Gender, Fighting, and (Friendly) Fights about Gender and Fighting

When I was young and single, and motherhood was simply a far-off state to be dreamt about, my romantic imaginings about it always involved a lot of grubby-faced, skinned-kneed boys. This wasn’t so much in spite of my own upbringing, growing up as one of two girls and attending a private girls’ school, as it was because of it. The emotional drama and nuclear wars of words that characterized many of my school years left me with some pretty deep scars. On top of that, I had grown up in an ultra-conservative Reformed Baptist home, where rules forbidding the wearing of pants and nail polish (among many others), developed in me an antipathy for overly prescriptive ideas of femininity. With all that baggage, the rough and tumble physicality of boys seemed to me to be an infinitely easier parenting journey through which to travel.

So of course, when I finally married and had kids, God gave me girls.

God has used my three daughters to sanctify me and conform me to His image in numerous ways, but particularly in causing me to wrestle deeply with what it means to bear His image specifically as a woman. What does it look like for my daughters, and me, to model Christlikeness in bodies that, while notably similar to Jesus’, are also so distinctively different? How do I  teach my daughters about the active obedience of Christ for them, when that obedience was lived out in a body that was, and is, not like the body in which we strive to live that obedience out ourselves?

Several years ago, my oldest daughter’s transition into adolescence, with all of the questions that season brings, drove me to the Scriptures in earnest. I was fearful of reacting against the culturally bound errors of my well-meaning parents, not mention of replacing them with reactionary ones of my own! But I was, and remain, deeply committed to leaning into the goodness of gender, both maleness and femaleness, as God declares it to be. But I didn’t want to merely to affirm the goodness of my gender; I wanted to understand as well. If the heavens and earth declare the glory of God, how much more so does the God-breathed image of His Triune self do it, through femaleness specifically? How does He do it? And how does that translate into how my daughters, and I, are to live to reflect that glory each day?

As my Bible study began to generate more questions than it answered, I did what one does in the 21st century and took to the Internet for help. My research lead me to the writing of (and now treasured friendship with) women like Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson, who had thought longer and more deeply on these topics, and on their practical implications, than I. It eventually lead to this series that I wrote at a blog Wendy and I share, where I meditated on how a woman’s body was uniquely created to declare the glory and character of God, how it was corrupted through the fall, and how it is redeemed by the work of Christ on our behalf.

That series didn’t so much represent the end of my questioning, as it did the formation of the foundation for the many questions that followed it -on the complementarity of maleness to femaleness, the expression of that complementariness in the smaller orbits of church and family, and the larger orbit of the world as a whole. But parenting emerging women has proven to often be more circumstantially and emotionally demanding than parenting little girls, so I wasn’t able to commit those thoughts to print as often as I’d like. Still, anytime someone wrote something thoughtful and challenging on the biblical purposes for gender, I read and meditated on it as God gave me opportunity.
Recently, this piece by Alastair Roberts on the place of gender distinctives in social and political discourse got significant Internet attention, and for good reason. The points Roberts made, and in particular the approach he took, left me itching to respond. But the six weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are like college finals season for mothers, so I had little opportunity to do more than mentally ruminate on it while wrapping presents late at night. Today, Roberts tackled the gender distinctiveness topic from a decidedly different angle, using the same approach. But this time, he posted it on a day when our Christmas is all done and put away, and I literally had next to nothing planned.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.

As with his previous piece, Roberts’ approach is to consider the differences between the genders from the perspective of natural law, rooted in function or purpose. In today’s consideration of the validity of women fighting in mixed marital arts for entertainment purposes, he looks at the differences in strength between men and women, and male interest in fighting, and concludes that fighting is an inherently masculine activity, one from which women should largely be proscribed.

What he declined to do in today’s piece, or in last month’s, was to set his natural law observations into a wider, dare I even to say it out loud, more completely Biblical context. For example:

  • How was male strength inherently created to display the character of God, separate from its expression or function (given that God’s declaration of the goodness of man and woman in Genesis 1 precedes any record of their actions)?
  • How has male strength been corrupted by the fall?
  • How is it redeemed through Christ in the gospel?
  • Consequently, what expressions of male strength best embody this redemption, and what do not?

