Evangelical Culture Myths #2: Christianity is Masculine

Evangelical Culture Myths #2: Christianity is Masculine February 6, 2012
Flickr | Tom Graber | http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Today I continue a long term series called “Evangelical Culture Myths.”  I invite you to submit various sorts of cultural myths that we evangelicals tell.  I’d love to cover some myths that you are interested in: either theological or practical in nature.  Send them to me via email, FB, or Twitter (to tweet ideas, use this #EvangelicalMyths and “@kurtwillems”)!


Masculine Christianity.*  In the new reformed wing of evangelicalism, masculinity is a high value.  I wonder what that really means? Does it mean that we come to church and talk about guns and refer to hunting trips as spiritual retreats? Does it mean that men dominate and women are simply “helpers?” Maybe it means that we read the Bible “literally” and therefore women are: silent in the church, the weaker sex, and therefore unable to be leaders?

I think masculine Christianity presents an evangelical cultural myth with little to do with the Scriptures.

When we talk about masculine Christianity, two major historical threads that come into focus.  The first of these, involves a man: Constantine.  In 313 and following we find that the church decided to become “masculine.”  What does that mean for Mary learning at the feet of Jesus as a disciple?  What does it mean for Ruth and Esther and Junia?  It means that the early church was not “masculine” but a movement designed to make both male and female “fully human.” We are part of a movement that declares that both male and female are to be conformed to the image of Christ.  But this is not about becoming a man, this is about becoming who God designed humanity to be: able-bodied people reflecting God’s image bearing stewardship into the world.  Women and men equally share this responsibility and no limitations in Scripture tell us otherwise.  According to both Constantine and the “Great Tradition” men are lifted up and women are a lesser helper.  Fortunately the Bible gives us a different picture.

For Constantine, the sword and cross went together – the Church triumphant.  The church became “masculine” as it carried weapons of warfare into battle to kill the “enemies of God.”  As this took place, women were further marginalized from the church as a masculine ethos invited Christian men into war for the state.  “Masculine Christianity” looks like Constantine, it looks like the sword, it looks nothing like Jesus.

"Happy Homemaker" | ricky montalvo | Flickr | http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

A second development in so-called “masculine Christianity” emerged in the late 1800s with a call back to Victorian family code values.**  In this system, women organize the “private sphere” such as the home and church (which led to some feminizing in the church as women were the primary congregants).  Men, therefore, operate in the “public sphere” including: politics, industry, etc.  When this system of separate spheres collapsed as women entered into the public arena, many men reacted hoping to recover the essence of male identity. This shift yielded some of the roots of the fundamentalist movement that sought to define a clear-cut “moral code” that all should live by.

In order to reclaim maleness, fundamentalism arose as a return to “family values” and called women to embrace the godly calling of submissiveness.  It also called the women to quit experimenting with sexual experiences outside of marriage, dancing, smoking… well, basically anything connected to “flapperism.”  Many of the moral values the new fundamentalists put forth represented a good biblical ethic, but an over-emphasis on masculine values came with this “moral code,” along with a “this vs. that” approach to theology.

In order to defend a “moral code” they created (in an effort to recover their Victorian roles and impose this on their women), fundamentalist men:

  1. de-feminized the church with militant themes,
  2. kicked women out of the pulpits (who many had taken leadership because of a lack of godly men who were too tied up with questionable “public sphere” dealings),
  3. attacked the so-called modernists who challenged their assumptions about the Bible, and
  4. attacked every belief system that could be labeled as a threat to the “moral code.”

All of this, they justified on the grounds that the Bible should be read in the “plain sense,” which is how many of the hyper-literal readings of Scripture are still embraced in many fundamentalist/conservative evangelical churches.  Why did they do this?  One reason certainly involved that when gender roles began to get questioned or blurred, men reacted by grabbing hold of what they could to feel secure in their “masculinity.” A plain reading of the New Testament manipulates the biblical vision for women’s roles, oppressing half of the church, thus holding back the kingdom from a fuller manifestation.  This sort of interpretation kept women in their supposed proper place – in the home, out of church leadership, and out of the public sphere.

