Neanderthals Aren’t Cool
Kevin Offner on the “Gender Issue”
There’s no question about it: Today, if you hold to the traditional understanding of men and women in the family and the church, you are “uncool.” If you believe that God has assigned to men a unique calling to authoritative leadership, where they alone are ordained in the church and they alone are to be heads of their families, you will be seen as backward, fearful of change, and a misogynist.
And (just between you and me) you probably hold the Neanderthal position you do because you’re an insecure man who is frustrated over his loss of cultural hegemony. Furthermore, either you aren’t married (it figures!) or your wife (for surely you are male) is a shriveled doormat of a human being, who has low self-esteem and wears heavy make-up to hide the welts where you have beaten her.
The Uncool Christian
It really doesn’t matter to the cool people what kind of a traditionalist you are. You might believe women bear the imago Dei and are deeply loved by God, have been given spiritual gifts that they should be encouraged to develop and use in their local churches, and are essential and valuable partners in their families as wives and mothers. You might respect women, work in partnership with women, and learn from women. But if you believe it is God’s (good and gracious) will that men have been given certain unique positions of leadership in church and family—even if you believe this leadership ought to be exercised in a humble, servant-like fashion—the cool people will see you as anti-women.
It also doesn’t matter that your belief regarding the sexes has been the normal position held by the majority of all people, everywhere, over all of time, up until about A.D. 1960. For the current cultural propaganda brushes aside all history before the rise of modern feminism as uniformly oppressive to women. Ordered relationships between the sexes are to be outgrown just like witchdoctors, horse-drawn carriages, and rotary telephones.
So what is an uncool Christian to do?
One wrong response is simply to lay low and never go public with your position on this controversial topic. Just focus on your own private world and hope that the differences in the public world will soon iron themselves out on their own.
Many conservative Christians today, especially men, under the guise of being humble and “peacemakers,” are in reality cowards and people-pleasers. Martin Luther said that the gospel is best heard at those places in the culture where the battle rages hottest, and surely the sex and gender wars would qualify here. We desperately need men and women today who won’t duck their responsibility to bring truth front and center when arguing about how we should think about being men and women in our ever-changing contemporary culture.
The second wrong response is to move into attack mode. It is foolishly thought that the way to regain proper male leadership is by rejecting the challenges outright and simply reasserting the traditional teaching (or your own version of it). Just state the teaching, and assume that those who don’t agree have nothing to say and cannot be changed. But belittling and accusing, rather than listening and winsomely seeking to persuade, burns rather than builds bridges between people.
Neither passivity nor attack will do. But I think there are at least four right responses for those of us who hold the uncool position on male-female relations, a position we are convinced is the orthodox one.
The Right Responses
First, we need to learn to be okay with not fitting in. Our concern for truth, God’s glory, and, yes, our love for men and women, must be greater than our desire to be liked and affirmed. We must ask God to make us courageous, thick-skinned, and desirous of hearing his “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” more than the applause of men. We need to grow up and learn to live increasingly for an audience of One. Since when has fidelity to Christ ever meant that a person would be liked and approved of by the majority?
Second, we must learn to empathize deeply from the heart with women who have been in truly abusive churches and families. Of course, sometimes this “abuse” is nothing more than living out the principle of a woman’s being under a man’s authority, and for this we need feel no remorse. But in other instances, the abuse is real: The wife whose attempts at submission were taken advantage of by her husband with physical harm or intimidation; the single woman who has let men pursue her, only to find herself treated like a piece of meat; the godly older woman who faithfully attends church and humbly seeks to use her gifts within that Christian community, only to be ignored or treated like a child by male leaders who are young enough to be her children.
It is no secret that, over the 2,000-year history of the Church, men have sometimes used their positions of authority in the church and the home to oppress those under their care rather than to serve them. A high view of male leadership must not turn a blind eye to the sins men have committed against women and must understand that sometimes resistance to the traditional teaching comes from having suffered under its corruption.
Oftentimes, men and women who reject the orthodox position on sexual order do so not so much out of principle but simply because they have rarely seen male leadership done well. As one feminist, to my surprise, told me over breakfast recently, “If a man loved me the way Ephesians 5 describes Christ loving the Church, I would submit to him in an instant!”
But to repent over past and present misuse of God-given authority is not the same thing as eschewing that God-given authority altogether. The antidote to bad male leadership is not no male leadership but good male leadership. Have men in the past sometimes implemented God’s ordained structures in their own self-interest and without regard for women? Then by all means, let’s dedicate ourselves to doing it right—but let’s not attempt to reinvent the whole structure from scratch in the meantime.
Have our younger male brethren sometimes acted like animals on a date? Then let’s kick their behinds, offer strong corrective words of wisdom, and encourage them to go to the phone, call Sally, and do it right the next time. But we mustn’t let them think the lesson they are to learn is that male initiative in dating, per se, is a bad thing.
We need to train our young men to become good leaders in the church and family, and this will involve giving them some authority. But men must be given help to see that true, godly authority is primarily about serving, not coercing.
