Writing and commenting about gender roles, masculinity and femininity, Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, etc. is a perpetual obsession. Something is always entering the cultural sphere which ignites debate about the subject. Here are a few of my reflections on the subject.
The pressure to conform to some nebulous standard of masculinity is felt early in the lives of many men. Around the elementary age there is a need to be the best at something, whether the fastest or strongest or the best at basketball or video games. No 8-12 year old boy wants to be called weak. After this men face the storied “coming of age” phase. We feel the need to become men, but aren’t sure what it exactly means to be a man or how to tell when we have “arrived” at manhood. Of course, advice on the subject comes to men from all directions. They range from succeeding in sports and reaching certain “bases” with woman to praying hard and loving Jesus. Eventually, in my experience, the pressure tapers off. Perhaps it returns when a man finds himself raising a family, but that is something beyond my experience.
The pressure women face to conform to some standard is all to obvious. In the 1950’s the ideal American woman was an impossibly well dressed homemaker who took the best care of her family. Feminists reacted to this by creating a whole new expectation for women. Instead, women were to be judged on their success in areas traditionally dominated by men. Though it took some time, this expectation final achieved a certain widespread acceptance. Now, in a cruel twist of irony, women are often judged on their ability to meet and balance both expectations. Likewise, girls are being told that they should not be judged on how pretty they are but on how good they are at math and science. In the end, their sense of worth will become dependent on both.
Cultural standards of behavior and beauty for women seem engineered to stress opposites. Women are told by some to dress modestly and by other to be sexy. They are encouraged to be fabulous cooks and ultra thin. To do all and be all.
Both men and women are responsible for perpetuating unreasonable gender expectations. Men have frequently been criticized for the standards of beauty and behavior they place on women. This is certainly true. However, women also place heavy expectations on each other. The harshest criticisms I have ever heard of a woman’s body or her clothes has been in conversations I have overheard between women. When men speak negatively about a woman’s body it tends to be in broad strokes; women pick apart the details. Likewise, I am constantly amazed at the heavy load placed on women by the covers of magazines in the grocery check-out line, magazines bought mainly by women!
I know many Christians pour over the Bible in an attempt to come up with definitions for masculinity and femininity. My own preference is for Genesis 1:26-7.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Masculinity and femininity simply comes from being created in the image of God, something that no human can remove. One human being can’t bear the image of God alone so two genders were needed. Proceeding to the remainder of the Bible, we find a variety of examples of men and women. Yet there is never a particular individual to whom God points and says, “That is the ideal form of femininity,” or “That is the ideal form of masculinity.” The only ideal example we receive is that of the ideal human, Jesus. The other humans we see in the Bible are simply working out their masculinity and femininity in their own individual ways, which doesn’t exactly look the same. Who is more “womanly”, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Anna, or Priscilla? Was David more of a man than the Apostle John because David was a warrior and John never was a soldier? We can identify broad guidelines from the lives of these people but it is hard to make certain traits the exclusive property of a particular gender. This should give us a lot of freedom in the way we express our masculinity and femininity.
For example, I am a man who has little interest in sports. Yet this should in no way make me feel less of a man than a man who cares a great deal about which team goes to the Super Bowl. Neither should I feel that I am more of a man because I prefer a good book to watching a bunch of ignoramuses butt heads over a pigskin. We two are what we are, men.
Or, as another example, take the couple that decides to have children. Parents, of both genders, have a responsibility to take care of and raise their children and support each other. (Children also have a responsibility to take care of their parents later in life. As far as we know, Jesus spent most of his life with his parents. He only left Mary for roughly three years. In that time we know that Mary’s other children were with her. Then, before his death and ascension, Jesus made sure that John would take care of Mary.) Long tradition obviously suggests roles for each gender in the child raising process. I think the tradition is a good one. Members of both genders have found great fulfillment and satisfaction in it. That said, I don’t see anything wrong with the arrangement taking a different form. Only when the main thing is neglected, parents neglecting their children or each other physically, emotionally, or spirituality, is there a problem. Such can happen with traditional and less than traditional divisions of parenting roles. What really matters in the end is that each of us, male or female, is following the example of the ideal human and God, Jesus Christ.