A Masculine vs. Feminine Approach to Sin

A Masculine vs. Feminine Approach to Sin

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Holiness deals with the human predicament of sinfulness. Entire sanctification offers hope to be delivered from willful sin in order to lead a life of obedience and love, as a complete and whole human being. We won’t enter the debate here about biology and culture, but merely observe that for many women, the predicament of sinfulness appears different than for men. And since most of the writing and preaching on sin and holiness has been from a masculine perspective, a broader approach in this chapter—one that includes the woman’s experience—should be helpful. Women are not naturally more holy than men, but their temptations differ from those of men. Women sin too. Women are not naturally more holy than men, but their temptations often differ from those of men. This chapter describes how entire sanctification works out in the lives of many women differently than men.

But it would be ridiculous to make too much of these distinctions. We should remember that there is plenty of overlap between the genders, and the cultural roles of women and men are changing. So what is said here will also apply to some males and it will likewise make no sense at all to some women. And we don’t want to pour any more guilt on women—we already have had enough of that. However, if the holiness message offers a route to overcoming sin and living in obedience, what does that look like for many women?

A Masculine Approach

The first major questioning of gender differences in the human sinful predicament was raised by Valerie Saiving in 1960. Ever since, theologians and holiness scholars have pondered how a woman might experience victory over sin differently than a man—though much of this thinking has not filtered out in practical writing for ordinary women to read. For generations sinfulness has been defined mostly by males (as it has been so far in this book), and thus descriptions of the sanctified life tilt toward the male experience. Sinfulness has been usually defined as selfishness, self-assertion, the will-to-power, pride, exploitation, and treating people as objects instead of persons. Love (the opposite of sin) has therefore been defined as selflessness and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. This male oriented view of sin has so dominated Christian preaching and teaching that sanctification is almost invariably presented as surrendering self, sacrificing ego, crucifying the desire for power, and mortifying personal pride. The sanctified life is thus seen as dedicating oneself to the interest of others, being gentler, submissive, and even passive. But this approach presents a problem for women.

A Feminine Approach

For a variety of reasons, cultural and biological, many women tend to already live a life oriented to others. When women hear the usual-suspect list of sins, they get a free pass. They’re being totally honest when they say they have always been this way. A call to surrender self and serve others, for many women, is to call them to do the very thing they are already doing and perhaps have done too much. Some women have so negated themselves and merged their lives into others that they hardly have a self. Many women have such low esteem that their self is nowhere available to surrender. Susan Nelson Dunfee described this as the “sin of hiding,” which is opposite to the sin of pride and its antidote of self-sacrifice. Thus when women respond to the average male initiated call to sanctification, we presume we must already be sanctified, since we always have lived above these sorts of sins. Yet women face sinfulness just like men—our challenge is just somewhat different.

So what’s the challenge for many women in hearing the message of holiness? It’s often in gaining a full self to surrender and taking full responsibility as a self. Many women have negated self so much that we no longer have a self to surrender to God. The primary meaning many of us find is in identification with the lives of others. When the husband or children are joyful, sad, or pensive, we feel likewise, taking on the feelings of others, instead of being a self that is related to God apart from these relationships. Women are not inherently more “good” than males. Women are just as sinful, but in different ways. Valerie Saiving provided a valid list of the sins women are tempted toward: sins of distraction, diffuseness, triviality, sentimentality, avoiding responsibility, mistrusting reason, lacking centeredness, disrespect of boundaries, and passivity. These temptations seem trivial to males (and may even appear to males as virtues). But for women, they’re sins just as much as lust, rage, and power-seeking. Women can be tempted to find their identity completely in others instead of God and are tempted to give their entire selves to others, leaving no self left to surrender to God. Some cannot love others as they do themselves, for they have no self to love.

Tragically, this makes writing and speaking on holiness a tricky thing for males who are often our pastors. Males preach total self-abdication as the goal of consecration, while for many women it may be their major temptation—pouring out their lives for others instead of for God. Yet the experience of holiness is for women too, and women have sins to crucify just like men.

Wesleyan Publishing House © 2009. Used by permission. Get the book here. Get the ebook here.


5 Responses

  1. This excerpt hits the proverbial nail on the head. After I quit working to stay at home, one of my biggest fears was that I would ‘lose myself” and I did. I became the hinge on which everybody else was enabled to have a life. I started digging myself out of that hole when I started attending Weight Watchers to strip off the weight I had put on. That became my experience in “loving myself”. Self sacrifice should never entail the complete loss of who the person is. And my experience with the church is that is exactly how Christianity is portrayed; which is not in step with how Wesley perceived Christianity.

  2. word! this is something i pondered and wrote about. surrender is the the turn-key in sanctification; but i have wondered – what is it exactly that we surrender: just acts or our total self? Over the years I realised as the LORD heals me that so much of my self was dependent on others and wounded, distorted because of that. it is that self God asks me to surrender; and I had to see it first. then God begins to give me my true self back slowly but surely. i finally found the framework to understand this as i read the classics..and wrote about in my book Shed Those Leaves. Now i hope to help men and women learn to offer grace to help each other grow; and to work together better. Do you have resources to point out to me please? Thank you Sharon for this brave post!

  3. I would love a fuller discussion of the “feminine sins” that are mentioned above. Yes, I understand that surrendering our selves to others instead of to God is a very common plight/sin for the female gender. How to redirect our surrender to GOD while also staying in relationship with our tossed-about husbands? Also, would love to hear more description of Valerie Saiving’s list: distraction, diffuseness, etc. For example, in addition to gender, I often think about personality types. “Easily distracted” is often a Meyers-Briggs’ P trait. But “flexible” and even “flowing in the Spirit” is another way to describe the same thing. So, gender or personality; sin or sanctity? Similarly, sentimentality: with lots of attention on Emotional Intelligence these days, we could talk for awhile about discerning between emotional intelligence and emotional enslavement and how that plays out.

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