Below is an essay written by an anonymous Cedarville student. She does an excellent job of expressing her view of womanhood and egalitarianism with support from logic, ethics, and Scripture. She rightly points out how important it is for women to come to an understanding of their purpose, especially in an environment that twists it as Cedarville does. We hope you enjoy her writing as much as we did! -CI staff
I’m afraid to write this essay, but I want to write this essay, not to defend my opinion, to highlight women at the depreciation of men, to interpret Scripture wrongly or, worse, to make my commentary about Scripture higher than the written word itself, but to allow men and women to hear me wrestle with societal and Christian concerns over manhood and womanhood. I want my heart, my desire not to denounce anyone who has a different understanding of gender expression than me, to be felt on these pages, and yet, I want to challenge the people I feel like denouncing through my pursuit to destroy the essentialization of manhood and womanhood.
I never considered that my very womanness could limit my ability to follow God’s calling in my life until I arrived at Cedarville University’s campus in the Fall of 2018. I confess that I, a student at a complementarian-oriented Baptist university, come from a Vineyard church, with an egalitarian doctrine that regards Christian ministry through service and evangelism instead of authority and headship, freeing men and women to preach, work, and or stay in the home as they follow God’s calling for their lives. So I didn’t understand how large the gender role foe in Christianity was until what one of my Bible professors said my freshman year, something I wrote in the margins of my class notes, kept churning in my mind, begging me to critically juxtapose his words with Scripture. This Bible professor said that men are leaders, lovers, providers, and protectors and that women are honorable and honoring, nurtured and nurturing.
If I was more confrontational, I would tell him that the very verbiage of his description gives men more agency as the nouns he uses to describe men are active, present tense, and while he gives women two identifying nouns that are also active, present tense, his use of honorable makes the supporting adjective sound like a woman’s supporting role, and his use of nurtured, a past tense verb, objectifies women as something that needs taken care of, by men, as the providers.
My Bible professor’s comment relates well to traditional gender role expressions in American society, but his description is historically limited. Nancy Pearcey talks about how men and women worked together before the Industrial Revolution, with home-front businesses, defying modern gender stereotypes. When the Industrial Revolution pulled men away from their homes, from their wives and children, to work long days in noisy factories, men assumed a new role as the main provider for their families. Women were excluded from the public sphere as they had to remain in their homes, the private sphere, in order to take care of their families, while men were away. Real men became breadwinners. Real women became housewives. This separate spheres’ concept highlights how so much of gender expression may be culturally-constructed rather than biblically-based, but Nancy Pearcey’s dogma primarily emphasizes how society’s essentialization of manhood and womanhood restricts women, leaving me to mull over what men have done and continue to do to limit what women can or can’t do instead of encouraging me to value the image of God in men around me.
Perhaps my Bible professor would agree that the gender roles he described could be attributes for all men and women. I think of how Jacob honored Rachel, how Jesus honored the woman at the well, how Isaac nurtured Jacob, how Gauis nurtured Paul, how Deborah led the Israelites, how Phoebe led the church in Cenchreae, how Michal protected David, how Rahab protected the Israelites, how Ruth loved Boaz, and how Joanna and Mary Magdalene provided funding for Jesus’ ministry. And while I don’t want to believe that my Bible professor would ignore those examples or claim that men or women in the Old Testament or Apostolic Age may have had more unique roles, his clear distinctions between men and women force gender into narrow categories, determined more by societal stereotypes than biblical authority.
Maybe part of the problem with his description is that men are told how to be leaders and lovers and protectors and providers in a certain way, making interactions with women in their lives who may act as leaders and lovers and protectors and providers in the ways that they have been taught to act make men uncomfortable and intimidated, as if non-gender bound women threaten their identity as men. I wonder what the world would be like if Christian men and women noticed how the Bible does not essentialize biblical manhood and womanhood, how they would no longer feel constrained by an apparent gender role or threatened when that identity is attacked.
