Previously I discussed the distinction between creational norms and cultural norms in regards to gender. There are some things we can do or embrace in our particular culture that accord with God’s intention for manhood or womanhood, and others that contradict it. In 1 Cor. 11:2-16 we saw that men should not adorn themselves or wear hair styles that are distinctly feminine, and vice versa for women.
But where does that leave us with the thousands of choices that we make in regards to the many other things in life that can sometimes be “gendered”? Like I said, not every cultural norm is based on a creational norm, but every creational norm will be displayed through a cultural norm. This means that we need wisdom as we sort through what our culture tells us: this is manly…this is girly! To sort through whether or not partaking of something is at risk of blurring gender lines or entrenching false, hurtful stereotypes I think we can ask ourselves a couple of questions:
- Does this decision have a creational norm undergirding it?
Paul’s question of hair styles and head coverings had, at their core, creational norms guiding them. It was God’s design for husbands to be the head of their wives, so we shouldn’t participate in anything culturally that would seem to undermine that. It was God’s design (nature, according to vs. 14) for women to express their beauty in distinctly feminine ways, so men and women should not seek hair styles that seem to inverse that. So if we are wondering whether a woman can do something that stereotypically only men do, or vice versa, we should ask ourselves whether or not this seems to inverse, blur, or compromise what God has designed men and women to be. If there is none, we should feel free to partake. So, for instance, while Paul seems to think our physical appearance ought to reflect distinctions in our God-given gender, he nowhere seems to indicate that food or drink is necessarily gendered, so we should assume that a man or woman should be free to eat or drink whatever he or she wants.
This means that there are many things that Christians should feel free to participate in, even if it is less common for their gender to do so. So a Christian man would, in my judgment, be free to drink a strawberry daiquiri or go to the theatre or read a Jane Austen novel because none of those things correspond to anything innately in a creational norm.
- Does this decision contradict cultural norms to the degree that it looks like I am intentionally trying to subvert creational norms?
If it is unclear to you whether or not a certain decision has at its core a creational norm undergirding it, then consider how the watching world might interpret your actions. If your current cultural context would interpret your decision as an intentional act to blur the lines of gender, to champion androgyny, then reconsider whether or not this decision needs to be made. I could imagine a way to let your 3 year-old son play around with mom’s make-up or dresses that is probably harmless. But I could also imagine ways to do it that are confusing for your son. Further, if how you share this story with others leads them to think you are trying to subvert gender roles, then this would probably be unwise.
- Does the cultural norm contradict creational norms?
Just because something may be culturally defined as masculine or feminine does not mean that it is necessarily aligning with creational norms. Sometimes cultural norms fly directly in the face of what God’s design is. For instance, our culture widely assumes that real freedom for men is in being free from commitment and only being interested in bedding as many women as you can–thus, the “real man” is the one who sleeps around the most. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, “real men” are the ones who do nothing but labor to deconstruct anything that has to do with traditional manhood or chivalry. Some cultures believe that the height of being “a good woman” is to remain silent unless spoken to, and other cultures believe that women should basically become men. Just because something is culturally normal for gender roles does not necessarily mean that it aligns with God’s design. In Paul’s day it would have been strange for men to demonstrate emotional tenderness, but he writes to the Thessalonians: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us,” 1 Thess 2:7-8.
- Does the cultural norm strengthen creational norms?
There is nothing in the Bible that says a man should hold a door open for a woman or offer to help her carry a heavy package or that women shouldn’t belch after a meal or should let her date pay for dinner. Those are cultural customs. But they are cultural norms that strengthen and aid creational norms–it is good for men to inconvenience themselves to make life more convenient for a women because God created men to labor, provide and protect (Gen 2:15), to lay down their life for their bride (Eph 5:25). It is good for women to carry themselves with poise and beauty because God has created women to cultivate the “imperishable beauty of gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:4).
Lastly, we should be cautious of assuming we know that the Bible condemns certain actions as being “off-limits” for certain genders. I have been in churches that speak in such sweeping generalities about men and women that are off-putting and insensitive (women are emotional, men are logical), or say things that are simply not true. I heard a pastor once explain that the Bible unequivocally taught that women should not work outside of the home. While the Bible does seem to put a wife/mother’s emphasis on the care of the home (Titus 2:5), the Proverbs 31 woman runs a business, buys real estate, and plants vineyards, all while “she looks well to the ways of her household,” (31:27), thus it seems inappropriate to say that “the Bible unequivocally says” a woman can not have a career.
Parsing out precisely how one strives to be obedient to this design in every circumstance of life is impossible and good Christians will arrive at different conclusions. We should be committed “not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom 14:1) trusting that each of us are seeking to honor Christ in our various decisions of how we embrace God’s design for gender roles.