First, we note the reasons gender roles and relations have been changing and then consider some of the explanations for gender differences. Then we explore the effect that redefinition of gender roles and relationships has on the family. In the process, we reflect on our hermeneutical understanding of the relevant scriptural texts.
Why Gender Roles and Relations Are Changing There are several reasons why traditional definitions of sexual roles and relations are currently being called into question. The social sciences have demonstrated that many of the traditional characteristics of masculinity and femininity, formerly assumed to be the result of natural development, are in reality a result of cultural conditioning. Increased observation and dialogue with people from various parts of the world have also informed us that most differences between masculinity and femininity are culture bound.
There has also been an increasing separation between the sex assignment of individuals and the gender roles associated with a particular sex. Van Leeuwen (2002) describes six processes or forks that result in adult gender identity. First, chromosomal aspects of sex identify one genetically as XX (female) or XY (male). Second, the gonadal process entails the forming and development of sexual organs (testes or ovaries). Next, the hormonal dimension describes the relative amounts of specific sex hormones. Fourth, internal accessory refers to the development of the biological structures that connect the primary sex organs. This is followed by external genital, meaning the external physical sex organs (penis or vagina). And sixth is the pubertal aspect, which is related to the development of secondary sex characteristics and adult sexual identity. This demonstrates that there is not a direct connection between genetic and biological sex and one’s gender identity from a social-science perspective. Gender is defined as a social construct. This means that gender roles are defined by the society that one is in. We see a high degree of differences in gender role expectations when comparing cultures, thus indicating the social—not genetic or biological— origin of masculinity or femininity. For example, a recent editorial in Nature (2018), “US Proposal for Defining Gender Has No Basis in Science,” argues
for the biological science associated with moving from a binary understanding of sex to a continuum of sexual identity. This means that most individuals will identify with the gender traditionally associated with their sex, and there will also be some who will identify with the opposite gender than the one associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Workforce changes have also provided an impetus for a shift in gender roles. Dual-earner households represent most families today, so we must also consider the impact of this demographic. This is a crucial concern for children, since the family is the arena in which a child’s personal character and gender identity are formed. Young children are continually impacted and develop gender identity by observing the behavior and expectations of male and female figures in their lives. For this reason, we have chosen the family as the context for our discussion of changing sexual roles.
Explanations of Gender Differences For years, there has been an argument as to whether gender differences are due to heredity or environment—nature versus nurture. This controversy began with the emergence of modern science. With the development of the biological sciences, it was discovered that genetics plays a key role in determining the nature of both plants and animals. Furthermore, not only physical features but also traits of temperament were traced to the genetic packages that children inherit from their parents. Although each individual genetic package was understood to be unique, males and females were thought to possess decidedly distinctive genetic packages.
Behavioral scientists challenged this notion, explaining that gender differences are acquired after birth through cultural conditioning. Both sides of the debate initially assumed an either/or approach, arguing that gender differences are either a result of hereditary factors or a result of environmental factors. As the dividing lines between scientific disciplines have broken down, explanations for gender differences have become less of an all-or-nothing proposition. Contemporary explanations of gender differences are much more complex, and both theoretical sides point to the interactive effect between heredity and environment.
Critical theory is a sociological analysis of power in relationships. Power is based on having the resources to dominate and control and is thus always being negotiated and reconstructed to keep the dominant group (race, gender) in charge. As a sociological theory, the focus is on the relationships between men and women and how men use institutional and informal power to dominate and control women.
Central to critical theory is the idea of hegemony, the process whereby men keep power by ensuring that everyone sees the world from their point of view. While men are the dominant group and women are the subordinate group, neither of these categories is homogeneous. Only certain men have what the masculine or patriarchal ideology defines as the most desired characteristics: financial independence, physical strength, good looks, toughness, and social status. These men possess hegemonic masculinity. Men who lack these particular masculine characteristics are considered to be of lower status and may be labeled wimps or nerds.
Although all women are a part of the subordinate group, they too differ greatly in relative status. Women who possess the characteristics defined as desirable by the patriarchal ideology (i.e., a pretty face, a shapely body, emotional warmth, submissiveness) experience privilege because they approach ideal femininity. But regardless of how closely a woman approximates ideal femininity, she can never obtain hegemony, for she is not male. Theological, political, and philosophical ideologies combine to justify barring women from powerful positions. For instance, certain religious ideologies maintain that only men can occupy ecclesiastical positions that carry the greatest power.
Michael Messner (2002) provides a heuristic for evaluating the effects of evangelicals adopting hegemonic and privileged forms of masculinity and femininity, respectively. First, one should consider the cost of hegemonic masculinity and privileged femininity for evangelicals. Traditional gender ideology is oppressive to males that do not or cannot conform to hegemonic masculinity and to females that do not or cannot conform to privileged femininity. This oppression occurs at both institutional and individual levels. The second area Messner (2002) proposes for understanding the politics of masculinity concerns the benefits associated with hegemonic masculinity and privileged femininity. Those who are already in power benefit because they remain in power. As men continue to control access to resources, they will continue to receive benefits for others’ labor. Connell (2000) calls this the
patriarchal dividend; it is a way to quantify the benefits for hegemonic masculinity and privileged femininity. The final area Messner (2000) describes as being impacted in the politics of masculinity is diversity. As an example, the diversity of gender metaphors suggests that evangelicals have many options to choose from in defining their gendered identity (Bartkowski 2000, 2001, 2004; Gallagher 2003; Smith 2000). Bartkowski (2004) identifies four distinct archetypes of Christian masculinity as espoused within Promise Keeper (PK) advice manuals. These types are (1) the rational patriarch, (2) the expressive egalitarian, (3) the tender warrior, and (4) the multicultural man. Despite these diverse gender metaphors, evangelicals demonstrate a preference for the traditional family model with its concomitant gender ideology.
