I grew up in a conservative home that was decidedly anti-establishment. (Cue irony.) My parents had met at a Christian university, eventually married, and moved to the country to raise five children. Their vision of the “good life” included hard work, creativity, living close to the land, education, and serving others. It did not include money.
I realize now how significant this was. Because we lived in a rural area and lacked financial resources, we also lacked the ability to participate in mainstream culture—including mainstream religious culture. We lived our lives in our small community of friends and family; our church experience was decidedly local. In many ways, we (almost) missed the gender wars entirely.
It wasn’t until college that I began to hear about biblical notions of “manhood” and “womanhood.” At first, it was refreshing; to an eighteen-year-old on the cusp of womanhood, it was relevant and timely. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been taught a conservative reading of gender—my father was definitely the “head of the home”—but growing up, gender was a minor question compared to all the others. My church would not have ordained women, but women served in every other major capacity of church life. I had also been schooled in the “greats” of the Christian faith. So while I believed that men, like Charles Spurgeon, may be the only ones called to ordination; I also believed that women, like Mary Slessor, could tame the jungles of Africa with nothing more than fierce determination and the gospel.
Having grown up outside the genders wars, I didn’t initially understand the landscape. I embraced a label of conservatism, assuming that a complementarian position best expressed the views with which I had been raised. But the more I listened to both sides of the conversation, the more I realized that few of the definitions and paradigms on either side described my experience or values.
There was no category for my paternal grandmother who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, mothered five children, and retired as a factory worker. There was no category for my maternal grandmother who was the first in her family to receive a college degree but was also a submissive wife and partner in ministry with her husband. There was no category for my mother who, though doggedly conservative, was more likely to quote Abigail Adams or Amy Carmichael than Elizabeth Elliot.
The conflict between the conservatism I’d received from my upbringing and the conservatism being promoted in the gender wars forced me to return to core principles. This meant starting with a clear understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image—what it means to be human. For me, the nuances of being made “male and female” are meaningless if we don’t understand what it means to be image bearers in the first place.
At the same time, perhaps because of my conservative reading of Scripture, I don’t see gender as peripheral to the human experience. I strongly affirm the goodness of gender and believe that God was purposeful in creating us male and female—that gender reflects something about Him that we would not understand otherwise. In the end, the tension between what men and women share in common as image bearers and what differentiates us from each other is, itself, a mystery of Divine proportion.