“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Romans 8:29
by John Ellis
We are all (a type of) existentialists now. As a society, owing to luxuries like free time and access to lots of food (luxuries denied the vast majority of humanity throughout history), we are freed up to engage in navel-gazingly wondering what makes us a man or a woman, as well as a host of other self-serving questions that are part and parcel of our preferred anthropology of expressive individualism. For some reason, conservative white Christians in this country spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that: reading books about true masculinity and true femininity, attending conferences dedicated to the topic, and arguing incessantly about the virtue of our preferred parameters for what is masculine and what is feminine. The guardians of true masculinity and femininity even have a name – complementarians. By engaging and, hence, legitimizing navel-gazing gender questions, though, complementarianism has, I’m afraid, unwittingly provided some of the epistemological and rhetorical foundation for transgenderism.
Here’s the thing, and you’re about to read possibly the most counter-culture statement I can write: I am a man. Not because I think I am a man and not because I feel like a man (feelings aren’t transferable/communicable in any real way, so if gender were based on feelings, how can someone know that what they’re feeling is what a man feels?). I am not a man because I enjoy certain activities. Personality traits do not make me a man. I am a man because I am a man. Tautology for the win.
Over the last couple of years, I have sat down to write this article multiple times. And what I am writing now will be incomplete, and unconvincing for those who are committed complementarians of the Blue Book variety. For a variety of reasons, I do not currently possess the desire to change their minds. I am writing this for my brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling with gender confusion and whose confusion is fed by what they’re hearing in their churches and from “famous” evangelicals about what constitutes true masculinity or femininity.
A recent podcast caused me to dig this article back out and finish it, or, rather, substantially rewrite it. I’m not going to link to it, but had I been a guest on that podcast, I would’ve chimed in and said, “My wife is very courageous and loves fixing things. In fact, she’s very good at fixing things. Does this mean she’s a man?” And I would’ve asked because I would’ve wanted their equivocations on record.
“Of course, she’s not a man!” the host and other guest would’ve undoubtedly responded within this hypothetical conversation. “We’re not saying that women can’t be courageous nor are we saying that women can’t be good at fixing things. Women can even like guns and sports. We’re saying that these are activities that especially help men grow into godly men.”
To that, I would’ve retorted, “Sure. But for one thing, though, that’s not what people are going to take away from this discussion. Men who do not like sports, guns, or fixing things are going to hear that they are somehow less of a man. Women who enjoy sports, guns, and fixing things are going to hear that they are somewhere on the masculine side of the gender compendium. Except there is no such thing as a gender compendium and by promoting it, even unwittingly, you are doing much damage to brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling with their gender identity. For another thing, there’s nothing about courage, fixing things, and guns that are inherently weighted towards masculinity. Those all fall under the category of image bearing.”
The belief that certain culturally preferred activities and personality traits are masculine or feminine is not biblical. This was brought home to me during a conversation with hyper-complementarians almost two years ago; the genesis for me starting and stopping this article multiple times.
The four complementarians sitting across the conference room table from me were angry because I was not complementarian enough and, in their estimation, as a pastor I was leading the church into egalitarianism. During the middle of their harangue, one of the moms in exasperation blurted out, “Of course, our son is supposed to be gentle like Jesus, but it’s our job to teach him how to be gentle like a man!”
Already seething inside, I wanted to respond, “That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.” By God’s grace, I did not. For those who have ears to hear, below is a partial answer to that angry mother (what should’ve been my partial answer if had been able to collect my thoughts in the heat of the moment, that is), my answer to the podcast mentioned above, and my answer to the entire cottage industry of biblical manhood and womanhood. Please note the word “partial.” As stated, I’m not attempting to articulate a full-throated defense of my position because my objective isn’t to change the minds of complementarians. While I’m no longer a pastor, what I want to say is a pastoral word of encouragement to Christians who may be struggling with confusion about their gender.
In the beginning, God created men and women. As in, He created a man and a woman, and in doing so He created genders – two distinct genders. Not three or more. Not gender on a sliding cultural scale of determinative feelings and desires. God created man and woman. This means that you are either a man or a woman. Full stop. Men are to be gentle. Full stop. Women are to be gentle. Full stop. And neither men nor women need to spend any amount of time wondering how they can be gentle in masculine or feminine ways. Just be gentle. Never once have I caught my son being gentle and kind to his sister and said, “Stop, son! You’re being gentle like a girl; you need to be gentle like a man!”
