A while back, I got a request from my sister that I should write up something on my blog about gender roles in religion. And while I, the good brother that I am, have been trying to do so, such a topic is a difficult one to cover. The difficulty is that religion, with all its diversity, has had numerous effects, both positive and negative, on gender roles. While Hindus, for example, have goddesses that are worshiped, Islam has women living behind black veils. Such a topic would be too broad. So what about Christianity specifically? Even within just this one religion, there have been numerous responses to gender roles over the centuries of the Christian religion. But I will do my best to examine some of the answers that have been given from the first century CE until today, as well as a more general discussion about why gender roles exist and whether they are helpful or harmful to society.
The Role of Gender Roles
I think it is first important to clarify what I am speaking about when I discuss gender roles, and why they exist in the first place. Essentially, a gender role is a set of social norms which are considered by a particular society (generally speaking) to be “appropriate” for an individual of a specific sex. For instance, the idea that women should stay home to rear children is a gender role governing her behaviour. Typically, when an individual violates these roles, they may be condemned or socially ostracized.1 It is important to note that gender roles are specific to a culture, and can vary widely between cultures.
But why do gender roles exist in the first place? Well, the most obvious reason is that they are passed down from generation to generation, and are thus perpetuated through socialization. They become seen as “normal” because individuals are taught from an early age that this is normal. But beyond this, gender roles can have some functional psychological effects.2 For instance, gender roles greatly simplify reality. In a complex world with an even more complex society, having genders which can be easily understood can make it much easier to predict behaviour. This has obvious advantages. If everyone agrees to act according to a certain standard, then this standard can simply be assumed and does not have to be assessed in each interaction. Along with this function of simplifying reality, gender roles also allow for nice, discrete categories. In Western culture, we have two genders: masculine and feminine. (Other cultures have more or fewer genders.) Since people love categorizing things, this makes it easy to put some people here and other people there. Having two genders also makes it easy to view them as opposites, which people throughout the history of Western civilization have absolutely loved to do. For instance, Aristotle wrote:
So it is naturally with the male and the female; the one is superior, the other inferior; the one governs, the other is governed; and the same rule must necessarily hold good with respect to all mankind.
But gender roles can also be damaging. First off, they minimize the vast differences within each gender and accentuate the minimal differences between them. For example, while there are many men who would not shed a tear if everyone they knew and loved died in a fiery blaze, there are other men who cry watching The Notebook. One finds the same differences with women as well—some are very emotional, and others are not. So perhaps, if one takes a look at the broad picture, the average woman might be more emotional than the average man. But the difference between these averages is likely much smaller than the difference between two men or two women on opposite extremes. In fact, research has shown that only about half of individuals have attributes that fit these gender roles well; a full 35% of people have androgynous personality traits (and by “androgynous” they mean people who possess qualities traditionally associated with both males and females, not anything to do with inter-sexed individuals), and the other 15% actually have traits associated with the opposite sex or are low in both types of traits.3 By ignoring this variability, one is attempting to fit everyone into a very restrictive mold.
In addition, gender roles can be damaging in more concrete ways. For example, several studies have shown that androgynous couples report higher marital satisfaction than couples adhering to more traditional gender roles.4 If one thinks about it, it makes sense. People are generally attracted to those who are similar to them, who share the same interests, etc. Androgynous individuals are in the “centre” of these gender roles rather than traditionally “masculine” or “feminine”, so two androgynous people should generally be more similar in personality than those who are within traditional gender roles. Thus, these roles can have very real effects on the quality of relationships. If it weren’t for the psychological functions they provide, it would be a wonder why humans ever came up with them at all.
Catching the Culture
Now that we’ve discussed gender roles in general, how does religion come into play with this? Well, religion interacts very closely with culture. And since gender roles are defined by a culture, how religion interacts with culture can affect how religion treats gender roles.
Typically, as religions grow in size, they become more aligned with the presiding culture in which they dwell. Certainly, there may be exceptions to this rule, but the sociology of religion has noted this trend and classified religious movements based on size and influence. In general, when religions start out small, they often create a subculture or even a counter-culture. Either way, they are somewhat removed from the influence of the surrounding culture. As the religion grows, however, it generally creates its own bureaucratic structure and attempts to become institutionalized into the broader culture. In doing this, it must shed some of the counter-cultural elements it contains and conform more regularly to the cultural norms. Once extremely large, a large-scale religion will generally end up exerting a reciprocal influence on the culture: the culture influences the religion, but the religion also influences the culture. This can produce lasting effects, even if the religion later withers away and loses its predominance.
