One doesn’t need to be an expert in cultural analysis to recognize that there is a growing hostility towards any notion of traditional gender roles in society. The recent centralization on stories of abuse and oppression have made all of us highly sensitized to stories of individuals (and groups) with power who have used their power to exploit. So when Christians come to the Bible and find passages that tell us that wives should “submit to their husbands as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22) and that a husband is “the head of his wife” (1 Cor 11:3; Eph 5:23) or that women are not permitted “to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim 212), the impulse of some–particularly younger Christians–can be one of surprise. Does the Bible really say that?
While some reject the Bible’s teaching here, many see that Paul grounds his understanding of these gender roles in the story of Creation prior to the entrance of sin (cf. 1 Cor 11:8-11; Eph 5:31; 1 Tim 2:13), so they cannot be easily dismissed as being a cultural artifact to be dispensed with or by-product of sin to be overcome.
And yet, some of those who genuinely are convinced that the Bible teaches a complementarian view of gender roles, can almost carry a sense of embarrassment about it: I wish the Bible didn’t teach this, but it does so we have to believe it.
There is something in a way that is commendable about this, to let God’s Word have the final say, even when our own intuitions tell us otherwise. But if we leave it there, if we mentally agree with the truth while our hearts recoil at it, it leaves us in a troubling situation. On one theological hand, we are left in the awkward place where we feel like we have a higher moral standard than God does (yikes!), and on another more pragmatic hand, it likely won’t be long before our heart wins out and we abandon our view (as so many evangelicals have done with LGBT issues).
If that describes you, you cannot just continue to ignore that inner problem. Unless you “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8), and that His law “revives the soul” (Ps 19:7), your view of God will diminish and sour, and/or your convictions will eventually slip.
So what can we do?
- Ask yourself: “Why do I feel embarrassed or troubled by this?”
That question will expose the heart of the issue and how to move forward.
Am I embarrassed by this because of ways I have seen this abused?
As those who affirm the doctrine of sin, we should always be aware of the temptation towards the abuse and exploitation of these roles. However, just because something can be used wrongly doesn’t necessarily mean that it is inherently wrong. When a politician abuses her authority it does not lead us to conclude anarchy is the only viable option forward. It leads us to realize that she failed to live up to the purpose/design of what her political office’s original intention was. The same is true for gender roles.
Am I embarrassed because I think a difference between gender roles is unfair? Or predicated on hurtful stereotypes?
That leads, of course, to a deeper question: why do I think that is unfair? Is it my culture or God’s Word who is having the greatest influence on what gets to define what “fair” “or just” is? How does God define what is “just”? Also, are you certain that the stereotype is actually coming from the Bible or is it just coming from our culture?
Am I embarrassed because I think that the Bible teaches that men are superior to women?
Well, the Bible doesn’t teach that. Male and female are alike made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). In Christ, being a man or woman provides no basis for division or superiority (Gal 3:28). And headship and submission are not predicated on superiority and inferiority; Jesus submits to the Father, yet is not inferior to Him (Phil 2:5-11).
There are many other reasons we might feel this way, but these three examples show helpful categories that are common sources of embarrassment over the Bible’s teaching:
(1) Abuses of the doctrine
(2) Cultural influences setting the terms
(3) A misunderstanding of what the doctrine actually teaches.
- Ask yourself: “Do I believe God’s design is for my good?”
When the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden his first tactic was to get Eve to begin to question God’s Word, “Did God really say…?” (Gen 3:2a), and his second tactic was to sow seeds of doubt about God’s goodness, “Is God really not letting you eat from all this good fruit? What a shame…” (Gen 3:2b). The doubt about God’s truth (what He said) and God’s goodness (His love for us) are ever present today. In this particular issue it is a deep suspicion about the goodness of what God has said.
When God made you a man or a woman He did not make a mistake. And when He calls men and women to function in the world He has created according to His design, He did not do so because His law is arbitrary or capricious. He has intentionally made you and given you unique characteristics as men and women that will correspond with the unique callings of manhood and womanhood.
If we think that God has made men and women as androgynous beings, virtually the same in every way, but has simply arbitrarily chosen men and women to these different roles, then that certainly seems unfair. It is like, as Kevin DeYoung puts it, taking two identical basketballs and randomly choosing one to be used indoors and one to be used outdoors. The balls are exactly the same, but they are simply chosen for different tasks. DeYoung goes on:
But suppose you have a basketball and an American football. They are similar things, used toward similar ends. You could even attempt to use the two balls interchangeably. But the attempt would prove awkward, and in the long run the game would change if you kept shooting free throws with a football or kept trying to execute a run-pass option with a basketball. The rules for each ball are not arbitrary. They are rooted in the different structure, shape, and purpose for each ball. It’s not the nature of a basketball to be used in football. In other words, the rules are rooted in nature.
When God summons men and women to unique callings He is doing so not because He is contrary to our flourishing, but precisely because He is for it. He is seeking to help us orient ourselves to Himself and the world around us according to the nature, design, and purpose He has given us as males or females. While there are far, far more similarities between men and women than differences, there are nevertheless ineradicable differences.
The question we need to settle in our hearts is whether or not we can trust that God’s law, what He summons us to as men and women, is for our good; whether or not He knows what is best for us.