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. 🙂 ))