This is something which has really been bothering me lately: why are so many conservative Christian young men impossible for a self-respecting young woman to date?
Well, aside from the fact that I know for a fact many very conservative (read: borderline fundamentalist) young Christians have been taught that self-respect is a psycho-babble way to make pride look acceptable, thus smuggling the worst of all sins into our lives. I’ll write about this in a later post.
What I’m worried about here is the high concentration of douchebags I’ve met at Christian university. I didn’t really think there was a relation between the douchebag quotient and the amount of solid conservative Christian teaching until recently, and then it struck me in all its simple obviousness:
When a man is taught all his life that women were created specifically to submit to him, he has a pretty narrow chance of growing up with a positive view of women.
I had already been dealing with the flip side, that women will have a hard time growing up into independent, self-respecting people if they are taught that their highest calling and only proper role in life is to submit to a man. Yes, that’s an oversimplification of the current complementarian view, but when you’re a kid you don’t go with subtleties. You hear, “women submit” and you figure that therefore it’s impossible to fulfill your role in life if there is no man in your life. I know, I know, can open, worms everywhere. But let’s get back to the men.
I understand the Biblical exegesis which backs up complementarianism. I understand why so many conservative Christians think egalitarianism, let alone feminism, is totally unbiblical, mainly because I myself believed that until about two years ago. But I have seen so much un-Christlike behavior from men, stemming from the attitudes planted in them by the gender-role teaching they’ve received, that I think the current permutation of complementarianism in conservative Christianity is indefensible.
In conservative Christian circles, men are used to seeing leadership positions filled up solely by men. Men are used to being told that it is their responsibility to lead (and women’s responsibility to submit). The books approved by conservative Christians are written by men (unless they are written for women, in which case female authorship is permissible). Although the world of business and politics and academia is noticeably more equal in gender representation than it was twenty or thirty years ago, the church remains solidly male-dominated.
So Christian young men grow up expecting that they will spend their lives in positions of leadership, responsibility, and authority, while women will be doing things like organizing potluck dinners and teaching kindergarten Sunday School classes. In other words, while men engage in complex issues of theology, breadwinning, and soulwinning, women will be doing things behind-the-scenes, womanly things that require no higher education, no special cognitive abilities, and no substantive interaction with men outside of the home (the lack of substantive interaction only reinforces the supposition that female intellectual activity is inferior – men don’t often encounter evidence to the contrary). The men will spend their time after church doing an in-depth theological criticism of the church down the street, while the women will spend their time talking about the various developmental milestones their infants and toddlers have reached. For the most part, a woman will receive biblical instruction either from the pastor or from her husband. Woman-to-woman biblical instruction takes place strictly in small group settings, usually accompanied by pastries and assisted by pastel-colored devotional books written by theologically correct but not terribly substantive Christian women approved by the male leadership of the church.
In fact, at a certain church I know well, the whole paradigm is aptly captured in the baffling fact that the speaker for the women’s conference is always a man. I wish I were joking.
No matter how much the advocates of this sort of complementarianism insist that their view does not demean women at all, it still ends up giving the impression that men are in some sense more important or more valuable than women. The (male) leadership in these Christian circles spend a lot of time convincing women that their God-given gifts and abilities are really being used to the fullest possible extent within the home and in various not-too-visible service positions at church. If a man believes his wife’s talents suit her for cooking dinner and teaching the children to read, while his talents suit him for anything from engineering to Biblical ministry to consulting to…well, just about anything anyone in the world can dream up, he’s not going to really view her as an equal. If she was created only and solely to help him and support him and submit to him, why should he consider her just as valuable as himself? (I know the objections these men will raise: They will say that I am measuring value by the world’s standards. Although a woman’s role may seem less important, it is really equally valuable, just different. To which I say: Good to know that “separate but equal” is still alive and well somewhere. Have fun living in the 1950’s. Send me a postcard.)
And this goes back to the un-Christlike behavior I was talking about. I recall a lot of stories where Jesus spoke to women as though they were his intellectual equals, capable of spiritual reflection and independent thought and action. This was especially radical, of course, in a world where women were viewed as little more than property. I recall no stories in which Jesus told a woman that her place was to submit to him. And Jesus never treated a woman in a utilitarian fashion, as a means to an end. In fact, in the famous story of Mary and Martha, he had a perfect opportunity to do so. Yet he was much more interested in serving Mary by discipling her than in asking her to go fulfill her culturally-approved female role of serving him. I have yet to see anything like this in a conservative Christian home. In typical hospitality situations, the husband will sit in the living room, talking theology or some other edifying topic with the guests, and the wife is free to join them of course – after she’s finished making sure dinner is cooked and the table set. I wonder what would happen if the husband went into the kitchen and said, “Hey honey, let me put the finishing touches on that casserole and set the table – John and Cindy have these really good thoughts they’ve been sharing about Deuteronomy and I want you to have the chance to be a part of that conversation.” Complementarian? Not entirely. Christ-like? Totally.
Sidebar: for an excellent treatment of Paul’s writing on submission, I would refer you to Rob Bell’s book “Sex God.” If you don’t have the time to read it, or if your friends will cast you out as an unbeliever and a heretic if they find out you’ve been reading Rob Bell, here’s the summary: it’s in the context of all believers submitting to one another, it is addressing the woman as an equal individual with the free will to choose, and Paul does not move on to tell men that they must force women to submit but rather to tell men that they too must live so sacrificially in relation to their wives that it is likened to dying. Next time a man tells his wife to submit to him, try asking him when was the last time he laid down his life for her. Chances are, the situation he thinks can only be resolved by her submission could be resolved just as well if he chose to live sacrificially.
I’m not even going to address all the numerous parallels I’ve had thrown at me in my life between a child’s submission to a parent and a wife’s submission to her husband. Garbage of that sort hardly even merits derision, much less an actual response.
And so, considering the view of women advocated by the typical really conservative church, it comes as no surprise that I, a young woman with a positive self-concept and a decent respect for her own intellectual capacity, would find it difficult to date a typical conservative Christian young man.
But what really makes me sad is when I see young Christian women, women with deep spiritual insight, servant’s hearts, and great intellectual capacity deny all of that because the man they’re dating wants them to step into a box he’s labeled “submission.” And it’s a vicious example of circular reasoning: he is the spiritual head of the relationship, so he gets to define what submission means, and she has to do it because after all he is the spiritual head of the relationship. If these women were not Christians, they would likely be able to pursue careers where they would affect the world in countless positive ways. Since they are Christians, dating Christian young men, they will give up any really great career because they must not outshine their future husband, and they will eventually give up any career at all in favor of being a “keeper at home.” Everything inside them that says they should be leading a ministry to homeless teens, should be painting masterpieces that speak to the human experience, should be writing theology books that could rival John MacArthur’s, is labeled antithetical to a meek and quiet spirit.
I think that if all the good abilities and gifts God has brought together into the unique person that is you are being suppressed and shuffled aside so you can fit into someone else’s idea of submission, you’re doing it so, so wrong.
Maybe I’ve exaggerated a little, or maybe you haven’t been exposed to the manic streak of gender-role rhetoric I’ve had to endure. But from what I have seen, this is a huge problem. I watch it stalk around the campus of the university I graduated from every single day in the form of men who have been told they’re kings of the earth from day one and women who stop up their ears at any mention of “equality,” lest it taint their joyful and submissive spirits.