When one brings up the topic of gender roles, it is often in the context of academia, as required reading for an introductory course in Psychology or Sociology in college. It may also come up in general conversation, if one is not afraid of encountering strong opinions that may be offensive to sensibilities regardless where your own ideals may lie. In the midst of this discussion, one of the terms that is often used is the “glass ceiling,” a term coined in the 1980’s to describe the limitations placed on women in career achievement. It refers to the situations where women with similar or even superior qualifications to men are passed over for promotion and advancement simply because of their gender. The examples given to illustrate this inequality are given in monetary terms where women earn a fraction of the income of their male counterparts in the same positions and responsibilities or illustrating the dearth of women in many vocations that are traditionally occupied by men, ranging from referees in professional sports to medical doctors to Fortune 500 CEO’s.
This gap in achievement and earnings comes at a time when the idea of gender roles is in flux and the established norms of a man providing the primary source of income while the wife has stayed home to raise the children has gone from being the structure of the majority of homes to being merely a fraction of total homes. The majority of the homes with children now have two wage earners and a recent Pew study found that women are now the primary wage earners in 40 percent of households in the United States, a number that is 10 times the percentage compared to 1960. It is clear that there is a paradigm shift in the roles that both men and women perform both in the workplace and at home. It is worth also to note how this change is shown in the realm of faith, how it shows up in worship and work within the church.
If someone is new to Christianity or simply just wants to know more about the faith, the topic of gender roles is a substantial one. It affects biblical interpretation, how we understand what has already been written, and how we worship and express our faith going forward. This can be quite confusing to those that are not familiar with established practices but also can be a point of contention to those that have spent their whole lives in the faith. Interpretation of scripture in regards to gender can determine the way you dress, your vocation, even who delivers the sermon in your house of worship.
If you look to the scriptures for guidance as to the proper responsibilities of men and women, you will often find a verse or two to support your predetermined beliefs. But what is certain is that we live in a time where schools of thought have never been more diverse. Even the version that you choose to support your claim can determine what position you are trying to support. Take this example: the King James Version of Colossians 3:18 states, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.” A modern translation, The Message, reflects the change in culture over the span of 382 years: “Wives, understand and support your husbands by submitting to them in ways that honor the Master.”
One translation was written at a time and place when the King of England and the official church of the monarch determined every action of everyday life in England, including determining who could vote, own land, and lead worship, none of which could be done by women. The other reflects a time where women have served as judges and been elected to higher office. As for the actual act of worship, opportunity for equality in participation and leading of worship can differ greatly. Depending on your church, women are relegated to only sitting in the pews during worship or may be leaders of music, leaders of finances, or pastors.
With so many different interpretations of what the Bible says about the roles that men and women should perform in work, at home and at church, it can be quite confusing for those that are new to the faith and even those that are lifelong believers. While most mentions of women in the Old Testament may stress subservience, there is also the story of Deborah in Judges 4-5, the leader of the Israelites before there were kings. “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” (Judges 4:4-5 NIV). Reverend Robert Hall, a Professor of Religious Studies at Campbell University in Jacksonville, North Carolina, explains the biblical interpretation of the provider for the home: “For many, it [the Bible] is a literal message and story from God. Therefore it is to be applied directly and forcefully, and these followers are fundamentalists that regard any opinion other than their own as wrong. The other way to approach the Bible is to see it as an overall lesson for life. This view will demand us to forgive and to seek understanding, to walk a second mile, to recognize that in Christ there are no barriers. Paul spoke of those baptized in Christ being clothed in Christ as well. Specifically in Galatians 3:28, Paul mentions that believing in Christ takes away these barriers, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for are all one in Christ. Paul’s conclusion came from faith in Christ and his Spirit.”
Rob Steinbach, lead pastor of Seaside Church in Bremerton, Oregon, explains the concept of gender roles in the context of responsibility: “Man is head and woman is helper, as explained in 1st Corinthians 11:3 – ‘But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God’ (NIV). Both are called to take dominion together. Interestingly as a result of the fall, both a man’s and a woman’s primary sphere of work is cursed. For a man it’s making a living and for a woman it’s childbirth. To me the Bible always assumes the man to be the provider for his family, though not excluding a woman from helping with the bills. If a man doesn’t work, he is essentially giving his curse to his wife who already bears hers (childbearing).” Proverbs 31 is often cited by Biblical scholars and leaders as the Old Testament ideal for women, describing positive attributes of womanhood, specifically being trustworthy, hardworking, and generous with the poor. A woman in this context is not subjugated but is honored and recognized for her contributions. This is best summated by verses 10-12: “A good woman is hard to find, and worth far more than diamonds. Her husband trusts her without reserve, and never has reason to regret it. Never spiteful, she treats him generously all her life long” (The Message).