Third, we need to know our Bibles. The novel biblical interpretations of the egalitarians have been used so repeatedly and forcefully for forty years now that we can easily assume they must therefore be correct. But we need to understand how novel and eccentric they are. For example, only very recently has Genesis 1–3 been understood not to teach the headship of the husband before the Fall (that is, as part of God’s created order); only very recently has Ephesians 5:21 been understood to teach that all people are to be in “mutual submission” to all other people; and only very recently has Galatians 3:28 been seen as the canon-within-the-canon of the Apostle Paul’s writings on the places of men and women.
If the historic position on the sexes is in fact the correct one, we have nothing to lose from researching the Scriptures more thoroughly. We must learn to respond to bad exegesis, patiently and winsomely, with good exegesis, offering thoughtful counter-interpretations of each of the biblical texts in question.
Two Bad Ideas
Fourth, we must understand that the challenge to the traditional understanding of men and women in the Church grows from two strains in the modern American worldview, and respond accordingly. (Many who embrace egalitarianism do so because, having accepted certain philosophical assumptions, they can’t imagine how the traditional perspective could possibly be good news for women.) The contemporary American notion of freedom is wedded to two anti-biblical philosophical presuppositions: individualism, which asserts that freedom and authority are by nature incompatible; and nominalism, which asserts that to treat any individual thing as part of a larger genus or nature inevitably detracts from its identity and significance.
First, individualism: The radical, autonomous individualism that underlies almost everything in our culture today insinuates that one is most free when he is out from under any and all external authority. Whether that authority be the State, the Church, the Bible, or even God himself, the very fact that it remains in some sense external to the individual is seen as, by definition, restrictive.
If the human being is the measure of all things, then any formulation of right outworking between the sexes that includes positions of authority will be suspect. The very thought that a woman could be most free and flourishing, reaching her greatest potential as God’s image-bearer and using her gifts to the utmost, when she is under certain God-appointed male authorities, is counter-intuitive to the modernist American mindset. If by very definition freedom means anti-authority, why would anyone want to embrace ordered relations between the sexes?
And yet, as orthodox Christians we know something of the paradox of Christian ethical teaching here. One is most free when he is in submission to God, and one way we practically work out our submission to God in the real world of physicality (for we are not gnostics) is by submitting to those people whom he has placed in authority over us.
The second modern philosophical commitment that shapes our thinking is nominalism. The nominalist worldview is so pervasive in America today, and so taken for granted that, like the air we breathe, it has virtually become invisible to our consciousness. This is the notion that individual, particular things are the highest level of identity, and any collection of individuals into a subset under a larger genus or nature inevitably takes away from the individual’s identity and significance. To speak of human beings as a genus, having certain needs or traits, having a common human “nature,” being different as a group from animals, and so on, inevitably (so it is thought) denigrates the individual. “Well, most people might be like that, but I, you see, am different. I’m not like everyone else.”
When the notion that the particular is always more significant than the genus becomes part of our worldview, to speak of “men” and “women” as two distinct classes of human beings created by God, inevitably seems to limit and oppress them. “Most men might be protective by nature, or called to lead, but I am different. . . . Most women might be drawn to marriage and motherhood by nature but not me. . . . Don’t squeeze me into your male-ness or female-ness mold. In fact, I’d feel more alive as a person if you didn’t think of me as either male or female—just as the unique, particular ‘me’ that I am! Look at me in my unique, particular giftedness, and not under the boring, uniform category of ‘man’ or ‘woman’!”
Of course a sense of balance is needed here, for it is possible to overemphasize genus to the detriment of the individual. Like so many things in life, the key here is to stress “both/and” rather than “either/or.” A female human being is a woman, not a man, but she is also the particular woman “Susan Smith,” not generic “woman.”
If God has created two (not one or three) sexes for a reason, then we only become fully human—fully fulfilled in our individual particularities—when we seek to live out, rather than to oppose, the specific nature of our sex. If God intends our humanity not to be diminished, but actually enhanced, by creating any one of us male-and-not-female or female-and-not-male, it behooves us to take great joy in living life consciously and intentionally as the man or woman that we are.
How should we respond to those who, however unwittingly, have bought into one or both of these errant philosophies? We must, I think, begin with the positive. We must show that we sincerely and passionately agree with the importance of affirming human freedom and the integrity of the individual. We, too, want men and women to flourish and become all that God intends them to be.
But then we must go on to show that one’s personal freedom is actually enhanced when one humbly submits to God-given human authorities and when one submits to the limitations and idiosyncrasies of his or her own God-given sexual nature. And we ought to show what happens when one lives out individualism and nominalism, to show how the Christian ordering of the sexes offers true liberation for the individual.
Though it is “uncool” to be a sexual traditionalist, I believe that we should passionately promote the church’s historic, orthodox position of “ordered equality” between the sexes in the church and the home, not only because it is true but also because it is good. When men lead in their churches and homes with a God-given authority that sacrificially serves those placed under their care, and when women submit to this God-given authority with joy and discernment, both men and women will flourish.
All of God’s rules were given for our good, and we are most free when we are most obedient. God loves us, and he knew what he was doing when he created us in his image as male and female. Ordered equality is good news for both men and women. And therefore, it’s also pretty cool.
Kevin Offner is on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He has written for Re:Generation Quarterly, Critique, Student Leadership Journal, and First Things. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Amy. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Neanderthals Aren’t Cool” first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.