Children at Stockholm’s Nicolaigarden preschool, which avoids gender stereotypes (Casper Hedberg / The New York Times / Redux)
In certain schools in Stockholm, teachers try not to use terms like “boys” or “girls.” In an effort to reach a greater level of gender equality, the country of Sweden is pushing for gender neutrality. Pronouns like “he and she” are replaced with “hen,” and children’s books have protagonists who are not clearly male or female.
Jeff Coulter, a resident of Sweden who assists churches, gave me some fascinating insight into how this plays out in other settings:
We moved here when my wife was seven months pregnant. It was intriguing that there was no real interest from the doctors in what sex the baby would be (we already knew from an ultrasound in the US). When our daughter was born the doctors paid no attention at all what gender was. I asked a few minutes after she was born just to make sure the ultrasound was correct. Also, my wife and I have noticed that baby clothes here are much more gender neutral. You would be hard pressed to dress your baby girl in all pink, something that seems to be very easy in America.
TIME Looks into Sweden’s Social Experiment
TIME reported on this new development in “Boys Won’t Be Boys,” an interesting article that gives an inside look into Sweden’s fight to “eradicate gender discrimination” and create “a society in which gender doesn’t matter.” The writer, Lisa Abend, describes the atmosphere in a Scandinavian school:
The cozy library is carefully calibrated to contain the same number of books with female protagonists as those with male ones. Boys and girls alike twirl silken scarves during dance class, and they have equal access to pirate and princess costumes…
How did educators convince parents to get on board with this kind of experiment?
“Once we made the decision to improve this, it wasn’t hard to convince the parents,” says Rajalin (educator). “I simply did this.” She walks over to the whiteboard and draws a circle, then divides it in half. “On the right side are the things for girls” – she draws several lines inside the semicircle – “and on this are the things for boys. And then I asked, ‘Do you want your child’s life to be a half-circle or a whole one?’”
Is the United States moving in Sweden’s direction? A professor at the University of Washington thinks so:
“For the rest of the West, Sweden is laying the groundwork… They’re sort of postgender now and are focusing more on humanism, on what – as humans – is going to bring us all closer to equal rights. Sweden is our future.”
The TIME article seems conflicted about gender neutrality. The subtitle of the article calls it a “noble experiment” but also claims it is “political correctness gone overboard.” Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the article is the description of feminism as a “state religion.”
Writer Lisa Abend quotes from people who believe the push for equality is actually “erasure” of gender distinctiveness altogether. An engineer is quoted, mourning the loss of any public discourse about the issue because of public intimidation and attempts to suppress even the mildest antifeminist expression.
How Should Christians Respond?
If Sweden is our future, then we are in trouble. The idea of humanity as completely neutral in terms of gender is foreign to a Scriptural understanding of who we are. Human beings bear God’s image, and God made us male and female. He didn’t make us merely human. He made us gendered beings.
What’s at stake in this discussion? Human flourishing. We don’t flourish when we suppress or ignore gender distinctives. Such an existence creates a flatter, duller society. Instead, we flourish when we embrace our maleness or femaleness as God’s gift to us – intended for our joy and His glory. The differences between men and women aren’t obstacles to overcome; they’re glorious and beautiful.
We should not seek to be “gender-blind,” just as we shouldn’t seek to be “colorblind.” One does not end racism by painting everyone the same color so that we no longer see any racial or ethnic distinctiveness. Neither does one create gender equality by pretending there is no inherent difference between the sexes. The failure of such a system is already evident in the fact people have resorted to social pressure and legislative attempts to keep others in line with this thinking.
Complementarian and Egalitarian Unity
Complementarian Christians in the West believe there is a difference between gender equality (men and women are of equal worth and value before God) and gender roles (men and women have unique roles). For a feminist, the idea that men and women should perform different functions in the home, the church, or society is tantamount to sex discrimination. Gender roles are something we should seek to avoid or escape, never embrace.
Egalitarian Christians in the West generally affirm uniqueness of male and female and a distinctiveness in their roles. They disagree with complementarians as to how this distinctiveness plays out in church leadership and (sometimes) home life.
Still, in looking at the Swedish experiment, I believe complementarians and egalitarians should be able to lock arms and say, We believe gender is a gift of God. We believe God made us male and female and not gender-neutral “humans,” and that equality does not erase gender distinctives.
Mission in a Post-Gender World
Our Christian calling is not merely to decry the sinfulness of a culture, but to declare the Savior of the world. That’s why I asked two church planters in Sweden to comment on the TIME article and to give some insight into how one ministers in this kind of society. Pastor Phil Whittall had this to say:
Gender equality and indeed neutrality is a huge deal in Sweden, but some nuance is also needed. Yes, there are schools that use ‘hen,’ but it is a very small number right now. It’s certainly not the case for every preschool.
On a personal level, at the pre-school our children attend, gender raises itself in a number of ways. There is a policy of opposite reinforcement – so a boy will receive praise for choosing traditionally female activities – cooking, dolls etc. and girls will receive praise for climbing a tree or playing football. No praise is given for the opposite. So no praise for girls choosing dolls or boys choosing football.
A woman in our church plant is training to work in pre-schools and was marked down in coursework for writing that she believed men and women are different. The general policy is that that the genders are the same and biology is essentially irrelevant.
Parents of pre-school children are encouraged to think about how they talk and act in regards to sons and daughters to break down prejudices.
Feminism as the state religion is probably not all that off the mark although gender activists here still find plenty of things to campaign on.
How does one engage in ministry in this environment? Phil mentioned four things:
1. Our Attitude. We don’t want to decry everything about feminism or gender equality in many areas of society, not all the changes are bad ones. We seek to affirm what can be affirmed and to encourage what can be encouraged. Nuance isn’t easy but otherwise we’re too easy to pigeonhole and label.
2. Ask Questions. Do people really believe there are no differences? What would that mean if they did? What would we lose? What would we gain? Most people aren’t engaging with the issues but are just being swept along by the cultural tide.
3. Think through the theology of the body. This relates not just to gender but to sexuality. Sweden is a very liberal place in its approach. For example, the bishop of Stockholm in the Lutheran church is a lesbian in a partnership with a son.
4. Don’t Be Unnecessarily Gendered. There’s no sense in creating obstacles where they aren’t necessary. Just because we believe elders should be male doesn’t mean the discussion should only be had by males, for example. We can encourage women in other forms of leadership.
Jeff Coulter echoed these thoughts:
We also need to be good listeners. After spending four months in swedish language school, I have learned a lot about the culture, not just the language. Asking good questions is vital, but listening to their answers is key to knowing how to show people their need of a Savior. Ultimately the world is without hope, that’s why we are still here to declare the good news of the Gospel.
thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2013/12/16/no-more-gender-a-look-into-swedens-social-experiment/. Used by permission of the author and Gospel Coalition.