Friday, July 17, 2009

Jesus and Gender

or "Being a Pretty Princess"

It is a documented fact that evangelical Christianity struggles to attract blokes, and does much better with women. Various theories have been advanced as to why this might be. Probably the most popular one is that we're just not doing church right - our songs are overly sentimental, our preaching isn't action-packed enough, our vision of Jesus isn't macho enough. Church doesn't feel very blokey.

Some of those things might be valid concerns, to a certain extent. But I've been wondering whether the Christian message is stucturally anti-male, and I suspect it is - and I suspect that isn't a problem.

Psalm 45 is my jumping-off point here. The Psalm celebrates a royal wedding. It celebrates the greatness of the King, and the beauty of the Princess he is about to marry. If read Christologically (and it must be, both as a general hermeneutical principle and because of the juxtaposition of verses 6 and 7), this is a celebration of Christ's love for the church. And it's magnificent - he the Royal Lover, she the Beautiful Princess wooed away from her people.

A combination of this Psalm and John Owen's insistence that marriage is the primary image for understanding our relationship with Christ leads me into Ephesians 5:22-33. In this passage, two things become clear. One is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are not symmetrical or reversible; the other is that in the relationship of Christ and the church, he is husband and we are bride.

So the gospel assigns the church a feminine part. It would be interesting to explore exactly what that means, but for now suffice to say this is going to be a problem for people who want a more macho, man-friendly church.

Is this a problem for the gospel? I guess not. Maybe Christianity is more attractive to women - well, so be it. You don't have to follow the modern feminist critique all the way (and I wouldn't recommend following it very far), but it is clear that women have been kept at the margins in most societies most of the time. And doesn't the gospel speak mainly to the sidelines? For me as a man, the question is: can you accept that you are beautiful to your divine Lover and Husband, and not need to be the man in this relationship? Because ultimately, The Man is the man.

Interesting to compare the reactions of the church and the Bible. The church says "we need to man up, we need to appeal to men"; the Scripture says "if it helps, He does think you're a very pretty Princess".


  1. Love it!

    I'm thinking more and more that the current blokification drive is simply a theology of glory. It opposes God's choice of the weak things in the world (1 Cor 1:25-29). When this is applied to economic strength, we all see it for the prosperity nonsense that it is. The poor are (sadly) weak in the world but strong in the church. Well hallelujah - this is what we'd expect in Christ's kingdom! But when women, who are (sadly) weak in the world become strong in the church, we think it's a problem. And we want to toughen up.

    Interesting that the blokifiers are often into BIG church. What would a theology of the cross look like applied to this area?

  2. I almost agree with you (and Glen), but would still argue that Christian men are meant to be manly, even though the Church is the bride.

    If you're interested, I have a series of posts on this subject appearing over on my blog.

  3. I'm all for being manly too (click on the 'gender' tag on my blog) but this too needs to be subjected to a thorough-going theology of the cross.

    Look forward to reading your posts on this Matthew.

  4. Glen - BIG church = lots of people saved = good. Isn't it? There may be other motives going on but that's a positive. (Insert nuances about big churches not stealing from small ones and genuinely converting people here).

    Aren't there two ditches here?

    On one side we have liberal Jesus and wishy washy Christianity. Here, Jesus is fully man, partly God (eg. adoptionism), or at least those are the tendencies. There's no such thing as holy war here, anger is bad in all circumstances, all victory and power language is stripped out of the Bible.

    On the other side is macho Jesus who can punch you out, fully God partly man (tending towards Nestorianism). Here, the only reason men aren't joining the church is because they have to submit to a man so we never tell them that. In this view, Christian submission is always to a warrior and never to a husband.

    Psalm 45 is a royal wedding, the wedding of a bride to a Warrior-King (eg. verses 3-5). Liberal Jesusers would turn it soppy, Macho Jesusers would turn the wedding into Swamp Castle from Monty Python's Holy Grail film.

    Can't we recognise the mistake macho Jesusers are trying to correct, at the same time as rebuking their shortcomings (as you both are)?

