‘Thank you for showing my son a different way of being a man.’ This is what a friend in my church once said to me, and to this day, it is one of the most meaningful and encouraging things anyone has ever said to me. For years, I’d wrestled with not feeling like a real man and not feeling that I fitted in when among a group of guys. By this point I was making some progress in becoming more comfortable with how I am – my personality, likes and dislikes. My friend’s comment reminded me that this is not just good news for me; it’s also good news for other people.
Many of us live with this low-level feeling of not making the cut as a real man or a real woman.
The more I’ve spoken about the discomfort I have felt in relation to being a man, the more I’ve found other people who have had similar experiences. It seems many of us live with this low-level feeling of not making the cut as a real man or a real woman. I think this is often the result of an unhelpful application of gender stereotypes. So, if we, as Christians and churches, want to help people to embrace and enjoy who God has made them to be, we need to think about gender stereotypes.
Gender stereotypes are those fixed and simplistic ideas we have about what men and women are like. They are the things that we assume are, or should be, true of all men or all women. This can range from tastes and preferences – girls like pink, boys like blue – to characteristics – women are more empathetic, men are more analytical – and interests – women like shopping, men like sport.
Where do these stereotypes come from? Sometimes they’re just inaccurate beliefs passed on through a society or community. The stereotype may represent only a minority of real men or women, but if it has gained acceptance in society the stereotype will continue to spread.
Sometimes stereotypes are rooted in a level of truth. It might be true that in many cases women like one thing while men like another. It might be true that generally speaking women more strongly exhibit one characteristic while men more strongly exhibit another. It is true, for example, that women tend to empathise more, and men tend to systematise more. 1
What we must notice, however, is that these stereotypes are always generalisations. Even if they are usually true, they are not always true. The danger is that we take generalisations and make them universals. Another danger is that we move from recognising stereotypes as observations about how things often are to seeing them as guidelines for how things always should be.
If we universalise a stereotype, what happens to those for whom it doesn’t fit? If we say or imply that a stereotype is how things should be, how will people feel if the stereotype isn’t true for them? This is how people can be left feeling like they are not a real man or a real woman.
Putting stereotypes in their place
Sadly, this often happens in the Church. And yet we of all people should avoid universalising gender stereotypes, because we know that what makes us a man or a woman is not our tastes or interests or characteristics, but how God has made us and what he says about us.
Our identity as a man or a woman is given to us by God and is communicated to us through our bodies (Genesis 1:27-28).2 We don’t have to like certain things or be wired in a certain way to be a man or a woman. Our identity as men and women isn’t created or earned by living a certain way; it’s given to us by God. God determines who we are and therefore we are free to be how we are. We might be a man who loves chick flicks and period dramas (that’s me), or a woman who is obsessive about football, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are a man or a woman because God says we are a man or a woman.
This doesn’t mean that the difference between being a man or a woman isn’t important. Our identity as a man or a woman should affect the way we live, but that living must flow from who we are. And in determining how we should live out this identity, we need to consider what the Bible says and let its teaching lead us, rather than being led by gender stereotypes. Stereotypes tell us how things often are; they can’t tell us how things should be. To know how we should live, we must look to biblical teaching, but we do so to know how to express our identity as a man or a woman, not to create it.
Stereotypes in the church
Sadly, gender stereotypes are often used unhelpfully in churches and among Christians. They are often seen in things we say, both in conversation and from the pulpit. They aren’t always explicit; they can be very subtle, the preacher’s comments which assume that only men struggle with pornography or that only women experience discomfort over their body image; the difference in prayers that are said for women (‘Help her to know how beautiful she is’) and for men (‘Help him to be strong and courageous’). Even the events we run can express these stereotypes: the curry and beer night for men and the craft and cocktails evening for women.
All of the stereotypes in the examples above are probably rooted in some element of truth, but they are all statements of what is generally true, not what should be or needs to be true. Perhaps the way forward for the Church is not to avoid every gender stereotype, but to think about how we are using them and what effect they are having. Are we using them to make a useful point, while acknowledging that they are not universal truths? Or are we, whether intentionally or unintentionally, suggesting that people need to conform to the stereotype to be a real man or woman?
Are we, whether intentionally or unintentionally, suggesting that people need to conform to the stereotype to be a real man or woman?
So, we need to be careful about gender stereotypes. There will be some which are just not true or not important and we can reject these. Others may be generally true and may be helpful when acknowledged carefully in certain contexts. You probably will get more men come along to your curry and beer night than you will to your craft and cocktails evening. But perhaps we should be offering a range of events, some of which aren’t tied to gender stereotypes, so more people can be comfortable to be involved. Or perhaps we should avoid events tied to strong stereotypes and look for things that are more broadly appealing. In our preaching, let’s acknowledge the reality that stereotypes will sometimes be true but not always. And in everything, let’s seek to help people know that who they are comes from who God says they are, not what they do, how they feel or what they like.
- Liraz Margalit, ‘Men Systemize. Women Empathize’ Psychology Today. Accessed 27 November 2020.
- This statement is true even when we acknowledge the reality of intersex conditions or differences of sexual development (DSDs). In these cases, an individual’s bodily characteristics don’t correspond with what is usually expected of a male or female body. However, there is no reason, biologically or biblically, to believe that intersex constitutes a third or additional sexes, rather DSDs are an example of the brokenness that has entered the world through sin and which affects all of our bodies in different ways. For more on intersex, see Preston Sprinkle, 'Intersex and Transgender Identities'.