You are either a man or a woman, according to the sex God prescribed you at birth; and both men and women are called to repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ. So, men and women, through faith, follow Jesus, adore Jesus, and, by the power of Christ’s Spirit, obey Jesus by emulating him. And as we grow in Christlikeness – as we are being conformed to the image of the Son, using Paul’s words from Romans 8:29 – we will increasingly display the fruit of the Spirit. Men and women will be characterized by gentleness, kindness, meekness, love, and a servant’s heart and disposition.
For many, though, that still leaves the question of what does it mean to be a man or a woman? That’s the wrong question. The correct question should be, what does it mean to be a son of God or a daughter of God?
When I say to my son, “you’re my son; act like it,” the locus of epistemic and ethical authority resides in our family. Like all families, the Ellis family has identity markers – ways in which we interact with each other and the world around us that are shaped by whatever uniqueness exists in the set called “Ellis family.” Pushing that into theology, when we say, “you’re a daughter of God; act like it,” the metaphysical/ontological foundation is God, meaning that the locus of epistemic and ethical authority resides in God. However, if I say, “you’re a woman; act like it,” the metaphysical/ontological foundation is in woman, meaning the locus of epistemic and ethical authority resides in being a woman. That’s problematic because it’s self-serving and a direct ethic of expressive individualism. Not to mention that the ways in which we often define womanhood and manhood are culturally defined, although those definitions are often worked out as a semi-competing/semi-complimenting mind-centered idealism pointing to objective ontic realities. However, no matter how much we may attempt to shroud them in weirdly rolled up (and ultimately contradictory) epistemic certainties, for conservative evangelicals in the 21st century, much of our definition and expectations are shaped and controlled by Victorian era gender ideals – they are, to be clear, social constructs largely designed to protect classism and a specifically carved-out patriarchalism afforded to the growing middle class.
For example, after the Industrial Revolution and the subsequently quick rise of the new middle class, social constructs changed. Instead of the entire family being involved in the work of providing resources by which the family could survive, and, likewise, instead of the household economy most often being centered on the, well, house, the man now left the house to “bring home the bacon.” The woman stayed home to care for the house and the children. The role of the stay-at-home mom was born and idealized (an enlightening and short book on the matter is A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School by Miss Catherine E. Beecher). Part of this idealization (idolization, if you will) became manifest in the notion that men were to be a lion out in the world but a meek lamb inside the home. The home, after all, was the woman’s domain. This gave rise to men stopping by the pub after work to have a drink with the fellows. Upon returning home, and after a dinner during which the children were to be seen and not heard, the man retired to his chair with his pipe and brandy (the genesis of the nonsensically childish “man cave”). The kids were not to bother dad who had had a long day at the office. Only speak when spoken to, children; wait for the “king of the castle” to direct his sceptre of favor in your direction.
In other words, the complete opposite of how our Heavenly Father interacts with his house and children. And the complete opposite of how Christ interacts with his house and Bride.
That’s just one of many Victorian gender roles/expectations that have become stereotyped within our conservative evangelical society. Furthermore, owing to the increased luxuries above and beyond the growing luxuries of the 19th century that many of us enjoy, we have been freed to absolutize personality traits and the socially constructed distribution of the family economy into gender ontology. And that’s where much of the confusion comes from.
For men and women who find their preferences and vocational desires outside of the strictly codified Victorian ideals, questions are raised. Taking into account our mind-centeredness, the natural next step is one of defining myself via the constructs of society in a way that conforms with my vocational and personality desires and preferences. That thought process naturally terminates in: if this is what it means to be a man and I know in my heart that I do not enjoy doing those things, then maybe I’m not a man.
Look, if you are a man who enjoys fabrics and caring for babies, be a man who glorifies God in your enjoyment of fabrics and caring for babies. If you are a woman who loves playing rugby and hunting, be a woman who glorifies God by playing rugby and hunting. And by God’s grace, do not let well-meaning yet harmfully misguided Christians cause you to question your masculinity or femininity because you don’t adhere to their culturally-constructed definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. You are a man, or you are a woman. Neither your personality traits nor your preferred activities have any bearing on the reality of your gender. Love God, pursue Christlikeness, and serve others.
Soli Deo Gloria
 One of the reasons I am not engaging in arguments intended to change the minds of hyper-complementarians is because I do not know if I can do so charitably at this point. The men from the podcast I referenced are not men whom I have any desire to publicly denigrate, call-out, or pick a fight with. I believe they are brothers in Christ who love Jesus and, most likely, men who, by the power of God’s Spirit, have accomplished way more for the Kingdom than I have. Past battles and wounds make it difficult for me to engage the arguments dispassionately. For those wondering (and who have asked me), this is why I have failed to write that Titus 2 article I promised.