Maybe the classist example James uses to condemn the distinctions men and women have made among themselves in chapter 2 applies to gender as he claims that God chooses the poor in the world, those who are oppressed and beaten down and socially inferior, as the ones who can be rich in faith and heirs of His kingdom. And maybe women have been especially oppressed, beaten down, and socially inferior throughout history. But what if women’s gender expression restriction isn’t new? After Adam and Eve ruined the possibility of living in complete harmony with each other and God by doing the very thing God told them not to do, God cursed the serpent because he deceived Eve, and He cursed the ground because Adam disobeyed Him, but while He tells Eve that her labor pain will increase and that her husband will rule over her despite the fact that her desire will be contrary to his, God does not preface His explanation of the consequences of sin to her as a curse. God does not blame Eve for taking on a leadership role in the garden by offering Adam a piece of fruit, and He does not blame her for being deceived by the serpent, like he blames Adam, for his intentional, undeceived disobedience. Instead, He tells Eve that her unintended sin has negative, long lasting consequences for womankind.
Complementarians interpret God’s assertion in Genesis 3:16 that “he [Adam and husbands and men] shall rule over you [Eve and wives and women]” as a prescriptive command of God, but I don’t believe that God would create an unfair and unequal establishment for how men and women should interact, based upon men’s supposed role to rule over women. Egalitarians believe that God’s assertion is a description of the consequence of sin, the sin-broken relationship between Adam and Eve, husbands and wives, men and women. I understand that both complementarians and egalitarians agree that men and women are equal, that they are just as valued by God, but complementarian men who act as if their manhood allows them to have more authority over women distorts the very equality they preach and defaces the image of God in men and women. And yet egalitarian women who subdue men, who teach in a domineering manner, like Paul warns against in 1 Timothy 2:12, similarly tarnish God’s image as their motivation for equality becomes an effort to avenge their oppression rather than to promote peace between themselves and men. The helper God created for Adam was a complementary partner, not a subordinate servant, made from the same material as Adam’s body rather than from the ground, highlighting Eve’s complete embodiment of and participation in Adam’s humanity and God’s design for men and women, mutual equals, to work together as they follow God.
And so I, like Catherine Booth asserts in Female Ministry: Or, Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel in 1859, still don’t understand why a woman’s voice is stifled in church if men and women are meant to use their unique gifts and talents to glorify God and further His kingdom. I hear my aunt tell her daughter not to run, to close her legs, and to act like a lady, but watching my apostolic cousin grow up without being allowed to wear short sleeves, without being allowed to wear pants, without being allowed to wear jewelry, without being allowed to put on makeup, all in the name of Christianity, hurts. Entire religious denominations set standards for men and women based on their interpretations of 1 Timothy 2, hindering women from freedom of expression, outside of gendered constraints. Although my aunt at least interprets 1 Timothy 3 consistently, yet dangerously literally, I wonder how complementarians might embrace women in leadership if they interpreted 1 Timothy 3:12 like 1 Timothy 3:9-10, in context, as culturally relative and therefore, not a prescriptive command for all women at all times.
I’ve spent the last four years trying to understand the impact of my freshman Bible professor’s off-hand comment about gender. I’ve spent the last few weeks writing this essay in disarray, scouring the library and the internet for examples of great Christian women who can shock complementarian men, reading various interpretations of controversial biblical passages regarding gender roles, reflecting upon my own church’s thriving men’s ministry and head female pastor, researching how gender expression has changed, and synthesizing reviews for books like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart and Captivating and Shaunti Feldhahn’s For Men Only and For Women Only, attempts to essentialize biblical manhood and womanhood, but most of my notes didn’t make it into this essay. I could keep writing about this subject because I believe that the church’s theology on gender is incomplete, more reliant upon culture than God’s word. But any theology, any man-made interpretation, even my own essentialization of manhood and womanhood through my desire to de-essentialize gender roles, is affected by sin and can never perfectly explain God’s perfect intent. But as I keep striving after God’s will for my life, I will not allow what society or Christian culture or my freshman Bible professor says about my femininity to prevent me from being who He has called me to be.