Read through the lens of questions such as these, it’s hopefully easy to see why some people like me reflexively objected to how Roberts framed his observations and assertions, particularly as summarized in the article’s blunt title. Positioning MMA as an activity for one gender but not another’s, based purely on one gender’s affinity for it, rather than questioning whether that activity is an appropriately Christ-like expression of that affinity (not to mention our humanity), seems problematic.

When we examine behavioral or physiological gender norms in isolation, and extrapolate behavioral prescriptions based on them, unhelpful ideological proof-texting (and corresponding social media sturm und drang) sometimes ensues. On the other hand, when we examine those norms as a cohesive, and yes, complementary set of markers that point to the character of God, we are better able to examine their complexities, and appreciate their beauty. Most importantly, our gaze is deflected from them, and onto the ultimate beauty of the One to which they collectively point – Jesus Christ.

In his introduction to the article, Justin Taylor notes that Roberts has an entire book on the subject coming out this Fall, titled “Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes”. Based on the title and Roberts’ thoughts on the topic up to this point (not to mention the conversation they generate), I’ll be tempted to pulling whatever strings I can to get an advance copy before November. Given its length and title, I’m assuming that  a significant portion of the book will be dedicated to building the biblical framework  on which he places his assertions, and I greatly look forward to following his arguments for it. I’ll possibly disagree with him on some particulars, even as I’m prepared for him to challenge and change some of my own thinking.  The questions he asks, and the conversations they generate, are important, and long overdue. I’m thankful for his work, if only because I have many mothering-of-daughter miles left to tread.

I need all the help I can get.

((Postscript – immediately after I finished these thoughts, I noticed that Roberts has, in the comments,  offered some responses to some of the main objections to his piece that are helpful and clarifying. If anything, they affirm that topics of this complexity are often better served in long form books than short form blog posts. One more reason to look forward to his book. 🙂 ))

6 thoughts on “Gender, Fighting, and (Friendly) Fights about Gender and Fighting

  1. Thanks for the interaction, Rachael!

    As you note at the end, I have responded to a number of the points people have raised already in the comments of the piece itself. I’ll make a few very brief remarks here, though.

    First, in my early piece on discourse and gender, my purpose was not to make prescriptive remarks, or to proscribe women from certain areas of activity. Rather, my purpose was to highlight gender difference as an elephant in the room of a gender difference denying society, which is leading to a great many problems. My argument was that only as we are mindful of and attentive to this reality will we be able to make progress on some key problems that we face, or to avoid some dangers that we might fall into. People may have presumed that I have a detailed vision for how things must be, but I don’t, just principles of informed prudence that must be wisely applied with attention to context.

    Second, the purpose of this more recent piece was not to make a natural law argument, at least not as people understand it. Once again, my intent was to begin by attentiveness to reality. A more descriptive account of reality provided the background, not for a definitive case against women in MMA (which many seem to have presumed I was intending, perhaps on account of the title, which wasn’t mine), but for reflection upon: 1. The way that gender atypicality relates to gender non-conformity and gender neutralization in the specific context of our society; 2. What the consistent celebration of gender non-conformity means for women more generally; 3. What underlies some of the male interest in masculinized women. Incidentally, none of these points even requires absolute opposition to women in MMA. Although I am so opposed, I purposefully didn’t want to jump to such an argument, preferring to encourage people to be more attentive to the broader phenomenon, rather than just shooting it down with some absolute biblical principles.

    Third, in the final couple of paragraphs, I wanted to make clear that there were a number of things my argument to that point was omitting and, in particular, there was a more definitive argument to be made, one founded upon God’s intent in creation. Such an argument would differ from the more prudential and contextually relative points I was highlighting in the preceding argument.

    Fourth, within these paragraphs I highlighted the fact that my argument was intentionally bracketing the many serious questions about male participation in pugilistic sports for public entertainment. I was asked to write about female MMA participation in particular, but also female MMA competition is far more problematic than the male variety (which is pretty problematic itself: I am not a fan of the Driscollite MMA appreciation society that seems to exist in some Reformed circles).

