“Thus Male Headship” – Christianity and Gender Essentialism

“Thus Male Headship” – Christianity and Gender Essentialism October 9, 2014

genderby Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words

My last two posts have involved the use of sociological studies by Christians, in support of the doctrine of male headship, known in its harsher and gentler forms, respectively, as “Christian patriarchy” or “complementarianism.”  Using science as a support for our premises is very characteristic of the culture of Western thought in which most of us have been steeped since birth. And of course, rebutting or debunking the science or scientific methodology behind premises we disagree with, comes from the same basic mindset.

The problem, as I mentioned in my last post, is when we pounce on evidence that seems to support our own position, while simultaneously ignoring evidence that seems to point the other direction. This is called “confirmation bias,” which is defined in Science Daily as “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.”  In addressing the science presented by male headship proponents, then, I’m attempting to avoid this bias myself.  Thus far, though, I have not seen any evidence that compellingly supports their position.

In this post I want to look a little deeper at underlying assumptions.  Why are these sociological studies being used to support male headship?  What is it that they are supposed to prove, that can then be used to say, “thus, male headship?”  The answer, I think, is this:

The studies examined in my last two posts, as used by male-headship proponents, are supposed to show that certain fundamental human traits are specific either to men or to women.  And these fundamental differences are then supposed to prove that men are meant to be in authority, while women are meant to be under authority.

This idea of specific, fundamental traits belonging to either one sex or the other, is called “gender essentialism.”  Gender essentialism goes beyond biological differences between the sexes* to personality traits, fundamental desires and leanings, and so on. 

This article at Ignitum Today illustrates Christian gender essentialism very clearly:

I am sorry to be the one to raise this issue but I am going to put it straight out there so there is no confusion: men and women are not equal. For two things to be perfectly equal they would need to be the same and it should be self-evident that a man and a woman are not the same. . .

This is where society is getting it wrong; a false notion of equality. It begins at a subliminal level where the message is diffused that one’s gender is a social construction, meaning that a woman is a woman because she was dressed in a skirt and given dolls as a child, and a man is a man because he was dressed in trousers and given toy trucks. . .

When a society fails to understand the nature of men and women it is true that everything can look unfair but we set rather arbitrary standards of where fairness lies. Men dominate senior positions in the largest global companies, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. Women dominate the raising of the next generation of humanity and professions which nurture and educate, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. 

Gender essentialists tend to resist the distinction between one’s “sex,” which is biological, and one’s “gender,” which is sociological.  They believe to be a man and to be masculine, or to be a woman and to be feminine are (or should be) the same thing.  They often do make a sort of disclaimer that not all men fit the pattern, nor do all women; as the article above goes on to say:

Of course there will always be men and women who have certain talents which mean they are better in tasks that are not as common for their sex and that is fine also.

However, when it comes right down to it, this deviation from the gender-essential norm usually isn’t “just fine” after all.  The studies I examined in my last two posts show that there is always a percentage of the study group that goes against the trend– but that doesn’t stop male-headship proponents from confidently saying that the studies show the way “men” are and the way “women” are– not “some” or even “most” men or women, but simply “men” and “women.”  And thus, male headship.

My real problem is that the Christian assertion of gender essentialism is fundamentallyunfalsifiable. That is, the way it is presented keeps it above the possibility of disproof, so Christians who believe in it never have to question it.  The argument is usually that if a man is presenting masculine traits, or a woman feminine traits, it is evidence of God’s gender-essential design– but if they fail to present those traits, or present opposite ones, it is because of human sinfulness. 

Therefore, though deviation from the norm is acceptable in theory, in practice it’s not, and many men and women who simply don’t fit the norms are treated as if they were in sin.  As the Touchstone Magazine article I quoted two posts ago puts it, men who have been “feminized” by the Church of England’s theological training become

wet, spineless, feeble-minded, or compromised. . . malleable creatures of the institution, unburdened by authenticity or conviction and incapable of leading and challenging. Men, in short, who would not stand up in a draft.

To not be “masculine” (which these gender-essentialists apparently define, fairly typically, as authoritative, independently minded and leadership-oriented) is to be weak and sinful. Similarly, the True Woman  website teaches that embracing the submissive, responsive, nurturing “Divine design of His female creation” will save us from the sinful, unfeminine pattern of unsubmissive, worldly womanhood:

Whether they realize it or not, the vast majority of Christian women have bought into this “new” way of thinking. In the home, the church, and the marketplace, they have adopted the values and belief system of the world around them. The world promises freedom and fulfillment to those who embrace its philosophy. But sadly, millions of women who have done so have ended up disillusioned, wounded, and in terrible bondage.

