Hope for My Girls

January 13, 2012 — 6 Comments
Sydneyrylee
My girls, Sydney (8) and Rylee (6)

In late-spring 2003, I sat with my wife in a doctor’s exam room while a nurse practitioner readied her machine. I was quite nervous. I held my wife’s hand as the nurse began the procedure. Images I didn’t understand morphed across screen of the machine. After what seemed like an hour, but was merely minutes, the nurse spoke. “It’s a girl!”

Within hours the news was making rounds among our family and friends. Our first child is to be a girl! My dear mother-in-law nearly keeled over in excitement. Then she went straight to the department store and began buying dresses and all things pink. We were having a girl. 

It is interesting, isn’t it, the things people attach to prenatal sexing? In some ways, a bit bizarre. We blast low frequency sound waves into the uterus to catch a glimpse of what is between the fetus’s legs. What we find there is used by the soon-to-be parents and their friends and families to make all sorts of decisions on behalf of the child–paint color for the nursery, clothing style, toys, books, to name a few. 

What is happening when we do that is we are “gendering” the child. We are creating an environment in which the child will develop his or her “role” in life. Does that sound odd to you? If it does, perhaps it is because our modern culture asserts that gender and one’s biological sex are one in the same. It is a binary system where those with penises are male and those with vaginas are female. Case closed. This is called the two-sex theory of gender. But what if that’s not quite right, after all? What if gender has little to do with biology at all?

Adrian Thatcher, in his God, Sex, and Gender writes that gender is relational. That is to say, its distinguishing features lie in the expectations around how one person relates to another, or how one group of people relates to another group of people. The norms for these relational interactions are constructed, and sometimes deconstructed  and re-constructed, by each generation. This is done in numerous little, nearly unnoticed, ways.

In Western, North American Christianity right now, conflict over gender is heating up. The “gender wars” (or what Kurt Willems rightly describes a part of the “evangelical culture war”) pit complementarians like Mark Driscoll against egalitarians like Rachel Held Evans. At issue is what the Bible says about what it means to be a man or a woman, and what that means for the organization, administration, and propagation of the church.  What is interesting to me is that both camps, by and large, take for granted that the current two-sex theory is present in the Bible.

Thatcher asserts that it most definitely is not. For Biblical authors, there were not two sexes. There was only one: man. This single sex could be divided into to kinds: male and female. Referred to as a group, we get “mankind”. Men and women existed on a gradient, from the lesser female to the greater male. Men and women were understood to have the same genitalia–men had a penis on the outside of their bodies, women’s penises were inverted to the inside–and both had sperm necessary for conceiving a child. Men expelled theirs into women, where it mingled with the woman’s  sperm.

Immediately, we can see all sorts of scientific and biological problems with these views, can’t we? But it is important to note that gender roles in the Bible were based on the idea that there was one sex that existed in degrees of greater and lesser. A female was seen as a less-perfect male. That seems insufficient for us today, even offensive, doesn’t it? In light of what we know about biology and reproduction, we can confidently say that the Biblical authors’ understanding of the biological differences between men and women and what happens during conception is wrong. 

But what does that mean for gender? If we wouldn’t use a first-century understanding of sex ed to teach our children about how babies are made, can we really use a first-century understanding of gender to help them find their place in the world? On the other hand, the dominant two-sex, two-gender theory leaves much to be desired as well. There is little room for those who aren’t heterosexual masculine-males or feminine-females. Instead, perhaps we need to return to one-sex understanding of humankind, but bring to it a more current understanding of gender equality.

When Paul writes that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, but in Christ all are one, he is making a bold claim that these categories no longer have the power to define our relationships or determine or interactions. Instead, Paul points to the supra-sexuality of the Trinity that is neither male nor female. In the Trinity, there is no hierarchy based on sex, gender, or anything else. Rather, we find three co-equal parties mystically existing as One. That should be our starting place for gender. Sexual differences exist. However, their existence need not result in the elevation of one gender over others. Rather, it makes possible the opportunity for relational mutuality and reciprocity. 

Back to my story. In December of 2003, our daughter Sydney was born. Two years later our second daughter, Rylee, joined our family. They are distinctly different people, adopting different parts and degrees of being a “girl.” With all that lies before them in life, I hope that my wife and I can raise them in a household that prizes love, equality, opportunity, and support. Their only limitations should be faithfulness to the call of God upon their lives, not what is present (or absent) between their legs.

Note: This post is woefully inadequate on the nuanced complexities of gender, sexuality, Christianity, ecclesiology, and theology. The fact is, none of them are simple. I have written and re-written it numerous times, but there comes a point when you “just have to ship.” In upcoming posts, I will write more specifically about some of those things. So, forgive me if this post–which is already longer than it ought to be–seems lacking in places. For further reading, I commend to you Sarah Bessey StylesRachel Held Evans  and Suzannah, all women who I hope my daughters will appreciate as much as I do. Thank you, ladies, for your leadership. Also, thanks to April, my lovely bride, for reading and re-reading this post, calling me out, tightening my thoughts, and making me a better person. She should receive a doctorate, too.

Anderson Campbell

Posts

  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    this is interesting and important stuff–especially your description of the context of bible authors’ understanding of gender and how it is ever evolving. we do so like to imagine black and whites, don’t we?thank you for the commendation and company. your daughters are blessed to have a father who imagines possibilities instead of imposing limitation. we serve a great God indeed.

  • Chris Marshall

    As a consumer of this blog, I for one am glad you sent it to “shipping”, mate.As a father of 2 daughters myself, I’m right there with you on wanting to expose them to role models of any gender who authentically are expressing their gifts from the Creator.I am still chewing on Thatchers one sex/two gender description. It is new to me and to be honest it makes sense and appears consistent with the ancient milieu I’ve read in the past. What I don’t like is their application Patristic paradigms based on an elevation of the male spectrum as ideal. The questions remain for me as you raised. How much of gender is actual/essential, and how much is due to cultural conditioning? I suspect its a matter of both.

  • MIchael Hearn

    This topic can be a heated debate among individuals of all class, creed, gender, race, and denomination. What is interesting is how on this earth we are assigned the physical characteristics of a male or a female but that may not be exactly the case in heaven. The Bible seems to indicate the we will neither be married or given to marriage in Heaven. My intention is not to stir debate on this topic but just to say that both male and female are made in the image and likeness of Christ. May God grant us wisdom as we forge ahead in teaching our children. #dminlgp #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    Suzannah–Thanks for giving this a read and commenting. You’re spot on in your assessment that we like to imagine things as black and white. I often find that we hide behind categorical simplicity as a mask for laziness. That’s not to say that broadly held traits don’t exist among groups of people. But when we start using traits to define people, we go off the rails. Thanks for your contribution to the broader conversation. Honored to have your voice here.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Chris–I agree that there is much to chew on with Thatcher’s one-sex, two-gender description. That’s part of why this post was so hard to write. I left a lot out. I was trying to get at abdicating the value gradient of male-to-female toward the end of the post. I think that the one-sex theory could still have a lot to teach us if we remove the androcentric way it was employed in antiquity. I think Thatcher lands there, does he not?

  • Anderson Campbell

    Michael H.–You’re correct. It is a heated topic! It is interesting to me that the list of descriptors you lead with in your comment are all social constructions: class, creed, gender, race, and denomination. If your reading of the Bible is correct (and I read it similarly) then these constructions likely won’t exist after the fullness of the Kingdom of God is made manifest. So, what does it look like to live to that end, as it relates to gender?