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When does masculinity and femininity become toxic?

When does masculinity and femininity become toxic? September 28, 2021

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This post answers the question, “When do masculinity and femininity become toxic?” It prepares us to see a better way to appeal to Genesis 1-2 than is often found in related discussions on gender (in the next post).

Previously, I showed why defining “masculinity” and “femininity” is harder than some think. Even when using Scripture, Christians routinely confuse what is normal with what is normative (i.e., morally authoritative).

What is Toxic Gendering?

Let’s return to the issue of toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. And yes, “toxic femininity” is a thing. What are they? When do they occur? Here is my suggestion. I’ll lump both concepts under the term “toxic gendering.”

Toxic gendering is when we embrace some fruit of the Spirit as primarily masculine or primarily feminine rather than being fully human.

Consider one explanation of toxic femininity:

Women expressing stereotypically “feminine” traits such as “passivity, empathy, sensuality, patience, tenderness, and receptivity … [which] result in individuals ignoring their mental or physical needs to sustain those around them.

Empathy, patience, and tenderness are obvious virtues to be cultivated in the Spirit. But nothing in Scripture suggests that they are distinctly or primarily feminine. They should mark every Christ-follower.

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When we succumb to toxic gender roles, a woman and only a woman is “good” if she is “quiet, submissive, placatory, undemanding and nurturing.” As various texts make clear, both men and women are called to submit to one another (cf. Eph 5:21; Phil 2:3). Likewise, Paul describes his own ministry in unambiguous female imagery:

“But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7)

On the other hand, toxic masculinity is the overemphasis on certain stereotypical “manly” traits to the suppression of stereotypical feminine characteristics. Stress on strength turns into aggression. An emphasis on hard work and providing for one’s needs can morph into envy, self-isolation, or a competitive drive to dominate. By contrast, empathy and certain displays of emotion may be regarded as not manly.

Attributes like strength, courage, being protective of others, etc. are desirable! But here again, we run into two problems. First, nothing about such traits is distinctly masculine. Deborah, Abigail, the Canaanite woman in Matt 15, and the hemorrhaging woman (Luke 8) showed remarkable courage and determination. As Jesus points out, a mother hen gives her life to protect her brood (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34).

Toxic gendering then appears when we, for example, limit “self-control” (Gal 5:23) to a virtue demanded primarily of women (e.g., sexual conduct) but rarely emphasized with respect to men (e.g., anger, sexual behavior). When strength is deemed more-or-less “masculine,” we dismiss the honorable character of the “Proverbs 31 woman,” who “dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong” (Proverbs 31:17).

Anyone who objects to what I’ve said thus far needs to answer this question:

“What characteristics of masculinity, biblically defined, are not also virtues that women should have as well?”

Likewise,

“What characteristics of femininity, biblically defined, are not also virtues that men should have as well?”

Answering these questions is critical to offering an alternative perspective to the one given here.

Called to Toxic Masculinity and Femininity?

Toxic gendering sometimes goes unrecognized. Some people root masculinity and femininity in calling, not character. It is claimed that being a man or a woman is about playing a specific role designated by God for men and women. I suggest that this starting point leads people to embrace some fruit of the Spirit as primarily masculine or primarily feminine rather than being fully human.

Examples of this thinking abound. Let’s begin with John Piper, who says:

“At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.”[1]

and

“At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”[2]

Joe Rigney also stresses leadership and authority as distinctive features of masculinity. As I surveyed various church sites, one aptly represents this approach.

“In this Creation account, we see God’s intended design for men and women expressed primarily in their respective core callings. Created and given authority over the earth and the responsibility to lead, we would say that Adam’s core calling is one of responsibility and leadership. The core essence of masculinity is the ability to move. He is entrusted to lead, work, initiate, be an agent of reconciliation, and move into difficult situations, bringing blessing to others through his actions. Leadership for a man is not optional; it is his primary responsibility and calling.”

From this perspective of calling according to gender, people infer a gender’s character attributes (discussed above).

This line of thinking quickly becomes problematic given how models of leadership are deeply embedded in the culture. Leanne Dzubinski adds,

The study of leadership is a relatively new field, having been with us now for only about a century. The earliest studies concentrated on an individual, typically a white male, who held a prominent leadership position. Known as “great man” theories, they sought to understand the qualities or characteristics of the man that made him into a great leader. [3]

In short, men are treated as the default standard in leadership research. Leadership theories have prioritized predominantly male patterns of leading while minimizing typical female ways of leading (e.g., interactive and transformational models).

One Example from a Real Church

Redemption Tempe (Arizona) has crafted a statement that well captures the balance for which I’m arguing. Here is an excerpt from the membership packet:

While our conviction is that gender should be understood within (rather than in addition to) one’s biological sex, there is great flexibility in how one expresses their gender, so long as one is not deliberately seeking to identify or present themselves in opposition to their bodily sex. King David was a “real” man when he wrote poetry and played the harp; Deborah was a “real” woman when she led Israel into war. Jesus wept over Jerusalem like a mother hen (Matt. 23:31); the woman of Proverbs 31 buys property, runs a business, has a strong back, and provides for her family.

In a recent sermon, one of the pastors, Josh Butler, spoke about men with “feminine” preferences (shopping, romantic comedies, etc.) and women with “masculine” preferences (football, camping, etc.). He rightly said, “Historically, we just call this having a personality.

In Summary…

Cultures tend to teach that certain behaviors and virtues are more-or-less masculine or feminine. As Christians raised in the world, we are prone to adopt this teaching as a given, an assumed aspect of reality.

Thus, Christ’s followers are susceptible to toxic gendering, which happens when we embrace some fruit of the Spirit as primarily masculine or primarily feminine rather than being fully human. Sometimes toxic gendering is masked in the language of calling or role.

What are we to do?

In a word, our primary responsibility is not to make people more “masculine” or “feminine” but rather more fully human, reflectors of Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). This point has implications for ministry.

The church’s role is to develop in one gender those biblical virtues that our culture generally cultivate in the other gender (rather than only stereotypical virtues).

(The next post will defend this point by offering an interpretation of Genesis 2)


[1] https://www.desiringgod.org/topics/manhood-and-womanhood#created-male-and-female-by-a-loving-god

[2] John Piper, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 35-36.

[3] Leanne M. Dzubinski. Playing by the Rules: How Women Lead in Evangelical Mission Organizations, 42.


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