From Equality to Estrangement
This general story of religious growth lines up well with the history of Christianity. Jesus himself seems to have had radical notions about women; he talked with them freely (John 4:7-30), taught Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), and accepted them as some of his closest followers (Luke 8:1-3).5 Paul also seems to have shared similar views about women, though the issues become more difficult to disentangle. He refers to Phoebe as a deaconess of a church (Romans 16:1), lists Junia as an apostle (Romans 16:7), and says that there is no longer “male nor female” for believers (Galatians 3:28). However, he also says that husbands are the “head” of their wives (1 Corinthians 11:3), states that women should keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:33-36), tells wives to be “subject” to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24), and says that women should be silent and never teach or have authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-12). How can one hold such contradictory ideas about women? Well, many scholars think, on the basis of a variety of evidence, that Ephesians and 1 Timothy, as well as others, were not actually written by Paul the apostle, but rather by someone else who signed Paul’s name to them. In addition, some parts of 1 Corinthians are believed to have been a later addition to the text, which happened fairly frequently (both by accident and on purpose) in ancient times. So, it seems that Paul’s views may line up with a more equitable view of women, and that the books written later and ascribed to him were less charitable towards women.
On the basis of this evidence, it seems that in the early days of the church, from Jesus up to at least Paul, women probably enjoyed a fairly well-respected status in the church. It is believed that Christianity attracted a fair number of women in its early days,6 and if they had (relative) equality with men, it would not be hard to see why this might be. This also fits in with our sociological understanding about new religious movements, which, as I mentioned earlier, often produce a relatively independent subculture in which the religion grows. The general inequality between men and women during this time period is well known, and to have a small religious movement offer greater gender equality is clearly evidence of an operating subculture.
But all that seems to have changed, and changed rather quickly. As the religion became more established, and as the bureaucratic structure of church leadership grew, women became marginalized once again. I have already mentioned that even by the time 1 Timothy was written (probably near the end of the 1st century or beginning of 2nd century CE), women had been told they were not allowed to teach men and had to be silent in church.7 Church structure solidified this, with all positions of official leadership restricted to men (a practice that has continued in most denominations right up to the present). Later church theologians would add to marginalizing statements about women, comparing all women to Eve “the temptress”, calling them “defective” or “inferior”, and blaming women for the fall of humanity. The attitudes did not change once Protestantism arrived on the scene, with Martin Luther making statements such as this: “If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth—that is why they are there.”8 If that is not an instance of traditional gender roles, I don’t know what is.
Now, I don’t wish to overstate this: Most likely, the statements of these church leaders were not any more extreme than the general sexist attitudes present in the society. But that is exactly my point. By this point, now that Christianity had been established and even become the dominant religion of the Western world, the norms surrounding gender roles and the image of women in the church were inextricably linked to the gender norms of the surrounding culture. The culture now influenced the church, and the church now influenced the culture as well. Both had a reciprocal influence on each other, perpetuating these norms for centuries.
“Traditional Family Values”
Advancing now to the present day, one can still see the support for “traditional” gender norms within many evangelical denominations. In fact, evangelicals are well-known for their conservatism and their support for “traditional family values.” In some cases, this is the view that men and women hold complementary roles, separate but equal—which sounds nice, except that these complementarians still asserts men’s authority over women in the church and in the home. Some take it even further to Biblical patriarchy, which extends the dominance of man into the civic sphere as well. These are not fringe views. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist denomination and largest Protestant body in the US, for instance, states this in their official statement of faith:
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
Note that the husband is to “provide for”, “protect”, and “lead”. The wife is to “submit”, “respect”, and “serve as a helper”, and is explicitly delegated the role of caring for the household and children.
In a similar vein, Ligonier Ministries, founded by the well-known R.C. Sproul, states this about authority in the family:
In the garden, God called the husband to lead the wife, to rule in the home. He made Eve in turn as a help suitable to her husband, setting this up as the model for all future Eves to follow. All of this means that authority in the home starts with the Creator, then runs to the husband, then from him to the wife.9
Attempts to resist this chain of authority are said to be a result of not “want[ing] to acknowledge or submit to God as our head.” In other words, if a wife wants equal status with her husband when it comes to setting rules for the children, she is clearly being defiant against God himself.
Or we can look at Focus on the Family, a well-known Christian organization. In an article entitled “Order in the Home”, focusing specifically on marriages where the husband is deployed in the military,10 it states:
Most women do not need to be told to love their husbands; that usually comes naturally. But did you know that when men don’t feel respected in the home, they don’t feel loved either?
Piper preaches that submission is “the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.” The Christian wife need not give up her own God-given gifts and interests in order show honor to her husband. Submission is an attitude and an inclination the wife can nurture whether or not the husband is physically present.11
Later on, some tips for practicing submission are listed. I provide them here for your reaction, whatever it might be:
Here are practical ways you can demonstrate a submissive spirit to your husband:
- As his helper (Genesis 2:18), give him helpful suggestions, not sarcastic putdowns.
- Listen to him without interrupting. Don’t finish his sentences for him.
- Keep your house in order as a service to your husband and family (Proverbs 31:27).
- Think through possible solutions for family or household issues, and present them to your husband for his consideration.
- Make an effort to talk to him before making big decisions.
