Hope for My Girls
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 Styles, Rachel 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.