It seems appropriate to begin 2018 with this topic since “gender fluid” made Collins Dictionary’s 2017 words of the year shortlist. It’s also an important topic because it is often misunderstood: about half the country lauds the progress we’ve made toward deconstructing gender norms while the other half argues that gender is God-given and is, consequently, final. To be fair, there are a also lot of opinions in between those two options.
Nevertheless, in general, people of faith tend to be the most outspoken against gender nonconformity and fluidity.
My question here is simply, why? Although you may already have a strong opinion about this topic, I ask that you consider what follows.
Because I think if we really explore gender fluidity, we will find that Pentecostals largely already affirm it.
CONSTRUCTING GENDER “NORMS”
Our global society tends to construct gender categories and traits that are catalogued either as masculine or feminine –– i.e., specific ideas and expectations are injected into the female and male sex.
For example, being emotional is a feminine trait while being reasonable is masculine. Alongside those comes weakness/passivity/softness (“play with your dollies over there”) and power/aggressiveness/strength (“hey, boys will be boys”). Men, therefore, lead authoritatively and women humbly support. One way women support is by caring for people, like children, while men pragmatically direct people.
These divisions create spacial differences between the genders: men are above (directing/leading) and women below (caring/following).
Of course these distinctions are extended: God, who is “above,” is a man (Father) and creation, which is “below,” is a woman (Mother). This constructed binary has significant consequences––it implies that men are holy and women are sinful (e.g., narratives that condemn Eve).
There are two standard ways that Christians make sense of this gender divide:
The first paradigm states that men and women complement each other. Though it doesn’t have to, this typically means men lead and women support––yay for complementing (and complimenting), said all the men! In other words, the woman’s role is to complete the man.
The second paradigm avers that women and men are equal. Equality appears to be the better of the two options, depending on your perspective, but it retains the same system that created the unbalanced complementarian system.
For instance, what do we even mean by “equality”? Balanced scales? Does it require men and women to do the same things? Does equality mean erasing gender entirely? Or does it mean valuing the things women do the same as the things men do?
Equality maintains the scale system, and at some point, the scales will tip again. Furthermore, equality also ends up being anything but equal because it ultimately negatively affects women.
Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon says that men almost always come out on top in “equality” court cases. For example, if women and men are 100% equal, then women should be able to work at the same level as men, whatever that might even mean, throughout their pregnancies and immediately after giving birth. Sure, women are also supposed to care for their new babies, too (somehow men get out of that one), but that’s what they signed up for when they chose to get pregnant!
In other words, women somehow lose in both egalitarian and complementarian systems.
In walks Pentecostalism…
Pentecostal worship is a fascinating and wonderful experience. The shared emotional feeling that participants embody during worship can be quite profound and life-changing. If you’ve been a part of one of these services, you’ve also likely experienced something remarkable, even if you didn’t think it was remarkable at the time:
Men kneeling, crying, and raising their hands in submission (“female” traits), and women authoritatively praying, prophesying, and preaching (“male” traits).
Somehow, in that Spirit-filled space, gender norms are ignored or transgressed (according to Sarah Coakley). Women and men are able to move between socially determined gender identities fluidly and expectedly. Non-gender norms is the norm in Pentecostal worship.
What is more interesting, though, is that Pentecostals do not believe that the Spirit lives in the church worship space. Rather, the Spirit lives within the believer in every context of life. So if gender norms are disregarded in Pentecostal worship, then gender norms must also be disregarded in all other aspects of life. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom from all “worldly” constraints.
What I’m not saying…
I am not saying, however, that men and women are identical. Indeed, I agree with MacKinnon: on the most basic biological level, my maled-body does not experience the world in the same way a femaled-body does. I’ll save you the biology lesson and leave it at that.
So I’m not arguing for “sameness” (MacKinnon). God created a spectacular world, filled with “different” things; clearly God did not have to include so many shapes and colors into the system, yet God did. Sameness, then, is not the goal of creation.
What appears to be the goal, though, is to allow humans to fluidly move within both constructed traits toward harmony, where a woman can be a fierce businessperson and a loving parent, and where a man can be a homemaker and a football coach. These stereotypical roles get transgressed, allowing people to follow the Spirit as opposed to being forced to follow constructed gender “norms.”
When we try to balance the scales, we inevitably tip them in one direction. And when we try to value complementary roles, one undoubtedly gets elevated. By looking at Pentecostal theology on the Spirit empowering all people and at Pentecostal worship, we can learn to live more fluid and therefore freeing lives where we are no longer constrained by this world, but rather are transformed through the Spirit. The Apostle Paul puts it best:
There is no longer male or female because we are one in Christ (Gal. 3: 28)
Let us cast off the shackles of constructed norms and fluidly move with the Spirit.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.