We are shaped by our stories. In fact, our stories, once in place, determine much of our behavior without regard to their accuracy or helpfulness. Once these stories are stored in our minds, they stay there largely unchallenged until we die. And here is the main point: these narratives are running (and often ruining) our lives. That is why it is crucial to get the right narratives.1
Stories have power. Whether we know it or not, stories form us, both as individuals and as a culture. When it comes to gender, I believe that the stories embedded in American culture, and in the Christian subculture in particular, too often do more harm than good. They conspire to keep us from articulating a vision for flourishing and reconciled inter-gender partnerships, and they keep us from advancing God’s mission in the world. The good news is that we can learn, tell, and live better stories.
To start, I have identified three broken narratives that are embedded in our culture. I will examine how each is reinforced and how each harms both women and men. Most importantly, for each I will offer a better story, rooted in the truths of Scripture.
Broken Narrative #1: Women are objects for male consumption.
Every day, you and I get bombarded by thousands of messages, from television commercials to magazine advertisements to billboards to Facebook ads. Too often, these messages teach us that women exist for the consumption and pleasure of men. Mainstream media preaches this in abundance, but nowhere more vigorously than in the area of pornography, an industry built on objectification. The volume of internet pornography is stunning. In all, it is estimated that 30% of all the data transferred on the internet is pornographic in nature, and one in eight internet searches is for erotic material.2 The vast majority of online pornography depicts women performing for men, who are 543% more likely to look at online porn than women.3 Simply put, this broken narrative is constantly reinforced through the ubiquitous and pernicious presence of pornography.
Even as Christians vocally oppose pornography, pastors’ comments about their “smoking hot” wives, the emphasis on wives’ responsibility for her husband’s sexual satisfaction in marriage, and our confused obsession with girls’ and women’s modesty and purity reinforce the idea that women are objects that exist for the satisfaction of men.
This fractured narrative is toxic for women. For instance, too many women and girls struggle with body-image and low self-esteem. In the US, “forty-two percent of first to third-grade girls want to be thinner, while eighty-one percent of ten-year-olds are afraid of getting fat.”4 Still further, because they are objectified, women are disproportionately more likely to be subjected to violence and even death. Nationwide, one in four women are abused by their partner, and one in six women are survivors of rape.5
This narrative is toxic for men as well. From an early age, boys are taught to see women as objects, and so is it any wonder that many men struggle to respect women as friends, as work colleagues, or in marriage? Further, when sex does come into play, what woman can possibly compare to the Photoshopped woman on the screen? And of course the implicit power differential results in more men than women becoming perpetrators of domestic violence.
Better Narrative #1: Men and women are equals, and both fully bear the image of God.
We desperately need a better narrative. Thankfully, we have one: men and women are equals, and both fully bear the image of God.
In the New Living Translation, Genesis 1:27 reads as follows: “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In God’s economy, no one can be called an object. In fact, the opposite is true. Both men and women fully bear the image of their Creator. In the words of Gretchen Gaebelein Hull:
Man and woman emerge from a distinctive creative act, in their case designed to portray their fellowship and unity, their partnership and mutuality of mission. There was no independence of the one or dependence of the other. In Eden there was no portrayal of dominance or subordination. Of exactly the same substance as man, woman was an equal human being, suitable to be a strong helper. When God took woman from man’s side, she was to be his “completer,” not his competitor. Yes, men and women are individuals, and yes, they are different sexes. But they are equal human beings, designed to complement and complete each other, as the marriage union demonstrates. Scripture says that when they unite, the two “become one flesh,” not “the two become a hierarchy.” The two now side by side should carry out God’s order to multiply and to oversee the world together.6
Because of this deep truth, both women and men have equal worth and standing before God. More than that, men and women are to serve as equal partners in the kingdom mission. This is a better story.
In order to tell this better, more redeemed story, several things must happen within our faith communities. First, men must be diligent about repentance. If there is going to be change, it begins with humble repentance lived out in a context of ongoing accountability. Next, we must create safe spaces for women to process their experiences of being objectified. Enlisting older women to mentor younger women would be helpful, as would safe spaces to pray for healing for one another. Third, our faith communities must become critical of the media we consume. Fourth, we must think critically about the messages we receive from fellow Christians. It is easy to blame the media for objectifying women, not realizing that theologies and worldviews that elevate men over women, often preached from our pulpits, inform the behaviors of the media and the consumer.