- Keep him in the loop about family and household affairs while he’s deployed.
- Accept constructive criticism. We all have room for improvement.
- Pray for the right words before serious conversations. It will help your tone be more respectful.
[emphasis in original]
One may note the condescending attitude here. Words like “helper”, “suggestions”, “for his consideration”, and “respectful” show the subservience of the wife to the husband. The commands like “don’t finish his sentences for him”, “keep your house in order”, and “accept constructive criticism” are clearly drawn from traditional gender roles.
Of course, as I said, these examples are from evangelicals, which does not represent all of Christianity. Many of the mainline denominations have come to hold much more progressive views, some allowing women to hold clergy positions, and others incorporating some elements of feminist thought into their doctrine.
Fighting the Tidal Wave
My own views on gender roles are fairly cynical. I don’t believe that they have much benefit (if any) in the modern society in which we live. As I pointed out earlier, there is evidence to suggest that we might be better off without gender roles—or at the bare minimum, we should relax them to avoid the rigid condemnation that arises from violations of gender norms. This is nothing radical at this point; gender roles have already been loosened to a great degree, particularly from the role that feminism and women’s liberation movements have played. I fully support these movements and also commend the Christian churches that take them seriously. There is no reason to rely on archaic gender norms simply because they were written down centuries ago by other human beings (when such ideas about gender were normal).
But that is my own opinion. I did not intend this article to be a persuasive argument for discarding gender roles. What I’d like to argue, however, is that those churches who continue to perpetuate the roles of “authoritative husband” and “submissive wife” are fighting a losing battle. The culture has changed, and these roles are largely out-dated (though they do still have an effect on people, to be sure). I suspect this trend will continue, and the gender norms will continue to stretch and loosen further. At the same time, with the exception of the US,12 the role of religion (especially organized religion) in Western culture is rapidly decreasing. The tight fusion of religious and cultural norms is starting to split apart, and particularly for evangelical denominations, there seems to be a distinct subculture forming once again. As these evangelicals distance themselves from the broader culture as a whole, they begin to marginalize themselves.13
While I want to be cautious about predicting the future, of course, if these trends continue, it seems as though the decreased interaction between conservative denominations and the broader culture will likely lead to a decrease in influence over the lives of individuals in that culture. In other words, it appears that the evangelical churches may be fighting a losing battle. The tidal wave of equality and the removal of archaic gender roles seems to be a wave that has already flooded Western culture. I would argue that we are better off for it. But regardless of my value judgment, if evangelical churches want to continue to have an influence on the broader culture, it would be in their best interest to accept the full equality of women (not just the pseudo-equality of “separate but equal roles”). If they wish to go further and be the church of the future, to advance the next step in embracing human equality, then they should begin to advocate the further dismantling of the traditional gender roles that are still present within the culture.
- Think, for example, about the ostracism that can result if a man decides to be a “stay-at-home dad” while his wife works. [↩]
- When I use the word “functional”, I mean that they can meet certain psychological needs. This is not a value judgment that gender roles are “good”, nor does it necessarily mean that a lack of gender roles (or different gender roles) would be less functional. Less restrictive gender roles may meet other psychological needs, or may be more ethically justified. [↩]
- Bem, S.L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press. [↩]
- Helms, H.M., Proulx, C.M., Klute, M.M., McHale, S.M., & Crouter, A.C. (2006). Spouses’ gender-typed attributes and their links with marital quality: A pattern analytic approach. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23(6), 843-864. The article is available here. See also Zammichieli, M.E., Gilroy, F.D., & Sherman, M.F. (1988). Relation between sex-role orientation and marital satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14(4), 747-754. The article is available here. [↩]
- Much of the following content in this section was taken from this site, which includes some great information about the views of Christians about women, from Jesus to modern times. [↩]
- See here for a well-sourced article about this claim and the reasons why women might have been attracted to early Christianity. [↩]
- Of course, this may not have been true in all Christian churches. Doctrine was very diverse in the early church, so it is entirely possible that when 1 Timothy was written, some churches had established restrictions about women, whereas others still welcomed them into authority positions freely. Nevertheless, eventually church doctrine became more solidified and universally accepted, and those doctrines included restrictions upon women’s authority in the church. [↩]
- Quote taken from here. [↩]
- From Family Authority, by Denise Sproul. Note that these words about the submission of women are themselves coming from a woman. [↩]
- One may notice that the idea of the wife being in military service is mentioned only a couple times, briefly, in the series of articles. [↩]
- From Order in the Home, by Jocelyn Green. More tips on female subservience from a female. [↩]
- As far as Western religion is concerned, the United States is a strange aberration. For example, it is one of the only Western nations where more than 50% of the population state that religion is important to them. See this report by The Pew Research Center. [↩]
- Of course, with the rate at which evangelical churches are growing in other cultures in Africa, South America, and Asia, this may not be a problem for them overall. The norms provided by evangelicals may be more in line with the norms already present in these areas. [↩]