The boundaries between gender identity/roles and sexuality are being stretched and blurred every day, in every way. Just look at the productions of popular culture to see examples of the confusion: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Britney Spears and Madonna. 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg’s duet song P.I.M.P. Abercrombie & Fitch. Adults within the church want youth to grow into the men and women God intends them to be, yet today’s youth are hard-pressed to determine exactly what being a man or a woman really means.
Since time began, men (boys) and women (girls) have been motivated by different things and have different needs. This has nothing to do with worldly concepts of equality but everything to do with being wired a certain way. However, in some cases, the wiring gets crossed and we are in danger of short-circuiting ourselves. It is easy to become focused on who and what the world is telling us to be; and to make matters more complicated the world’s message is far from consistent.
The swinging pendulum strikes again. For years I was an educator in a classroom, and there was a time when it was commonplace to buy gender-segregated gifts for students: pink dolls for girls and red trucks for boys. Then the pendulum swung toward proactively preventing gender bias and people felt compelled to forsake any references to the differences between boys and girls. Now the pendulum seems to be hovering toward the middle – swinging back and forth at a fast clip, making us wonder if it’s okay to teach and model the notion that there are some characteristics unique to boys and others unique to girls.
Take, for example, the general fact that boys are wired for adventure–that “hunter-guy” thing. One line of worldly thinking dictates that today’s “gender-correct” rhetoric and an over-focus on roles has led to a cultural suppression of this innate male characteristic which leads to unhealthy expression of this characteristic in the individual. Bullying is on the rise as some boys embark on a quest for power. Conversely, those who are bullied may become depressed, have low self-esteem, lose interest in school, and/or try to avoid school altogether.
Additionally, violence in relationships is on the rise. Teen-Matters reports in a recent survey that of more than 5,400 students in South Carolina, ages 14-18, approximately 15% had experienced dating violence and more than 23% of girls and 15% of boys had been forced to have sex. Nearly 10% of the girls surveyed had been beaten at least once by their dating partner, while 9% reported beating their dating partner (http://www.teenmatters.com/textonly/relationship.html).
Considering these statistics, it comes as no surprise that popular culture feeds the confusion about gender and sex. Pluggedinonline.com recently offered a review of Britney Spears’ popular new album, In the Zone: “The line between dancing and intercourse is blurred (‘The Hook Up’), and a woman earns the title ‘Brave New Girl’ for picking up a stranger for a fling in a motel room (‘Her M.O.’s changed/She don’t wanna behave/Ain’t it good to be a brave girl tonight’). Heated ogling, touching and undressing prefaces a sexual ‘Showdown.'”
Another example of gender role confusion is manifested in body image issues. For girls, thin is “in,” and bulimia and anorexia is a painfully common problem. For guys, it’s better to bulk up and look buff, and steroid use continues to be on the rise. Teen-Matters.com reports that 500,000 teens in the U.S. currently use steroids and body-enhancing supplements.
So what does this have to do with anything? Everything! These issues are a bit like an octopus with tentacles reaching into all aspects of adolescent development. When the boundaries get blurred, people tend to stretch them further, trying to figure out who they are while asking the question: Am I really okay? But how far can the lines be stretched before they break? And what can Christians do to bring things back into focus?
We can bring the focus back to Scripture, which teaches boys and girls, men and women who God made them to be and how to best fulfill their roles in daily life. As simple as this sounds, returning to a Godly view of gender is not easy, especially in the midst of today’s focus on self-fulfillment. When we factor in relativism, where no one’s beliefs are to be challenged or actions restrained, we are up against a huge battle indeed, certainly a battle that we, on our own, cannot win. But with God, all things are possible.
Considering all things, it is important for youth to understand that spiritually, there is no distinction between male and female in regard to our relationship with God–we are all heirs equally in Christ. (Certain things are for all people–thus, the need for inclusive language. Many biblical references use the word “man” or “mankind.” To help us all understand that certain things are for all people, we often change the language to read “people” or “humankind.” Doing this does not blur the lines of gender when concerning matters of faith relative to all–justification, forgiveness, salvation.) But in the broader picture, there are gender specific roles designed by God. These roles differ from one another, but each role is necessary, and by God’s design, they balance each other out. Adam and Eve were partners who worked in collaboration with each other by God’s design and for God’s glory.
In “Called to Womanhood: The Biblical View for Today’s World,” author Beth Impson writes that when it comes to defining gender roles, “[The] account of creation can help us explore manhood and womanhood. It is true that even those of us who agree that men and women are fundamentally different often have difficulty making the differences clear. Because both men and women are made in the image of God, we share many aspects of our being… However, Adam’s creation as leader and provider would cause us to expect men to more naturally display character traits that aid in those responsibilities… Eve’s creation as helper and companion, on the other hand, would cause us to expect women to more naturally display characteristics that would aid in those responsibilities.”
Impson continues, “It isn’t a matter of figuring out what men want us to be or what other women want us to be or what we in our sinful flesh want to be; it’s a matter of figuring out what God intends us to be. And the first thing He created each of us to be was either male or female, giving us the vocation of our sex.” Impson goes on to define vocation as a calling–“that which we are and do in relation to our neighbors.” In and of itself, it is a mind-set, the frame of reference that influences our interactions with others. We don’t choose it; but neither can we escape it. This understanding of gender becomes a frame of reference wherein two different but equal beings complement each other in a creative partnership to the glory of God.
All kinds of personal definitions for “leader” and “companion” exist. These are excellent open doors for discussion with youth. Help youth flesh out the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that lead them to negative views of the roles God has assigned to them individually. Help them see how certain messages in media and attitudes prevalent in today’s culture feed these negative views of God’s creation and, perhaps, give them permission to act out these views. Help them discern what culture is really telling them about the way men and women are to relate and interact, then compare this with what Scripture says. Explore the 5th chapter of Ephesians and the 3rd chapter of Colossians and discuss how “who we are in Christ” leads us to relate to each other with servant hearts.
The boundaries are blurred and the youth of today need a safe place to offer questions and verbalize perspectives–and to hear once again that we live in a world racked with sin. Redemption in Christ frees us from the power of sin, but worldly influences will continue to blur the boundaries. We live forgiven, we lived redeemed, we live with a new heart attitude in response to God’s great gift of love. May God strengthen us to combat the world for the sakes of the young men and women in our care.
Jane Wilke is a developmental editor for Lutheran Hour Ministries. Formerly an educator in Lutheran schools and an editor for Concordia Publishing House, her primary focus today is on issues relating to physical, emotional, and spiritual health.