Monday, February 11, 2008

Gender Identity and the Problem with "Biblical Womanhood"

Officially, the next post in my series on women in the Kingdom of God is supposed to address women in the Old Testament narratives. I have started and stopped that post a number of times. Therefore, as a result of my apparent lack of motivation to complete it, I offer the following post early: a summation of what I perceive to be the problem(s) with the contemporary evangelical concept of "biblical womanhood." (For those just joining this conversation, please see my first, second, and third posts in the series.)

Before considering the matter of so-called "biblical womanhood," it is important that we discuss the nature of gender identity in general. This matter is both deep and wide, with voluminous literature devoted to it. But, the following is a summation of my conclusions about gender, in conversation with the writings of Miroslav Volf and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen.

Although debates continue over the full definition and origin of gender, there is universal agreement that, at the very least, gender is based upon one’s physical body and one’s cultural environment. From a biological standpoint, the human body carries the permanent marks of belonging either to the male or female sex. Genesis testifies that God designed human beings as a distinctly male and female in their physical bodies (Gen 2:21-25). There are rare times when these marks are mixed or obscured, but such exceptions are few and they reinforce the norm. As a result, men and women’s gender identities are grounded in and, to an extent, limited by the permanent details of their sexed bodies.

From a sociological standpoint, human beings with sexed bodies develop their gender identities from within a specific culture or cultures. This accounts for the way in which notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” vary in cultures over time and space. In one sense, such notions of are fixed, as cultural expectations for gender become embedded in economic, political, and religious practices. In another sense, though, notions of gender can be fluid, able to be influenced and altered through changes in culture and subcultures. As a result, gender identity has significant flexibility depending upon cultural contexts, but ultimately the distinctions of the male and female bodies provide a foundation of stability.

We should note, however, that the human bodies, marked by sexual distinctions, are not neutral or passive with respect to the way in which gender is constructed. Societies place value upon and interpret the sexed human bodies in ways in that inform our understanding of gender. For example, in years past, it was thought that the "soft hands" of women determine their fate as protective caregivers, while their "breasts" indicate that motherhood is the fulfillment of their being. The truth is, there is no way to objectively "read" the content of gender identity from the human body, because all such "readings" are culturally dependent interpretations.

At the same time, it is a permanent experience of humanity that men and women continue to live as men and women--a duality that persists despite cultural and sociological changes over time. It is because of the permanence of the sexed body over time that we can continue to speak of gender identity at all. Still, while there will always be men and women, differentiated by their sexed bodies, there is no "essence" to their gender identities, no unchangeable form of "masculinity" and "femininity." Instead, in the words of Van Leeuwen, we experience, "constant invention and reinvention of gender roles" and gender identity.

But, as many readers will object, this leaves the content of gender identity unspecified, which implies that "anything goes." Should not Christians seek to determine gender identity by listening to what the Bible says? That is, should we not collate and examine the biblical statements about men and women, seek to reconstruct biblical "manhood" and "womanhood," and then apply these conclusions to our context? My short answer to this question is, No. But, let me explain more fully why I believe this approach is oversimplified and wrong-headed.

First, it must be acknowledged that any such conceptions of biblical "manhood" and "womanhood" is dependent upon a great diversity of male and female characters and roles in the Bible. This diversity simply cannot make for an axiomatic, divinely sanctioned model, but reflects culturally situated examples, accounts of the lifelong "ups and downs" of men and women who sought to live out the will of God for their lives within specific settings. Moreover, even the didactic teaching regarding the behavior of men and women, particularly in the Pauline epistles, is culturally (and missionally) situated and dependent upon a specific historical environment.

In the words of Volf, "This is not to say that the biblical construals of what men and women (of what men and women as men and women) should or should not do and be are wrong, but that they are of limited normative value in a different cultural context, since they are of necessity laden with specific cultural beliefs about gender identity and roles." Make sure you read that sentence again, very carefully. I am not saying that the Bible's diversity of male and female persons and roles is unhelpful and/or wrong. I am saying that the Bible's diversity of examples of men and women interacting with God and his will are of "limited normative value"--that is to say, they are limited in their value as universal examples or ideals of what all men and women everywhere ought to do and be.

For example, the experiences of Hagar and Deborah with God and men are significantly different from each other. Which experience should become normative for Christian women? Which one serves as the ultimate example of what "biblical womanhood" essentially is? For the reasons just described, I would say, Neither. The same is true in the New Testament cases of Junia and Dorcas. The first is called an "apostle" by Paul (Rom 16:7), which indicates a significant amount of leadership and authority, while the second is known for her service to the poor (Acts 9:36). Which embodies the "biblical woman"? Again, the answer is, Neither.

