by John Ellis
In a recent article, Scott Sauls asks men and women to consider their gendered selves and to strive to connect as men and women for God’s glory and the good of the Kingdom. Amen, and … amen?
As a way into into his argument, Sauls leans on the bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Published in 1993, John Gray’s book was an instant hit among the females in my youth group. With a single, increasingly dog-eared copy being passed around the youth group, I snagged it during a Sunday evening church service. After reading much of it during the service, my juvenile, uneducated take was, “This seems silly.” My less (hopefully) juvenile and more (presumably) educated take twenty seven years later remains, “This seems silly.” Just yesterday, counseling my son who has his first real crush on how to talk to said crush, I offered, “If you have to be taught how to talk to females, you’re likely a lost cause. Females are not complicated.” To be fair, neither are males, but I didn’t add that bit because I was amused by my teenage daughter’s offended expressive individualism that, ironically, like most of us, is worked out via identity politics; she was aghast to hear me claim that females aren’t complicated. Well, I repeat, they ain’t.
But I digress.
Leaving silly, pop-“psychology” books behind, Sauls, while meaning well, steers his readers into the gendered absolutizing of personality traits and Victorian gender ideals.
I’ve never met Scott Sauls. In fact, while his name rings a memory bell in my mind, I can’t say how or why. I’m sure he’s a good dude, though. He has an article titled “I Love Beer and Jesus” which I intend to read upon the completion of this article. After reading that article, I’m sure my amen will be sans a question mark. That being said, like many complementarians, he misunderstands the universality of the Curse as gendered norming. For example, he writes, “In the curse, Adam’s vision to better the world through his work is frustrated. From the moment he eats the forbidden fruit, his work is invaded and frustrated by sweat, toil, and weeds (Genesis 3:17-19).”
Fine, I agree, except I don’t because in the next paragraph he provides the compliment, if you will. “Eve, too, is motivated by progress and legacy, but never at the expense of her vision for relational connection, harmony and peace.”
I’ve had enough conversations with complementarians to recognize the subtext found in the parallel statements. That is, men are hardwired as laborers/providers and women as nurturers in a strongly relational sense. A subtext, I might add, that Sauls lays bare in his next few paragraphs. By way of illustration, he writes:
Several years ago on Mother’s Day, my wife Patti expressed her own Eve-like feminine hardwiring when I asked her if she enjoyed having the whole family around the dinner table for Mother’s Day. Her answer: “It was wonderful, all of us being together. It’s what a Mother wants.”
It’s what a Mother wants. Similarly, I once heard another Mother say that as a Mother, she is only as happy as her most miserable child. Her joy is inextricably bound up in the joy of her people. Like God, she is fiercely and helplessly relational.
So then, if Adam lays awake at night worrying about the weeds in the garden, Eve lays awake worrying about the weeds in her marriage to Adam. Her desire for affection will be frustrated by an inability to connect deeply, and often, with her beloved. Her longing to love and be loved will not only be frustrated maritally with Adam, but also spiritually with her God, maternally with her children, and socially with her community. For her, so many of the joys of love will be hijacked by isolation, alienation and loneliness.
For both man and woman, then, real life will fall short of deepest longing. Vocational and relational momentum will be eclipsed by frustrated vision. Until Jesus returns and makes all things new, the grandeur of Adam’s ‘maleness’ and of Eve’s ‘femaleness’ will be held back by the fall.
Come Father’s Day (or Mother’s Day or any other day, for that matter) I will want my whole family around the table. Does this mean I’m a mother? Likewise, during times of marital tension, I’ve lain awake at night worrying about the weeds in my marriage – and I never worry about the weeds in our physical garden. Does this mean I’m a wife? Wait a minute! Does this mean I’m a woman?!? Maybe I should have gender reassignment surgery. And, for the sake of quickly shooting that down, of course I shouldn’t. I am a man. My feelings, preferences, personality traits, ignoring of physical weeds while navel-gazing over relational weeds, etc. have no bearing on whether I am a man or not. Being a man does not mean, at the level of ontology, that I am hardwired in specific directions, at least as frequently articulated by complementarianism.
I’ve written about this before (you can read that article by clicking here), and it continues to amaze and sadden me how otherwise sober-minded, thoughtful Believers continue to embrace and propagate gender norms that are rooted in culture and not the Bible. To help us see this, I want to look at the Curse.
16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”
17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
While homing in on those four verses, it’s important to not miss that the part of the Curse recorded in the previous two verses also have universal implications. And it’s a great gift that verse 15, especially, has a universal implication. The enmity between the woman’s seed and Serpent-Satan (and his seed) is worked out/solved via a specific man for the good of all those who repent and believe. The curse and promise are not limited to the direct audiences that God is addressing poetically. And therein lies a key – the Curse is a poem. A terrifying yet hope-filled poem for all of God’s people. It’s terrifying in its universality. The conflict in our homes isn’t just a scourge on the backs of our wives. It’s a scourge on all dads and all children. Likewise, the pain and turmoil of providing for the family isn’t just a scourge on the backs of husbands. Like the terror, the hope is also universal. Moms, dads, and children all long for the day when the curse is removed, erasing the obstacles to God’s intended relational flourishing among His image bearers. And like her husband, the Proverbs 31 woman longs for the Day when her labors in providing for her family are not thwarted by sin and sin’s Curse. The Curse, as recorded in Genesis 3:14-19, reveals that sin has damaged all of God’s creation, including, and most importantly, our relationship with Him. It’s poetically divided into sections with theatrical audiences/actors because sharpness in literary beats helps create tension and import, but those sections are universal in their scope and applications.
Unfortunately, though, instead of responding to the Curse in Biblically informed ways that drive us to Jesus – the whole point, by the way – complementarians isolate (proof text) verses in order to justify presuppositions about gender norms they hold that they’ve learned from a subset of society. In doing so, they absolutize poor anthropologies that allow, if not encourage, damaging perspectives on gender and, frankly, race.
Much more work regarding Biblical ontology (and anthropology) needs to be done. Historically, the Church has relied far too much on Greek cosmologies which logically lead to hierarchal divisions among image bearers that allowed men like Jonathan Edwards to justify owning slaves, for example. Our – the Church’s – anthropology remains anemic, at best, and sinfully dismal and harmful in its worst iterations.
In the issue of full disclosure, I recognize that I’ve torn down without really building up. I plead, one, the limitations of a blog post, and, two, the limitations of my own understanding. These are questions and problems I’m still working through. I also plead with you to be willing to let go of harmful definitions and norms that owe their existence to culture and not a robust Biblical anthropology. We’re currently seeing the rotten fruit sprouting from the seeds of the elevation of harmful gender norms to a position of absolute Biblical truth. It’s way past time to begin reploughing the ground while prayerfully searching for better seeds.
Soli Deo Gloria