Thus, it becomes impossible to refute gender essentialism using the evidence of real women’s experience. If a woman is quiet, gentle and submissive– it’s because it’s natural for women to be that way. If a woman is assertive, extroverted, and leadership-oriented– it’s because of her sin nature that is fighting against her true nature. For real Christian women just trying to be themselves, it’s a shaming and muffling experience. One kind of personality is honored and the other rejected and silenced, because God is limited by their interpretation of the Bible, as to what kind of woman He is allowed to make.

The percentages of deviation from the gender norms in the sociology cited by male headship proponents, therefore, might as well not exist.  Those who deviate are not being “real” men or “true” women, but are merely capitulating to wordliness or to sinful rebellion against their own natures. The sociology then becomes an unequivocable support for what male headship proponents believe the Bible teaches about the divine creation of the sexes.

But does the Bible actually teach that there are separate and distinct personality traits which God designed for one sex and not the other?  And even if it did so teach, would that lead irrevocably to “thus, male headship”?  Interestingly, Marc Cortez at Everyday Theology, who appears to be a complementarian, would answer “no” to both questions:

[T]he main problem lies in thinking that these two are logically connected such that complementarianism requires gender essentialism to work. So egalitarians invest considerable effort in defeating gender essentialism, and complementarians conversely go out of their way to defend it. As interesting as that conversation might be, though, both sides need to realize that complementarianism does not require gender essentialism. . . .

There does not need to be any essential difference between men and women for God to decide, for example, that only men can be elders. He can decide this for any reason he wants. He is, after all, God.

People might worry that eliminating step 2 would render God’s decision somehow arbitrary, as though he simply flipped a coin to determine how the gender qualification would work. But that doesn’t follow either. The fact that God’s decision does not necessarily rest on some essential difference in human persons does not make his decision arbitrary; it just means that his decision rests on something else, possibly even something he hasn’t told us about.  [Emphasis in original.]

I don’t think Cortez escapes the charge of arbitrariness simply by saying God, being God, must have some mysterious reason for denying and limiting women in church roles (the article doesn’t discuss male headship in marriage).  If, as I have contended, denying and limiting women based purely on the fact that they are women is against “do unto others” and “love your neighbor,” there seems very little justification for God to thus negate what He taught through His own Son, that “this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12.

But Cortez is quite correct that this is a viable alternative to believing that God designed men and women according to gender essentials, such that men are designed for authority and women for submission to that authority.  As he says:

[T]he simple fact is that even if complementarianism is true, it’s hard to find the Bible giving any clear reason why certain roles/offices are limited to men. Some might point to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a notoriously difficult passage. But whatever Paul intends by his explanation there, he doesn’t point to any essential differences between men and women. However you understand the reference to Adam being created first, that’s not an essential difference. My brother was born before me, but that doesn’t make his humanity essentially different than mine. And my parents may well give him greater authority in the family because he came before me, but that’s not an essential difference either. The same holds true for Adam and Eve. Adam’s being created first doesn’t present some kind of essential difference between men on women on the basis of which God decrees male headship. If the order of creation is significant for understanding gender roles in the church, a question for another time, it would only be because God decided to do it that way for reasons that he has not ever explained to us, not because mere temporal order establishes some kind of essential difference between the two genders.

Again, I’m not going to walk through all the relevant passages. . . But for now I’ll leave it with saying that I don’t think there are any biblical passages that even complementarians should read as grounding ministry roles in some kind of gender essentialism. [Emphasis in original.]

Many times the Scripture passages that are used to support male headship are read in terms of gender essentialism: words like “head” are understood as showing God’s design for men to be natural leaders and women to be natural followers.  But taking account of literary and cultural contexts results in grounding male authority firmly in the culture in which the writer was writing, and not as a divine mandate.  And when real, devoted Christian men and women just don’t fit the norm, it doesn’t make sense to simply write them off as being sinful or worldly.

There are plenty of other Bible passages that we don’t interpret in the teeth of the evidence, insisting on face-value readings no matter what– the passages on slavery, for instance.  We don’t commandeer all the evidence we can find to prove that slavery is good and God-given (though we used to do just that), while we ignore all evidence to the contrary. 

So isn’t it time to give up on “thus, male headship”?



———————
*This whole argument by Christians also tends to ignore completely the existence of transgender people or others who don’t fit into the binary boxes of male/masculine and female/feminine.  It’s not my intention to ignore them or their struggles here, but in examining gender essentialism as used to support male headship, it’s easier to stick with the categories used by male-headship proponents.  Let me here promote the voice of a Christian sister who is not cisgender, to show that there are more sides to this story.

Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words 

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