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Navigating gender stereotypes

Shakespeare wrote. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Some gender theorists would change this to say “… all the players are merely performing the roles of men and women.”

OK, that rewrite doesn’t have the same ring to it! But ever since the well-known feminist Judith Butler popularised the notion of gender performativity, many have sought to stress the idea that we’re simply performing our masculine or feminine gender roles. We quite literally dress up our gender and play out the social roles associated. We are influenced by gender norms and stereotypes.

This thinking, however, is being pushed to an extreme. So much so, increasingly, gender is seen as something we choose, and which exists apart from any biological reality. The outcome of this thinking is that there are thought to be many possible gender identities. This, of course, is not in line with the teaching of Scripture.

For Christians, however, we can still struggle with gender stereotypes. Unable just to choose a different gender, as some would now advocate, we can be left wondering how to navigate any struggles with gender stereotypes while still remaining faithful to our biblical worldview.

The biblical worldview

We’re called to accept the truth of our being created male or female in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). In the biblical worldview, our sex determines our gender.

The sex of a person, the social roles they play, and the actions they perform are linked. Think about husbands (always men) and wives (always women) and the related commands that are given to each (Ephesians 5:33). It is staggering to think of how many examples there are of gender and sex being intimately linked in Scripture. Whereas the growing cultural worldview separates our gender from our sex, biblically they go together like a hand in a glove.

So, we’re called to embrace our God-given maleness and femaleness and not seek to subvert or reject it. When we accept the biblical worldview, there are two results. 

We’re free

As a child, I started to realise that some of the music I enjoyed listening to was off limits. It’s too embarrassing to go into the details, but let’s just say that my first cassette tape (this was back in the 90’s!) had a Britney Spears song on it. Without realising, as a child, I was filtering my musical tastes through the gender norms of “boy’s music” and “girl’s music.”

I’m sure many of us have felt pressure to conform to cultural gender norms. 

As painful as navigating gender stereotypes can be, the biblical worldview gives Christians two great freedoms. In accepting our God-given gender, we’re freed from the pressure of having to construct our own gender identity. We’re also released from the slavery of having to conform our gender to every cultural stereotype. What a relief! Our hobbies, our interests, our sense of not measuring up to gender stereotypes, cannot undo the reality of our being male or female in God’s image. We don’t have to earn our gender identity through slavish adherence to cultural norms. Accepting the Christian worldview on gender brings freedom.

We’re not dismissive

Scripture urges us to greet one another with a holy kiss (eg Romans 16:16), but I’ve never actually done that. Although this biblical command looks different from culture to culture, the truth behind the command remains. We’re called to welcome and greet one another in love. For us Brits, that probably takes the form of a handshake or a very slight nod of the head.

Similarly, gender expression varies from culture to culture. Like in the example above, although expressions can vary, each expression of gender may still be manifesting a deeper truth. Railing against gender stereotypes is easy, but these stereotypes don’t appear out of thin air. The danger in being quick to dismiss all cultural manifestations of gender is that we inadvertently dismiss the deeper realities that they may be pointing to.

So, even if the “men’s” or “women’s” activities at church are not your thing, is it possible that they are pointing - albeit imperfectly - to something that’s beautiful and biblical? I think we’re called to be radically hospitable to those who fall within the stereotypes and also to those who don’t. So, even if I don’t enjoy the church men’s activities (although I do enjoy an unhealthy breakfast!), I should ask how I can put the interests of others first. How can I cater for both those who find the men’s events helpful and for those who don’t? Dismissing same-gender activities out of hand may not be the best approach.           

We should enjoy the freedom of not having to reach every cultural standard of masculinity and femininity. With that freedom, however, we should not quickly dismiss the cultural manifestations of gender that we see around us, to the extent that men and women become indistinguishable from one another. When we struggle with gender stereotypes, it’s up to each one of us to return to Scripture and ask what’s cultural and what’s biblical. Our call is to live out our gender in a way that glorifies our God, who made each of us either male or female.

I’ve often found gender stereotypes in church quite unhelpful. I'd come from a pool-playing, pub-going lesbian scene and suddenly found I was expected to bake cakes and go on spa days and that all the fun stuff was 'men only'. I remember a conference when the men went go-karting and the women had to stay making candles and got a gift bag with nail polish in it! These types of assumptions about what men and women will enjoy have sometimes made me feel like I don’t fit in and caused me to question what it means to be a Christian woman.

Fortunately, there are lots of amazingly strong women in the Bible with very different characters and roles, like Abigail, Ruth, Lydia, Joanna, Mary, Phoebe, Rahab and Priscilla.

It’s good to recognise that some of our ideas of what women and men should be like are cultural rather than biblical. Clearly there’s a place for single sex events, but I find it helpful when these aren’t based on stereotypes and when there’s plenty of social activity that anyone can join in with, whether that’s women who like paintballing or men who enjoy baking.”


This article was first published in the Autumn 2018 edition of "Ascend", the TFT magazine.