    I'm no doctor, but I can't imagine that a patient with too much testosterone would be fixed by excessive estrogen doses.

  5. I think the church becomes feminised when we think of ourselves as individual Christians as the bride of Christ, rather than the church corporately. But a lot of the "let's blokify the church" type stuff misses the point, and is often naff and stereotypical and so on.

  6. I think Glen's point on Theology of Glory is right on!!!

  7. Thanks for comments, gents, and apologies for a slow response to them. I basically think that what I'm critiquing here is indeed a theology of glory, and in response to the comment about big church=more people saved, I'd say that lots of small churches would have the same effect and the drive to have BIG church seems to be driven by a desire to be or look impressive more than anything else.

    I do wonder about the collective/individual thing. Of course, it is the church that is the bride, not me. But then, in collective worship, if I feel too manly to sing the songs that address love to our husband then the church fails to sing those songs as well as it should (or at least as loudly - not making any claims about my singing ability). So the truth about 'us' has to be believed by and expressed by 'me'...

    As a side point, I do believe in men being manly - although I don't think that means what most people seem to think it means...

  8. Anonymous2:32 pm

    'and the drive to have BIG church seems to be driven by a desire to be or look impressive more than anything else'

    Shucks, that's a sweeping statement. C'mon, always? I agree it can be. Not sure I'd feel qualified enough to say 'often' even though.

    'As a side point, I do believe in men being manly - although I don't think that means what most people seem to think it means...'

    That is more than a side point. Surely, that is the point. I couldn't agree more.

    As a related point, I think one of the problems in these sort of things is that we forget that definitions exist not in isolation but in context, and a relational context at that. Hence, we could argue that 'leadership' and 'responsibility' and 'sacrifice; are masculine qualities. That's true if we're trying to define what it means to be a man in your marriage or something. Not so if we're talking about your relationship to your boss. Similarly, whereas 'submission' is a feminine quality if we're talking wife to husband, but not if we're talking wife to child, where some of the 'masculine' qualities come in to play (mothers lead their children, sacrifice for them. etc.).

    Sorry, that's not all that clear. I think I know what I mean. :)

  9. yeah, by BIG church I mean stadium church rather than lots of cruciform communities mushrooming all over the globe.

    great point Daniel about how the corporate thing entails an individual appropriation of our status as bride.

    and great point from Pete about context. e.g. Jesus is both Body and Head depending on the relationship. I do find it interesting when Gethsemane - in all its weakness - is wheeled out only as an example of Body submission but is not equally held up as the epitome of Head intercession. Some seem to pick and choose when Jesus is being manly and when He's being an exemplar to the 'fairer sex'. And they choose according to a pre-defined notion of masculinity. Let's keep challenging that.

  10. Anonymous10:13 am

    Excellent point here:

    'I do find it interesting when Gethsemane - in all its weakness - is wheeled out only as an example of Body submission but is not equally held up as the epitome of Head intercession.'

  11. I'm a little late commenting on this, but I thought I would add my two pennies' worth.

    Basically, I think that in discussing ideas of gender in church, we need to remember that there is real complexity. Yes, the church is described as the bride, but then believers are also described in the Bible as being an army, athletes, told to work, Sons of God. We even get double-edged swords. So there are definitely more masculine images there.

    But we shouldn't go too far in saying that the Christian man must be macho, shooting his gun, or fixing his truck. Isn't the point of the variety of images in the Bible simply to describe the variety of human experience, ie, the different ways of being men and women? And isn't it too broad to talk about feminine and masculine without acknowledging that these are large categories with much variety within them? God can and does reach out to save all kinds of people.

  12. Phil - there is, of course, no balance in my post. I appear to have completely given up on balance. I think I've arrived at the conclusion that almost everything is to complicated to actually ever present a truly balanced view of it. I think this was a post directed against some trends I've spotted that aim to 'blokify' church (stealing Glen's fake word) rather than an investigation of the concept of gender in Christianity. Although that would be interesting...