Laundry, Dishes and Gender Roles — Part Two

Yesterday I posted about my reactions about the ongoing conversation related to Owen Strachan’s post on ‘Dad-moms’.

Today, it is Chuck’s turn.


Complementarian? Egalitarian? Comgalitarian? Egalmentarian? Maybe I’m just confused.

In response to Amanda’s post concerning the latest round of cyber-debate over gender roles, I’ve been giving the matter a bit of thought. Bear in mind that this is coming from a Christian social psychologist; I am neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar.

Looking over the options that have been presented to me, I find myself in partial agreement with both camps, leaving me with my usual sense that I have a lot of reading to do before I declare myself an official partisan of either side.

Areas in which I find myself in sympathy with the complementarians:

1. Gender differences are inherent.
Actually, it’s considerably more complicated than that. We (social psychologists) have a boatload of research evidence that differences between the genders are biologically-based, involving differences in brain structures and functioning and differences in psychologically-relevant hormones. However, we also have a boatload of research evidence that our concepts of masculinity and femininity are cultural, and that gender identity is influenced by the messages passed on to us by parents, peers, and the media. What I share with the complementarian camp is the recognition that no amount of political activism or theoretical hand-waving will eliminate the role of biology in gender differences.

2. Gender differences should be celebrated.
In the 1970s and 1980s, certain psychologists argued that psychological androgyny (possessing equally-high levels of both masculine and feminine traits) should be held up as the ideal, and that parents should isolate children from any media messages that might cause them to develop a gender-specific identity. Research on gender and mental health, however, combined with the current influence of evolutionary psychology on the psychology of gender, has sidelined androgyny. The current approach more often takes the perspective that masculinity and femininity have their own strengths and weaknesses, which fits well with the complementarians’ position. For myself, I am a frequent reader of the blog The Art of Manliness, the intended audience of which is men who are not interested in media images such as the metrosexual or the manchild, but instead want to enjoy being manly in healthy and prosocial ways. Similarly, many women hold the position that becoming strong and capable does not require them to abandon their femininity. Complementarians often point to the great potential for happiness and fulfillment that can come when men are empowered to be manly, and women are empowered to be womanly.

Areas in which I find myself in sympathy with the egalitarians:

1. Gender differences are not categorical.
There is a tendency when discussing gender differences to interpret them in a rather absolute manner. If, for example, women are shown to be better than men at emotional communication, many people take that to mean that men are utterly incompetent in the emotional realm, while women are blessed with superhuman Heart Powers. The reality is far less dramatic. When studies reveal a consistent gender difference, what we see is a general trend in average scores, with a considerable amount of overlap between the genders.

So, perhaps, ON AVERAGE, women TEND TO outperform men on emotional tasks, but that does not mean that emotionally-competent men do not exist, or that emotionally-incompetent women do not exist. It also does not mean that emotionally-competent men are womanish men, or that emotinally-incompetent women are mannish women. This is an error that I sometimes see among complementarians; treating displays of behaviors at which the other gender more often excel as violations of the essence of their own gender (e.g., A man who changes a diaper is not just changing a diaper, he is acting womanish).

2. The descriptive is not the prescriptive.
Finding a statistically-significant difference between two groups does not necessarily mean that the difference becomes a moral obligation. This is an error in logic sometimes called the Naturalistic Fallacy. The difference might be celebrated and enjoyed, but the existence of that difference does not necessarily become a standard of evaluating group members’ goodness. Cross-cultural research has shown that, on average, members of Western societies tend to have a more individualistic self-concept, while Easterners tend to have a more collectivistic self-concept. Does this mean that a Chinese man must not have any sense of himself as an individual, or that an American must not have strong family ties? Geographical research within the US using the Five-Factor Model of personality shows that residents of North Dakota have the highest Extraversion scores, while residents of Maryland have the lowest Extraversion scores. Does this create a moral obligation for North Dakotans to be socially outgoing, while a Marylander is obliged to be introverted? (We actually have a lot of fun with this argument, since Alaskans had the lowest Conscientiousness scores. This would mean that Alaskans are morally obligated to be unprincipled? :) ) Similarly, the existence of gender differences does not necessarily create a moral obligation to act in accordance with those differences. Men tend to outperform women on mental image-rotation tasks (This and all following examples are drawn from this 1992 Scientific American article). This does not mean that a woman who plays Tetris is usurping a God-given masculine role. Women tend to have higher verbal fluency scores than men. This does not mean that men who want to honor God will stop writing books. If we use established gender differences as a part of an argument that God has purposefully equipped one gender for one set of tasks, and the other gender for a different set of tasks, then this means that God does not want women to do laundry (men outperform women on visual tasks involving folding), play darts (men outperform women on projective accuracy tasks), read “Where’s Waldo” books (men outperform women on perceptual disembedding tasks), or do accounting (men outperform women on mathematic reasoning). It also means that God does not want men to play matching games (women outperform men on rapid image-matching tasks), work on assembly lines (women outperform men on precision manual tasks), or analyze crime scenes (women outperform men on tasks that involve noticing when objects are missing). Why is it only the gender differences in agency and communion that are relevant?

