On Biblical Gender Roles in the Progressive Camp

Austen Hartke1 Comment

Having gotten a little bit tired of the same old "women can't lead" and "men need to quit being pansies and start cracking skulls" rhetoric of much of conservative Christianity, it was with quite a bit of excitement that I recently picked up two books on biblical gender roles that I thought might share a different perspective. Over the last couple of weeks I read both Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women by Sarah Bessey and Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood by Nate Pyle, and thankfully neither one argued for the positions stated above. As a trans person and a biblical scholar, my fascination with the concept of biblical gender roles is both personal and professional. I hoped, in opening these books, that I would find not only thought-provoking study, but also (and seems like a lot to ask, I know) some theology of gender that might include me.

I began with Sarah Bessey's book on biblical womanhood, which is part autobiography, part come-to-Jesus talk about the way women have been shoved to the back of the line when it comes to church leadership and church history. Jesus Feminist does a great job of interweaving Bessey's identity as wife and mother with the stories of others who don't share those callings, and she makes sure to remind the reader several times that limiting the definition of "woman" to those who get married and care for children erases the dreams, struggles, and lives of many others who do indeed share Bessey's gender identity. Bessey's trip to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 made her reevaluate many of her previous ideas about the universality of both gender roles and American Christianity, but it only strengthened her belief in the universality of the Gospel. She says that she learned that "If [biblical womanhood] can’t be enjoyed by a woman in Haiti, or even by the woman hailed in Scripture, the same way it can by a middle-class woman in Canada, then biblical womanhood must be more than this.”

I found Bessey's candor and strength inspiring as she declared her support for women all over the world, bringing attention to issues like infant mortality in Haiti, acid attacks on women in Afghanistan, and the risk of rape and abuse of women worldwide. She says towards the end of her book that "until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist." 

There were parts of Jesus Feminist, like that very line above, that made me want to stand up and cheer. I have a lot of respect for the vulnerability Bessey displayed in telling us so much about her personal story, and I agreed with her on almost every point when it came to her serious critiques of the kind of biblical womanhood that has been put forward by conservative complimentarians. At the same time, though, I wondered whether Bessey would make a seat around her bonfire for trans women. The language used to talk about gender throughout the book was fairly standard, and Bessey didn't specifically mention women whose gender or sexuality falls outside that norm. It's true that silence is not a condemnation, but neither is it an invitation, and I had hoped to find something that might speak to all women, regardless of their gender designated at birth.

Nate Pyle's book Man Enough was next on the reading list, and though I was interested in a book on biblical womanhood, I have to say that I was downright invested in finding a book on biblical manhood that didn't start out by assuming men are sex-crazed war machines. Man Enough did not disappoint in this respect, and I was glad to see Pyle's assertion that "there is no one way to be a man. Masculinity, like humanness, is wide enough to include many different expressions of manhood.” Man Enough did several things very well--it responded to Mark Driscoll's Revelation-based theology of Jesus as conquering warrior; it broached the concept of an "anxious masculinity" that is constantly worried about social status, and it gave a textually-based defense of characteristics like gentleness and humility and joy which are associated with Jesus but aren't considered manly by our social standards. Pyle is strongest when he's talking about the Jesus we see in the Gospels, and how that model might change how we think about what it means to be a man. He points out that "if Jesus looks too feminine to us, maybe it says more about our understanding of masculinity than it does about a possible conspiracy to feminize the church and men.”

On the whole, though, Man Enough left me feeling underwhelmed, and at times frankly uncomfortable. Most of that discomfort sprang from Pyle's use of language. At first, I was glad to see this recognition:

"Even the fact that we refer to men and women as “opposite sexes” reveals the way we polarize our thoughts about men and women. If men and women are opposites, and men are powerful, then it follows that women are powerless. If women cry, then men do not. If men are strong, then women are weak.” 

The problem is that Pyle seems to forget this fact throughout most of the rest of the book. He constantly disparages the idea of being effeminate, saying that "Men live in fear of being seen as not-men. It isn’t necessarily a fear of being perceived of or thought of as a physical woman. We know there is a biological reality separating us from the opposite gender. No, we do not fear being women; we fear being likened to a woman. We fear being effeminate. Limp-wristed." He wonders, "is there room in the church for a man to be gentle in a way that is true to his personality without being seen as an effeminate version of a man?” This fear of being woman-like infers that to be a woman is to be lesser-than, and I was honestly surprised to find this sort of sentiment peppered throughout every chapter. 

Additionally, it was a little strange to find a sort of lack of consciousness about the power that men have in almost all societies. When discussing what men and women can learn from each other, Pyle says, "...Likewise, women need men to encourage them to take action in the world. Better yet, men would do well to remind women that they are powerful and that they can use that power to profoundly impact the world.” While I'm sure this came from a place of caring, and that Pyle was attempting to encourage men to encourage women, it just comes off as patronizing. The problem here is that glass ceilings and institutional patriarchal structures are keeping women from being able to take action, and keeping them from power. Telling women that they just need to believe is a little bit silly without first exhorting men, the people with more power, to give some up.

The last thing I'll critique about Man Enough is the choice to include this quote by Richard Rohr: "The contemporary experience of gangs, gender identity confusion, romanticization of war, aimless violence and homophobia will all grow unchecked, I predict, until boys are again mentored and formally taught by wise elders.” Though I agree with the conclusion Pyle was drawing here--that some kind of initiation into manhood is beneficial for young men--it's not true that the lack of it leads to confusion over gender identity. Suggesting that trans people just lack guidance in their lives belittles the incredible amount of soul searching, community building, and research that trans people must do just to survive. Though I really appreciated the expanded version of masculinity that Pyle championed in his book, based on passages like these I kind of doubt that a transgender man in Pyle's circle would feel man enough.

The biggest thing that both Jesus Feminist and Man Enough had in common was their belief that in the end our similarities as humans following Christ are more important than our gendered differences. Sarah Bessey's final word on the subject of biblical womanhood was as follows:

“And so of course we won’t define ‘biblical womanhood’ well using a list of chores or a job description, a schedule or an income level. After all, healthy God-glorifying homes look as different as the image bearers that entered into the covenant, and biblical doesn’t mean a baptized version of any culture, ancient or modern. No, I am a biblical woman because I love and move and have my being in the daily reality of being a follower of Jesus, living in the reality of being loved, in full trust of my Abba. I am a biblical woman because I follow in the footsteps of all the biblical women who came before me. Biblical womanhood isn’t so different from biblical personhood.”

Nate Pyle's conclusion regarding biblical manhood was very similar:

“The invitation isn’t about men becoming manlier, nor is it about women becoming more womanly; rather, Jesus is calling men and women to become more wholly human. Both men and women are called to imitate Christ and become like him. In Christ, we do not see the distinctions between men and women emphasized; rather, gender takes second place to imitating Christ. Both men and women are united with Christ and called to walk in Christ’s footsteps. This is why Paul writes that there is no longer male or female in Christ. He isn’t abolishing gender distinctions. He is simply pointing out that as both men and women are sanctified in Christ, they begin to exhibit similar Christlike characteristics.”

And right now, this is the niche where transgender Christians can fit most comfortably--as disciples of Jesus who seek to conform to His image, rather than the gendered images present in our culture. I hope that some day there will be a book about biblical gender roles that include people outside our current cultural binary, but for now, at least we all share a common text in scripture.