Revisiting Faith, Gender, and Identity

Posted: January 25, 2022

I've been meaning to write about faith, gender, and identity for a while... or at the very least put my current thoughts in process here like a time capsule so I can trace my progression in the future. I've definitely come to some conclusions that I would not have been able to articulate a few years ago. But to make this digestible, I'll break it up into several posts. Here's the first.

A (not-so) brief and recent history of my journey

First, I recognize this is the Internet so who knows how these words will be taken. But for those who aren't just looking for a reason for outrage ("Oh he said _________! That must mean he also believes _________! Let's see if he floats or sinks!"), I thought it fair to start by give some context to anyone who's interested in where I'm coming from.

Over the past few years, I've been revisiting some assumptions about "biblical manhood" / "biblical womanhood." I distinctly remember having a conversation with another student when I was in seminary about what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman in the context of faith. One of the things I valued about my seminary was that it was a fairly big tent. There were people from all over the spectrum of faith -- fundamentalists and progressives, conservatives and liberals. I was a relatively new student at the time, and having grown up in churches that were steeped in unexamined purity culture (the church wasn't quite where we are now in this discussion) and assumed gender roles (not in a militant way or anything, but just some societal/culturally held givens) we definitely didn't see eye-to-eye. But it was more than that.

We had a very prolonged back-and-forth, and at the end of our "discussion," I concluded that, not only did we not see eye-to-eye, we weren't even asking the same questions! We were speaking past each other... or at the very least, I was!

I concluded that, not only did we not see eye-to-eye, we weren't even asking the same questions!

That realization left me wondering if I was missing something (This was just the start, and it left an impression on me). Our disagreement didn't seem like a theological debate. I mean it was, and it still is in the church at large, but that was only part of it. There was something I was missing in the conversation entirely. I realized in hindsight that I was trying to get others to answer my questions/criteria without listening to their questions/criteria. And, predictably, since they couldn't satisfy my questions/criteria, then my foolish conclusion was that their theology must be lacking!

At the same time, a colleague was asking questions about faith and masculinity and how we help young men grow up and mature. We were both already of the mind that typical models of masculinity in "Christian" books were lacking, and these models failed to fit the lives of the people we served (e.g. we both thought that the Wild At Heart-like view was a very narrow and useless for how we saw ourselves as men and the context in which we serve). At the same time, the #MeToo movement was gaining traction; Twitter was exploding. Even Gillette made some commercials to combat toxic masculinity. We didn't need to "hold the fort", we needed to reflect, repent, and reform.

Our church pastoral staff started to read and discuss some books together; the discussions revealed where each of us were in the process of detangling our faith from the culture in which it was enmeshed, and how much work we had left to do. We read Aimee Byrd's Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (in hindsight, a very apt description of where I am right now). I continued on to read her earlier work, Why Can't We Be Friends?: Avoidance is Not Purity, which addressed the same subject more from a pragmatic point of view. Recently I finally finished Kristin Kobes Du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne, which offered an enlightening history of "Christian" masculinity and authority within evangelical circles (If you've read it and want to discuss, lmk. I don't know people in my immediate local circles that have read it).

All these books made me more aware of the influences in my faith and cultural upbringing. For example, I had no idea how influential the CBMW (Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; I wasn't even aware that this organization existed before reading these books, despite the fact that many thinkers/writers I consumed subscribed to its teachings) was to my view of faith. (Perhaps I shouldn't have been too surprised. I grew up in Florida!) I became disgusted with the history of the Western Church and by those who wielded and protected their own power. And the patriarchy...

The patriarchy was, and still is, a mess. And yes, I'm using the label in it's pejorative sense, as in "The Patriarchy." I don't doubt there are good models of life-giving authority and leadership, but "The Patriarchy" ain't it. It's a mess how the patriarchy has woven its way into our theology and practice. Patriarchy and complementarianism practically grew up together in the modern church. Confession: I am an ordained minister in a complementarian denomination. I put that forward as a "confession" because, the way I currently see it in our churches and society, it's almost impossible to separate the two in practice -- to do so a church really needs to reflect hard and be willing to forge a new path forward... something very difficult for most churches to do!

I can't help but admit that egalitarian churches are plainly doing a better job at loving others than complementarian churches.

The challenge for today is that the problem isn't just "out there," it's in each of us: our implicit biases, our gut reactions and assumptions about ourselves and others; it's everywhere. When I look at the church in our world, I can't help but admit that egalitarian churches are plainly doing a better job at loving others than complementarian churches. It's almost as if complementarians are so busy justifying their theology and demanding answers to satisfy their questions/criteria that they're failing to listen. I wonder if one can theologically complementarian (I've already drank the Kool-Aid) yet practice faith like an egalitarian, seeking to lift voices that have been marginalized and muffled. When I think about my ministry circles of influence, I hope I have the humility and patience to forge a new path forward -- one that's life-giving and God-and-neighbor loving and honoring. That's where I sit at the moment. God, give me grace.