I’ve never understood the Evangelical preoccupation with “gender roles,” a phrase that Jesus never even mentions. The word “role” is defined as: 1) A part or character played by an actor or actress. 2) A proper or customary function. 3) The rights, obligations, and expected behavior patterns associated with a particular social status. It’s a word I don’t want to associate with my faith for several reasons. For one, I am cautious of following any type of socialized expectation without critical examination simply because of someone else’s implied standards of what they think is “normal,” “proper,” or “right” rather than fostering freedom for individuals to be their true created selves. The Jesus I worship did not adhere to societal expectations, but carved an identity that touched those who weren’t supposed to be touched, spoke to those who were not to be spoken to, and ate with those whom were not supposed to be given his company. And thank God he didn’t bend to what his society deemed appropriate, because otherwise there are women who would have never been touched or taught, people who would still be sick and unhealed, and there would not have been communication between “high” and “low” classes or cross-cultures (Samaritans and Judeans).
But perhaps my biggest problem with “roles” is that all of this leads to a show. I’m not trying out for a play; I’m showing up for my life. Therefore I don’t have a “prescribed role” to follow, line by line, scene by scene, for the applause of an audience of conservative Evangelical men. So putting on a “role” of who I “should” be instead of who I truly feel I am is disingenuous. Instead of carving out a subversive identity like Christ did, I fear that some circles of Evangelical culture contribute to this pretentious, shallow, unfulfilling “show” by its restrictive teachings on gender. Here in lies some of my experiences.
It was 2005 and I was a bright-eyed, eyes wide open, Division 1 collegiate swimmer in my freshmen year of college. I was feeling alive physically, mentally and spiritually in ways never before. That is, until I decided to read the entire Bible and gasped over passages in which Paul starts talking about women needing to be quiet in church and submissive to men. Trying to slough it off, I picked up some books on my college ministry’s recommended reading list. I picked up “Captivating” by Stasi Eldridge and was told that “every girl longs to be rescued and to be a princess.” Sorry, I was taught that the only person who could “rescue me” was Jesus and I’ll stick to that.
Enter sophomore year. This marked the beginning of wrestling with “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” It was the year in which I cringed when I heard a guy from this same college ministry tell me that a female pastor was out of God’s will and her career choice was a sin.
It was the year in which one of the men in this particular ministry called me “to talk to me about something.” I made my way down to the college lounge, hair wet from swim practice, only to be told that when I wore a tank top (during that hot, 95 degree move-in day in August 2006), I “caused him to stumble.” He asked me repeatedly if I would please not wear tank tops anymore. I told him, “sorry, but I work out and when I sweat, I’d rather not have sweat stains.” What I really wanted to say was to please stop telling me it’s my fault that you’re stumbling. If you keep tripping, go grab some crutches, “man up,” and deal with your own sexuality instead of blaming me for the “feelings” you have (or a boner).
It was the year in which I was told from a male group bible study leader one cold, January evening that women were fine china and men were sturdy pots and that 1 Peter 3 meant that I had to be content with being fine china and embody a calm, gentle spirit. And in that moment of sitting in that guy’s apartment living room, with a fine china glass glaring me in the face, being told that’s what my gender is: essentially, fragile, I felt an aloneness and righteous anger that I will never forget. You see, my Bible study leader didn’t see that glass stare him in the face after working out in a weight room and swimming pool for five hours that day. He didn’t wake up at 6 a.m. to work out for two hours, only to return at 2:30 for another three. Or bench 90% of his body weight that day. Instead, this individual was inside all day preparing to tell me that the Bible says I’m fine china. When this Bible study night of oppression was over, I walked out of this guy’s apartment, tears warming my eyes as I trudged back to my apartment, imbued to only work twice as hard the next day, with each kick of my leg in the pool wanting to shout, “I AM NOT FINE CHINA!!!” For crying out loud, I am a Child of God. I happened to have developed two x chromosomes sometime in utero, before I had fingers and toes, thus making me a woman. My call is to love God and love others, no different from you. And so with a galvanizing spirit from that day forward, I vowed to pray. To serve. To love. To be strong. To benchpress. To dream. I will s o a r. I will continue on with this journey, ok with being contrary, if that’s what it takes.
