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Published Date: March 5, 2010

Published Date: March 5, 2010

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Chivalry vs. Servanthood

I began considering the issue of chivalry some time ago, inspired by a very close friend of mine—more specifically, when he tried to give me his seat. 

On this evening, my Bible study group was meeting in my living room. Though there were a few open chairs, I decided to sit against the wall, since I’m one of those people who is often most comfortable on the floor. This attracted the attention of my friend, who practically leapt off the couch and told me to sit there instead.

I appreciated his gesture, and told him so. I also assured him that I really, truly wanted to sit where I was. A lively dialogue ensued, with him practically begging me to take his seat, and me insisting that I was sure—yes, really sure—that I would much prefer the floor. After more verbal tug-of-war than I care to recount, my friend looked at me helplessly and finally protested, “But…you’re a woman!”

Needless to say, I didn’t particularly appreciate that logic. 

When talking with him later, it became evident that this was something he had been raised to believe. Real men give up their seats for women. Real men open doors for women. Real men never let women pump their own gas, always scrape the windshield for them, always carry the groceries, and so on. As a man, my friend simply wanted to honor and serve me, a woman he cared about.

I understood where he was coming from, yet something didn’t feel right. I was perplexed as to why. After all, I appreciate being offered a chair. I have no problem with guys opening a door for me. I actually think it’s great when men go out of their way to do small, thoughtful tasks for the women in their lives.

But as I began to pay attention, the system of chivalry began to reveal its weakness to me—and its weakness is just that: it is a system. Like most social systems, it is really bad at taking into account the full personhood of its members. It gives us lots of instructions and assumptions about how to deal with one another, saving us the trouble of, say, actually knowing one another. We are trained not to see an individual human with unique thoughts, needs, and desires, but to see a single member of a broad class who consequently requires certain treatment.

Chivalry gives everyone a clear role to play, complete with prescribed duties and responses. It puts pressure on men to prove they are manly by fulfilling certain set duties. It puts pressure on women to prove they are feminine by gladly receiving men’s service, whether they want it or not, and whether it actually serves them or not. Chivalry hinges on entitlement and obligation.

Scripture, on the other hand, gives us a much higher standard for our relationships. Rather than assume things about one another as we follow a script, we are to prefer others above ourselves and consider their best interests alongside our own (Phil. 2:3–4). Rather than ask how much is expected of us, we should lay down our entire lives for our brothers and sisters 
(1 John 3:16). Servanthood hinges on humility and gratitude.

The issue can be confused sometimes, seeing as chivalry and biblical servanthood can outwardly look the same. But in my observation, the problem with chivalry lies not so much in its actions as its intentions. For instance, it is one thing to be asked, “I see that you have X need; may I do Y for you?” It is another to be told, “I see that you are a woman. I have been well-trained in how to treat women. I shall therefore do Y for you.” The first makes me feel honored and blessed. The second makes me feel embarrassed and a bit put upon. I feel freedom to accept or decline the first offer without hurting anyone’s feelings. I feel nervous that refusing the second will be taken as an affront on someone’s manhood.

Many people today mourn the death of chivalry. However, if we consent to let it go, choosing instead to embrace Christlike servanthood, I very much suspect we will never even miss it.