In every ethics discussion (and many comment threads online), it is only a matter of time before someone will mention the Nazis. Similarly, many Christian discussions of gender roles do not move beyond or are derailed by the topic of “women in ministry.” However, for the majority of individuals in the church, there are more practical points of gender that need to be addressed. Domestic Life is certainly one of these points (See Gender Roles Part One: Chores), and Romantic Life is another.
Sadly, the discussion of Christian Romance has been given over largely to the world of Christian publishing. And I am not just talking about Christian romance novels, but marriage self-help books, such as Love and Respect by Eggerichs, Sacred Marriage and Sacred Influence by Thomas, His Needs Her Needs by Harley (all of which are best-sellers), etc. Furthermore there is an even greater abundance of pre-marriage self-help books (of which there are too many to even mention) arguing that gender roles are the key ingredients to a healthy marriage and one’s true identity in Christ.
Building on cultural rather than biblical characteristics of masculinity and femininity (significant biblical references to gender are far and few between) this genre of literature preaches a slew of various gender-types, such as “men have an innate need to conquer” and “women have an innate need to receive affection” ; “a man needs his authority to be respected” and “a woman needs to know the love she receives from her partner is secure.”
Furthermore, many borrow much from Victorian writing, by idealizing the “Godly Woman” and encouraging the idea that women, by being holy or worthy, can actually shape the behavior and souls of men. Leman’s Have a New Husband by Friday offers to “change his attitude, behavior, and communication in five days,” and the Secret Influence has this to say about the differences between men and women:
“In some cases, it may indeed be that women are more spiritually and emotionally mature, willing to forgive for the sake of the family and larger considerations” The other option being that “some women never rise above a sinful propensity to define themselves according to their likability or acceptance by men,” and for these women, men have a “ultrasensitive spiritual radar” that can “intuit a woman’s spiritual neediness and will exploit it for their own ends.”
Unfortunately, what is created is a marketable, culturally-defined foundation of identity superimposed by spiritual terminology and not dissimilar from the earliest of literature (Even Beowulf, a local mythos, was edited to provide a Christian-sounding moral). But unlike Beowulf, this current form of literature is actively harmful to the Christian community. It not only plays into our self-obsessed, identity-crisis culture, but it fails to provide a solid biblical footing for true maturity and character growth outside the walls of gender (the kind that we are called to in Christ).
What Romance by Gender Does to Women and Men
Most women in the church are familiar with the co-opted princess/knight concept, in which the woman is the princess, inherently precious and worthy, but frozen in time spent singing to little forest birds while awaiting her knight to come and woo her with his promises of love (which she must then inspire him to keep). While many a sarcastic joke is made about this ideology, it sometimes appears to have sunken more deeply into the psyche of Christians than they care to admit (sort of like those individuals who joke about their intense affinity for Disneyland…but leave you wondering if they actually have taken a few sips of the juice).
Thus, sarcastic comments (“Yeah, I’m still waiting for my Prince Charming”) are juxtaposed with confessions of actual hope (“I’m waiting for the man I know God has in store for me”) or (“You deserve rose petals at your feet, and pretty soon some guy is going to realize that”), and entitlement issues begin to develop.
It is then, that “I want to grow in character so I can serve God and those around me, regardless of who they are” becomes “I deserve a man, and he needs to be worthy of me” [It is important to note the “me” because this is the actual phrasing that is often used in Christian circles. A man needs to be worthy of the woman, rather than worthy of God!]
When this happens, women begin to have expectations of romance that are primarily self-focused (“He hasn’t brought me flowers in weeks”) instead of Christ-focused (“I’m glad we have been spending more time together praying” or “What can I do today that will show my spouse I love him?”)
For men, gender roles are often equally stunting. For instance, the idea that men are wild (at heart) and in need of moral taming prevents them from feeling the full burden of responsibility in following Christ. (While some gender role books emphasis that the male is directly under Christ and the bearer of the great role of leading the woman, they often leave a loop hole for evading responsibility by also preaching that it is the woman’s job to inspire the man to live up to his name of greatness).
If you think this ideology is not prevalent in current Christian circles, consider the following quote, which has been spread and reposted numerously via its Max Lucado rendition: “A woman’s heart should be so lost in God, that a man needs to seek Him in order to find her.”
While the order of the phrasing alone shows evidence of being out of line with the Gospel, (Men seek God to find Women) vs. (Men seek God to find God), it also teaches women that “seeking God” or as it is often practically interpreted, “getting involved in Bible study, starting a new ministry, etc.) will land them a guy. But the truth is that any time God is only the means and not the end of the equation, no true growth will happen, or at least no lasting growth will happen.
One Flesh: True Romance is Found in a Life of Mutual Service to God and Each Other
The only way that Christian individuals (both men and women) can know true Christian Romance is through an equal partnership that is dedicated, first, to serving Christ and, second, to living out this service in their relationships with others.
If each individual is concerned primarily with producing character traits modeled on the fruits of the Spirit (Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control), then he or she will already be producing an atmosphere of romance. Spouses will lovingly do dishes, joyfully light candles, patiently listen to each other talk, kindly compliment a new haircut, faithfully accompany each other on a walk, etc.
In this mutual walk toward Christ, gender roles disappear altogether. For, in fact, the true picture of Christianity to which we look is one where all such worldly constructs are gone, and there are neither male nor female, slave nor master…
Not All Romance Self-Help Books Are Blasphemous… (I Guess)
If your a Christian, you probably know what your “love language” is (along with your “spiritual gifts,” “Myers Briggs,” and “strengths finder” results, of course). I say this in a slightly sarcastic way because, for the most part, the love language test, along with all other such tests, is not incredibly helpful; people often put too much stock in these tests and use the results to put labels on themselves and others, or people decide the tests are complete “psychobabble,” which they will have nothing to do with. But even amid all of the misuse and ineffectiveness, such tests and the terms they produce are not without at least one benefit: establishing a baseline.
Even if this baseline is no more than a transient reading of “how I feel” or “who I am,” at a certain time and under certain circumstances, it can give couples (and individuals) a starting point for what issues need to be dealt with currently. That is, it helps give these issues a name, so that instead of saying “I feel like you don’t love me,” one can say “verbal affirmation rather than gift giving makes me feel loved,” etc.
Of course, there is no need to limit oneself to these terms alone. Instead, you might be able to have interchanges like this: “I really like it when you plan something ahead of time” or “I really like it when we do stuff that is spontaneous.” Once spouses are aware of how to put Christ’s love into action in a practical, personalized, and effective way, things will go smoother, and one surprise coffee drink will inspire a foot rub, which will inspire a surprise lunch visit, etc.
Overall, the important thing is that the issue at hand is not “gender-based needs” but “individual-based needs,” which are communicated truthfully and fulfilled joyfully. When couples practice love this way, things can become much less complicated and much more balanced, allowing both individuals to lead and follow each other in a life of service to God.