The good news is that we follow a Lord who consistently demonstrated this new narrative. For Jesus, women were people, not objects. Who can forget the hemorrhaging woman from Mark 5, a woman of zero social standing whom Jesus healed in the middle of a mobbed street? Where culture saw merely an unclean object to be cast aside, Jesus saw a woman of great faith worthy of redemption. May this healing narrative be told, and lived, with greater purposefulness in our faith communities!
Broken Narrative #2: Men and women can’t be friends because sex will just get in the way.
In 1989, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal gave words to this particular broken narrative, launching it into the larger culture via their movie When Harry Met Sally. The movie upheld the thesis that men and women can’t just be friends, and almost every movie since has affirmed that this narrative is fundamentally true.
The church is not Hollywood, yet by and large, our faith communities seem to have embraced this narrative as well. As a result, very few congregations provide models for healthy inter-gender friendships. Instead, ministry is divided by gender from childhood through adulthood. When gender separation defines church life, how can we expect people to form healthy kingdom friendships? When we segregate kids by gender and teach them only the pitfalls of sexual sin, we train them to view one another exclusively through the lens of sex and romance. Indeed, when the church buys the When Harry Met Sally narrative, it proceeds to make it a reality in the church community.
This false narrative hurts both women and men, often in similar ways, primarily by creating a relational atmosphere dominated by fear. Specifically, it is the fear of what might happen, of overwhelming physical passions being given an ungoverned context in which to run wild.
This climate of fear manifests itself in different ways. On one hand, there can be the pressure to impress. After all, if sex is going to get in the way anyhow, a person had better figure out a way to find the right mate, and quick. And woe to single people! On the other hand, the presence of fear can also create a climate of unfounded suspicion about someone’s motives. In other words, when a person of the opposite gender asks another out to coffee, it can be unclear if it’s as a sibling in Christ, or as a potential future spouse. Either way, it is clear in the Scriptures that fear is not the way of the gospel.
Better Narrative #2: By God’s grace, women and men can enjoy healthy inter-gender friendships and partnerships in mission.
Thankfully, we can conceive of a better, reconciled narrative: by God’s grace, women and men can enjoy healthy inter-gender friendships and partnerships in mission. We know this narrative is possible because we see it lived out throughout the Scriptures. Indeed, we see healthy inter-gender partnerships expressed in the ministries of both Jesus and Paul.
For Jesus, the woman at the well from John 4 was both someone worth relating to and an evangelist waiting to be unleashed. When Mary, in Luke 10, sat at Jesus’ feet as her sister Martha cleaned the house, Jesus honored her, saying she chose the better thing, thus affirming her discipleship.
Commenting on Jesus’ practice of relating with women in his day, Mary Evans notes, “[Jesus’] approach can accurately be described as revolutionary, and we must take care in assessing the impact of Jesus’ approach from our ‘post-revolution’ standpoint, not to forget just how revolutionary it was.” 7
Picking up on Jesus’ example, the apostle Paul made it a habit of building inter-gender partnerships in mission. As one example, Romans 16 offers a list of women who partnered with Paul in the proclamation of the gospel, including Junia, a woman “prominent among the apostles.” Paul considered women partners and ministry leaders, and he was invested in his relationships with them. Sex didn’t get in the way of Jesus or Paul becoming friends and ministry partners with women.
Living into a better narrative will require our faith communities to study the Scriptures deeply on this topic. For too many years, the current of Christian culture has flowed in the riverbed of patriarchy. We need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see in the Scriptures the possibility of God-honoring and healthy and inter-gender partnerships in mission. Next, because we live in such a sexually charged culture, we will each need a healthy dose of self-awareness. In particular, each person must begin with an understanding of their personal gender brokenness—the perspectives and behaviors that stem from false ideas about gender. Accessing this brokenness is not easy, but it is crucial if we are to tell this new story. As self-awareness grows, we must begin to reach out to our brothers and sisters, thoughtfully and carefully building healthy relationships and ministry partnerships. Doing so will require intentionality, vulnerability, and a learner’s posture.
Again, the good news is that as we labor to find, tell, and live out this new story, Jesus is our guide and inspiration. Indeed, the same Jesus who saw fit to commission Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James as the first witnesses to the resurrection will empower healthy inter-gender partnerships in our day as well.
Broken Narrative #3: Only men can be trusted with power and leadership.