It’s time to devoid our Christian jargon of anything that places the “masculine” in the center and marginalizes the “feminine.” Both male and female are unique in their God-given natures, but those are the very differences that make us stronger as the people of God.  This is a characteristically different kind of faith than “masculine Christianity” would want to embrace.  The temptation of that sort of faith-system is to take up the sword once again. Perhaps not involving a sword of physical violence but a violent form of doctrine that imposes a subordinate status on women.  Victorian spheres don’t define gender, the biblical narrative does.  Instead of speaking of “masculine” or “feminine” Christianity, we ought to refer to our ethos as – “image-bearing.” As women and men partner together in every sphere of life, God’s image will bring life and liberation through the power of the risen Jesus.  For in Christ there is “neither male nor female… for [we] all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28).

* This post is partly a response to Rachel’s call for some guys to speak out against John Piper’s recent comments.
** Source: UNGODLY WOMEN: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism; Betty DeBerg


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  • I can agree with the critique of Victorian gender roles and neofundamentalism, but I am apparently not quite as egalitarian.

    Probably this extends from a theological difference. In bringing in the Kingdom, Jesus was essentially restoring Eden – the original covenant. This is the theme of so many of the prophets and I think resonates strongly in the teachings of both Jesus and the apostles. 

    But to restore Eden is to restore a system in which “male and female created he them.” Although the authors of Genesis clearly held that much of the gender divisions were due to sin (Genesis 4), there nevertheless were distinctions between the genders even in the “primordial”.

    Just something to consider.

    • @openid-124505:disqus … I’m not anti-gender distinctions, I’m anti-gender descrimination when the New Testament moves exactly the opposite direction.  The passage in Galatians makes that clear.  Thats the point.  I also agree that God is restoring the genesis picture of shalom.

      • Justin Wright

        My struggle with this argument is that NT scripture in several contexts defines specific roles that are appropriate for men and for women. How do we blend modern equality with Biblical gender roles?

        • @google-c909bd6caeb5da92ca45d50664606e9c:disqus … I’m not trying to blend the two as much as I’m trying to read the NT with the historical context in mind.  Here’s a study I did on this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/category/liberating-women-for-ministry-series/

          • Justin Wright

            I’ve read this piece already. I majored in History so historical context is not something that’s lost on me. I get that some passages (1 Cor. 14:34-35 for example) must be viewed in light of the audience to which Paul was writing, but I’m not sure I’m prepared to throw the baby out with the bath water and forsake all of the descriptions and distinctions placed on gender either. So my question becomes where do you strike the balance?

          • Justin, I am not suggesting that gender doesn’t matter. I’m suggesting that gender does not have priority in the body of Christ. Men are not above women and women are not about men. They function differently in their God-given nature… in other words, they certainly are distinct! However, women have all the same gifts that men have when it comes to leadership roles within the church. Both male and female ought to be liberated for ministry at every level if we believe the New Testament witness.
            KURT WILLEMS

          • Justin Wright

            I think I can go along with all of that. I’m certainly interested in this subject as it seems to be in the forefront of Christian thought right now. I have no issues with women serving in ministry. I agree that Christianity was not intended to be a “masculine” religion. I do think that there are certain healthy male or “masculine” behaviors that many males have lost their grip on in the last 20+ years. Particularly the false extension of adolescence into the mid-20’s, but perhaps that’s tangential to this post.

            (On a side bar, let me be clear that I am in no way hot tempered in regards to what you’ve written here. In the world of blogs and such it seems that it is assumed that the longer a thread continues the angrier a person is. I’m not upset. I like what you do Kurt, wouldn’t follow you if I didn’t. Keep the conversation going. We need it.)

            Justin Wright

          • @Justin,

            I’m on the go at the moment but wanted to tell you that I appreciated your thoughts!

            Kurt Willems

          • AmyS

            Maybe it is tangential, but you’ve piqued my interest. I’m curious, how is extended adolescence especially troublesome in males (over against females)? I’m not trying to be antagonistic here. Forgive me if it sounds that way. I’m just wondering if you are saying that 1) womanhood is less necessarily “adult” than manhood, or 2) women are less affected by the phenomenon of extended adolescence. Maybe you’re saying something else entirely.

