“Women Are Fine China” and Other Misconceptions of “Christian Gender Roles”

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?).

No.

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.

Rachel Held Evans depicts the pitfalls of literal Biblical interpretation— http://www.rachelheldevans.com

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For Those Who’ve Ever Cringed Through a Wedding Ceremony

This is for everyone who’s ever sat through a wedding service, cringing in their seat over the hurtful, debilitating, limiting words they’ve heard from the preacher, whether about gender limitations, or salvation of some and damnation of others, or both.

This is for everyone who’s ever sat through a church service, for that matter, and shaken in their in their pew, anger slowly boiling up in them, unsure whether they will cry or give voice to their righteous anger.

For anyone who’s ever been to a convention, women’s conference, meeting, or bible study, for that matter, and been told over and over again that Jesus died for you, but were never taught what he lived for. Who’ve been taught that God finds us so utterly, distastefully sinful and so despicable that we can’t even catch a glance at Him without the blood sacrifice of another human being. Because God’s punishment is death when you mess up, make a mistake, or sin. A loving Earthly Father would be jailed for punishing a child in such a manner. I find all of this rhetoric to be a bit of a hyperbole, because the God I know told me I’m made in His image, and like my Earthly Dad, I don’t need to be beaten, spanked, or die when I mess up. Knowing I’ve disappointed him is the ultimate punishment for me in itself because I hate it when I disappoint someone I love so much.

This is for days like today, in which I’m outside on a beautiful autumn day, sitting in a cushioned seat at a wedding, while a white socially conservative Evangelical man purports that this man up front, about to become a husband, is this woman’s leader. And she, the wife, is to submit to his leadership while he “lovingly leads her” and “leads his family as head of the home.”

For days in which the preacher man then describes God’s design for marriage with Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 to designate the husband as a head of a wife and his family instead of Jesus’ words to “love God, love one another, and love others.” I don’t understand why Evangelical preachers focus on gender so much during a ceremony, when Jesus never once used the terms “gender roles” or “submission to male leadership.” I don’t understand why the preacher asks an adult female, who has already consented to marriage, “Who gives this woman to be the bride?” in which the father, not the mother, then states “her mother and I do.” The Jesus I know offers choices and reminds me to grow up in maturity. I don’t need permission from anyone. Even if a woman actually needed permission, why wouldn’t the husband need permission too? Never mind. Someone’s probably going to retort a verse about leaving and cleaving instead of actually affirming equal decision making capabilities among spouses.

A service in which the preacher mentions not once, not twice, but three times in the same half hour service that marriage is between one man and one woman. We heard you the first time, actually, sir. And it doesn’t make you “right” simply because you repeated this three times with a stolid, authoritative glare and had “reverend” in front of your printed name in the wedding ceremony bulletin.

In which the preacher declares that “sin isn’t discussed often enough in the world” and I internally have to remind himself that this is his opinion, which he is entitled to, but it’s just that- an opinion; not etched in stone cement fact.

In which you must shake the hand of this preacher man who just finished stunting your entire gender as you exit the recessional, only to be seated across from this same preacher at the reception table afterwards.

And this, then, is when things start to turn around. Loud sound pours through the speakers and the first song ushering the crowd onto the dance floor is Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT.” You rise to your feet and start singing it at the top of your lungs, in wild, reckless abandon, glancing over to eye this preacher man in the face, as if to remind him to respect the strength, knowledge, power, and VOICE that women have, alongside of men, and that this preacher man’s words will not resound as the only possible way for a woman to be a Christian woman, for we are in an era of freedom and grace and this girl, alongside so many other women and girls, has Kingdom life ready to bust out of her veins to quickly remind other females that you don’t have to adhere to any “role” some white man tells you to… for you have brains in your head, passions in your heart, and your relationship with God to reveal who you are and who you can become.

This is for Jesus’s words in which he asks us to, “be one, like I am one with God, to complete unity.” And to “love your enemies.” “Do good to those who disagree with you.” Because we’re all in this together, even if we come to different understandings.

This is for gathering around the table, the same table, with that preacher man and the rest of the body of believers, and sharing in the same cup, partaking in the same bread, whispering a  prayer to the same God, realizing that our God is bigger than the divisions we’ve created.

This is for unity without passive agreement to everything “Christian” that you hear.

This is for asking questions. Lots of them. Any of them you’d like.

This is for speaking up, recognizing that your voice is equal to that preacher man’s, regardless of title, gender, professional studies, or social beliefs.

You see.

There’s a place, there on that same dance floor that Aretha was singing out from earlier, that’s big and open and free.

A place you can go to physically, or carry within your heart on days in which you feel stuck hearing another message that doesn’t ring true of your study of scripture, who God says s/he is, that is subtly being used to denote a hierarchy of gender.

We’re in that place with you.

It’s this wide open field.

Some of us do cartwheels here.

Others, handstands.