One concerning challenge is that critical theory will never complete or exhaust its power-dynamic analysis. Messner’s three aspects allow us to uncover increasingly hegemonic and privileged gender roles in social interactions. At this point, even the denial and questioning of the validity of critical theory is a sign of hegemonic privilege and denial of the effects of systemic oppression. Consequently, there are increasing pushes for acceptance of broader and broader categories and redefinition of gender and sexuality in the name of science without room for critical reflection or honest, data-driven dialogue.
An area of concern with critical theory is the eventual erasure of any differences between males and females and men and women. This would contradict the findings of scientists who have identified the following neurological differences between males and females (Jahanshad and Thompson 2017): (1) men tend to have larger brains than women, resulting in certain areas of the brain being larger in size but not in overall volume; (2) females’ brains develop earlier than males’, especially as they enter puberty; (3) males’ brains tend to deteriorate more quickly than females’; and (4) illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other behavioral disorders affect men and women at differential rates. Critical feminism views sex and gender as independent, and gender being a social construct means that one’s gender identity can be whatever the individual wants it to be. This means that men and women are interchangeable. This extreme form of critical feminism is at the root of the transgender debate (Strachan and Peacock 2020).
Biblical Feminism Biblical feminists are women and men who advocate legal and social
changes that would establish the political, economic, ecclesiastic, and social equality of the sexes based on the views of gender as described in the Bible. They are committed to empowering women to identify, develop, and use their gifts for the advancement of God’s reign on earth. This is to be done responsibly and without regard to sexual stereotypes.
The excellent work After Eden (Van Leeuwen et al. 1993), a book authored by a five-member study group that weds the ideas of critical feminism to biblical feminism, provides an insightful understanding of the structural barriers hindering gender equality. It also presents a biblically informed basis for gender equality as a matter of fundamental Christian justice.
Biblical feminists are committed to raising the consciousness of people within the Christian tradition. They challenge the inequality of hierarchical structures by promoting the ordination of women and gender-inclusive language in the church as well as Bible translations, by attending to the special needs of the disadvantaged poor, and by fighting against the physical and sexual abuse of women and children.
Christian feminists seek reform in and through the church. They urge Christian communities to acknowledge the human suffering of women and to find solutions. They demand that the church encourage all people, regardless of gender, to recognize and affirm that they are endowed by God with gifts and responsibilities to strive for love and justice through service to one another in all realms of life and in all parts of the world.
Organizations such as Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) have provided a strong voice for evangelicals who advocate equality for all humans. Their methods include issuing challenges, setting up remedial processes, and promoting reconciliation and change. The central difference between biblical feminism and other types of feminism is that its authority is biblical revelation. As men and women reconciled in Christ work together for worthy goals, they will transform the kingdom of God on earth.
One of the main Scriptures that speak the equalitarian understanding of gender is Galatians 3:28. It is helpful to look at this important passage in context:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might
be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into
Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:23–29)
The emphasis for biblical feminists is on how gender should not privilege or benefit anyone in the kingdom of God. God’s grace is equally applied to men and women, and both have ultimate value to God. Galatians 3:28 reminds us that any human category or division intended to privilege one group over another is obliterated in God’s just reign. All need God’s grace equally. Biblical feminists are concerned with establishing justice through living one’s faith. The essential message of CBE is stated in the introduction to its sponsored book, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy: “Gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails one’s ability to be used to advance the kingdom or to glorify God in any dimension of ministry, mission, society or family” (Pierce, Groothuis, and Fee 2005, 13).
A Radical Proposal for Reconciliation The common themes in all feminist thinking are (1) the fervent goal of
eliminating sexism and (2) the view that gender differences are the product of the fabric of society and culture. Patriarchy has been an obstacle throughout history, blocking the affirmation of women as persons. Frustrated by this obstacle, feminists see the necessity of altering the social and institutional structures that perpetuate the subordinate status of women. Liberation for both women and men from their respective restrictive roles as oppressed and oppressor is the corrective needed to overturn the damage done by patriarchal structures.
Miroslav Volf’s (1996) compassionate but tough model on forgiveness offers a powerful ideal for gender reconciliation. The theological starting point is found in the “offense of the cross.” It seems outrageous that Christ would make himself totally vulnerable on the cross to create a space in himself for those who were his enemies. Yet he opened his arms and invited the offenders in. Applying Christ’s model to the relations between men and women, Volf believes that a “reconciliation with the other will succeed only if the self, guided by the narrative of the Triune God, is ready to receive the other into itself and undertake a readjustment of its identity in light of the
other’s alterity” (110). This readjustment leads to equal acceptability and equal power between the genders as they make space for the other and move toward true reconciliation.
In this radical approach to reconciliation between men and women, Volf is careful to clarify that forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. What makes confession and repentance so powerful in this situation is the very idea that injustices are being dealt with in the presence of God. Volf’s invitation to women and men to let go of the rage and its destructive consequences that eat away at their very souls is crucial because only God can truly forgive. Of course, the choice to no longer see the other as the enemy puts one in a vulnerable position. However, it also means that one is no longer defined by the offender and that one has a new ability to remember rightly. When women and men get beyond excluding each other and reach the point of embrace, there is great hope for the future.
At the heart of the cross was Christ’s decision to heal brokenness by no longer keeping offenders as enemies. Volf offers this as a model for groups who define themselves as enemies. For just as God makes room for us, there is hope that when “guided by the indestructible love which makes space in the self for others in their alterity, which invites the others who have transgressed to return, which creates hospitable conditions for their confession, and rejoices over their presence, [women and men will with God’s help keep] re-configuring the order without destroying it so as to maintain it as an order of embrace rather than exclusion” (Volf 1996, 165).