          • Mike Ward

            Kurt, I know this is what you are trying to do, but I think your interpretation of what the NT is saying within the historical context is heavy biased by what you wish the NT said.

        • Reading through your article series. Liberating Women for Ministry? part 1 (Key Texts)
          I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I agree with Tom Wright’s view on this – that this passage about women being silent was actually elevating the women to equal par with the men of the congregation. The women were being unruly, talking and doing things rather than being attentive to the teaching of the Scriptures because they did not think it applied to them. Paul calls them to join in receiving the Scriptures. Personally, I think any other reading would be inconsistent with the rest of the book.

      • I guess my comment flowed from a sense that your post was calling for complete egalitarianism in the church. My own thoughts on the subject of women’s role in the church is grounded in a belief that the church is not organization or even organism. It is relationship, and all those relationships are interlocking in their submission.

        At its core, the marriage bond is the first and foremost of interlocking, mutually submissive relationship and it is the source of all other relationships within the church. That bond has been both overplayed and downplayed in the modern church (if that makes any sense).

  • Interesting post. I appreciate the subject and I believe you’re defending the view of male and female equality, which I also believe. I wonder if you could post or comment on some related themes:
    1. I have heard that evangelicals in non-western countries seriously subjugate their women. Know anything about this?
    2. You didn’t mention another stream of christian thought that is definitely non-fundamental: Reformed/Puritan/Presbyterian, who hold to male/female equality, but fulfill distinct roles. This includes the idea that women are not to be leaders/elders/pastor/teachers in the church, thought they may be terrific leaders in other spheres (business, politics). I wonder what you think of that?
    3.  You didn’t specifically mention what you thought of Piper’s complimentarianism. Could you comment on that?

    I realize this is a lot to respond to in comments, so maybe it’s an idea for a future post.

    • @twitter-130187842:disqus … Only had so many words to say this 🙂  It was in response to Piper without attacking him.

      On fundamentalism… I would say that much of evangelicalism is influenced by fundamentalism… especially Reformed groups and conservative dispensational groups.  Thats my point there.

  • Great post. We do have a slightly different view here in the UK – not so much emphasis on God and guns … we only do the guns 😉

  • I am male. In being so I have seen my tendencies to thumb down, or be suspicious of women who have confident thoughts, suggestions on spirituality, or an interest in leadership. While I have cognitively made a shift and try to support and encourage women in whatever way I can, I am still in the process of allowing God to shift my gut reactions. I look forward to the day when God completes that work.

    One of the interesting road blocks I’ve run into, however, has been not through men, but women. If I broach the subject, I often get a strong reaction from women who emphasize differing roles among men and women, pointing to the obvious passages on the subject. How would you respond to a woman in this sort of position who reacts to your notions that women should be freed to fully fill their unique role in the Kingdom?

    Thank you for your thoughts, both present and future.

  • I also like the Facebook
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  • Matt

    You ought to read Callum Brown’s Death of Christian Britian for agreat discussion of how genderization destroyed that great Christian culture.

  • Ian

    You guys are starting to hit on the main reason why some well meaning complimentarians aren’t willing to completely buy into egalitarianism. I’ve made the shift (kind of) but I’ve never let go of gender roles. Now I understand that men use this to mean that they think women should stick to the kitchen, but I think that’s it’s something different. The differences in gender roles I think just has to do with the difference between mothering and fathering. Mothers nurture fathers challenge. They both encourage discipline and LEAD. And they can do this in both the home (duh) and the church. Perhaps we wouldn’t get so hung up on this if the church wasn’t so institutional.

    • AmyS

      My husband is a nurse, a nurturer, an advocate, and hates to debate. He loves to hang out and let people be just who they are.
      I (a female and a wife) am a pastor, an intellectual, and I enjoy a good argument. I love to challenge others to reach just a little further.
      Neither of us is very good at discipline and structure (we are both spontaneous and relationally-oriented, and struggle with time management).

