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Gender and Grace

 

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. (1990) Gender & Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World. InterVarsity Press.

 

Perhaps one of the greatest identity issues youth face besides their faith revolves around their gender. What does it mean to be female/male? How does that effect my personality? My career when I grow up? My relationships and perhaps marriage one day? Evidence of homosexuality, trans-genderism, and sexual abuse all relate to these questions. While not primarily directed toward youth, this book, one of the most prominent from the complentarian/egalitarian perspective, helps readers place the gender debate within the language of psychology, sociology, history and theology. Author Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is a psychologist and professor of interdisciplinary studies at CalvinCollege in Grand Rapids, Michigan and has been senior editor of Christianity Today and The Reformed Journal.  Her main data, arguments and principles arise from various studies, personal experiences with her family or others, and a Biblical theology from the Reformed, neo-Calvinist tradition that rejects dualisms some traditions fall prey to and is committed to the principle – semper reformanda – “always reforming.” She makes a point near the beginning to caution for the limits of science stating: “…theories about sex and gender – no matter how much empirical data support them – are at best limited in scope and at worst (like all human thinking) subject to the distortions of sin.” (28) Van Leeuwen’s stated purpose is: “To do justice to the legitimate criticisms of feminists and to the burgeoning literature in gender studies, while at the same time subjecting both feminism and received theology to a fresh reading of Scripture is not an easy task…” (10) Through this book, Van Leeuwen comprehensively brings the questions of gender to bear on our work, marriage and parenting from both an interdisciplinary and a specifically Christian perspective.

 

Starting with Biblical foundations, Van Leeuwen begins with the Pentecost event where, for the first time, men and women are given full access through baptism into the kingdom of God

. She then goes back to the Creation narrative where both men and women are created as social beings in the image of the triune-God and given accountable dominion over the creation. Following the fall, however, men gain a propensity to turn dominion into domination while women transform sociability into “social enmeshment.” Illustrating this point from psychology, she writes: “…one of the main problems of today’s counseling psychologists is accounting for women’s constant tendency to avoid developing personal self-sufficiency for the sake of preserving even pathological relationships with the opposite sex…[Numerous books on the subject like Women Who Love Too Much] emphasize that women are responding to faulty child-rearing patterns when they become preoccupied with gaining or maintaining relationships with men. (46-47) In the final Biblical act, of course, we will all be leveled at the feet of our Savior, fully-gendered, yes, but fully-redeemed and equaled.   

 

Moving on to the Nature & Nurture debate, Van Leeuwen asks: “What is it that makes me ‘normal’ or ‘adequate as a male or female?” Beginning with children in the womb, Van Leeuwen refers to various and consistent studies showing that biologically, we are more alike than different. Small biological differences are exacerbated, however, when they are combined with socialization by parents with preconceived notions of gender normality. For example, in numerous “Baby X” studies where adults and children are asked to interact with a baby whose gender is labeled correctly in half and falsely in the other half, we see repeatedly that, “the infant is described and treated by most adults in terms of stereotypes about its presumed sex. Girl-labeled boys (as well as girl-labeled girls) are descried as more friendly, sociable and feminine…The opposite, masculine stereotypes are applied with equal consistency to boy-labeled boys and boy-labeled girls.” (57) Looking at the various differences we find in boys and girls (in terms of verbal and spatial skills), Van Leeuwen cites study after study revealing how the sexes should be much more alike according to biology, but, through socialization, become exceeding differentiated. Avoiding the biological reductionist trap ( “whatever is, is morally right” 63) as well as the sociability extreme (“whatever one becomes is morally right”), she concludes that “biology and experience are mutually influential.” (67). Further, she warns, we cannot “appeal to any mechanical combination of nature plus nurture as a way to escape responsibility for our behavior, either as women or men.” (76) Moreover, she sees the Gospel as giving us great freedom. “When [gender roles] take on too much life of their own, [they] become cages in which God never intended us to be confined….That we are women and men created to express complementarity and mutuality is important, but not of supreme importance: the goals of the kingdom override it.” (70)

 

