The code of chivalry called for men to protect, serve, and honor women as the weaker vessel. Men undertook the benevolent care of women as vulnerable victims-to-be in a hazardous culture. The system relied on a dichotomous understanding of male and female: protector and damsel, agent and victim, giver and receiver, predator and prey, strong and weak, powerful and vulnerable, parent and child. Male protection was fundamental to female survival.
So at the root of the original system is the vulnerability and incapability of women and supplemental male power.
I fully appreciate the spirit in which the “code” is often performed today. For many men, it’s simply a set of rules that demands control, kindness, and service. But if that’s the case, I think we’re crediting the wrong code. Jesus called us to that life first when he dipped his hands in water and took up his disciples’ feet.
So should men serve according to the code of chivalry or should we all pour out according to the code of Jesus Christ?
If men root their behavior toward others in a gendered, earthly code like chivalry, I believe that they miss the radical scope of Jesus’ call to selfless service and love.
Chivalry and Women’s Agency
Chivalry comes with a lot of baggage these days. For many women, it implies loss of agency. Agency, for those of you who don’t know, is the ability of a woman to think, act, and speak for herself, or act as an agent in her own life. Many women spend their lives fighting to be seen as capable and competent. An act of chivalry can imply vulnerability, inability, or weakness. Consider these two scenarios:
A female college professor wants to be seen as an able and strong leader at work. She offers to buy a friendly cup of coffee for her male coworker in an effort to get to know him better. He refuses, because she is a woman and offers, instead, to buy her cup of coffee.
It is easy to judge his gesture as harmless without analyzing how the professor’s agency was stolen. She wanted to perform an act of service for her friend and colleague, but her offering was rejected in favor of his in the name of “chivalry.” She felt diminished.
A female college student holds the door open for a group of mixed gender friends. All of her friends but one file through with thanks. The remaining male slides his hand above hers, takes the weight of the door, and gestures for her to proceed before him. She laughs and says, “you go ahead.” But he refuses, because he believes it is his job and right to hold the door for women.
He held the door because he was following “the code” faithfully, but in doing so, he both embarrassed his friend and rejected her act of service. By making “door-holding” gendered, he minimized her offering and substituted his own. She felt incapable.
These are just two examples of how chivalry can steal female agency.
For a lot of the men I know, it seems that chivalry has become a source of bitterness—they see chivalry as a code of conduct that women expect but don’t appreciate or value. Other men cite feminism as the chief reason why they no longer follow the code of chivalry. This announcement is often made with derision as if women are now reaping the (rotten) fruits of their liberation labors.
The first group of men is operating under the assumption that service is only meaningful if women appreciate it. But this is not why Christians serve each other. We serve because we know that God himself washed the muddy, calloused feet of humans.
The gospel is a call to pour out. Christians defy the laws of survival when they give of themselves selflessly. They do so, not for personal gain or the approval of humans, but because their love for this world is so deep and so strong that they cannot help but serve. This is the highest form of love. So if Christian men perform “chivalry” to gain the approval and affections of women, they fail to serve selflessly.
The second group is operating under the assumption that women must choose either patriarchy or zero accountability from men. This argument usually goes something like: women wanted equality, now we can treat them badly because they forfeited their pedestal.
But the truth is, many of the gendered expectations and actions in “the code” have even more meaning in the body of Christ today.
When men served women as “the weaker vessel,” they did so with the confidence that their care and protection were necessary. The “code” was born out of inequality, which is why, though it still has relevance, it must evolve. Women no longer require the paternal protection of “the code,” but they, like men, need the selfless love and service of their brothers (and sisters) in Christ.
A New Code: Selfless Love and Service
I think we need to reinterpret “the code.” What if, in place of chivalry, we lived according to the Jesus code? What if chivalry was replaced by a code of selfless love that all Christians, men and women, extended toward each other? What if, instead of demanding that Christian men be “chivalrous,” we required Christian men to simply be selfless? And what if we asked Christian women to do the same? What if we washed each other’s feet every single day?
Selfless love is not gendered. A man who pours out for his brothers and sisters is a man who understands the gospel call to selfless service. Likewise, a woman who gives of herself to both men and women is a woman who loves like Jesus.
I don’t dream of chivalry in my brothers in Christ. I dream of selfless love in the tradition of a savior who showed men and women what it means to lay down their selves. That’s a code I’m prepared to live by.
Disclaimer: Many women (and men) value chivalry. This is not a criticism of women who appreciate “the code.” This is an alternative perspective for men and women who feel called to something different.