By nearly every metric, men enjoy greater power and influence than women in society. In politics, women hold only twenty-four percent of elected offices in the US.8 In a global context, the US rates seventy-third out of 188 countries in terms of women’s representation in national legislatures.9 In the arena of economics, a woman makes seventy-eight cents for every dollar made by a man with the same qualifications, doing the same job.10 And only twenty-four of the US’s Fortune 500 companies are led by a woman.11
In the church, power is distributed even more unevenly. A 2009 Barna study concluded that just ten percent of protestant lead pastors are women.12 And while it is surely true that women lead in many ways in different parts of the church, they are often barred from ecclesial conference rooms, offices, and pulpits because of their gender. Popular teachings claiming that the Bible paints women as easily deceived, combined with cultural myths about women’s supposed emotional instability, reinforce the idea that women cannot be trusted to lead. And, while male leaders can make mistakes and still get the benefit of the doubt, mistakes made by female leaders are taken as evidence that women should not lead.
This embedded, biased power differential is harmful to both men and women. For men, there can be at least two issues. First, men can develop a sense of entitlement (“I deserve power”) that can too easily culminate in the abuse of power. Second, men can suffer undue pressure to be a leader even if they are a bad fit for the role. On the flip side, in this narrative women experience marginalization, which often results in frustration or anger about how the system is set up in favor of men. In addition, living on the margins can result in women being overly protective about whatever power they do have. Finally, the fact that women have to outperform men in every way in order to earn and maintain leadership discourages many women from pursuing roles they are qualified and gifted for. As a result, the whole community is robbed of their leadership.
Better Narrative #3: Men and women joyfully share power in a way marked by mutual empowerment and advocacy.
What is a better, more compelling story? How should we bear power in the kingdom? A better narrative for the church to find, tell, and live would be: men and women joyfully share power in a way marked by mutual empowerment and advocacy.
Consider how Jesus held power. Perhaps the best way to get a glimpse of Jesus’ perspective on power is to carefully read and reflect on Philippians 2. The text describes how Jesus, in eternal Trinitarian communion in heaven, voluntarily became human and relocated to earth. He “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
Viewed through the lens of power, the Incarnation is the largest power exchange in human history, as Jesus willfully and joyfully divests himself of power in order to empower others. If our faith communities embraced this vision for power, particularly around gender, imagine both the personal satisfaction and the greater missional effectiveness that could result.
It seems far off, but there are concrete steps we can take toward a Christ-like approach to power. First, we must re-examine our theologies about power. It is time for vigorous conversations about power in our churches. How do we view power now, and how does this match with how Jesus viewed and stewarded power? Next, men need to imitate Jesus by divesting themselves of power. Men and women cannot steward power jointly if no one who has power gives it up. Third, women must take up power and lead. To be sure, after being marginalized for so long, this will not be easy; still, for reconciliation to happen, women will need to step into the equal authority granted to them from the very beginning.
Finally, if our faith communities are going to embody this new narrative, men and women have to discern ways to share power and to steward it in partnership. Among other things, this will require the community to carefully discern the best person to take on various ministry tasks, decisions that must be predicated on gifting, not gender.
Overcoming old, broken narratives will not be easy. Centuries of persistent and stubborn cultural reinforcement cannot easily be set aside. Old patterns are hard to break.
The good news for our faith communities is that we have resurrection power on our side. The same power that defeated sin and death renews and reconciles us. May God empower us to find, tell, and live out new and better stories. As we do, may God’s kingdom expand in greater measure!
- James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love With the God Jesus Knows (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 26.
- See “Porn Sites Get More Visitors Each Month Than Netflix, Amazon And Twitter Combined.” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2013.
- See Luke Gilkerson, “Get the Latest Pornography Statistics.” CovenantEyes, Feb. 19, 2013. www.covenanteyes.com/2013/02/19/pornography-statistics/.
- See “The Dove® Campaign for Real Beauty.” Dove. (accessed Feb. 2016).
- See The Representation Project (accessed 2013).
- Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve: Women and Men Working Together Revealing the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 182.
- Mary J. Evans, Woman in the Bible: An Overview of all the Crucial Passages on Women’s Roles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 45.
- See the Center for American Women and Politics, (accessed 2013).
- See “Women in national parliaments.” Inter-Parliamentary Union. www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm. As of January 1, 2015, the United States sits tied with Panama and behind countries such as China, Turkmenistan, Lesotho, and Nicaragua.
- See Deborah Swerdlow, “How to ‘Celebrate’ Equal Pay Day.” The American Association of University Women, Dec. 10, 2014.
- Actually, 24 represents an all-time high. Unfortunately, it is still just 5%. See fortune.com.
- See Number of Female Senior Pastors in Protestant Churches Doubles in Past Decade – Barna Group.