Areas in which I remain confused:

1. Okay, there’s actually only one area. All the above is fine as long as I am looking at this as a social psychologist. Will anything change when I look at this as a Christian? Both complementarians and egalitarians claim to be grounded in the best-quality biblical scholarship, and accuse each other of letting social constructs (patriarchy, feminism) cloud their vision. I don’t know who’s right, and arguments in the blogosphere too often end up being nothing but a restatement of one’s own position and irrelevant character attacks on one’s opponents. I need better arguments than “Complementarians are right because we’re right and you’re wrong.” Diving into the literature on this topic is on my To Read list (along with all the other stuff that’s on my To Read list, a list that seems to be growing much faster than I can read my way through it). Where is the really good scholarly work on this topic? Whose books should I be reading? No cheesy polemics; solid scholarship.

In the meantime, I do the best I can to be a good husband and a good father. I take Jesus’ servanthood as my model (not that I always live up to it). If he emptied himself for our sakes, I should be emptying myself for the sake of my wife and our cheeselings. If that means that I take on some extra burdens, and encourage my wife to do what she is clearly gifted at (preaching and teaching in a pastoral role, being a grad student and eventually going into doctoral studies, etc…), then that’s what I should be doing.

  • athanasius96

    I agree (as you seem to suggest at the end) that roles should emerge from our calling, rather than distilling an artificial position from Scripture. That said, theologically, I tend to use complementarian assumptions to draw egalitarian conclusions. ;-)

  • Kristen

    Solid scholarship on this issue has been done by Philip Payne; see his book “Man and Woman, One in Christ.”
    I think the tie-breaker between the egalitarian and complementarian arguments is the doctrine of the New Creation (aka the “kingdom of God.”) This is not prooftexting, but viewing the Bible as a whole, as the story of God’s redemption of humankind– and the nature of kingdom of God that Jesus preached and Paul taught about, is shown throughout the New Testament to be an abnegation of human social structures of status and power, in favor of a brotherhood where “we no longer view anyone according to the flesh.” 2 Cor 5:16-17. We see it in Jesus statements that one must become “as a little child” (ie., without status or power) in order to enter the kingdom, and telling His listeners to “call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father in heaven.” We see it in Paul calling his readers “brothers and sisters” rather than “my children,” thus placing himself on equal footing with them. We see it in the sweeping statements Paul made about the nature of the New Covenant kingdom (such as Gal 3:28-4:5). This was about more than just going to heaven when you die– for Paul spoke of the “adoption of sons” — a Roman term denoting the full participation of the adoptees, male and female, slave and free, in the status held by freeborn male citizens. Statements about the overarching nature of the kingdom of God must govern the interpretation of practical-living teachings like Ephesians 5 and church-conduct passages like 1 Tim. 2– not the other way around.

    In short, any interpretation that goes against the “no longer according to the flesh” nature of the New Creation kingdom, cannot be a correct interpretation. We need to focus on the forest, not the individual trees– and we need to keep our eyes on the movement of the Spirit in the New Covenant towards more mutuality in servanthood, not towards more exercise of power and authority over one another.

    In that light, if we take into account the historical context (where patriarchy and slavery were the norms), we can see that the Spirit was moving His people away from those norms, and not setting them out as a divine right of the powerful. Jesus told a parable about how those in the high places at the banquet should give up their places and move down lower. Instead, churches today are filled with people clinging to their top places and rebuking those below for not liking the situation!

    I could go on– but suffice it to say that I do not believe the egalitarian position is based on proof-texting, but on interpreting troubling passages in light of the New Creation.

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