Boys Will Be Boys (and Other Dodgy Excuses)

The Ethics of Authenticity, Gender, and the Gospel

Todd Brewer / 11.14.19

I stood a few steps away from my young daughter at a playground, watching her wait patiently as all the boys dashed in front of her and repeatedly took her toys away. Sometimes they would ask, but usually not. I stood there feeling a little helpless, not sure if I should intervene, wondering whether any other parent was noticing what was going on when the thought came to me: “Boys really are terrible.”

Holding the gavel of this insight felt gratifying in the moment, but after remembering my daughter’s most recent meltdown over literal spilt milk, my thoughts meandered to the larger issues of sex, gender, and social conventions. I pondered whether aggression, bravery, kindness, deference, or insensitivity were genuine differences between the sexes. I recalled Sarah Condon’s boys, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Beth Moore.

We live in a time when the ethics of authenticity reigns supreme and the moral question of what it means to genuinely be yourself raises the issue of sex and gender to the fore on a daily basis. “Be true to yourself,” “you do you,” or so they say. We search for who we are, our identity, and whether we are male or female is a natural starting point. Our discourse is so thoroughly gendered today it is nearly impossible to think otherwise, particularly when raising a child. We are trained from birth to see the world in pink and blue hues, understanding ourselves (and our children) in terms of acceptance or rejection of shifting gender norms. Western culture (and the Church) has endlessly debated whether women and men are all that different, socially, biologically, or otherwise, and that debate has explicitly shaped our morality to construct a sliding scale of acceptable conduct.

Our preoccupation over the issues of gender underscores for me the comparative silence on the issue in the New Testament. We think that being a man or a woman is essential to our identity and carries a degree of moral imperative. The New Testament does not. The ambivalence of New Testament authors on the question of gender should give us pause, but it hasn’t prevented many from making the Bible in their own image. Some have tried to fill in the blanks and outline what biblical manhood and womanhood should be (with a big assists from  1 Timothy and Titus). We begin with the observation that men and women are different and then want scripture to tell us what it means to be a man or woman in order for us to be the best men and women.

In doing so, we fail to recognize that the commands of Jesus aren’t conditioned upon being male or female so much as taking up one’s cross and following him. At a time when virtues were stereotypically assigned to men (because women were deemed inherently deficient), it is striking that Christianity does not do the same. Later Christian texts, like Thomas Saying 114, would contend that the path to salvation is only for men (and “every woman who has become male”), but not the New Testament. For Christians, the basis of ethical action is best defined in relation to self-giving love, rather than what might be deduced from one’s chromosomes. Some texts undermine the worth of gender categories altogether (Gal. 3:28).

This is not to suggest that our experience of the world isn’t inherently embodied, and therefore conditioned by a multitude of biological and social processes and constructs. But our life in Christ is something else altogether. Grace does not make one a better man or woman, but a forgiven sinner. Men and women do not walk on different moral or soteriological paths. That is, gender is not a Christian category for evaluating the acceptability or guilt of actions.

Do boys and girls act like boys and girls because they are boys and girls? Answering that question feels beyond my level of expertise. It certainly seems like there are differences, but how those are defined are far less important that we might believe. We may tell ourselves on the playground of life that “Boys will be boys”, but this insight doesn’t make them any less or more terrible. So far as the Gospel is concerned, men and women are all judged by the same standard of righteousness — and given grace in equal measure.

Image credits: Imad Fadl-Elmula, benjamint444.

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