Gender & Students at Evangelical Universities: What Needs to Be Said? Or Not Said?

I’m to lead a workshop at the annual meeting of the Association of Christians in Student Development at Taylor University in a couple of weeks. I look forward to being with that extraordinarily vital group of people who somehow have to be cool and wise and kind and firm and creative and cautious all at the same time.

Here’s the advertised description of the workshop I’ll be offering a group of 30 or so discussants. My question to you is this: What do you think I ought to say–or not say? What do you think we must make sure to discuss? What should we avoid? What would count as a good outcome, in your view–or a bad one? Thanks for your help!

Wimps, Little Boys, or Pigs? Flowers, Princesses, or Skanks? Developing Healthy Masculinity & Femininity  When “Jersey Shore”, Hollywood blockbusters, and “Twilight” set the terms for gender among young people while the Eldredges and Driscolls set them for evangelicals, it’s time to take another look at what it means to be a man or a woman. This session will probe the weird simultaneity of an anti-feminist backlash among evangelicals during a prolonged feminization of that form of Christianity. Can evangelicals find a way out of the mess that might offer hope to a broader culture at least as confused as we are?

24 Responses to “Gender & Students at Evangelical Universities: What Needs to Be Said? Or Not Said?”

  1. buddyglass

    Wish I could attend this. Any chance you’ll have audio, video or a transcript available somewhere online?

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, I think Taylor University will be making a recording. Check the website of this conference after the meeting…

  2. James Allaway

    My instinctive reaction is that I was taken aback by the use of the word ‘skanks’ as it carries a sleazy/promiscuous emphasis where I come from so is not the female equivalent of pig for males, is equivalence what you were aiming for or did you have something else in mind with the title?

    What should you avoid? Nothing, the young adults that I work with are tired of controversial areas being left unsaid or avoided, particularly in the area of gender. For many of them it smacks of an unhealthy maintenance of a form of political correctness amongst Christians who are afraid of answering genuine questions or offering a balanced response out of fear of offending what is often a vocal but small minority. But in that regard I have little fear of you shying away from anything John 😉

    We had Rod Wilson speaking here last week on emotional intelligence, and in the discussion that followed his talk there was comment on how emotions (generally understood as at best unreliable) was identified with women and emotionally detached reasonableness (generally understood as a good thing) was identified with men. How we help people see that both of these are a good part of being a human being rather assigned to a particular gender is perhaps something that could be explored. But I recognise that I am speaking from a New Zealand context rather than North American so I do want to assume that the challenges are the same of both sides of the Pacific.

    • John Stackhouse

      “Skanks” was meant to shock, and it means here what it means there. Thanks for your encouragements, James.

  3. Linda Wightman

    I don’t work with students, so I’m not your intended audience, but I sure wish you’d help them work on a way to teach boys and men to “defend and protect” women without letting them (the males) feel they are superior. This concern was brought home by something I read in one of the Eldredge books where they (laudably) encourage boys to be “gentlemanly” but (decidedly un-laudably) do so by a “you’re strong, they’re weak” attitude. This may be an understandable backlash from the feminist view of women as superior, but it’s not helpful.

    This skill — of giving help without the incentive of feeling superior in all ways even though you happen to be superior in one (e.g. physical strength, money, power) — would be useful in other venues, too, such as charitable work, and parenting.

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, I Peter’s notorious reference to women as “the weaker vessels” makes sense when we consider that, in physical, social, economic, and legal terms, they WERE as a class much weaker than men were in that culture, as in most. So the generic Biblical model of using power on behalf of others, and especially on behalf of those unjustly oppressed, is what Peter has in mind–NOT any teaching about normative male superiority.

  4. Paul D. Adams

    Teach them how to look through their unique place in this universe as male or female and look to their common human nature, made fully in the image of God, which levels all playing fields and transcends every social, political, and spiritual boundary set up by fallen human beings. If they see this and pursue it with all vigor, they have a chance for wholesome and inspiring relationships with others. If they don’t, then those arbitrary boundaries will not only continue to demarcate but enslave.

    Yes, “he created them male and female” (Gen 1:27), but the unique gender categories were intended to complement (I mean this in the strictest sense, not the “complementation” one) and not rule, one over the other. The only ruling (and this likely means “stewardship” rather than despotic control) to be done was a joint effort with male and female ruling over the remainder of biological life.

    …at least that’s something I would say.