    Finally, one of the more general concerns of my work on this subject is to move us away from an extreme fixation upon normative and prescriptive questions, to a greater attentiveness to reality and our descriptive task. Much of the biblical teaching on sex is not so much that we must be different, but simply that we are different. Sexual difference is an inescapable reality more than it is some commandment that we must obey. One of the things that I am trying to do is to disclose the realities that people are trying to hide, reveal the damage that pretending they don’t exist causes, and demonstrate the importance of attending to them and taking them seriously. Natural law is much more of an ‘is’ than an ‘ought’. That is to say, natural law is not for the most part some set of prescriptions outside of us that we must obey, but more like something that is part of us that we must learn to operate with and heighten, perhaps something like our sense of balance. It is a matter of moving with the grain of our being. To a large extent this happens without us needing to obey some command. Women’s MMA might push us more to the prescriptive side of natural law, but my concern in my piece was not to make a move too quickly.

    The questions you raise about male strength/violence are exactly the sorts of questions that we should be asking. They really deserve their own discussion elsewhere, though.


  2. Alastair – thanks for interacting here and forgive my delayed reply in the midst of end of holiday festivities and recovery. Once again, it looks like we’re much on the same page when it comes to gender as an “is” before it is an “ought” or a “do”. What the “is” is about, and how that informs our actions and choices, is the question we and others seem to be wrestling with.
    I think we might differ on the parameters of what gender non-conformity looks like (I have some thoughts I’veI been thinking on Jael, for example), but it’s a conversation worth pursuing.

    Wendy has offered some additional thoughts today, specific to UFC and its promotion by the Driscoll community.

    More areas where we’re in agreement. 🙂


    1. Thanks for the response, Rachael.

      I think we probably are much in agreement. I saw Wendy’s article earlier and found it very helpful.

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Jael. When it comes to Jael, my reading is that Scripture casts her action as a heroic one, worthy of celebration, an action that was entirely consonant with her being a woman (and would have been praiseworthy for any woman in a similar position). However, it also presents it as an extremely exceptional and opportunistic act, performed, neither on the front line nor by a combatant, but by a woman in her own home into which a combatant had entered (perhaps with hints of a potential rape scene). Much of the meaning of the text seems to rest upon the presumption that women do not have the role of combatants.

      Sisera was killed while asleep with a makeshift weapon from the domestic environment. Jael’s killing of Sisera was occasioned by an implicit judgment upon Barak for insisting on the prophetess Deborah’s accompanying him to the battle. Barak was denied honour through this, as was Sisera, as he didn’t die a glorious death in battle. However, it is important to note that the manner of Sisera’s death was entirely contrasted with the honour to be found on the battlefield, where combatants face each other directly and where exploiting certain weaknesses will bring charges of an unfair fight and deny the victor honour.

      I see a significant difference between women who take violent action when exceptional occasions demand (for instance, the woman who downs a male attacker in self-defence) and the normalization of women as combatants, as women’s participation in pugilistic sports or presence on the front line is celebrated. UFC involves the latter, Jael and violence in self-defence in extreme scenarios is the former.

      Thanks again for the interaction!


  3. My mother, who taught school before having children, also wanted to have all boys, because she observed with concern that girls in her class held grudges, while the boys get their fights over with and then be good friends. She also had all girls. She now admits that her former students were not a fair sampling of what girls are like – we had many faults growing up, but we didn’t hold grudges. That little story is a good example of how we try to describe the larger group by the characteristics of a few.
    I’ve been studying in detail about the anatomy and physiology of the sexes. It is really quite fascinating. There are more similarities, biologically speaking, than differences between the sexes. For example, all the hormones that we associate with one sex are also produced and used for essential processes by the other sex. The same groups of stem cells in the growing child in the womb develop into the sex organs and genitals of either sex, for example, the stem cell gonads which become the ovaries in the girl are what become the testes in the boy. This does not argue that sex is fluid. Rather, it underscores the fact which Adam joyously proclaimed when he met Eve, calling her “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” Men and women are not different species. When the writers of the Scriptures used the generic word ‘man’ to refer to both men and women, they were not proclaiming the superiority of the male sex, they were underscoring the first statement on man’s creation in Genesis 1, “in the image of God, he created man, male and female he created them.” Jesus, who was only the son of Mary in regards to his humanity, called himself the Son of Man. By being born of a woman, he could call himself a man. Perhaps, before we speak of the innate differences between men and women, we should emphasize their created unity.


    1. Yes to all this! The physical sciences reveal so much – when I was in graduate school I found myself wishing seminaries would offer classes on them, if nothing else to instill in young students a sense of humility about the divine complexity of the human body and how much we don’t yet know.


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