A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Scary Gender Roles

Over at the Lingamish blog, David Ker has been talking about marriage and about gender roles within it.

He describes his own position as complementarian, though to read his description of complementarianism you wouldn’t know he’s talking about the same thing as many other folks.  Traditionally, complementarianism has argued that women and men have natural, God-given roles that complement one another:  women are designed by God to bear and raise children and to accept the authority of their husbands, while men are designed by God to lead–in home, church, and society.  Men and women may be equal in God’s eyes, say complementarians, but their roles are determined by God and are not the same.  Complementarianism offers a way to claim that scripture treats women and men equally while still denying to women roles of authority over men. The Visionary Daughters, for example, espouse this understanding of gender roles.  (see my blog post)

That’s not the way David describes his own position in his post “Return of the He-Man Woman Haters.”  For example, he supports ecclesial equality—women can be gifted by God to fulfill the same roles as men.  His description of equality often blurs with the way many feminists would describe equality.

Where I most differ from David is in his claim about “natural” tendencies–the idea that by divine design all men are a certain way and all women are a certain way.  I do recognize the biological and cultural studies that point to gender/sex differences, but the claim that all people of a sex/gender HAVE to be a particular way is problematic and dangerous.  It precludes people from discerning and celebrating their unique and distinctive gifts, especially those seen to go against “nature.”  Women who are mechanically inclined or men who like to sew are treated as exceptions or even discredits to their gender.

I can tell story after story about people I know who struggle against the gender roles assigned to them.  The male student who is ashamed to tell his conservative parents that he likes to cook and that his wife likes her job.  The female student who has struggled to define her worth as a woman who is childless.  The transgender student who finds that strict male and female gender roles just don’t fit real life.

There’s nothing wrong with two people complementing each other.  Where the trouble comes in is when the role is each one is to play is pre-determined, and even worse when the pre-determined role is given divine sanction.

Here’s a humorous piece from The Onion which shows, in farce, just how hard societies (especially parents) try to make our kids fit.



6 Responses to Scary Gender Roles

  • “He describes his own position as complementarian,”

    I do?

    Truth is I find self-described complementarianism to be abhorrent. I don’t even know how to spell it half the time.

    I do affirm marriage as being between a man and a woman and the family as the core of society. But all our roles are subject to the sinful nature and need to be redeemed by God’s grace. It’s very easy for me to be Archie Bunker. And easy for my wife to be Edith.

    The “Where I differ…” paragraph is where things get most interesting. Let’s keep talking about this. And thanks as always for your friendship.

  • Julia,

    thanks for your post. it made me think about what type of marriage i am in. i used to think i was a “complementarian” but didn’t know what that meant and under what you provided, i now cringe at that.

    what model i’m thinking of is an affirming-team model. there are things Kate can do that i can’t (like math and breast-feeding) and things i can do that she can’t (like cook without a recipe and play “Guitar Hero 3” Drums on medium). we are both gifted and we feel gifted by God. we also try to make room for one another to follow those gifts and almost never consider gender roles in the process (like “this is a man’s work”).

    many ppl out there state they want to end gender-defined roles, but some are simple biological. it has also been my experience that some who claim they want to end gender roles will sometimes use the roles for their benefit when push comes to shove.

  • Aren’t all roles, by definition, complementary? In any relationship (at least the harmonious ones), each person plays a part that compliments the other(s). To call any relationship . . . especially one as intimate as marriage . . . “complementarian” is redundant. So, I hear “complementarian” as a code-word to imply progress, but only hides the reality that we are still operating under pre-determined, culturally-established patterns of relating.

    We might see it better by putting in another context. Let’s try the classroom….

    There is a pre-determined complimentary set of roles observed by teachers and students in the typical USAmerican classroom: the teacher has positional power, and the student has the power to make the teacher’s life miserable. If harmony is to be achieved each settles into their role appropriately. But if the one with the power (in this case, the teacher) chooses to give up some power – to say “I will also be a learner” – then the roles can be redefined.

    We are naive to think that couples do not come to marriage with pre-determined, culturally-shared, historically-reinforced ideas for role patterns. I think that in a marriage, those willing to give up culturally-established power can change cultural patterns (which, by the way, Jesus says is a distinction of Christian “love”, see John 13).

    Simply renaming the roles or trying to “rebrand” the system can never and will never do that.

  • can you explain your final bolded comment further?

  • I am of the opinion that giving something a new name is important to changing the way we think about something. However, if it is not followed up by new ‘practices’ . . . sustainable, lasting change is ‘iffy.’ This is especially true because the new name suggests that something is different.

    Words create worlds. And the habits surrounding those new names reinforce what is now meant by the new name. In this case, calling marriage ‘complementarian’ causes all to watch to see what that means as we live into this new brand of marriage. If behavior patterns and ways of relating never change, are still patriarchal, then ‘complementarian’ simply becomes a new name for the old pattern.

    I’m suggesting that changing the definition of roles requires actually doing what Jesus suggests . . . that partners give-up a degree of their power so as to invite the other persons into new ways of relating – into trying on new roles.

    It’s not until my wife gives up a degree of power over the kitchen that I can then begin to explore a new role as “cook.” And it’s not until I give up a degree of power as provider that my wife can begin to explore employment options perhaps even building a career. Then we can begin to build a ‘brand’ that uniquely fits our family – even if (when) it pushes against cultural patterns.

    Won’t simply giving marriage a new name without taking this posture of “Christ’s love” create strain as the one with the power expects the other partner to ‘complement’ the unchanged them?

  • I am 16 and agree whole heartedly with what you say. As a highschool student you see the ridicule faced by people who don’t conform to the gender role and the verbal abuse faced by peers. i find this article very interesting and well brought with good facts and personal opinion. Girls are supposed to be calm and not bothered by the boys obnoxious attitude. boys who were skinny jeans are often alienated. They claim to be open-minded, but really te gender role separates us. I write for a blog (RadicalParenting.com) where teen’s give advice to parents and write about issues from the kid’s perspective. We have an article called: How to Win the Gender War: Sexism and Teens [Teen Article]
    come check it out!
    Domini Cherry

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