Are You Worried About the ‘Feminization’ of the Church? I Am.

Feminization
Photo Credit: Zonda Bez

You hear a lot today about the  ‘feminization’ of the church. Many men fear that the ideal of womanhood has eclipsed biblical manhood. They have nothing to fear as long as Jesus Christ is the goal of humanity. After all, he is a Jewish man.

Now just as being Jewish does not eclipse humanity, but participates in the new humanity with Gentile believers, so being male does not eclipse humanity, but participates in the new humanity with women: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28; ESV). If, however, someone were to indicate that the ultimate human is male, then one would have to say that the ultimate human is Jewish. Do we wish to proceed down that path? I am not sure many Euro-American Christian men would want to go there. Nor am I sure they would want to take on Jesus’ identity as one who was not truly free, but under Roman rule. However, they do not need to make such moves, since male and female, Jew and Gentile, and slave and free are all one in Jesus.

In addition to the preceding points bearing on Galatians 3:28’s claims, remember, too, that the man Jesus is the head of the body, the church (Ephesians 5:23-33; Colossians 1:18). The church is also Jesus’ bride (Ephesians 5:22-33). The church is made up of both men and women. Men are part of Jesus’ bride. Thus, there is a sense in which the church transcends gender. So, how could there be feminization going on? The point is not to emphasize one gender over another, but to see them as complementary as together constituting the identity of Jesus’ bride. As members of the church as Jesus’ bride, we are all to submit to one another out of reverence for Jesus (Ephesians 5:21).

My concern with ‘feminization’ talk is that it easily plays to male fears and even longings for dominance. Such fears and longings manifest themselves in various ways, reflecting at times changing cultural mores regarding gender. Take for example Charles Taylor’s point on how many men complained about ‘feminization’ in earlier days, but for radically different reasons. What many took to be ‘feminization’ at the turn of the twentieth century would signify ‘masculinization’ today:

And along with drink, aiding and abetting it, were other favoured activities: cruel sports, gambling, sexual promiscuity. This understanding of disorder targeted certain long-standing male forms of conviviality outside the family. The new understanding of order was family-centred, and often involved identifying the male as the source of potential disruption, and the female as victim and guardian of this ordered domestic space. Callum Brown even speaks here of a “demonization” of male qualities, and a “feminization of piety”. Order required the male to be a family man and a good provider; and this required that he become educated, disciplined, and a hard worker. Sobriety, industry, discipline were the principal virtues. Education and self-help were highly valued qualities. By attaining these, the man acquired a certain dignity, that of a free, self-governing agent. The goal could be captured in two terms: on the one hand, the “respectability” which went with an ordered life has been much stressed; but along with this, we should place free agency, the dignity of the citizen. Evangelicalism was basically an anti-hierarchical force, part of the drive for democracy. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), page 451.

How could discipline, hard work, industry, care for family and other qualities be associated with ‘feminization’? It is because they were seen previously as domestic qualities identified with women. If anything, as men were exhorted to leave behind disruptive power dynamics and take on board these traits, women should have cried out against the ‘masculinization’ of the home and their displacement from it!

My concern is not to domesticate men or women or the church. Rather, I am concerned that we too readily allow cultural constructs of gender to cloud the biblical vision that involves seeing men and women in complementary roles as constituting Jesus’ bride—the church. We need to move beyond masculinization and feminization to ‘humanization’ that includes both male and female while transcending them in and through Jesus.

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