Now, if the project of collating and examining the biblical statements about men and women, in order to reconstruct biblical "manhood" and "womanhood," is wrongheaded, then what is the alternative? Does this mean that even in Christianity, as far as "manhood" and "womanhood" is concerned, anything goes? Again, I would answer, No.

Instead of setting up faulty, culturally conditioned ideals of femininity and masculinity from our readings of scripture, I concur with Volf that followers of Jesus should view gender identity as rooted in the sexed bodies God gave human beings and allow the social construction of gender to work itself out, all the while guided by the vision of the identity of and relations between the members of the Godhead. What this means is that men and women of God should seek to define themselves and negotiate their relationship to one another based upon the example of Jesus Christ and the life of the Triune God.

For example, just as the members of the Godhead--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--are not without the other, so also men and women are not without the other (see 1 Cor 11:11). In the Lord Jesus, the interdependence of men and women is affirmed and upheld. In the words of Volf, "To be a woman means to be a human being of the female sex who is 'not without man;' to be a man means to be a human being of the male sex who is 'not without woman.'" This mindset should produce a mutual love, respect, and humility among all male-female relations in the body of Christ.

OK, so what's the practical point of all this? Now that we've discussed gender identity and the mistaken notion of "biblical manhood and womanhood," what are we to take away and put into practice?

Based on all of the above, it is my conclusion that the universal "standards" of "manhood" and "womanhood"--the character to which men and women of God are to attain--should be derived from the person and work of Christ and his Holy Spirit in us. That is to say, for example, the "biblical" man and woman, through cooperation with and surrender to the Spirit, will produce the fruit of the Spirit. The godly man and woman will be the kinds of people who naturally love their enemies, bless those who curse them, refrain from lust, speak what is true, and refuse to misuse others for their own sake. The man and woman of God will, with discernment, put the needs of others above their own, and seek always to do that which will produce freedom for the Spirit in the body of Christ. Now that's my idea of "biblical manhood and womanhood"!


traveller said...

Emily, this is an interesting approach to the subject. While I had thought of this in much the same way as you express in terms of the Trinity, not in such depth as you state it.

I agree with your conclusion. Thank you for your excellent thoughts. Those vegetables are giving your brain some powerful thoughts.

allhokie said...

I agree that the diversity of men and women and their roles and relationships to God and each other make it difficult for the Bible to be normative. Whatever story or example you pick, there's an opposite or contrast to it. The notions of biblical manhood or biblical womanhood or even the biblical family are all tricky at best or just plain impossible. Where else can we look, and where else should we look, but to God himself and the example of community in the Trinity.

Anonymous said...

You seem to say that both genders have the same identity, but one that is flexible enough to include not only the differences between men and women, but between all the different individuals in the church. I agree to an extent, but surely there is more? You say that a man needs a women and a women a man, whatever their roles happen to be that year, but it seems to me that the bible gives more help. In the example of Jesus and his Church. On another front it seems reasonable to me that not only do the hormones and different genes affect the body, but also the mind too, however flexible it is, so perhaps there is a place for biology in sexual identity, if a very cautious one, and one that can be easily overridden by the miraculous specifics of Gods plan.
Oh and what translation gives Junias as a women? My bible says "these men"!
Anyway, above all else, pretty much as you have said, the cornerstone of our identity is Jesus in us, and doing as he does in the world!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for your comments. Regarding Junia, I would encourage you to compare your Bible translation to many others. Be assured, the Greek name Junian should be recognized as female (hence, "Junia" not "Junias"). There is no such name as "Junia" for a man in antiquity, but plenty of women. Bible translators missed this one for years and didn't begin to change their tune until the 1970s. It is likely that Andronicus and Junia were a husband-wife pair and Paul calls them "foremost among the apostles." Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Grace and peace to you,


UnderMidnight said...

It's amazing how socialized we are into gender roles.
before industrialization, both men and women tended to the house as it was both the source of food production and sometimes where a family business made its money.

The internet makes things interesting. For instance, in the bulimic community I'm in I am automatically assumed to be a woman by people who don't know me, which is a very unusual feeling for one who is a member of the privileged sex.
I think the bible reflects its contemporary gender conditions rather than dictates them...mostly. But the hegemony likes to use anything that will help it cling to its power.