Missionaries often speak of the invisibility of culture. By that they mean that most of us are not conscious of our own cultural idiosyncrasies. What is more, we are tempted to insist others adapt to our culture, because we view ours as normal and good! Missionaries have long recognized the dangers present when we tempt to impart our culture in addition to the gospel.
The tendency to view our cultural values as biblical absolutes influences our discussions regarding gender and faith. Last month I was speaking to a group of college students who were all very bright, kind, and sincere! Yet some were convinced that the Bible outlines different roles for men and women. When pressed to defend their position, one student mentioned that most of the males he knows prefer the color blue, while nearly all of the females in his hometown like pink. His female friends dream of becoming mothers and housewives while his male friends long to pursue professions outside the home. He viewed his cultural preferences as if they were biblical absolutes. While Scripture teaches the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood, nowhere in the Bible do we learn that all women are called to marriage, motherhood, home making, or pink clothing.
Because we all grow up in a culture with gender expectations, we may not be fully aware of how gender stereotypes impact our reading of Scripture. While some of us come from cultures where Christian women and men wear certain clothes and dream of careers that are directed by their gender, we may need help to clarify what is and what is not a biblical absolute. This is often the case when helping young Christians explore their gifts and calling!
The idea that Christian faith must be lived only in “pink or blue” terms may dampen not only God’s call to ministry but also the passion that often accompanies our spiritual gifts. Rather than celebrate their spiritual gifts, their passions, and how these might be used to honor Christ, some are willing to allow perceived gender roles to direct their calling, even determine the color of their clothing. Surely, the greatest gift we can give young people is the ability to attend to God through Scripture rather than through culture, even Christian culture. While we celebrate the gift of gender, like any gift from God, it cannot become the primary lens through which we view our personhood, or our capacity for service. While secular culture may sexualize nearly all of human existence, and while Christian culture has a similar tendency to orchestrate life in terms of pink and blue, Scripture offers another message.
That is why a home economics major that is open only to women cannot be supported biblically. Providing only women with courses in home decoration, meal prep, and clothing construction (textile design) finds no scriptural sanctuary. Consider the textile abilities of tent makers like Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila (Acts 18:3). Remember that Jesus cooked for the disciples (John 21:9),1 he washed their feet (John 13:8), and wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Paul’s description of the spiritual gifts are never described as male or female, nor does Paul state or imply that the spiritual gifts are given along gender lines (1 Cor. 12:7 ff, Rom. 12:6–8 and Eph. 4:11). In fact, the spiritual gifts equip both men and women as evangelists, prophets, pastors, teachers, and apostles. Scripture provides examples of women who served Christ as prophets (Ex. 15:20, Gen. 35:8, Acts 21:8–9, Luke 36 and ff, 1 Cor. 11:3–5), evangelists and teachers (Mark 7:26, John 4:39, John 20:17, Acts 16:13-14, 40, Acts 18:26, Rom. 16:12, Phil. 4:2–3), and as an apostle (Junia, Rom. 16:7).
History is filled with examples of Christians, both men and women, who fanned into flame the gift within (2 Tim 1:6–7), responding to God’s call, rather than to the gender expectations of their culture. Christians continue to discern the difference between the moral teachings in Scripture and cultural gender expectations. While egalitarians are not interested in obliterating gender distinctions, we believe that gender differences should not limit ministry.
While we may be tempted to respond to an increasingly secular and sexualized culture with rigid gender roles, perhaps we should allow our current culture, which gives women many new opportunities, to help us think creatively about supporting godly women in places of significant influence, where their Christian values and holiness can be a light for Christ. Like Paul, let’s encourage those who are just discovering their spiritual gifts to fan these into flame with a holy boldness, allowing them to see the amazingly broad, high, and wide opportunities God may have for them. Let’s allow God voice in Scripture to redeem our cultural expectations of women and men, giving the gifts God has given the church to have their fullest impact in this world!
1. Martin Marty cites helpful references of women and men sharing domestic work in Christian Century, October 2, 2007, p. 55.