Role Rage

I noticed the following quote on Facebook the other day:

"Every cell in our body is stamped as XX or XY. This means I cannot understand myself if I try to ignore the way God has designed me or if I despise the gifts he may have given to help me fulfil my calling. If the post-modern view that gender is wholly a 'social construct' were true, then we could follow whatever path seemed good to us. If our gender is at the heart of our nature, however, we risk losing a key part of ourselves if we abandon our distinctive male and female roles." -Tim and Kathy Keller (The Meaning of Marriage)

Now, obviously much of this is true. Gender IS biologically determined, every cell DOES carry XX or XY (although it is believed the “y” chromosome’s main job is to produce extra testosterone, producing the physical features we associate with maleness). Anyone who thinks gender is ENTIRELY a social construct probably hasn’t raised children (or indeed, dealt with the small number of trans-gendered people who feel at a profound level they were born into the wrong body, despite socialisation to the contrary). 

However, I’ll confess when I read the words “distinctive male and female roles”; a red flag begins waving furiously within me. Because it is rare to see the word “roles” used in any context other than one that disempowers women.

Why educate women? Their role is to raise children and support their partners. Why worry about women’s careers or pay equality?… it’s a man’s role to provide for his family. Why be concerned at the lack of leadership of women in the church, and in broader society?.. it’s a man’s role to lead, it’s a woman’s role to support and submit.  

Most of the writing (and speaking) on women’s roles seems to be modelled on some mythical past of the housewife raising the children and the husband working and earning a living. It ignores the great sweep of history that women have pretty much always contributed economically to their families… doing most of the “gathering” in hunter-gatherer societies, while tending animals, grinding grain, making clothes etc. in agricultural societies. If we look at the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, she is into buying real estate, planting fields, producing fabric and so on.

This image of the ideal woman in Proverbs makes the anaemic version peddled by some who talk about women’s “roles” seem all the more peculiar.

As we dig into the biblical text, we see the biblical "role" of women includes prophet (Exodus 15:20, II Kings 22:14, Acts 21:9) leader and judge of Israel (Judges 4:4) apostle imprisoned for faith (Romans 16:7) disciple and provider (Matt 27:55), deacon and benefactor (Romans 16:1) teacher (Acts 18:26). However, when some people talk about "biblical womanhood" and women's "roles" it's code for some 1950's stereotype of submissive, passive womanhood, not a gutsy, discipleship-focused image evoking Catherine Booth or Eva Burrows or Jackie Pullinger or the wonderful saints and martyrs of times past. (St Catherine, St Nino, St Perpeptua, and many others).

So what do you think of my ranting? Am I being harsh? Or have you noticed that when women’s “roles” are referred to, there’s usually some patriarchal agenda behind it?

Just curious.


Yes. Justified rant. I totally agree that roles are somehow defined by 1950s pleasantville stereotypes... Don't address nuances...create unending layers of legalistic entrapment... And do not address the historical context at all... Where women actually DID not look like a 1950s housewife!

There is an excellent Ben Witherington article on this floating around the web.
Janet Woodlock said…
Great article from Ben Witherington!

I have the same issue around "women and preaching", that seems to assume women being urged to ask questions of their husbands at home (in Corinth) is meant to be read as a prohibition on women preaching in a Christendom tradition... really?

Understanding the world in which the epistles were written is the first step to interpreting them correctly.

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