If you’re looking for a powerful film to watch this summer, consider Iron Jawed Angels, a dramatization of the American suffragist Alice Paul (1885–1977). Her legacy is one-of-a-kind, and few leaders exhibit more genius in responding to the rhetoric and strategies of their opponents. For egalitarians today, her struggles and ours have significant parallels. We learn much from observing the masterful way Paul challenged the illogic that portrayed women as wholly different from men and unfit for decision making responsibilities. At a crucial moment in the film, while imprisoned for picketing the White House, Paul is examined by a psychiatrist for mental instability. She establishes both her sanity and also woman’s shared humanity with men in a penetrating declaration. She tells the physician that her life is aimed at gaining for women what men desire and have always enjoyed—professional opportunities for their aspirations and talents. In other words, women want what men want—an opportunity to subdue the world and rule over creation (Genesis 1: 28) with the unique talents they possess, not according to their gender, but because of their uniqueness as human beings.
Writing at the same time as Alice Paul, British author and theologian Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957) also found it irritating and illogical to “assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs” (Are Women Human?, p. 20). According to Sayers, there is “very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general” (ibid., 35). To insist that women want something wholly different from men because of their gender is a sentimentalist notion that not only diminishes our uniqueness as human beings, but also is at odds with Scripture.
The divine mandate in Genesis 1:27–28 shows how men and women both bear God’s image equally and therefore rule over creation together:
So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Any argument that excludes human beings—because of skin color, gender, or socioeconomic status—from their God-given place in subduing the earth and ruling over creation opposes God’s ultimate purposes for humankind. The shared authority men and women enjoyed in subduing the earth and ruling over creation was severely disrupted through sin and the fall. Because of sin, men began to rule over women, as noted clearly in the “he will rule over you” description in Genesis 3:16. Thankfully in Christ, the gift of grace is not like the trespass (Rom. 5:15). Our redemption in Jesus opposes the consequences of sin and man’s domination over women traced throughout history. In Jesus we experience reconciliation, mutuality, and harmony where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Through Jesus, and as joint heirs of God’s kingdom, the divine mandate (of Genesis 1:27–28) is re-established. Men and women share authority in subduing the earth!
Despite our liberation in Christ however, we, like the Israelites, sometimes prefer slavery to entering the promised land. If you need convincing, just stroll through any Christian bookstore. Notice a publishing industry that promotes (especially through youth curriculum) not the shared stewardship of men and women in Christ, but an obsession with gender that leads to separate spheres of stewardship. Rather than asking, what are your gifts and how might you use these for Christ? The question becomes, what is your gender, and how does that shape your life in Christ? This is tragic because it departs from the teachings of Scripture and fails to embrace the benefits of Calvary.
Such literature holds us captive to the consequences of sin and is steeped in an unthinking sentimentalism that suggests, again, that women want something different than men. These authors argue that women want love while men want respect. (If you love someone, don’t you also respect them?) Or again, women are said to be ruled by emotion and men by logic. Or again, women marry for love and men for sex. (Read the Song of Solomon for a biblical perspective on this!) These authors claim females long to twirl in skirts whereas men seek beauties to rescue. Do the teachings of Scripture tell us to focus on external beauty, or to take up our cross and follow Jesus in service to a broken world? To fall prey to this sentimentality is to squander Christ’s accomplishments and our purposes in subduing the earth and ruling over creation for Jesus’ sake.
To repeat the wisdom of Dorothy Sayers, there is very little mystery to gender, apart from the “exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general.” If you want insights into gender, look to Scripture rather than romance movies, art museums, novels, or pop Christian literature. Scripture is our best guide, and it teaches us what ultimately the human heart must finally grasp. We must educate women and men that they are human and Christian before they are male or female, rich or poor, black or white, and so forth. This is the teaching of Scripture, and we are stronger in our service when we embrace our renewal in Christ above all else.