      One son is a ballet dancer, collects Chuck Taylors, and loves Anime.
      Another son is a kickin’ competitive cyclist, enjoys romantic comedies, plays MMORPGs, and would really like to own a kilt at some time in his life.
      Another son crochets, sings, dances, and plays chess.
      Another son loves caring for babies, playing video games, and shooting bb guns.
      Our daughter bakes, has her sights set on a PhD, and thinks she might want to be a youth pastor (she would kick butt at it too).

      As for differences between genders, research doesn’t actually bear out the distinctions that you are making. Instead, differences within groups of men (one man compared to another) and women (one woman compared to another) show that there is more difference within gender-defined groups than between them. In other words, one man compared to another (and to the whole group of men) shows more variation than a whole group of men compared to a whole group of women.

      • Ian

        Well I’m not sure if any thing you described pins any of you as either masculine or feminine except when you describe your husband as nurturing because of his job. But I concede the point. You obviously know your family better than I do, and I didn’t really mean for the nurturing challenging thing to taken as so concrete. It was a four word statement

        • AmyS

          I totally get that your statement was not long enough to communicate any nuanced understanding of gender differences. I don’t assume that your whole opinion is summed up in those four words 🙂 

          I guess your comment really gets at one of my own questions, though, hence my response. It seems as if a lot of folks make the assumption that there are gender-based differences–which I am not prepared in any way to argue against–but then go a step further and make simple statements about what those differences are, as though they are obvious and we all naturally agree. 

          My observation over 40 years of involvement (whether from the inside or at an arm’s length) with the Evangelical movement, I find that there is a lot of narrow opinion floating around, which gets published like it’s undisputed fact. Much has been said about gender and marriage and parenting that simply has no basis in measurable fact or even solid biblical exegesis.

          I really didn’t have a clue how biased and unfounded my opinions had become until I started really learning about human behavior and development from a scientific basis, and practiced a disciplined exegetical method to Bible study.

          At this point, I no longer believe myself to be informed enough to make a defensible statement about universal gender differences.

          • AmyS

            Please don’t misunderstand my statement about Evangelicalism to represent an assumption about your point of view. I am only offering personal background to my own comment 🙂

            I actually hear you making more of an anthropological (maybe even evolutionary) statement than a theological one (I could be wrong).I am legitimately asking questions about what gender differences are, not just spouting my dispute with your comment. If you can offer clarity, I welcome it 🙂

          • I am completely with you on this one, AmyS.  I have been irritated for a long time at the extent to which egalitarians seem to accept the labels of certain characteristics (such as nurturing or strength) as specifically feminine or masculine.  It seems to me that by accepting these erroneous labellings we’ve already partly conceded a point that ought not be conceded.  That’s part of what I tried to address in my own response to Rachel’s challenge.

          • AmyS

            I appreciate your response. I don’t know think anybody really has complete answers to these questions (how to divide cultural norms and expectations from biological  differences–or even if they can be separated). 

  • Mattfourcf

    I hope Mark Driscoll doesn’t decide to beat you up after school for this.

    • Cmjones777

      Driscoll. Ha. Losing his voice in this culture. 

  • Have you gotten a hold of “A Woman’s Place”? It shows how women were running the show of the early church. Great book.

  • Jlh1224

    Masculine feel? Hmmm. So why does scripture refer to this “man” repeatedly as the “bride?”

    • @11471a11bd0ea6d8dad0a579049ab1c0:disqus … excellent point!

    • Erik D

      The church is also called a body in numerous places – a body which has many parts, each of which serves a specific function.

      It is called a “new man” in Ephesians, formed from two.

      We are also called sheep, wheat, and several other things in Jesus’ teachings.

      I say all of this to remind you not to push the metaphors too hard.. Using a form of hyper literalism to argue against hyper literalism is a bit redundant.

    • AmyS

      Marriage equality? Hmmm?

  • Jeremiahjob

    ” I want to teach young women to love their husbands but some people say that that is an older woman’s task. and recite scripture to me about it. How dare they limit my influence in the body of Christ!” – a christian man

    • inside the christian bubble can be a dangerous and damaging place 🙁
      ‘the world will put you in a box, religion will put you in a bubble, you were born to be free, climb out!!!!

