Three stories in the news this week raise the question of what it means to be a real man or woman. First came the story of 8-year-old Sunnie Kahl who would have been described in the past as a “tomboy”, for she enjoys things that are typical of boys her age and not so typical of girls. Her grandparents (and legal guardians) withdrew her from the Timberlake Christian School in Virginia, USA after receiving a letter that included this paragraph:
We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behaviour need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.
Then on Saturday I read an article in the Weekend Australian titled “Blessed are…the cage fighters”. It told of a documentary about half a dozen pastors who lead churches that include “mixed martial arts-a form of fighting renowned for its brutality. Bouts take place in cages, and blend more than a dozen combat sports, including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and jujitsu”. One of the pastors wins a bout by choking his opponent unconscious. The article reports that “Several of the believers in the film fear that Christianity has become emasculated, and has lost its appeal for young men.” Apparently it is masculine to engage in extreme violence?!
Finally all over the news was the High Court’s decision to recognise non-specific gender, that is, people whose sex is not clearly male or female.
What are we to make of all this? It seems to me we need to distinguish between biological sex, that is whether a person is physiologically male, female or indeterminate; sexual identity, that is, whether a person identifies as a male, a female, or intersex/transgendered; and cultural expectations around gender, that is how we believe a male or female should dress and behave. Unfortunately there is a tendency that is particularly pronounced in conservative Christianity that conflates these.
As I read the Bible, it affirms that God created humankind with sexual distinction but the gospel it proclaims completely relativises the significance of this for personhood. The world of biblical times had very clear constructions of gender. Men and women were seen as radically distinct and clear expectations were placed around their dress and behaviour. The New Testament does something quite extraordinary with this. It functions from the premise that in Christ “there is no male and female” (Galatians 3:28). People are not defined by their gender/sex but by the fact that they belong to Christ. Being human is about being conformed to the image of Christ, which is focused upon character and purpose. There is not a separate set of virtues for men and women. Rather the Spirit of God works to produce a common set of characteristics within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, and the like (Galatians 5).
This provides a radical reframing of cultural expectations of “male” and “female” behaviour. For the New Testament writers these become not a mandatory part of personhood but the context within which one lives out the character and calling of Christ. Men and women are instructed to live out culturally defined roles not because they matter but precisely because they don’t. If you were a married woman in the 1st century church you were encouraged to play the culturally assigned role of a good wife, that is one who submitted to her husband, but to do so in a way that gave expression to the character of Jesus. If you were a married man in the 1st century church you’re encouraged to play the culturally assigned role of a good husband, that is one who ruled over his household, but to do so in a way that gave expression to the character of Jesus.
Jesus himself calls women to follow him just as he called men. Though it is not often recognised, the Gospels speak of women followers who left their homes and their households to follow Jesus around Israel. In doing this they radically defied cultural expectations of women.
So it would seem that on the one hand the New Testament writers affirm cultural expectations of men and women, but on the other hand feel quite free to ignore these when they stand in the way of men and women expressing the character of Christ and living out the calling of Christ. You can only do this if those cultural expectations lack any great significance to who we are. The situation seems to be the same as their approach to slavery. If you’re a slave and you can gain your freedom do so, but if not, slavery can still be the context in which you live out your full and complete humanity. It does not define you.
The gospel calls us to stop defining people in terms of their gender, social status, and race. Personhood is defined by our common humanity and calling to live as people who reflect the character and the purposes of Christ. We should recognise definitions of masculinity and femininity for what they are, nothing more than cultural constructs we can either choose to live within or to reject, and should reject at those points they conflict with our calling to follow Jesus. Consequently I don’t think there is any Christian vision of “masculinity” or “femininity”. Just the call to become like Jesus.
When Timberlake Christian school calls young girls to a particular version of being feminine it has missed the significance of the gospel. When those US pastors seek to identify masculinity with violence they contradict the gospel, for Jesus calls us to love our enemy and turn the other cheek. What matters is not the social constructions of gender that we receive, but whether or not we are living out the virtues of Christ and seeking first the kingdom of Christ.