And some of us just like to sit on our backs, gazing up at the sky, deciphering the shapes of puffy, white clouds against a contrast of ocean blue, while warm zephyrs tickle your face and the tip of your nose.

We love each other here.

We offer freedom here.

There’s more of us out here than you think.

Look around.

We exist.

We sit in church pews next to you, putting our arms around you when  they tell you that the Muslim woman on the tv screen suffering in Saudi Arabia from gender based violence, rape, female genital mutilation or human trafficking, is, undoubtedly going to Hell, banished from God forever. We know that all you want to do is hug this woman and sit down with her, like Jesus would have, and listen to her story, her pain, her dreams, her brokenness and affirm her strength and dignity and that God knows her heart, her beautiful, pained, but still resilient heart that’s being redeemed by the Healer of the World. This is what happens when we embrace. When we engage in loving kindness and this is how we make Jesus visible. Not through forecasting doom and hell and who’s “in,” and who’s “out,” as if you are the gatekeeper.

We sit beside you in wedding services that often feel unbearable and oppressive.

We dwell inside of you, the voice that longs to be heard, to be voiced, to be understood.

I promise you, there’s more voices than you think.

You just have to be courageous and dare to believe that the God you worship is big enough to hold you, those you disagree with, room for all of us… to believe that God is big enough for our questions, our doubts, and differing interpretations and studies of scripture.

We have a dance floor too out here in this open space.

And our song is freedom.

We’d love for you to sing along.

We will comfort you when you are cringing in your seat, in disbelief of what you are hearing.

We will listen to your questions and share some of our own.

We will help you find new places and ways to worship, places in which you are free to express your thoughts, feelings, opinions, ideas, longings, and aren’t restricted by an authoritarian, intransigent pastor.

We will cheer you on when you speak up for the first time.

We will support you when it feels like no one else is.

You don’t have to be afraid here.

You don’t have to submit to one of your fellow, Earthly, breathing, pulsating human beings here.

You don’t have to vote any particular way.

You are free to love whomever you love, irrespective of gender.

We are people of grace. We are people of second chances. And third. And ninety nineth. We’ll come back to find you if you lose yourself along the way.

We are people who are willing to stand, or at least try to stand, in the face of those who try to tie boxes around you, dismantle your voice, stereotype you, or shame you.

We are outsiders, on the fringe, and our God has brought us into inclusion.

Instead of shrinking and succumbing to words of preachers who try to tame your gender, passions, feelings, and questions, we ask that you speak out.

You are needed.

You are wanted.

You are welcomed.

We want your presence. The world will be stronger because of it.

We want your voice. The world will be more courageous because of it.

We want your song. Whether it composes a beautiful cacophony choir of Aretha Franklin’s R-e-s-p-e-c-t or the song we have yet to hear because you only sing it alone in your shower, where no one can judge you or tell you you’re not good enough. We’re here to tell you it is good enough. In fact, we’d like an encore.

Enough of walking on eggshells.

Enough trying to please everybody.

Enough division.

Enough of the disrespect and incivility.

Come, let’s lock arms together, you, and me, the preachers who are willing, all of us, each of us, each of us who recognizes the Image of God in ALL of us, not just some.

Let’s run.

Let’s laugh.

And instead of debating and arguing and trying to convince your “rightness,” and their “wrongness,” hop on the dance floor. Put on your boogie shoes. Play your funky music, [white/black/Asian/Indian/whatever culture you identify with] –[girl/boy/man/woman/transgender/whoever you are, wherever you come from.]!

Because you can’t argue and dance at the same time.

And remember, the place we’re headed- we’ve already been told there will be dancing and merriment.

Some come on.

Dance. Dance with somebody who loves you.

Turns out there’s a lot of us.

When Calories Have a Gender

I was driving home yesterday only to be greeted with a Dr. Pepper  radio advertisement emphatically proclaiming that their new soda has “10 manly calories” and that “it’s not for women,” so I can “keep my romantic comedies and lady drinks.”

How can an inanimate object like a beverage have a gender? I wondered.

How can calories be “manly” or “womenly” for that matter? I mused.

Thinking more expansively, I pondered, “Why does media focus on Kim Kardashian’s newest beckon for attention instead of highlighting the stories of women like Wujdan Shahrkhan and Sarah ‘Attar, who are breaking cultural taboos by becoming Saudi Arabia’s first women to compete in the Olympics?”

“How can more women, girls, men, and boys hear the life-altering message of freedom in Christ rather than hearing each of the ways in which we are to comport ourselves to propriety (if we were born with two “x” chromosomes) or leadership (if we were born with an “x” and “y” chromosome).”

Can I sing “Courageous” by Casting Crowns and alter the lines to “women of courage” and proclaim that we will love our husbands and children (and friends and orphans and neighbors),” proudly exclaiming, “let the women of God arise!” instead of the true lyrics?

Feeling frustrated yet imbued to continue promoting gender equity with ardent fervor, I spent the rest of my commute home reconciling how Church, media, and society all have perpetuated stereotypes for genders and how this can be changed.