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, I agree, Paul: we need to see fully and clearly, and then integrate properly, what is particular and what is generic in ourselves as God’s good creations meant to do God’s good work with him.

  5. Keith Shields

    Two Bible texts come to mind as good places to start:

    Galatians 3: 23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

    26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

    and,

    John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of GRACE AND TRUTH.

    15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” 16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses; GRACE AND TRUTH came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
    (emphasis on grace and truth is mine).

    John, you are a great person to lead this conversation.

    • John Stackhouse

      Thanks for this provocation to consider the questions, What Bible verses most pertain to these issues? What verses are often overlooked, or badly interpreted? Any more suggestions are certainly welcome along these lines.

  6. Rob

    I think it would be important to discuss tempering texts to some of the more outlandish perspectives currently out there. One such example is the pervasive macho perspective pervading evangelical churches regarding men. However, when the fruits of the Spirit are brought into the conversation to inform masculinity as being gentle, patient, kind, and self-controlled–often character traits considered feminine in evangelical circles–then the pervading perspectives must be tempered.

  7. D.J. Brown

    I likewise recommend that you teach about the relative (I said, relative) insignificance of gender as indicated by the fact that Christ taught little or nothing about it.
    Beyond biology it is virtually (or maybe truly) impossible to offer a solid argument for gender differences that are extensive enough to have any practical effect on everyday life. Gender roles and expectations are cultural.
    John, if you can preach/teach the gospel of freedom to all the hurting hearts, both male and female, who are suffering from the false teaching that because of their genitalia they should feel and act in ways different than the ways God has designed and gifted them, you will serve an heroic purpose.
    One of my early epiphanies, re non-biblical restrictions for both genders, came decades ago from the scripture Rob mentions above.
    Truly one wonders how certain people can preach a certain set of God-ordained gendered characteristics when those certain people are familiar with Galatians 5, not to mention
    Gal 3:28 (as Keith already has and which, in fact, I will keep mentioning until certain people get it through their heads or I die still quoting it.)

  8. alanck

    Following up on what D.J. Brown said in #7, the question that seems to be asked more and more these days is this: is gender an eschatological reality? I am in a US denomination that will likely open the door to gay marriage sometime in the next year. Lacking in this movement toward gay marriage has been any substantial conversation regarding what makes marriage real and what is the human being, theologically speaking.

    • D.J. Brown

      alanak: My church has just hired a lesbian minister and I am looking forward to listening to her and her life-partner talk to me about their marriage (we’re Canadian) and their biblical faith. So far, with all of the murk and meanness among Christians on this issue, I’m choosing to err on the side of love, if I err.
      Years ago, when the issue was equality for women within the church, I observed that it was such a personal and emotional issue that there was little to be gained by arguing the biblical texts. But when folks got a taste of wise women in leadership roles, their supposedly objective and “biblically based” opinions began to change.
      Today, when biblical experts are again divided on the equally emotional and personal question of homosexuality, I myself am choosing to err on the side of love, and trying to listen well to those who have life experience as gay Christians.
      As Tony Campolo said recently on Canadian TV, it’s interesting that evangelical christians aren’t putting as much energy into the issue of divorces and remarriages as they do into the debate about gay marriage.

      • alanck

        Thanks for your reply, D.J. I concur with Tony Campolo that the church has been able to avoid several other meaningful conversations by dumping energy into this one. A lot of deadly sins get a pass in the church simply by the church glancing in another direction. That said, this conversation has left a lot to be desired. Several basic questions are never addressed. What is a marriage? Is it gift? Is it offering? Is it sacrament? Is it discipline? How does God identify the human being? How does God speak? And, the question I asked above, does gender exist (meaning, do men and women exist)? These questions require theology. But mainline denominations in the US have not learned theology but culture instead and that is why belief regarding these issues so often mirror what the world is saying. If gay marriage is real, then it is not upheld by sentiment but by God. This is why the conversation has to improve.

        • D.J. Brown

          I totally agree that a more informed and thorough discussion of the issues you raise would be helpful. And I think we would benefit from listening to Christian gays who either are married or think it’s essential to their Christian commitment that they be married.

  9. D.J. Brown

    P.S. I apologize for repeating above my phrase “I’m choosing to err…” – sounds like I’m bragging – mea culpa – embarrassed – slinking away now.

  10. Jono

    Wish I could be there as well. Was originally going to attend, but am unable to now. Sounds not only very interesting, but extremely relevant for us Christians in Student Development.