Van Leeuwen nexts enters into the parenting discussion: “How much do our gendered identities change when we become married?” Not until about age two and a half, do children come to understand, in simple terms, that their gender is a permanent, intrinsic aspect of their identity. She goes on to show the development of boys’ understanding of masculinity in the face of largely absent fathers and how this often leads to either a disgust of all things feminine, or, conversely, an exaggerated exoneration of women, placing them on a pedestal rather than under their heels. Van Leeuwen explains that, “…the more men devalue women and the activities associated with them, the less likely they are to share the ‘women’s work’ of nurturing children. Thus, their own sons are apt to grow up underfathered, contemptuous of women and wanting to distance themselves from ‘women’s work,’ just like their fathers before them.” (132) As Van Leeuwen sums up the studies of absent fathers who avoid all nurturing activities with their sons, she concludes that these husbands, “unwittingly contribute to their [sons’] development of insecure masculinity, dread of women, and the compensatory, woman-rejecting behavior that can result.” (137) For girls, the case is slightly different (and less studies have been done on the effects of fathering on daughters). Essentially, girls who grow up into typically male-attributed careers like high-level executives and mathematicians, continue to stress the importance of their fathers in aiding their success. As one researcher sums it up well: “…the real influence of the Father may be his power to remove the restrictions of socially-prescribed gender roles…They gave their daughters the message that sex was not the most significant organizing variable when it came to determining whether or not girls should take part in certain activities.” (162) While some discussion is given to mothering, the main point of this section for Van Leeuwen is to show the consequences of absentee fathers and to call parents to co-parenting as much as they are able.

 

 

Finally, how do we relate gender to issues such as work and other sexual values like homosexuality and singleness? Van Leeuwen concludes her discussion with the difficult topics of work and sexual values. Her conclusion on separate spheres of work is worth quoting at length:

 

…if both men and women were created for both sociability and accountable dominion, then any theology that defends an exaggerated separation of male and female spheres, with the ‘domestic mandate’ effectively limited to women and the wider ‘cultural mandate’ to men, is not an adequate creation theology at all. It is rather an accommodation to those social forces which have carelessly ripped apart the organic unity of homes and communities and turned us into a society of commuting wage workers (mostly men) and domestically isolated homemakers (mostly women). 206

 

Rather than argue for a radical reversal, Van Leeuwen suggests we consider the movement back to home-based employment and flexible work schedules by both husbands and wives that equalize the time both of them have with children.

 

Looking at sexual development, Van Leeuwen writes:

 

It is nurture (adequate or faulty) building on nature (normal or faulty) during critical periods when the mind is as primed for fixing certain sexual patterns as it is for acquiring a first language. And, as with language, while further learning is not impossible and individual differences in facility exist, it is never again easy.” (224)

 

Showing the complexity and interconnectedness of the nature/nurture debate once again while retaining an orthodox Biblical interpretation, Van Leeuwen chides the church to remember to show grace and compassion towards those dealing with various sexual addictions and struggles, including homosexuality. Along the same lines, Van Leeuwen warns against those judging singles as having fallen short from some ideal. “…Only when we have renounced the idolatries associated with both sexuality and marriage,” she concludes, “will we be able to do proper justice to all of God’s children, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status.” (229)

 

Van Leeuwen ends her difficult discussion on gender with as much grace as she begins. There is no hint of a bitter feminist critique in her language, but rather one of patient, grace-filled and compassionate questioning and striving toward the freedom of being female and male in Christ and appreciating the interdependence that exists between the sexes and, most fully, under Christ.

 

 

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

 

  1. How has your gender shaped who you are? In your experience, have gender roles limited or pressured you into being who you are?
  2. How did your parental upbringing bring freedom or, conversely, blocked your development as a gendered person?
  3. How have you experienced a lack of grace in gender issues through the Church?
  4. What do you think the Bible has to say about gender issues? Do you see contemporary gender roles as mostly a Creational mandate, a post-Fall temporary structure that we must endure until the New Heavens/New Earth or a thorn to be overcome in the hear and now as much as we can? How have you come to that position?

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

    • The Bible does have much to say about gender and was a revolutionary document in the life of the early believers.
    • Youth, youth-workers and parents must take time to discuss and reflect upon their treatment of gender in their lives, work and parenting.

Christen B. Yates cCYS