And that’s exactly that it takes. Fast forward another year to summer 2007, the day before a dear friend’s wedding. The afternoon before the ceremony, a group of guys and girls affiliated with the wedding party went down to a lake for a picnic. Before we left the house, we had a pow-wow in which the guys requested that we wear a one piece bathing suit, no two pieces please. But it didn’t end at that. They then went on about “causing them to stumble” and requested that we not even wear bathing suits at all; we should wear a shirt and shorts to swim in the lake that day. I kept my mouth shut. Being a swimmer, I don’t have this feeling towards swimwear. A short car ride later, we arrive at the lake, dressed in our “bathing suits,” while the boys took off their shirts and splashed through the water in their swim trunks to their hearts content. Toward the end of the afternoon, we took pictures of us making pyramids. The guys had their shirts off, hairy (and not so hairy) chests completely exposed. The girls had their shirts on. And shorts. No swim wear. Just clothes that were supposed to count as such.
Upon graduating college and eventually moving back to Baltimore, I tried my best to find a church community with whom to devote quality time in involvement, but knew it was my queue to leave when there was an entire sermon on “the three P’s” in which men were instructed to be pastors, providers, and protectors to their wives. I met sincere, genuine people at this church, whom I respect and am grateful to have had in my life, but that was a clear signal that this was not the church for me to heal from restrictive gender roles.
And so I’m still trying to find my way; trying my best to keep a straight face through friends’ weddings in which “submission,” and “obey” have been used, but reached a bubbling point in 2011. I sat in the back row of a quaint church, tears streaming down my face, not because I was moved by the wedding, but because I was hurt. The pastor spoke about “knowing your roles.” I watched the groom, who I used to have a crush on (now grateful for God’s ways being higher than my ways when it comes to relationships!) listen to how he was instructed to be the leader of his wife, and I watched as the smiley wife’s eyes glittered as she was instructed to respect her husband’s leadership and to honor and encourage him. I walked out of the wedding ceremony swiftly, in hopes no one would see me, lest I attract attention to my tears rather than the wedding celebration. My boyfriend walked back with me to my car, putting his arm around my shoulder, to which I responded half angrily, half fearfully, “you don’t believe that stuff, do you?” “That’s not what you’re looking for, is it?” “Noo, babe, noo.” I was reassured. It made me question my faith all over again, not God and Jesus, but Church and Christianity and especially Evangelicalism. I couldn’t understand how this teaching at all correlated with the way Jesus lived, and couldn’t comprehend why she was being told that her new life mission was to honor her husband because that’s her “Biblical calling.”
And another “Biblical calling,” according to Evangelist John Piper, is to recognize that “God gave God gave Christianity a masculine feel,” as he proclaimed at the 2012 Desiring God: God, Manhood & Ministry – Building Men for the Body of Christ Conference.
So for many years I was slowly brewing inside with all of this, but after graduating college, I was no longer sad, in fact I was angry, and I’m not sure which I would rather feel, but perhaps the greatest feeling of all that I am JUST starting at this moment of my life to taste is FREEDOM.
Thankfully, I’ve gotten connected to organizations such as Christians for Biblical Equality and subscribed to the blogs of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans and other women and organizations who are stepping out in faith to promote gender equality and have taken the time to dismantle the contextual aspects of scripture that entangle dissension and debate all too frequently.
Thankfully, I’m no longer cringing in my seat as a college student, behooved with anger but too afraid to speak up upon being repeatedly instructed that women needed to be willing to be led and should say yes to every guy who asks them out because they are demonstrating Godly courage (Where again, does Jesus say this in the Bible?).
I’m not in my seat anymore.
I’m not angry at the megaphone.
I’m somewhere in between.
And I think it’s called freedom.
And though I still have much to learn, much to mature upon, much to learn about Christian unity in relation to voicing freedom from gender roles, I am learning how to let go of the lap bar and wave my hands in the air on this rollercoaster, no longer entertaining gender role dress rehearsals. And. I. Love. It.