Not long after I began studying egalitarian theology in a serious way, I was confronted by one of the more perplexing questions associated with it: what are the true “differences” between men and women?
The complementarian theology I was fast rejecting hinged on a tidy framework for defining gender. Maleness meant characteristics and actions that encompass leadership roles, while femaleness meant characteristics and actions that encompass supportive, submissive roles. I knew that answer felt stilted and restrictive, but deconstructing it only left me with more questions. If everyone is equal and roles interchangeable, I thought, then what is “male” and what is “female?”
Not everyone in the egalitarian camp answers this question the same way. I’ve met Christian egalitarians who believe that any gender differences are the result of social conditioning, and our biology is the only thing that separates men and women. Other Christian egalitarians hold that God made men and women with a few inherent differences within the brain.
I was of two minds. It felt dicey to admit that God might have imbued differences between the sexes, because complementarians might use that to argue for separate roles, but I also saw a story in Scripture of God creating man and woman and saying that the two of them, distinct but together, were a beautiful picture. Why, I thought, would God make biological categories for humans that meant nothing at the emotional or spiritual level?
Spurred by these questions, I set to work reading egalitarian scholarship and plaguing family and friends with requests for their thoughts on the matter. No matter what I read or who I asked, I couldn’t find a direct answer. I read convincing arguments on why women shouldn’t be barred from certain things—jobs, the pulpit, leadership, and influence. Egalitarians could argue against limiting the definition of womanhood, but I wasn’t sure how to build an active definition of femaleness as compared to maleness.
And, to my amazement, a closer look at complementarianism revealed an equally muddy definition of female personhood. Though its supporters claimed to offer a secure identity for men and women, it was a fragile identity, dependent on human behavior. Women could violate God’s intent for their identity simply by failing to back down in disagreements with their husbands. Men could violate it by staying home full-time to care for their children.
Often, men and women who felt ill-suited for these gender roles were offered an “out” that was behavior-based. Strong-willed women were permitted to enjoy leadership in managing their homes, running ladies’ Bible studies, or excelling in careers, as long as they paid the piper by staying home until the last kid was in school, and talking up their husband’s place as the final decision maker. Laid-back men didn’t have to feel like leaders as long as they brought home a paycheck and asked after their family’s spiritual health. It seemed that what gender really boiled down to, even for complementarians, was what people did and not who they were. In fact, many of the passages used to back up such traditionalist views—Titus 2:3-5, Ephesians 5:22-24, I Peter 3:1-6, I Corinthians 14: 34-35, and others—describe behavior more than they define personhood.
I was at a loss as to how to define myself as a woman. It was Patricia Gundry’s foundational egalitarian book, Woman Be Free that made the first crack in my confusion. Published in 1977, it attempted to give a basic overview of the Christian egalitarian position. Chapter three addressed common threats that are made against women to keep them from pushing back against a patriarchal system. Gundry explained that one such threat is the idea that women who step outside their role of submission might lose their femininity, the thing that makes men celebrate them as female.
Gundry, on the other hand, defined femininity as “an elusive quality women have that appeals to men….You can make every effort to pin it down, but it will escape you… A woman cannot lose her femininity, because it is not a thing. Femininity is the very essence of a woman. And she cannot lose what she is” (31).
This was a new thought to chew on. Could femininity, and therefore masculinity, be mysterious qualities we possess simply by virtue of being? Could they exist without a concrete list of bullet points hammering them out?
I went to my mother with these questions. I supposed if anyone should be able to help me figure out my femininity, it was the woman who gave me most of my female genetics in the first place. Mom did not specifically identify as “egalitarian,” because she didn’t care about labels, but she and my dad had always lived what appeared to be an egalitarian marital ethic, so I figured she was a safe subject to question on the nature of our place in the world.
“Mom,” I asked bluntly, “what is the difference between women and men? What thing or things always make us different from each other?”
My mom laughed out loud. “Honey,” she said, “you are never going to find an answer to that question that is always true for every woman and every man.”
So, scholarly research and practical parental advice brought me to the same place. I turned this answer over in my mind for several weeks—then several years. I eased into that definition of femininity in my mind and discovered a freedom that’s difficult to explain. It meant that no matter what I did or didn’t do, no matter what mistakes I made or what triumphs, no matter what happened to me beyond my control, a huge chunk of my identity could never change. It would always be part of me. I couldn’t say the same about other identity markers in my life, such as my career, my relationships, or my socio-economic standing.
It felt too ambiguous at first, this inability to classify what “being a woman” or “being a man” looked like. In time, however, it became beautiful. I began to appreciate the full range of personality expression demonstrated by the women around me, and the same for men. In addition, it freed me up to pursue questions about who I am as a Christ-follower. Rather than pore over Ephesians 5:22-24 for the formula for being female, I now read the entire book of Ephesians to see who I am in relation to Christ and to the rest of the church. Instead of worrying about the supposed Titus 2 checklist, I’m reading Galatians 3 for insight into my standing before God.
In summary, then, you can believe there is meaning in having two genders without having to pin down just how that plays out. You don’t have to “protect” the meaning of gender by quantifying it, as though it were made of glass. Like so many things, it’s a mystery—one that God does not require or expect us to solve. He just wants each person, male or female, to listen for his call in their unique life.