      • Jeremiahjob

        It is not my place as a man to teach young women to love their husbands. That is a function of older mature Christian women. This is God’s design and I am called to be obedient to the Lord’s revealed will even if it is hard to embrace.  For me to demand to have that right is not Christ-like. If God gives me the freedom to minister to only a portion of the body of Christ, who am I to demand that I must be able to minister to everyone? Is this  the mind of Christ? Why can’t I be content serving the portion of the body that God allows?

        • ellie_1

           I think it’s more difficult for some to accept who they are than others. For various reasons. Not sure how to handle that issue.

    • ellie_1

       No offense to you. I’m simply making a point that many narrow-minded people may think you’d have the tendency to approach the topic from a predominantly “below-the-waist” perspective. However, I have seen some fairly tough old women let the young women know that they need to be aware of a man’s….stronger urges, and not to ignore them or use sex as bait to get what they want….I’m talking about a pattern of manipulation here.

      • ellie_1

         I mean no offense to the “a Christian man.”

  • I appreciate much of what you’ve written here, but I have to say that I didn’t recognise what I understood Piper to be advocating in what you’re arguing against.. for example, he too explicitly rejects the guns & football stereotype, and calls for room for men to also be feminine..

    As Carson & Keller pointed out this week – on controversial issues it’s easy to read our opponents in the worst possible light, while reading our friends in the best (which I might also be guilty of, admittedly)

  • like what you’ve written here, kurt.  here was my contribution sharing a similar sentiment :: so manly.|| http://wp.me/pJtMt-gJ via @michaeljkimpan:twitter 

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this. It does sometimes seem that most of the men who want to lay out a clear position on issues such as this are coming from a complementation perspective, and yet as a woman I sometimes feel like it should be, in the main, men not women who disagree who should be answering them, lest we come across as grasping. I appreciate you doing so!

  • Hey Kurt, you already know where I come from with this but I’ll post anyhow for your readers.  I take a somewhat orthogonal approach to this question, in that I think most of the sturm und drang surrounding the question of women in the church comes from our having screwed up both the definition of gender and of church leadership.  If we were to fix these, it wouldn’t become a complete non-issue, but close.

    What bothers me about this is that on the gender side, too many of those who advocate for the equality of women (in church and otherwise) seem to give tacit agreement to the caricatures of men as macho and women as nurturing, even as they advocate for both kinds of roles to be used in the church.  Even when they encourage men to be more nurturing and less macho, they often still refer to these things as “masculine” and “feminine” traits respectively.  We ought not give in to the caricatures.

    And on church leadership, the authoritarian “lording it over” done by male church leaders is not improved by merely bringing females into the circle of lords.  A model of leadership that hews closer to the multiplicity of input from the believers, leaves less room to care who’s saying “go” and “stop.”

    More detail here.

  • Terry

    I am a conservative Presbyterian. I don’t think one has to be the caricature that you paint with less than generious strokes to hold the postion. Mockery is difficult to defend against. It is the formal fallacy of an ad hominim attack. I’m sure in your community that it seems fine. I understand you actually are trying to thoughtfully disagree and mockery is engaging way to express that, however, mockery has a dark side to it that hurts the speaker as well as infects the recepients.

  • I’m not sure that the division of sex roles to private/public is so much a Victorian thing as it is “Western.” Going back to ancient Greece this was the predominant division of labor. I think the conservative backlash to feminism that desired a return to this paradigm, though, is very clear like you say.

  • I like the approach of “image-bearing”. That said, there is no doubt that men and women are different. I believe part of the healing process will be an examination of how men and women are different. The verse in Galatians doesn’t make us asexual. It tears down the hierarchy between male and female.

    It is important to understand how we are different so we can value those differences and the body of Christ can be strengthened by them. 

    The discussion of how we’re different is one that I have not seen broached in all this discussion.

    • @tonyjalicea:disqus … I never said that there shouldnt be gender distinctions… only gender dominance is the issue.  Male and female as the image of God, released to do the work of God in the world, unhindered.  Asexuality is not the point of this post 😉