Are Women Space Aliens? And Other Important Questions
Perhaps you may remember a book that came out in the early nineties called Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, by a secular therapist named John Gray. Gray opened his book with a fictional “origin story” where he asked his audience to imagine that men came from Mars and women came from Venus, but fell in love and decided to live together on Earth. Gray wrote that, like two species from two different planets, men and women are different all the way down, and as long as they can remember that fact members of the opposite sex can have mutually rewarding relationships. The idea obviously struck a chord because Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus went on to become a huge hit, selling more than fifty million copies and being translated into fifty different languages.
Gray’s book resonated for a lot of people because it played into a concept of sexuality that comes very naturally for humans. We like to focus on and exaggerate the differences between ourselves and others instead of dwelling on what we have in common. Without the light of Biblical revelation to tell us about our true origins, we would probably all look at the idiosyncrasies of the opposite sex and come to the same conclusion as Gray: “Yup. They’re space aliens.”
The idea that men and women have very different—even opposite—natures is one that is not only intuitive, it has also been reinforced by centuries and centuries of human tradition. In her new book Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church and Society, author Rachel Green Miller explains that, even when we want to be committed to Biblical truth, traditional human wisdom has a way of sneaking up on us. Beyond Authority and Submission takes its readers through history to peel back the layers of conventional wisdom that have informed the evangelical world’s ideas about what it means to be male or female.
Miller begins with a survey of Greco-Roman thought on gender roles. Although the Greeks and Romans didn’t think that women were from outer space, they did think that women had a very different nature from men—in this case, a decidedly inferior one. They looked at women’s weaker, smaller, and different bodies and concluded that women must also have a weaker inner nature. For the Greeks and the Romans, the belief that people were born with an inferior or superior nature was a very important component of political philosophy, because nature was what determined who should rule, and who should be ruled. This all began with establishing “separate spheres” for men and women. Miller explains:
The philosopher Aristotle, in particular, advanced the theory of the oikos, the private domestic sphere, and the polis, the public sphere. The two spheres were both separate and unequal. Women, due to their weakness and inferiority, were best suited to the domestic sphere of the home. Men, in contrast had the necessary strength and superiority to rule the world outside the home. (p38)
How did Aristotle’s concept of oikos and polis end up informing modern sensibilities—including Christian ones—about the nature of men and women? Miller explains that the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of Greek and Roman philosophy, bridged the gap between the ancient world and one that is closer to home for us: the world of the Victorians.
The Victorians borrowed the Greek and Roman idea of separate spheres for men and women, but they made some adjustments. While Aristotle and his contemporaries believed that people with superior natures should work for the common good, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory introduced a “survival of the fittest” mentality in which self-interest and even brutality were held up as evolutionary ideals. However, values like compassion, humility and selflessness couldn’t just be thrown out the window, and that’s where “women’s work” took on another dimension. Have you ever heard people say that women’s influence makes men “civilized”? The Victorian era is where this idea started:
… the Greeks and the Romans believed that men were morally superior to women. But the Victorians turned this upside down. Being morally superior might keep men from being ambitious, assertive and powerful. So women were giving a new responsibility: upholding the virtue of society. (p51)
As Miller’s book shows, there was a certain “equality” between men and women that emerged in Victorianism, but it was an equality that was conditional on men and women staying in their separate spheres, carrying out different tasks that were suited to their opposite natures. In other words, women were equal in value with men, but this equality was something that women “earned” by behaving differently than men, rather than something that came from women being created in the same Imago Dei as men.
Today, conservative Christians do not typically think of women as inferior to men, but we do have a tendency to revert to the traditional idea that men and women are polar opposites. Miller writes,
Many complementarians describe women in contrast to men. There’s a parallel set of roles for women and a mirror image definition of femininity. If men are strong and brave leaders, initiators, providers, and protectors, women are soft and submissive helpers, mothers, and keepers of the home. (p83)
As Beyond Authority and Submission draws out, this “oppositeness” between male and female is often seen as what determines who should have authority and who should be under authority:
For many conservative Christians, the counterparts to masculine initiative and authority are feminine responsiveness and submission, characteristics that define womanhood. Women submit because they are women. (p86)
Just as it did in the Greco-Roman and Victorian worlds, this idea sounds plausible at first, but when we hold it up to the rest of the Bible, we begin to hit snags. We all—men and women—are called upon to operate in relationships where we may be under authority, or in authority. As Miller writes in her first chapter, both authority and submission are human characteristics that belong to both men and women:
The key to a biblical understanding of authority and submission is that we are humans, male and female, made in the image of God. In Genesis 1, at the very beginning, God made us and gave us authority over the rest of creation. God commanded us to rule over “every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). This authority is part of the very nature of humanity, and it’s a good thing when used appropriately. (p13)
Every person, every created being, ultimately owes submission to God. We often rebel against this truth, but creator/creature distinction is at the heart of submission. He is God and is the creator. We are created and are not God (Rom. 1:18-25). This contrast is essential for us to grasp the nature of submission. Submission is a human characteristic. It’s part of our human nature. (p13-14)
The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 that there is a difference between male and female - but we should pay close attention to what that difference is:
For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.
The paradox of human sexuality is that the very thing that distinguishes male from female also establishes our fundamentally common human nature. Adam was not born on “Planet Authority” and Eve on “Planet Submission.” In fact, Eve came from a source that could not possibly be any closer—she came from Man himself. As Miller writes,
… unity is what Adam emphasized when he first saw Eve: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23a). You may wonder, didn’t Adam notice the physical differences between himself and Eve? I’m sure he did, but that's not what he dwelt on. He was struck by what united them. (p26)