Larry Crabb’s Fully Alive: A Relational View of Gender

I just finished reading through Larry Crabb’s new book, Fully Alive. I’ve never read anything Crabb has written before, but considering his usual audience and connection to Focus on the Family, I think it was a bit courageous of Crabb to take on this project.

In Fully Alive Crabb is writing to try and explore the reason why God made genders in the first place. Why was gender important for his image bearing creatures? Crabb’s answer is that the relational God (Trinity), created relational people – nothing groundbreaking – but what Crabb argues is that femininity and masculinity are two essential means of relationality (more so than an orientation). I see him trying to distance himself from some of the traditional sexual politics and gender power-plays and this is to be commended. He’s trying to bypass hierarchical, complementarian, and egalitarian views of gender and working toward a relational understanding of gender.

Crabb distinguishes between sex and gender – an interesting way to think about this issue to be sure – and I think it’s possible this approach could be helpful. Lord knows that we can use some new categories with which to have this conversation. The old ones don’t seem to be working very well.

If you live within a more progressive narrative, this book will bug you. Progressives will want to quibble with the black and white approach to masculinity and femininity. All of the references to male masculinity and feminine femininity will cause progressives to ask, what about male femininity and female masculinity? Are we going to deny those two realities? Crabb is trying to push through those objections, though, and try to get us to think about the questions through the relationality lens. The section on submission in regard to women will really tick the progressive off.

If you live within a more traditional/conservative framework in regard to gender, this book will bug you as well. Crabb is trying to mess with traditional sexual/gender stereotypes for most evangelicals. For instance, he gives several examples of ways that women should not submit to their husbands. Crabb plays with the traditional view of submission, and artfully frames it within mutual submission where I think it should be, but this will not sit well with traditionalists. He also avoids any sort of condemnation of homosexuality, which traditionalists and his Focus fans will be looking for. I also think that relational view of gender opens up the conversation about biblical health and sexuality to new ground. Could Crabb be signalling a difference between his thinking on the matter and traditional, conservative evangelical approaches to homosexuality?

Crabb has been working in his field for decades, so he speaks with some authority. He writes like a wise and kind man who has spent thousands of hours listening to people talk about their problems, and thinking deeply/theologically about how to help. I may not agree with everything he says, but I was glad to encounter his perspective.

I am not an expert in the field so respectfully, I have a couple of critiques.

First, Crabb’s biblical basis for the separation of gender and sexuality falls on two Hebrew words: zakar and neqebah. He says that these express gender, where as ish and isha express sex (anatomical sexual differentiation). I poked around a bit in some commentaries and tried to see what others say about those words. I’m not sure I buy his definitions yet. For one thing, zakar and neqebah are also used of animals. I think Crabb’s redefinition with the modern category of gender could be an anachronistic interpretation of those words. These two words form a lynchpin in Crabb’s book (the subtitle is A Biblical Vision of Gender), but I’m not sure those two Hebrew words will carry all of the freight Crabb tries to put upon them.

Second, I think that his relational view of gender is helpful, but more so if you live somewhere in the middle of the gender bell curve. How does this work when the gender line is not so nice and neat? Crabb doesn’t deal with gender-bending issues and although he avoids any pronouncements on the homosexuality issue, he does seem to equate anatomical sexual orientation with gender. This seems a bit simplistic given what we now know about gender and sexuality. I would have liked to see him delve into the utility of the relational approach to gender with regard to homosexuality and gender/identity issues.

Relational femininity and masculinity is a new category for me, and I think this could help a lot of people, but it can hurt people just as easily. Still, Crabb wants to take the “orientation” question off the table for awhile and talk about relationality instead. I’m inclined to support that approach if for no other reason other than that it will give new categories in which to dialogue that aren’t so entrenched and divisive. That seems like it could be a wise move.

I recommend Fully Alive to anyone who is thinking about gender and sexuality. Crabb’s perspective is worth considering.

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