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Refusing to Press Pause

On September 03, 2014

For much of history, women have been defined by their relationships with men. Linguistic trends reflect the dominant cultural rules governing female identity and worth. A woman is a Miss or a Mrs. depending upon whether she is married or single; her formal title depends on her relationship—to a man.

Further, think about the list of derogatory terms often used to malign a woman's character in secular culture. Derogatory insults are gender-weighted toward women; they usually indicate an adherence to or divergence from male expectations, all dictated by cultural rules that define women by their relationship with men. Female worth is generally judged by how well a woman conforms to patriarchal expectations for her life.

By contrast, a man is a Mr. regardless of his marital status. He is, first and foremost, a human being. Men are primarily defined by their relationship to the world. So, female identity is far more heavily framed by marital status than male identity in patriarchal culture. The world's perception of female worth is also unjustly linked to women's relationship to men. In summary:

  • Patriarchal culture standards suggest that female identity and worth are defined in relation to men.
  • Male identity exists independent of other factors such as relationship status; men have inherent worth as human beings.

Men are autonomous, complete beings with naturally endowed worth based on the world's recognition of their independent identities. And women? Well, women can have all that too. There's a small catch. Female identity is inextricably tied to relationships with men, and therefore female worth is a quotient carefully calculated by patriarchal standards. If you're anything like me, you might be getting vaguely uncomfortable with this news, even mildly upset that women are defined linguistically in terms of romantic relationships, specifically marriage. This next piece of information might send you over the edge, then. It doesn't stop with language! Women are often defined by these boundaries in popular culture and, sadly, in many cases, even in the church.

You can see examples of this phenomenon in advertising when a woman is portrayed purely as a sexual object, devoid of emotion, goals, personal desires, and value. Her identity and worth are reduced to how she is aesthetically perceived by men. It pops up in the media when female candidates for office spend more time answering questions about their marriage and home life than they do about their political strategies and opinions. Men don't face that kind of interrogation, because gender-specific cultural rules decree that a man's home life has little to nothing to do with his career aspirations. Men's identity as competent career-persons and deserving participants in the public sphere isn't questioned. It doesn't need to be established; it simply is. Women do not have that luxury. Men are rarely asked how they plan to balance a political campaign and being a father, but women are often expected to answer the same question about career-hood and motherhood. Much of the time, women have to fight and defend their quest for an identity that goes beyond their relationships with men and a worth that ought to be inalienable as members of the human race.

Unfortunately, this battle doesn't end in the secular world. Though the church generally defines the value of women by standards that extend far beyond physical attractiveness; there is an identity crisis going on for women in the church, especially single women. A single Christian woman is often overwhelmed by the swirling rapids that are the marriage-centric church culture. From every side comes the message that personal fulfillment is realized through romantic relationship, specifically marriage. What is distressing about this trend is that if fulfillment is achieved by way of male approval, little room is left for God's approval. Marriage is an honorable venture, deeply challenging and richly rewarding, but does it have the power to create identity and establish worth? I think not.

So, who are we kidding? Why does the church often tell young girls that God has a prince waiting to ride in and marry them as long as they're patient? Why are there stacks of books on waiting for the "one," written specifically for young Christian women? Why is female identity fully realized when a Miss becomes a Mrs.? Why are young women encouraged to press pause in their lives, waiting for what church culture assures them is just around the corner?

Men don't escape the often crushing pressure to marry and fulfill patriarchal expectations either. Church culture places a slightly less poignant stigma on men who don't fall in line with what good Christian males are supposed to be doing with their lives, but it is still there and it is still harmful. The point is, single people in the church, especially women, learn to place their hopes for happiness in marriage, and in the identity patriarchal standards promise that marriage will bring to them.

Marriage may be just around the corner for some single, Christian women. But telling them that's the case as if it somehow justifies their time spent as a single person—well, that means that something is wrong with their current life situation, with who they are, right now. Many church cultures send the message that singleness is just a temporary condition, something that needs to be cured by the promise of true joy in a future, married life. That's not the case. Single people don't need to be fixed. There's true joy to be had right now. Life is already worth it. Women already have identity and worth all on their own. My value as a woman, as a human being, as a friend, as a student, as a career-person, as a family member, and most importantly, as a Christ-follower is already set in stone. Jesus made certain of it, two thousand years ago.

Female identity is not defined by male approval or romantic relationships. Marriage may become a part of a woman's identity someday, but it will not bring the joy it ought to if Christian women buy into the fallacy that being single isn't good enough and that it is men who make women who they are. On the contrary, it is the inspired sculptor who crafts the identity of each one of us, male and female. Jesus entered into a saving relationship with humanity that defined women once-and-for-all as chosen, valued, worthy, honored, capable, and powerful, a force to be reckoned with in this world regardless of relationship status.

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