Gender Roles - are you kidding me?
Preface: I'm mindful that any discussion about gender roles is certain to evoke strong responses. This is because the issue has been saturated with wrong notions, resulting in an abusive patriarchy to which none of us should ever want to return. However, in our justifiable efforts to free ourselves from destructive notions, I wonder if we've tossed an important baby out with the bath water? I wonder if there can be a liberating way to view genders in the marriage relationship, a way that leads us to Christ, liberates us with a sense of calling, and guides us to something that's neither reprissive and regressive, nor simply politically correct. Bear with me. Read. Give me your thoughts. Unlike most posts, I'll try to offer response, at least for a few days. Here we go:
It's wedding season for pastors. Very soon, many of our staff will begin investing their weekends in blessing couples who will declare their intent to love each other, "'til death do us part". We might tweek the language to sound more recent than the 17th century, but if we take the covenant of marriage to mean anything serious at all, we'll help couples communicate that they're making a commitment to see things through. In saying this, they're rolling some statistical dice, because of course the reality is that sustaining marriages, especially sustaining them in a way that engenders long term and real love, is not only a challenging task, but increasingly rare. America, a recent book on marriage declares, experiences "more turbulence in family lives, more changes of partners and parents, than any other nation."
The author of the book goes on to declare that the reason for this has to do with our two conflicting values. On the one hand we view marriage as a sacrament, a covenant to be made with God. On the other hand, one of our highest cultural values is, as the author puts it, "individuals that emphasizes self-expression." So here we are, trying to become what the Bible calls one-flesh, while, at the same time, trying hard to maintain our autonomous pursuits of self-fulfillment. I understand that we all need boundaries, that we all need a sense of self if we're to be whole people.
But Jesus taught that we find our truest sense of self, ironically, by "losing our lives". This doesn't mean being a doormat by any means. There are numberous examples of Jesus, perhaps the most 'self-actualized' human to ever live, saying no to the demands of people because he was marching to a different agenda, that of His Father.
We too are invited to the liberating sound of a drum that offers a different rhythm than prevailing culture and this might be seen nowhere more clearly than in marriage. We discover, both from the starting point of marriage in Genesis and Paul's unpacking of those words, that marriage is a place where Christ's relationship with the church can be explained and exemplified. There's Christ, the groom, loving the Church, the bride. Christ's love: sacrificial, purifying, initiatory, healing, life-giving. The church's response to that love: receptive, open, trusting.
It might be dangerous to simply throw these concepts out there and let tham hang without a book's worth of qualifiers, but I'll run the risk, limiting my comments to clarifying what I don't mean and what I do mean.
What these texts DO NOT mean:
a) that these roles somehow preclude women from taking up callings outside the home, vocationally or otherwise.
b) that these roles bleed into church life in some way. As I'll need to write soon (as a result of writing this), I believe the scriptures indicate that ALL of us are the bride of Christ, and as such all of us are invited to serve one another, taking up the roles God might give us in the community of faith, whatever those roles might be, realizing that this verse and the general tone of New Testament teaching indicates that no role is closed to either gender in the church.
c) that these roles indicate some sort of authoritarian, despotic power play in marriage, where women are called to mindlessly and dangerously submit to the whims of the husband. Such an abusive interpretation of this passage has led to endless heartache through the centuries.
d) that these roles limit initiation to males, and responsiveness to females...at all. Consider Paul's adomonition regarding sexuality in I Corinthians 7, which (radically for it's day) grants women the same sexual rights as men, implying that both genders have initiatory rights. This isn't about machoism, big trucks, and domestic violence. It's not about creating the women of Pleasantville. I get sick even thinking about how often the Bible's been misued to go down that ugly road.
Let me put it another way. There are a variety of ways this vocation of displaying Christ and the church can play out. He stays at home, she works. Vice-versa. Both work. He handles money. She handles money. He studies theology and she bakes potatoes. He bakes potatoes and she studies theology. Both bake potatoes and neither study theology. It's important to understand that the vocation of displaying Christ and the church is environmental before it's anything else. You can read it wrong, jump into stereoptypical roles, and completely miss the point. I've seen it happen - often. This is the reason, I believe, that we've run from the topic completely, afriad to even have the conversation.
To clarify the concept using positive statement....
What these texts DO mean:
a) that couples are invited to accept the vocation of displaying Christ andthe church by being mindful of that calling as they build their life together.
b) that such mindfulness will mean wrestling with the ways in which initiatory, self emptying love can be offered by husbands, and trusting receptivity by wives.
c) that such a calling won't have easy answers, clear lines, or legalistic nagging as part of the living it. Where any of these tendencies are present, a principle intended to liberate becomes ugly very soon.
Yes, you read that right: the principle is intended to liberate - it does so because it calls husbands to a kind of love we're incapable of expressing without the strength of Christ. It calls wives to a level of trust and receptivity that leads them to lean of Christ for sustenance when they have no resources of their own. And this, I believe, is the point. When I'm called to an enormous undertaking I can do one of two things:
1. decide that it's impossible, and so scale back on the undertaking to enable its fulfillment with the limited resources I have.
2. accept the undertaking and raise capital, looking for resources other than my own to enable me to get the work done.
Unfortunately, I fear that in marriage we've opted for #1 far more often than #2 - how's that working for us? Just look around. I don't want to return to 1950. I'm just asking that we wrestle with the concepts of Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5, and work on taking up the vocation of displaying Christ and the church in our marriages.