We hear a lot about gender nonconformity and Christianity these days, in reference to gay issues usually. This also extends, more quietly to roles of men and women in the family and the church. What is appropriate gender behavior as seen by Christianity?
Progressive Christians believe gay sex, at least within “committed relationships” or gay marriages, should be regarded as normal and healthy. (And usually that not regarding it as normal and healthy, is not normal and healthy.) Women should have the same authority in all ways as men in the church and the family.
First, the social history of this. In traditional rural, agricultural societies, women were women and men were men. Agricultural production requires hard physical labor, so men do most of it. Tilling a field means you have to plow and remove rocks, which takes a lot of strength. (As Steve Sailer notes, in places where the ground is not plowed, such as Africa this means much different gender roles.) Herd animals are large and potentially dangerous; a woman might be able to herd sheep and goats, but having a woman alone in the field far from help could be dangerous if security is poor.
Furthermore most adult men would need to have some ability for military service. The average farmer would muster only occasionally; an aristocratic landowner would devote a lot of his time to military training and organizing. But only boys, old men and the handicapped would be completely exempt.
In a rural, agricultural society both food production and security depended on strong, aggressive men, so male domination of society was taken as a given. In an urban society, this would not be the case. An urban society does not need to be modern, or industrial, it only needs enough surplus food production so that a few people can do other things. There have been urban societies since, I guess, several thousand years BC. Still except for some large cities like Babylon most people’s mentality was rural. Most people in a city at any given time were just visiting for some legal or religious business, if you were wealthy you might have a residence in town but you would spend most of your time on the farm. Full-time urban residents would have been priests or workers at a temple or people who worked for the king.
However, as small or large as their numbers might be, city people are much different from rural people. Outside of construction and some rudimentary police force or palace guard, city work does not require physical strength or what is more subtle, the masculine mindset of getting things done. Trade, craft production and domestic work require patience and getting along with others, one might say servility. To some extent we think of the urban worker as a man doing hard work in a mill or factory, but in ancient times as in Manhattan today, urban work was mostly banking, politics and providing services to those engaged in banking and politics.
In a rural society you would see mostly traditional gender roles, and traditional sexual behavior. With low population density you rarely encounter people who aren’t your family or who you don’t know well, so opportunities for sex outside of approved relationships would be few. It doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, but they were unusual and looked down on- by formal condemnation and possibly worse, by gossip and jokes.
Family life was very important to these people, for the simple reason that for them the only way to live after death was through your descendants. Not to be able to have children was a great tragedy. If a married man died before his wife had children, his brother was supposed to marry her and then the children she had would be recognized as his brothers. Isaiah made an exception for eunuchs- that faithful eunuchs would have eternal remembrance, “better than sons or daughters.”
In the city however people of all kinds, unrelated and strangers, lived in close quarters. Large buildings, public and private, with multiple rooms and passages made privacy possible. The lack of physical labor and the availability of slaves and servants for domestic work reduced pressure for people to adhere to traditional gender roles. Men didn’t have to be physically strong, stoic, and focused, and women didn’t have to be caring, maternal or competent in household tasks. Ability to form alliances with others, ingratiate oneself to the powerful and dominate the weak were (and are) what counted, and these skills easily translate to pursuing deviant sexual relations.
Effeminate men and masculine women would not only not be disadvantaged, they might have an advantage. But in this environment, the opposite also occurs. Women with money and time on their hands can put a lot of effort into appearance, into looking as beautiful as possible. A wealthy urban woman might every day be as well dressed and groomed as a farm woman would have been one day in her life, her wedding day. Men with time could spend a lot of it on athletics and physical exercise- not much connected to military training and readiness, as these things had been, but mostly to physical appearance and social status.
Neither of these extremes- hypo- or hyper-masculinity, or hypo- or hyper-femininity- is normal or healthy. They can get mixed up, too- in ancient Greece, as today hyper-masculinity was associated with homosexuality. The Greeks made statues representing ideals of masculinity and femininity, and held athletic champions in the highest regard. But these are likely to be problems only in significantly urbanized societies. The society of the ancient Hebrews we see in the Old Testament was mostly rural. Homosexuality was prohibited, but it was not likely to be very common, it was probably very rare.
The Greco-Roman society and empire that pushed into the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East was very powerful militarily, and this dominance made its culture something the subject peoples adopted, especially the urban upper classes. Resistance to this was fairly strong among the Hebrews, and they negotiated a religious accommodation with the Romans.
On the whole, though, the sexual culture of the Greco-Roman upper classes- homosexuality, sexual use of anyone unable to resist, such as children, slaves, and poor people, and pretty much anything else you can think of, and plenty you probably can’t, became the pervasive ethos of the empire. The population, high and low, was deeply degraded by this. Family life was seriously harmed, and the birthrate dropped perilously low. Augustus found this so troubling he added additional penalties for adultery and a tax on bachelors. It didn’t make much difference.
