Entering Into New Wholeness” or similar.

    I cannot help feeling that the Bible itself is still entirely applicable to me, despite the fact that there are few (if any?) references to any divorced men within the pages. Perhaps I am lucky that this is the case, because otherwise there could well be a plethora of chunky tomes pointing my way to somebody else’s idea of heaven! 😉

    Thanks for making me think, for sharing your insights with everyone, and for broadening our minds as you do so.


  2. Well maybe Jon we could look at the fact that Paul was single and even promoting it.
    Also we look at the Samaritan woman- Jesus was commenting on her marriages to several men, BUT did not tell her to go back to the first one (husband I mean).
    So resting in Christ in your divorced state is probably the best bet (as I am sure you are already finding out)! I am sure the Holy Spirit will have no problem dealing with any of our brokeness, for if we are willing to be used by Him we will understand that our very weaknesses are strengths.

    Jon I like your comments 🙂

    • Thanks for this, Trust4him…your encouragement is like a balm (seriously).

      I read this contemplation from Rohr today, and, whilst I am completely in the dark when he refers to Zen, on the whole it resonated with me. In fact, it rang so, so true for me and my own situation that It has helped me to see a little more clearly why my own inner life and perspectives have changed so radically at this stage in my life. I hope you find it interesting/helpful too:

      “Struggling with one’s own shadow self, facing interior conflicts and moral failures, undergoing rejections and abandonment, daily humiliations, experiencing any kind of abuse or your own clear limitations, even accepting that some people hate you: All of these are gateways into deeper consciousness and the flowering of the soul. These experiences give us a privileged window into the naked (read “undefendable”) now, because impossible contradictions are staring us in the face.

      Much-needed healing, forgiving what is, and weeping over and accepting one’s interior poverty and contradictions are normally necessary to invite a person into the contemplative mind. (Watch Paul do this in a classic way from the depths of Romans 7:14 to the heights of his mystic poetry in most of Romans 8.) As one Zen Master said, “Avoid the spiritual journey, it is one insult after another!”

      Yet in facing the contradictions that we ourselves are, we become living icons of Yes/And. Once we can accept mercy, it is almost natural to hand it on to others. You become a conduit of what you yourself have received.”

      You referred to Paul in your kind comment, and this writing of Rohr’s makes me see that Apostle in a new, deeper way. His many, many years of ill treatment and wrongful imprisonment could have turned him into a bitter, angry man. Instead, we see him living as a man fully aware of God’s love for him and for others. This does make it kind of hard to see how many folks use snippets of his writings to abuse or reject others – often in the name of Christ!

      Thanks again, Trust4him 🙂

      • Ah hah…..just heard teaching on that very concept of loving your enemies today.
        Hard one when dealing with church abuse,,,,,,I will have to admit to myself.
        Forgiving the sinner yet not condoning the sin of abuse- fine line. Being a disciple of Christ is one I can rest on the fact that if I want it, He will supply it (whatever of the fruits of the Spirit). We can stand firm, yet grounded in His love.
        Thank you for your encouraging words.

  3. Hey man.
    I get what your trying to say. It’s clear this is a big issue. And yes it is going to take many posts. But I am not all in on the fear tag. I see it as an learned behavior of feeling insecure. And because we may feel insecure or second response is to feel defensive.

    So, we build our forts. Get behind the walls and close up. In doing so we also close off blessings.

    Have a good one

  4. Another point here too Stephen is that I can rest on the Holy Spirit- Jesus said that He would send us a Counselor and Teacher within us……..No man has any right to rule over the souls of another.

  5. Chuck Smith used to day, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken.” Lots of wisdom in that.

  6. “Christians might be better off living in the flexibility afforded by mystery.”

    Christ is a deep mystery. For us, as humanity, He is the deepest mystery God gave us to ponder. It is crucial that we live, as you say, in the flexibility afforded by mystery.

    But as Nature abhors a vacuum, the human mind struggles with how to exist in mystery, so man is attracted to answers. Many unwise men offer answers, and those who accept those answers are guilty of not living with the flexibility Christ came and died to offer us.

    Free speech is revered in this country (perhaps more than it should be.) Inspire is the online English-language terror publication which provided instructions on how to build the bombs used in the Boston Marathon bombing. How credible were their defenders after the bombing? Simply because we see no blood, no hospital statistics, no amputees, does not mean the advocates of culture wars are not responsible for their numberless victims. They are.

    As I write, there is a growing concern among law enforcement officials regarding the relationship between To Train Up a Child (by Michael Pearl, and yes, I’m purposely ignoring Debi) and 4 (and counting) underage deaths. Pearl’s is a manual of progressive violence against children. As he does not warn of the dangers of rhabdomyolysis, he is guilty certainly of one child’s death.

    So, too, are the writings of Piper, Driscoll, Eldredge, Wilson, Phillips, Gothard and others directly responsible for the spiritual suffering of innumerable men, women, and children.

    Any time Jesus and His teachings are not the center of spiritual guidance, the teacher will be held accountable, and the disciple will suffer.

    We should not expect the Holy Spirit to mop up after these men. We can and should expect the Holy Spirit to help us in becoming more Christlike. That includes help for living in the mystery.

    • Wow, Susan. Thanks for sharing this powerful message. A lot to ponder here. My wife has been suggesting that I learn more about “To Train Up a Child” in order to write a post about it. As an Occupational Therapist often working with children, she understands clinically why this book is so awful. Thanks for reminding us that teachers are responsible for their teaching and its effects. If their words are open to abuse, they must bring clarity and say why that abuse is wrong. To remain silent is to become complicit. Well said.

      • I just heard about this book, and read this comment on the BBC website. As a small child, I myself was terribly harmed by the most extreme emotional and physical (but not sexual) abuse. This book should be burned (and I have never, ever said or thought that about any book before…because of the link such actions have to Nazi thinking). Is the whole of your country awash with awful teachings such as these? If the answer is even only a partial “yes”, then the work you are performing here, Stephen, is absolutely essential.


      • Shudder…..To Train Up A Child. Absolutely horrid. What happened to Hanna adopted from Ethiopia was something I cannot get over in my mind.
        Jon I am extremely sorry for what had happened to you; no child should have to endure such pain. The way you write shows what a deep and thoughtful person you are. I appreciate you being here and posting your journey.

        Unfortunately, because of our freedom to worship and speech many in this country take advantage of the freedoms we do have and use it to control. My feelings on this is that if there is evidence that a church or cult starts using methods of control and abuse then safeguards should be enforced to PROTECT freedom of worship of the abused. It is interesting that many use the Freedom of Worship/Speech to take away the freedoms of everyone else.

      • A good point, trust4him. Lack of oversight can lead to anarchy which can lead to despotism. As Susan said, Nature abhors a vacuum. Thanks as always for your comment.

  7. Plus these kind of narratives leave no space for genderqueer people, or trans people, or agender people, or people who live outside this very narrow and defined gender binary in any way.

    • Exactly. The issue of how Jesus thinks about homosexuality and how we should think of them is part of the mystery. Embrace the flexibility of the mystery.

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