Christian Conferences and the Danger of a Single Story

It’s Christian conference season in Perth. The marketing of a particular pair of men’s and women’s conferences caught my eye because of the strong gender stereotypes portrayed. The promotional material for the women’s event is a soft, fuzzy blue and pink. It’s titled “The Essential Wardrobe: Clothed With Love” and the conference speakers traced the theme of clothing throughout the Bible. For the men’s conference, the brochure image is of cloudy orange flames, with a couple of firefighters in silhouette at the front. The theme is “Men of Courage: True Grit from the Book of Jeremiah”. And then it struck me: it wasn’t just the unsophisticated stereotypes that bothered me. It was that if anything, these two conferences offered the opposite of what the past year has shown us is needed at this time.

The #MeToo and #ChurchToo phenomena have highlighted the differences in men’s and women’s experiences of everyday life. For women, simply going about their everyday lives means facing challenges and, in sadly far too many cases, dangers and abuse that most men will never experience. Some men get it. A male friend shared recently how a series of small incidents at work opened his eyes to the fact that women walk through the world in fear that he has never experienced, leading him to take small and conscious steps to help his female colleagues to feel safe. For women, an ordinary act like walking home from the train in the evening (which men might take for granted as something quite safe to do) takes courage. To progress in our careers, we may face numerous unspoken and unacknowledged roadblocks that are unique to women. To follow God’s calling on our lives and to serve Him with the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us, we may face rejection, put-downs and other roadblocks as a result of our gender. And that’s before we even consider the balance between work, ministry and family which tends to impact women more greatly.

What a valuable move it would be for a Christian women’s conference to focus on reminding us that God calls us to live courageous lives, because when we walk through the waters or through the flames, He will be with us (Isa 43:2) – a calling to courage in the ordinary or the extraordinary…in whatever we are called to in our current season of life. How encouraging it would be to explore how the Bible’s women shattered stereotypes as they stepped into God’s calling for their lives, and how Christian women are walking in their footsteps today.

And men? Well, after a year characterised by #MeToo, a prominent world leader who is renowned for treating women as sexual trophies and relentless evidence of men’s role in perpetrating domestic and family violence, it seems evident to me that at this time that we don’t need men to aspire to more male bravado. Instead, we need men to commit to lives characterised by more listening, more commitment to living ethically, more respect for others and more genuinely selfless love. We need men to radically re-envision what masculinity looks like in ways that give up power for sacrificial service. We need a masculinity that embraces the journey of learning that arises from failure, rather than constantly striving to win. We need a masculinity that grounds itself in gentleness, humility and compassion rather than domination.

I recently came across a TED talk by Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about “the danger of a single story.” This danger is true of how we view other cultures, but it is equally true of how we talk about masculinity and femininity in Christian contexts. This is perhaps less evident in Australia (with some localised exceptions) than in the USA, but we should nevertheless remain cautious about the risk of reducing both men and women to a set of stereotypes that tell a single story:

  • Men: Leaders, courageous, strong, decisive.
  • Women: Helpers, gentle, nurturing, accepting.

In the promotional materials for these conferences, my impression was that these single stories about each gender were at the very least the underlying assumption, if not the direct teaching that would take place.

I observed this effect of a single story in an older woman’s response on one occasion when I was teaching about the meaning of a key phrase in Proverbs 31. Eshet chayil is usually translated “a wife of noble character,” “a virtuous and capable wife,” “an excellent wife,” “a virtuous woman,” or “a worthy woman.” These are all positive character traits, but a closer look at the word chayil shows that despite it being a common word in the Old Testament, it is only in the 3 instances where it is applied to women that translators have considered it to be about sexual purity or industriousness in the home. Chayil is a military term mostly applied to warriors, connoting strength and courage. Some translations and commentators suggest that “a valiant woman” or “a woman of valour” is a more accurate translation.

The older woman in the group was greatly affronted by this idea. “As women, we are called to have a gentle and humble spirit,” she explained. She could not see that making space for women to be courageous did not negate the value of gentleness and humility – it’s not an either/or prospect. She had been so strongly encultured in a single story about what it means to be a Christian woman that the Bible’s teaching on this verse was something she absolutely could not accept. And yet to embrace a truly biblical vision for womanhood means that women are not merely valued for their motherhood, for homemaking and quiet, gentle virtues. Instead, we should also embrace the example of Bible women who risked their lives for others (Priscilla, Abigail), who held leadership roles in the church or in the religious or political life of Israel (Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia and others), who worked to overturn unjust laws or defied the authorities (the daughters of Zelophehad, Shiphrah and Puah), who fought against oppressors (Deborah, Jael, the woman of Shechem), who financially supported Jesus (Joanna, Mary Magdalene, Suzanna and others) and who proclaimed and taught the gospel message (the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary Magdalene and others).

Let’s tell rich stories, nuanced stories, many and varied stories about what it means to be a Christian man or woman in this world. Let’s not give in to the temptation to tell a single story, but embrace all that God is doing in the lives of believers in many different circumstances and roles. And, whether you’re a man or a woman, let’s live courageously, gently, humbly, sacrificially and with whole-hearted commitment to Jesus Christ, wherever He leads us.

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14 thoughts on “Christian Conferences and the Danger of a Single Story

  1. Hi Bronwen

    As a male it is about being humble and not using our power to gain anything but to look at how Jesus conducted himself when women came into his life. Some great examples and the first one comes to mind is the story of the women who poured expensive perfume on Jesus feet and Jesus reacted to this.

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    1. You’re quite right – that’s what it should be. But the prevalence of men using their power against women in so many ways suggests that both our culture and our churches are not adequately communicating that message.

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      1. I think there needs to be a better narrative around men in the Christian books that are stocked in our bookstores, in small group materials, in how men’s ministry is done in the local church, in the messages that are preached in our churches, etc. And most importantly, the focus needs to be on conforming to Christ’s example and to core Christian virtues (e.g. fruit of the spirit – which of course includes gentleness, kindness, etc.), rather than on reworking the message to create a new kind of Christianity that is supposed to appeal to men by being tough and blokey. I’m sure this is just scraping the surface! Carolyn Custis James’s Malestrom is a worthwhile read on this subject.

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  2. Absolutely right, Bronwen. I am so tired of the advertisements for women’s conferences being all princessy. They’re not the kind I get asked to speak at, mind you. There are increasing amounts of women looking for conferences that incite courage and strength. Good on you.

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