Along came Christianity. In my mind Paul is best thought of not as a theologian, but as prophet bringing moral sanity and health to a degraded and ruined population. Restoring paternal authority to an urban population that had mostly forgotten it was not oppressive, it was a great relief from the freewheeling amorality of the age. Patriarchy doesn’t mean women and children have oppressors, it means they have protectors and guides. Christians survived, due to mutual care, and reproduced, due to family values, better than the rest of the population and their numbers increased rapidly.
People like to say Christianity was an effete religion until the Germans masculinized it, but from reading Paul it was anything but. Paul was big on patriarchy, strict discipline and military metaphors. What the Teutonic people did was make military service and war compatible with Christianity, which you first see in Beowulf- a hero who fights and sacrifices for others, not his own glory, and later in the code of chivalry.
The apotheosis of medieval society was the knight, a high-born nobleman, a warrior by profession and lifestyle, but a man who was dedicated to serving and protecting those weaker and poorer than himself. Knighthood was actually a religious order, the ceremony conferring it occurring not in a castle, but in a church.
The idea of a priest as a masculine figure seems strange to most modern people, Catholics as well as Protestants, but a man who rejected home and family for the disciplined asceticism of serving God was just that. Augustine was quite the ladies’ man before dedicating himself to God.
Something changed as the Middle Ages progressed, and the once masculine church gained a more feminine bent. Leon Podles, in “The Church Impotent” dates this to about 1200 and the establishment of mandatory priestly celibacy. I suspect that what had happened slowly over the centuries was that the church became a place to put men and women of the upper classes not suited for marriage- because they were gay or in the case of women, maybe just obnoxious, like Martin Luther’s wife- and eventually these people took over. The church probably attracted a lot of men for the opportunities for Machiavellian political manipulation- this was Italy after all- or because getting married would have interfered with having sex with lots of women. All in all, a not very savory cast of characters took over.
The Reformation was at least in part a reaction to this, and the reestablishment of more masculine authority. The Protestant religion came for a time to be more masculine, while the Catholic Church mostly continued on a feminizing trend, with some exceptions such as the Jesuits.
This was not to last, as the world was changing. Warriors, or people who were at least supposed to be warriors, had ruled for a long time. Firearms made war easy and democratic, and the age of the mounted knight as the protector and hero of society was gone. International trade made possible by voyages of discovery made merchants the richest, and thus the most powerful people in society. Along with merchants, bankers and the always crucial insurers prospered.
This didn’t happen all at once, because at the advent of this age- our age- most people were still farmers, and rich landowners were still at the top of society. But gradually, the values of country people- physical strength, stoicism, respect for hierarchy, and traditional gender roles- were replaced by the values of city people- facility with dealing with many people, restrained personal behavior, a wider range of emotional expression suited to the demands of the situation. Men spent most of their waking hours away in offices or factories, so women gained more influence in the family and the church.
To urban people, rural values are at best outmoded, and often regarded as an actual threat. The Victorian era was marked by the increasing feminization of society, through things like the Methodist church and the temperance movement. Urban capitalism doesn’t just narrow the differences between men and women, it seems to actually reverse them with time. We have seen the effect on the English upper classes over a period of around 400 years, but Jews have had the same process going for over 1000.
During the industrial period, factory work maintained some kind of a masculine ethos, but that has been gone for some time. Nobody in the western world farms any more, and nobody makes things any more. Almost everybody is some kind of a merchant, banker, servant, or priest, just like we might have been in Babylon. The priests are called by different names now- lawyers or diversity coordinators- but they fill the same function. The culture is much like it would have been then- palace intrigue, sexual excess, and a great deal of time devoted to gossip, clothes and parties.
The urban environment doesn’t support traditional gender roles, and we see a lot of poor gender conformity- effeminate men, masculine women, and hyper-masculinity and femininity. These represent different moral problems. Male effeminacy and female masculinity degrade the ability of people to form relationships and functional families. Hyper-masculinity and femininity allow people to form relationships, but only fleeting and hedonistic ones.
The People Who Run Things are the biological, but also the cultural and spiritual descendants of the Quakers, Transcendentalists and Victorian Methodists, along with secular Jews. For themselves they a kind of hypo-sexuality where gender differences are not pronounced, where men and women are close to equal and sometimes women are dominant. Among Jews, female dominance is close to the norm. This works for them in their culture as urban businesspeople, but it can’t be called entirely right and it’s certainly not for everybody. It has poor results for people outside this culture.
For non-whites and gays, they promote hyper-sexuality, but this also leads to female dominance and lacking stable marriage, matriarchy.
Neither of these things is biblical or functional, but it’s the official morality. What do we need to do about gender non-conformity in today’s world? Since this is a long topic in and of itself, I’m dividing this topic and leaving that for another post. I will close by saying it’s a real thing, not to be “celebrated” as the progressives like nor brushed aside as traditionalists tend to do. Some people are indeed born like that, others are damaged, others are poorly parented, others are led astray. But there is an answer for everyone.