I’ve taken it on the chin more than once when I’ve opined that chivalry is bunk. Some people respond that they like chivalry because it’s a reminder of good manners, some say it’s good for “gentlemen” to treat “ladies” well, and others insist that chivalry is biblical.
I call bunk on all three.
To caution against chivalry is not the same as tossing good manners aside. I hold the door for people – women and men – at almost every opportunity, and the times I don’t are usually when they’re holding the door for me. That’s good manners right there, so there’s no need to play the chivalry card.
For those who are into the ladies-and-gentlemen motif, the truth is that there’s no need to treat women like “ladies”. There is, on the other hand, every reason to treat one another with love in the name of Jesus. So let’s not cloud the issue by deciding what’s gentlemanly and what’s ladylike. Let’s instead focus on Jesus and what it means to be women and men who belong to him.
And for those who say that chivalry is a system based on Scripture, I have news. No it’s not. It’s based on customs in feudal palaces which included knights trying to get women to choose them over their fellows by coming up with the best love poetry and bashing other knights in feats of strength. (I simplify, but you get the picture.) The Church coopted the chivalric customs to include piety and chastity, but those were not the main aims at the beginning.
Calling Out Chivalry
One of the best of P.G. Wodehouse’s characters is Joan Valentine. In Something Fresh she and Ashe Marson finds themselves rivals in trying to recover an inadvertently purloined artifact – an Egyptian scarab of the Fourth Dynasty. The rightful owner has offered a princely sum for its return and Joan and Ashe are two people who need the cash desperately. It’s that desperation that drives them onward in the face of an opponent intent on keeping the scarab safe from any counter-purloiners.
So Joan and Ashe decide to work in partnership. Ashe’s idea of the partnership, though, is that he will take on the risk-filled recovery duties while Joan doesn’t. Joan has news for Ashe.
It won’t do, Mr. Marson. You remind me of an old cat I once had. Whenever he killed a mouse, he would bring it into the drawing-room and lay it affectionately at my fee. I would reject the corpse with horror and turn him out, but back he would come with his loathsome gift. I simply couldn’t make him understand that he was not doing me a kindness. He thought highly of his mouse, and it was beyond him to realize that I did not want it. You are just the same with your chivalry. It’s very kind of you to keep offering me your dead mouse, but, honestly, I have no use for it. I won’t take favors just because I happen to be a female. If we are going to form this partnership, I insist on doing my fair share of the work, and running my fair share of the risks.
As Joan Valentine pointed out, chivalry is a corpse, a dead mouse laid at the feet of someone who not only doesn’t want it but doesn’t need it.
I also see chivalry as a dead and empty set of rules that get in the way of doing what Jesus told us is important. But to understand how chivalry gets in the way we first need to understand that rules and codes of conduct are not at all godly:
These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23.)
Regulations of conduct may appear wise, but as Paul said “they lack any value.”
The other problem with chivalry is it puts men and women into different categories that the Bible tells us just don’t exist. Chivalry as thought of in modern times – and as noted in that Wodehouse scene above – is based on the notion that women and men are fundamentally different. This is a dangerous way for us to act, because when we order our lives around this in a worldly sense it can interfere with proper conduct in alignment with the much more important spiritual reality.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28.)
Men and women are not fundamentally different in any sense that matters in eternity. And this brings us to the basic problem with acting according to wrongheaded notions of chivalry.
It gets in the way of how Jesus told us to treat one another:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12.)
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31.)
It’s not about men always holding the door for a woman, or holding her chair, or carrying her packages, or picking up the dinner tab rather than suffer the supposed shame of a woman paying for your meal, or whatever notions of what it means to be chivalrous one might have.
It’s about treating people well, with love and consideration for what they need. And it’s about people, not about men stepping in to do things for women as if there were rules we had to follow. No, it’s about women and men doing things for each other out of a loving response to what Jesus taught us.
You want to hold the door for someone? Go right ahead. But don’t tell me it’s because you’re a man and she’s a woman. Do it because you are a child of God and you care for the people – men and women both – that he puts in your life each day.
That’s better than a dead mouse any day.