Beyond gender

There is a great deal of debate at the moment about gender within (US conservative evangelical) Christianity. One recent example of this is John Piper’s assertion that God wants a masculine Christianity. As has been pointed out, there are a lot of theological problems with this argument. Another problem, which has been relatively overlooked, is that the people involved fail to understand exactly how malleable gender is.

From an archaeological and anthropological perspective gender is not a fixed concept but one that is socially constructed. In other words, what we think of as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is determined both by a whole range of social expectations as well as by our sex (which in itself is a spectrum not a binary state).

To take one fairly straightforward example: is it masculine to cry in public, kiss, hug, and hold hands with other men? The answer to that question differs if you’re from a southern European, north European or north American country.

Piper lists a number of ‘masculine’ roles to make his point, including king, priest, apostle, overseer. But, these roles require different sorts of masculinity: the ‘masculine’ qualities required to be a king are different from the ‘masculine’ qualities that are required to be a priest.

So, when Piper argues that Christianity should have a “masculine feel” he needs to be a bit more careful about defining what he means by ‘masculine’ (and then attempt to differentiate that from ‘feminine’!).

It seems that Mark Driscoll has at least attempted to define what he means by masculinity, which seems to be an extreme version of an ‘alpha-male’. One of the problems with this approach, of course, is that it fails to incorporate most of the masculine imagery used to describe God in the Bible, let alone the feminine and ungendered imagery that is also used to describe God. To take just one example, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah is masculine, but doesn’t exhibit the sort of masculinity that Driscoll commends.

In his book Mere Christianity C S Lewis talks about God as being “beyond personality”. He says that God is “super-personal, something more than a person”. I think that this is a very helpful understanding of what God is like; the same goes for gender as well as personality. In fact, the sooner that we realise that God is beyond personality, gender, and all our limited attempts to understand and categorise him, the sooner we can get on with the great adventure of discovering more about God and more about the plans he has for us.

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