It is also important to note we live in a cultural landscape that is different from any time before. There was a time when, if you were born into a family that was say Catholic or Pentecostal, you were most likely to maintain a life in that specific faith. Now a person, regardless of their religious background, has a myriad of choices for how to worship or whether to believe in God at all. Brian Musser, Baptist Campus Minister at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, works with college-age students that are training for their careers, in addition to helping them form their worldview. On the topic of gender roles, Musser recognizes that while there may be differences in the work that men and women are likely to perform, there should be no restriction as to who can perform it. Citing from the creation story of Genesis 1:26-31:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. (NIV)
Musser states that this biblical beginning shows the standard of how men and women can do godly work.
“The creation story illustrates three major points that deal with the topic of the roles of both men and women in God’s Plan:
•Both male and female are created in the image of God
•Both male and female being created in the image of God is directly connected to their assigned tasks of ruling, subduing, multiplying, etc.
•Both male and female bear the image of God specifically through their work. A woman looks like God as she works. A man looks like God as he works. This means that the image of God in humanity was too grand for just one gender to display. Without women working we would know less about what God’s image looks like.”
Musser is showing that the concept of equality in relation to gender roles is nothing new; in fact it was in place at the very beginning.
As far as the acceptance by those in the church of deviations from the traditional role of men as primary wage earners to women taking that responsibility, Reverend Hall acknowledged that “Christianity is very diverse. Some groups would frown on a woman taking the lead financial role. Others wouldn’t have a problem.” Pastor Steinbach also acknowledges that though it is possible that the woman can be the primary breadwinner, it is worthwhile to consider if that is the ideal: “I don’t know… I think ultimately a man is responsible for the finances of his house. If he decides it is best for his wife to work and be the primary breadwinner, then that’s his decision (and obviously hers). I don’t think it is loving and self-sacrificing to put that all on her. Jesus calls men to love their wives like Christ loved the church. Jesus didn’t tell the church to pay for their own sins… so maybe we shouldn’t tell our wives to pay for their own needs.”
As Christians, we identify ourselves not only by how we handle our daily lives, much like those around us, but also by an added component: our faith. How we pray and worship and spend time with our fellow followers provides additional meaning to our lives. How the Bible dictates our method of worship and who can help lead in that expression is often a point of contention. Rev. Hall explains: “The church in many ways is the most sexist organization in American Society with its limitations on women in leadership roles. It has viewed women in two particular images: the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Women are either pure, holy, and not sexually active or are sinful and penitent. These images are designed by culture and are completely outdated, like slavery. The culture of the Bible is two thousand years old. Would you use medical wisdom that old to treat heart disease? We’ve grown in our Biblical understanding over the years. Also many of the places in the Biblical text that limit the role of women come from the apostle Paul. It is important to keep in mind that Paul lived in a completely different culture. We have to look at Paul’s teachings and learn to apply them in our current culture.” One example of new interpretation of the world of the apostle Paul can be applied to the passage of 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. A traditional translation reads, “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (English Standard Version). A modern paraphrase like The Message shifts the emphasis from silence to not saying something foolish, “Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking. Do you—both women and men—imagine that you’re a sacred oracle determining what’s right and wrong? Do you think everything revolves around you?” (The Message) For example, it may have been that while Paul was away planting other churches, in his absence the new established church setting had become more of a social event than a place of worship. And because females in general tend to be the more talkative of the bunch, that may have been why they were singled out. The Message paraphrase gets across Paul’s meaning more in relation to our current culture.
The topic of gender roles lends itself to long discussion in any context, but when it comes to the church it has a particular importance. Whatever conclusions that you may arrive at, it is important to realize something that may be a bit simpler to understand: God has made a place for you and part of that gift is helping you work with the abilities he has given you. Mr. Musser explains it simply: “I believe that both men and women best bear the image of God while working.There are certain things we can see about God when a man works and other things we can see about God when a woman works.”
This essay is the first installment of a series on Gender Roles in relation to Christianity. The goal is to show that Christians can have differing views but still acknowledge others’ commitment to faith. Future topics will cover how gender roles affect the Christian view of raising children and also the roles of gender in regards to Spiritual Leadership both in the church and in the home.