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Moving beyond gender stereotypes: An interview with Larry Crabb

Christian author and psychologist Larry Crabb wades into the gender debate in his newest book.
Christian author and psychologist Larry Crabb wades into the gender debate in his newest book.

Christian author and psychologist Larry Crabb wades into the gender debate in his newest book.

If I compiled a list of words that came to mind when I hear Larry Crabb’s name, I doubt “controversial” would make the list. As a psychologist, Bible teacher, and bestselling author of such books as Inside Out and Shattered Dreams, Crabb bas become known for practical advice for living the Christian life. But with his new book, Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender that Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes, Crabb has waded chest-deep into a contentious conversation about gender that has been raging among Christians. Here we talk about what the Bible says about gender, his view of femininity, and women in church leadership.

JM: Larry, when it comes to gender, you’ve noted that “our culture is really screwed up.” Where are you seeing that today that leads you to say that?

LC: One of the ways, for women in particular, is that we have badly misdefined the word “beauty.” I keep a pencil sketch of Mother Teresa in my hallway to remind me of what the Scriptures talk about as the unfading beauty of a certain way of relating. I think that we have created an idea that for women to be beautiful requires all the obvious external things. I think that’s a terrible idea. I’m happy that my wife happens to be a very attractive woman, but her deepest beauty is not contained there. So that’s one example of how our culture is screwed up for women in particular.

I think we’re also screwed up in terms of defining men as masculine depending on the size of their ____, the size of their income, and the authority they have in their jobs. Those are terrible definitions of masculinity.

JM: Can you say something about the two extremes you’ve recognized, both in terms of gender flexibility and gender rigidity?

LC: I think the way our culture has overdone flexibility is, to some degree, a reaction to a lot of Christians who have overdone rigidity! I think this is because we’ve gotten so concerned that men are defined by cultural roles that women have no part in, and women are defined by cultural roles that men have no part in. That kind of rigidity is a terrible mistake as well.

I was raised in a conservative background. I heard maybe 20 or 30 sermons growing up on the role of women, but I never heard a sermon on the role of men. That made me very glad I was a guy, because I had no roles I had to worry about! And I think that’s a real tragedy. Rather than defining ourselves as male or female, masculine and feminine, by virtue of our roles, I want to define it in terms of our God-given opportunities, which changes the whole question.

JM: Going into this project, you were interested in studying what God had to say about what it means to be male or female. What were some of the key biblical texts or themes that emerged? Any surprises?

LC: There were a fair number of surprises. I think I had to come to grips with the fact that I had very little understanding of masculinity and femininity and that I was as prone to culturally-defined stereotypes as anybody.

When I first got married 47 years ago, before the wedding my dad said to me, “Larry, I think you want to ease up on this idea of submission. You’re turning your future wife into an object as opposed to a partner.” That was telling for me.

When I decided that I needed to think about God’s view on the matter, I went back to the obvious passage in Genesis 1, and I discerned a couple of things that are important. First, in all the creative activities of God until verse 26, the formula is, “And God said, ‘Let there be…’ and there was.” But then when he made human beings, male and female, he referred to himself as us. “Let us make people.” I think this hints at the Trinity, and then the rest of the Scriptures make it clear that God is a relational God who relates through community. And I believe what God is saying is “I want to make males and females who are going to reveal the way that we relate among ourselves as the Trinity, because everything I do, I do for my glory. Everything I do, I do to reveal what I’m like. I want to make a woman, make a female, to reveal something about the way I relate, that is as completely as valuable as what a man’s going to reveal, but is different.”

Women are wired to reveal one aspect of how God relates, and a man is wired to reveal another in the way that he’s wired. Put them both together, and we have a much better image of who God is.

JM: You say that a woman is most feminine to the degree that she relates to others in a way that reveals something wonderful about God that no man can as fully reveal. Can you give some examples of these unique opportunities for women?

LC: My view based mostly on a word study. The word for “female” in Hebrew is nekebah. It literally means, “one who is open to receive.” And then when our Lord refers to that passage in Mark chapter 10, the Greek word for “female” Jesus uses is “θῆλυ” (Mark 10:6), which literally means “the breast.” It means “one who is supplying to nourish.” I think this suggests that a woman is feminine, and she reveals the beauty of a relational God when she reveals that God is open to receive people like me! God is open to invite us into relationship, even though we don’t deserve it. And when a woman is willing to be open—in a relationship, with her husband, with her kids or with her friends—to receive, honor, respect, and nourish anything that comes, that is the beauty of femininity.

My wife and I had our 47th anniversary recently, and I believe that my wife reveals something of the invitational nature of God. In our relationship, whenever I move in poor ways, when I feel inadequate and weak and back away from things, my wife doesn’t lose a vision for me. Instead, she communicates to me how differently she knows I could behave and how I could handle things. That calls forth my masculinity and I know that when I do move in appropriate ways, she’s going to be very supportive, very receptive, very encouraging about it and that means the world to me.

JM: And the converse for men. Can you give some examples of these unique opportunities ore men?

LC: This also comes from a word study. The Hebrew word for “male” satar. According to scholars that I consulted with, this literally means, “one who remembers and moves.” You have illustrations, in the Old Testament particularly, of God being one who remembers and moves. He remembers the Israelites who were in captivity and were groaning in Exodus 2:24. And because he remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he moved into their situation.

I believe it’s my opportunity as a man–whenever things are difficult in my family, with my kids or grandkids, with my wife, with my friends or finances, whatever the case might be–to remember the story that God is telling, that is always being told. Nothing that happens in this world stops God’s story, so I try to remember the story that God is telling and move in a way that advances that story. A relationship with my wife, kids, friends, whomever, to the degree to which I exercise that opportunity, to move in a way that advances God’s purposes, that’s when I come alive as a man, and that’s when my wife begins to celebrate the fact that she’s married to one.

JM: Do you consider yourself a complementarian, egalitarian, or something else?

LC: When the idea for this book first entered my mind and I talked to the publisher, we had a marvelous conversation where one of the fellows said to me, “What you’re talking about is writing a book that doesn’t come down strongly on egalitarianism or complementarianism, but asks a far more important question as a preliminary to deciding which you are. It asks the question, ‘What does it mean to glorify God, by revealing the nature of God in your relational style?’” That question doesn’t lead one to be either egalitarian or complementarian but it does lead me toward recognizing that the opportunities for a woman are not limited, other than by her relational style. And the opportunities for a man are not limited, other than by his relational style.

This applies, for example, to when a woman assumes the pulpit. I go to a church where the pastor is a woman, and I would not want to go to that church if the woman did not come across in a relationally feminine way from the pulpit. And she does. And I wouldn’t want to go to a church with a male preacher if he came across bombastic and controlling and demanded out of his insecurity that we all think he’s terrific. In that case, I don’t think he’s seizing his opportunity to be a man in the pulpit.

Because of my understandings of the opportunities of male and female, I would probably lean more to the egalitarian side. But I really don’t want that to be the major topic of conversation, and that’s not why I wrote the book. Instead, let’s talk about relational femininity and relational masculinity, which is of equal value in the sight of God. Let’s talk about the opportunities to express whatever gifting one has, whatever talents one has, whatever opportunities comes along that can be seized in a relationally feminine or relationally masculine way.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.