  11. Matt McCoy

    Prof. Stackhouse,

    I certainly am not qualified to answer any of the questions you raised at the end of your post. So as one who has listened to many of your lectures and one who has benefited greatly from a Regent education, I would add that there is a tension I am not able to really understand

    On the one side, the definition of gender which I grew up with is far too narrow, and with the things I’ve read about chromosomal abnormalities (See? I’m even calling them ‘abnormalities’) I think perhaps even my definition of sex is far too narrow.

    On the other side, I can’t quite agree that the genders are the same. I have watched too many football games, been in too many fights, made love with my wife too many times, and lived for too long among both men and women to be able to say that we are the same. I am not yet able to square up that viewpoint with my experience of life. Which isn’t to say that my own life experience is ultimate or even necessary for me to learn or change or grow, it just means I don’t get it yet.

    Can we talk about differences between men and women in a way that is both theologically sound? You seem to be critiquing the Eldridge and Driscoll approach, which I think can be a very good thing, but can you do so in a way that also critiques the other egalitarian extreme of saying that there is no difference?

    So grateful for your encouragement to ask and wrestle with hard questions,

    Matt

    • D.J. Brown

      Just a question, Matt. Other than biological differences between genders (“made love to my wife”) the others that you mention aren’t universal which we’d think would be the case if gender characteristics were clearly defined. Have you seen rabid football fans who are women? girls & women who excel at hockey, football and soccer? and sadly, young women who now punch each other out just like young guys do?
      Likewise many boys and men have no inclination at all toward traditionally male behaviours like sports or hunting. Clearly there is such a crossover between gender characteristics that I wonder if it’s wasted time to talk about gender differences – time that could be better spent on teaching holiness, how to identify one’s gifts, and relationship skills.

      • Matt McCoy

        D.J.,

        Thank you for your follow up questions, as I can certainly be more clear by what I am trying to say. Trying to communicate clearly, accurately, and kindly over the internet is something very new to me, so I appreciate both your patience and your not assuming the worst in me in your response.

        I was referring to the participants in football and fighting, not the fans. Even if there was the existence somewhere of a woman who could be competitive in football, we live in a world where I feel like I can say that football is a male-dominated sport because women are not physically competitive in that sport. Men don’t fight women in boxing for, I believe, the same reason.

        Now, in the interest of clarity, I would add that I am not philosophically opposed to a woman playing football if that’s what she wanted to do and if she was the best person to help her team win the game. If a woman could win a fight against a man in boxing, I’m all for it. I certainly celebrated in 2010 when Kelly Kulick became the first woman to win a professional championship against men, because I think there is a lot of harmful gender bias, and I celebrate when that bias gets challenged.

        I am saying that, when I watch a football game, it sure looks like there’s a difference between men and women. When I make love to my wife, it sure feels like there’s a difference between me as a man and her as a woman. I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that there is no difference between men and women because I observe differences between them in the world around me.

        So I agree with your ‘heroic purpose’ in your earlier post, and I would be hopeful that Prof. Stackhouse can achieve that heroic purpose while either taking into account what we can observe or reorienting our observations into something better.

  12. Matt McCoy

    Well, it looks as if I should have proofread my post before hitting the “post comment” button. The question at the end should read “Can we talk about differences between men and women in a way that is both theologically sound and either is confirmed by what we observe or reorients our understanding in a way that we can clearly articulate?” And I understand that my question might be off track, or headed in the wrong direction, and if so then I would love to know what sorts of questions I should be asking.

  13. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these excellent suggestions, friends. I’ll report back on the blog when I can about this meeting and what I learned in it. (The report might take awhile: I have back-to-back-to-back trips planned now that will take me away from home and my normal writing routines until the second half of July.)

    One remark, though, that occurs to me as I read your comments: How crucial it is in these contexts to “speak the truth in love”–to speak the truth, yes, but also in love; and to speak in love, yes, but also tell the truth.

    The issues involved here are messy and anyone who wants to engage them seriously has simply got to expect to get messy. That means sometimes being provoked by what someone else says, or by one’s own inability to be clear, or by unexpected information, or by unexpected voices. As long as we can, to allude to Scripture once again, “provoke each other to love and good deeds,” we’ll be doing well. And I appreciate the respectful tone–respectful of each other, respectful of the stakes involved, and respectful of the truth as each of us see it–I have read here. I will try to follow your good examples in my own discussion at TaylorU.

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