I would settle into a comfortable slouch at my desk in the corner classroom that hosted my contextual theology class, unwrap my giant blueberry muffin, and begin to dig in when the professor would bound into the room and ask “Did Jesus have to be a man?”
This happened at least a couple times a month. Each time, someone would begrudgingly offer up the same answer: “Well, because of the culture of the time, Jesus couldn’t have accomplished what he did without the freedoms he had as a male. So… I guess?”
Unimpressed, our professor would ask again, with greater urgency. Not bothering to wait for a response, he’d explain a theological concept that none of us grasped, and conclude with “and if that’s true, Jesus can’t save women!” We would stare blankly for a few moments before returning to our muffins and steaming beverages, and he’d move on to something else.
A couple years after I took that class, I was at a wedding doing what I often do at weddings—cringing at the sermon and wondering if the couple getting married believed everything the pastor was saying. He spoke at length about the beauty of the “gender roles” in marriage. “Women are made for submission and men for leadership. What a beautiful thing it is when we embrace the purpose for which God created us!”
As I sat in the pew, something hit me. If what the pastor was saying was true—if submission defines femaleness and leadership defines maleness—then all humanity does not share a common nature. Rather, female and male possess a fundamentally different essence from one another, and this shapes their entire identity, purpose, and destiny in the world.1 There is not one humanity, but two: male-human and female-human.
This is a view called “gender essentialism” and it’s quite popular in evangelical literature. Rarely is it so clearly articulated as in a recent book on gender and identity:
At the core of who we are, we are gendered. Femininity or masculinity is so irrevocably and irreversibly embedded in our being that no one can accurately say “I am first a person and then male or female.” With the privileged excitement of destiny, we must rather say, “I am a male person, a man,” or “I am a female person, a woman.” Our soul’s center is alive with either masculinity or femininity.2
As I pondered the gender essentialism being espoused by the pastor, my old professor’s words returned to me: “If that’s true, then Jesus can’t save women.” If we believe God became fully human, we must also believe in a human essence that transcends the male-female divide. And it is this essence which God embodies in Jesus, a man, but a fully human man. (More on this on page 12.)
Gender essentialism is everywhere. It’s in our books, our counseling sessions, our sermons, and our music. Not long ago, it reared its head amid the flurry of protest when Target removed gender-specific labels from its toy department. Surely, people argued, this would discourage children from fully living out their humanity, which is defined by their sex and accompanying “gender roles.”
Most of the time, gender essentialism is simply assumed to be true, as though all Christians hold it to be self-evident. Also assumed is the idea that to deny gender essentialism is to deny any difference between men and women (more on this on page 22). Upon these unchallenged assumptions rest countless arguments for gender-based hierarchy (and even some for mutuality).
In this issue, we dig into gender essentialism. We’ll evaluate assumptions and popular ideas about what it is to be male or female, how this impacts our humanity, and how it affects our beliefs about ourselves and God. And, we’ll review three recent and forthcoming books on a related and recently hot topic: masculinity. I believe that as we dive deeper into these questions, we’ll discover that God created us to share a single essence: humanity—a humanity with plenty of room for difference between male and female, but which requires that we say, “I am first and above all, human, and then male or female.”
- For a more in-depth explanation, see Mimi Haddad, “Male and Female: One Image, One Purpose,” Mutuality 21, no. 1 (Spring 2014), 22.
- Larry Crabb, Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 21–22. Emphasis mine.