I don’t have all the answers, but I believe that we can make the Church and society more equitable and just when we omit exaggerated stereotypes, challenge cultural norms, and affirm the imago dei in all.

I’m trying to discern what my gender means to me, but one thing I know for sure is that it looks counter-cultural to the “rules” upon which I have been imposed. I tell people that I often think about keeping my last name when I get married because I don’t think the woman should have to drop her last name simply because it’s expected or implied. I often joke that if I were to ever have a child, I would make birth announcements in pink for a boy and blue for a girl and laugh at all of the comments I’d get that I can just hear now… “Was your printer not working?” “Was something wrong with your ink?” Hear me loud and clear, there’s nothing wrong with changing your last name and nothing wrong with donning pink and blue, but I’m ready to ask bigger questions, such as why is a  woman ‘supposed to’ change her name? What makes pink a ‘girly’ color?

When God is described as one sole gender, we negate that God is Spirit (John 4:24) and that the excessive use of gender depictions of God focuses more on humanness, dulled down to words that we can understand, rather than dwelling in the mystery and richness of the God who created the Heavens and the Earth.

When calories have a gender, we exacerbate gender stereotypes instead of leading our generation into partnership and teamwork.

When we extol men to be courageous, we must then do the same for the women and girls of this world, particularly encouraging those who face dowry murder, honour killings, genital mutilation and sex trafficking.

When we learn that ultimately, male or female, we are one in Christ (Gal 3:28), we can drop our arguments and stereotypes and calories at the foot of the Cross, united together in synergistic partnership, ready to change to the world.

In Which I Would Gag if it Didn’t Sting so Bad

Tonight I heard the song “Lead me” by Sanctus Real. Normally if that comes on the radio, I switch stations, but this time it was playing from my friend’s ipod over dinner. I politely stay hearken to our conversation, but inwardly, I am distracted. The song echoes,

“I look around and see my wonderful life
Almost perfect from the outside
In picture frames I see my beautiful wife
Always smiling
But on the inside, I can hear her saying…
“Lead me with strong hands
Stand up when I can’t
Don’t leave me hungry for love
Chasing dreams, what about us?
Show me you’re willing to fight
That I’m still the love of your life.”

In this song, the woman is portrayed as a helpless, passive, beautiful person who longs for her husband to rescue her from whatever pain or challenge she is currently facing.

Some Christian music is hokey and makes me want to gag. Others are beautiful, leaving me in awe of so glorious a Creator. And still others hurt like a slow wound as I curl my lip, unsure of whether I will cry or whether or I will become angry and outspoken.

I ponder the song for a moment and wonder what the reaction would be if the song went like this:

“In picture frames I see my handsome husband
Always smiling
But on the inside, I can hear him saying…
Lead me with strong hands
Stand up when I can’t
Don’t leave me hungry for love
Chasing dreams, what about us?
Show me you’re willing to fight
That I’m still the love of your life.”

Doesn’t sound like any song I would hear on Christian radio.

Hearing that song again tonight brought back dismal memories of my college ministry leaders instructing us women that we “need to be willing to be led” and addressed the men to “step up and lead.” I am reminded of being encouraged to read “Captivating” by Stasi Eldredge in which I was told that deep down every woman longs to be seen as beautiful and to be rescued by a man, precisely the message that Disney princesses taught me too for that matter (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Shrek… I am surprised at how many movies one can make from the “damsel in distress” theme). Also during that time, a friend of mine was reading “Made to Be His Helpmeet,” in which Debi Pearl warns women that there is no excuse for her not to provide sexual gratification to her husband, even if it hurts her (i.e. vaginal dryness in menopause).1

I don’t like to criticize others’ work, be it books or songs, but I have reached a point where I would like to remind young women that there is freedom in Christ beyond prescribed “gender roles.” There are marriages outside of husband-as-decision-maker-and-leader while-his-wife-stands-back-in-adoration. Ephesians 5:21 tells us that we are to submit mutually one to another. Galatians 3:28 tells us that there are no male nor female, but rather, we are one in Christ. Jesus taught and talked to women, against Rabbinical Law (Luke 8:1). Then Jesus didn’t even mention the word “headship” when talking about marriage; rather he just encouraged people to stay together if they do get married (and even if they don’t, I’m quite confident that Jesus is the ultimate forgiver and welcomer of divorcees).

And so as I tend to the wounds of past teachings on gender and leadership, I ask God for healing, for fresh influences, and to use my voice to speak hope and freedom to all of the daughters of the church. I celebrate with other young writers, write some of my own thoughts on this topic and make up my own songs. And then, when I’m tired from staying up late at night to write about all of this, I pray for GOD to lead me with the strength of the Spirit, who is able to stand while I find rest and renewal in living a life in which I am a Child of God, no more, but certainly no less.

1. Chapter 16 of “Made to Be His Helpmeet” by Debi Pearl