Gender roles in the second millennium

Thanks to my friend Matthew for pointing out this post by David Crabb (link). In this article, David points out the fallacy of what many in the evangelical (and I expand it to fundamental) circle describe as traditional gender roles. Many bifurcate the public and domestic realms and assign one gender to each. Men are assigned to the functions of business, socializing, and politics in the public square while women are assigned the so called “domestic” role of  maintaining the home as a comfortable environment for a family.

However, as David points out, this division of roles is a relatively recent development beginning in the Victorian era. My friend also points out that the urbanization of first-world countries is only a few generations old. A century ago most people lived in rural communities where both the mother and father of a family stayed at home. Both were involved in child rearing and both essentially worked full time to provide for their family.

Another aspect of Victorian era gender roles is the attributes assigned to masculinity and femininity. In the contemporary evangelical/fundamentalist culture, masculinity is typically assigned an emphasis on aggressiveness, violence, activity, authority. This emphasis on action comes with a disastrous downside:  we often forget that true Biblical masculinity will emulate our savior Jesus who is perfect humanity. Jesus was more than action. Femininity on the other hand has typically focuses on the home, family, delicacy. We tend to place the housewife as the ideal. However, Proverbs 31 describes a wife who not only manages the home but also manages outside affairs, buys and sells property, participates in industry, and makes a profit. The ideal wife of proverbs 31 is full of action verbs.

My take and current thought is this: because of the urbanization of the 20th and 21st centuries, the ability for both men and women to fulfill both public and domestic roles has become extremely difficult if not impossible without an extreme amount of effort. I do think that this explains how the Victorian gender roles have remained even into the 21st century: it is one way for all the responsibilities of a family to be fulfilled. However, scipture seems to indicate as David points out that the wife and husband each have public and domestic responsibilities to fulfill which are difficult in the contemporary culture. So, what do we do about this? I don’t have an answer. It would seem that the traditional gender roles has the advantage of at least keeping one parent at home ,but it still leaves the other absent for a significant portion of time. Perhaps there is no one answer to the question of what are the specific gender roles for each family.Each family will have to determine how it will best fulfill all its functions in ways that conform to the description of family responsibilities in scripture.

Some of the key points from the article have helped focus my attention on working out my own philosophy of family.

  • Making violence and crudeness as hallmarks of masculinity not only misses the point but is actually dangerous to true Biblical masculinity. First, though men ought to be protectors and defenders there is a difference in attitude between one who protects and one who is violent. The protector uses his strength when it is needed to defend something essential, the violent person uses his strength to take that which is non-essential (prestige, riches, things) The difference is not in the strength of the man but in the wisdom though which he uses it. Second, Biblical masculinity includes degrees of softness in addition to the display of power. Crabb reminds the reader that Jesus wept out of the deepest internal emotion for his friend Lazarus. The savior also wept over Jerusalem who would shortly after crucify him. The intense distress he felt and displayed in the garden before he was betrayed. If the perfect man, Jesus, had these qualities – should we not seek to exhibit them as well?
  • Ironically,  traditional, Biblical gender roles are neither tradational nor Biblical. Again, the Victorian view of masculinity as violent and femininity as delicate is a recent invention and scripture provides a more robust view of gender roles then is typically discussed in evangelical / fundamental circles.
  • Crabb is spot on that we need more female Theologians trained in the exegesis of scripture. This will help answer the question of what gender roles should look like in 2012. Holding to the Victorian model of gender roles is sometimes the excuse for not submitting to Biblical models of gender roles. Crabb warns about holding tenaciously to cultural definitions of gender roles, ” let us avoid turning the complementarian position into a kind of “complementarianism+,” which defends culturally-constructed gender norms as vehemently as it does the gospel itself.” Crabb also notes that this is not a discussion about female pastors because “male ecclesiastical authority can stand on Scripture alone” and does not need a social construct to protect it.