One of my most formative seminary moments was during an evening public lecture with professor John Stackhouse, who was launching his book, “Finally Feminist.” Stackhouse told us about his upbringing, the family and church contexts which framed his worldview. After many years as a theologian, teacher, writer, son, husband and father, he came to a very different view on gender roles than the view with which he grew up.
For me, the enlightening moment of the evening came in the question and answer period, when a very thoughtful and courageous male student got up to the mic and said something like, “I find your arguments and theology compelling, but if all this is true, then what does it mean for me to be a man? What does this mean for my manhood?” Very good question, for which there was a great answer from Stackhouse, who said, after a ponderous pause, something like, “Don’t worry so much about what it means to be a man. Figure out what it means to be you, who God made you to be, and then live out you to the fullest. If you are living out your uniqueness, then you won’t be any less of a man.” These words aren’t an exact quote, but that was the sense of what Stackhouse said, and what good sense!
Theologies of gender and gender roles are big topics of discussion in the evangelical world, because we evangelicals are so very concerned to get it right or more importantly, to not get it wrong. But when I read scripture, I don’t see the plot of God’s story hinging on the topic of gender roles. Yes, some of Paul’s letters have what seem to be very limiting directives for women in the church (if interpreted in a way that disregards historical and cultural context or fails to probe the question why) but we don’t have entire biblical chapters or books centered on a theology of gender. Instead, we have chapters and books within an epic narrative about a God who:
- chooses people for his own,
- dwells with, leads, guides and instructs people through intimate relationship,
- shows mercy to constantly sinful, worldly and wayward people
- sends his one and only son to die on a cross because of his great love for humans
- anoints people with the Holy Spirit and gives spiritual gifts so they can spread the good news of God’s kingdom
None of the meta-narratives of scripture (the above is not an exhaustive list) have to do with what it means to be a man or a woman. I take that as my cue.
When I read scripture, I see a God who has patterned ways of relating to people and who instructs people how to relate to each other, but I also see a God who also isn’t afraid to work beyond, outside of and around human standards and worldviews. Isn’t our God the one who chose to save Israelite spies from capture through a Canaanite (unclean, sinful) prostitute? Isn’t that same prostitute the ancestor of Jesus? Isn’t our God the one who called a shepherd to fight a battle against a giant, seasoned warrior? Isn’t our God the one who then anointed that shepherd as king over God’s people? What business does a shepherd have battling a warrior or ruling a kingdom? Isn’t our God the one who sent his son to earth to be born of a woman, raised as a poor Jewish carpenter from Nazareth (what good ever came out of Nazareth?), given authority greater than the rabbis, pharisees and temple priests, only to save the world from sin through the humiliation of a Roman crucifixion? Scandalous, subversive, unexpected, and hard to understand — God’s ways are (somehow, always) the best ways.
I find Professor Stackhouse’s idea, “figure out who you are and live it to the fullest,” refreshing because it makes room for God to live out God’s purposes in God’s mysterious ways, whether or not it satisfies human expectations or cleanly aligns with your/my/our theology. God, as God, can do as God sees fit. Who am I to protest or edit or attempt to enhance God’s ways?
Recently a friend sent me a message on Facebook. Her young adults Sunday school class is studying biblical manhood and womanhood and she solicited feedback from many friends as she grapples with this topic. Last fall, my brother and sister-in-law’s pastor did a two month sermon series on biblical manhood and womanhood. Yesterday, I was perusing the course requirements of a Doctor of Ministry program and I saw a course on biblical manhood and womanhood. We evangelicals seem very concerned with what it means to be a man or a woman from God’s perspective. Are we worried that God is sitting up in his heavily bejeweled throne looking down at us, his face like a red-delicious apple, lightening coming out his ears, beard wet with spittle, as he fumes about how we’ve totally messed up our manhood or womanhood? Trust me friends, he’s not going to send a second Messiah just because we may have screwed up this part of our humanness.
What helps me maintain a spirit of joy and healthy blood pressure when this topic comes up is this single thought — first and foremost, I am a child of God. Yes, my femaleness is beautiful to God. He created me female with intention so my gender is meaningful to me, but my womanhood pales in comparison to my primary, eternal way of being as a child of God. I can’t find biblical chapters and whole books about how I should live out my femaleness because that isn’t one of God’s primary concerns for how I live on earth. Sure, God loves me this way, but he is far more concerned that I love him as a child would a parent, or that I follow him like a disciple or that I freely and joyfully serve him with my whole heart. Because there is so much meaning in and biblical emphasis on being a child of God, I don’t have to worry about pinning on my womanhood like Peter Pan did his shadow. Instead, I’m released to live fully and freely as Corrie, a beloved and blessed child of God.