Engage | The Good Difference: Men, Women, and Contemporary Gender Confusion
The beauty of the Genesis narrative is found in the harmony of its simplicity and its explanatory power. Through the pen of Moses, God reveals with straightforward prose the origin of man and woman, providing us with insight into one of the most glorious realities in the universe. Genesis 1:27 gives us a general description of the event: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them. Male and female He created them.” Genesis 2:7-25 fills in the details: Adam was created first, placed in the garden, and given instructions on how to conduct his calling as God’s vice-regent.
In order to help Adam to appreciate his need for a companion, however, God brought to the man all the animals He had previously created. But the text tells us that after Adam named these animals, “there was not found a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:20). So God put Adam to sleep, took a rib from his body, and formed his perfect counterpart: a woman. Adam responds with delight: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23).
Woman: Like Man and Unlike Man
Adam’s joy was grounded in two profound realities. First, the woman was like him because she was created in God’s image. Unlike the animals, the woman shared the man’s nature and essence: in her womanhood she reflected her Creator who had given her the responsibility to exercise dominion over the earth. But Adam’s joy was also rooted in the reality that the woman was not like him. She was a woman and not a man: “She shall be called ishah (woman) because she was taken from ish (man)” (Gen 2:23). Adam rejoiced because he beheld in Eve both sameness and difference. She was an image-bearer, but she was also a woman.
God intends this text to emphasize both of these vital truths. Genesis 1:27 makes it clear that the man and woman share the same nature as God’s image bearers. Yet, the narrative also draws our attention to the differences between the man and the woman. First, the way the man and the woman are brought into existence is distinct. Adam is created first, signaling that he will bear the role of leadership (see 1 Tim 2:13-14). Second, the man is taken from the ground (Gen 2:7), while the woman is taken from the man (Gen 2:22). Again, this feature of the narrative indicates that the man will serve his wife as leader (see 1 Cor 11:8-10; cf. Eph 5:22-33), but it also highlights the man and woman’s complementarity. The woman has been taken from man so that she might be joined to the man in marriage and become one flesh with him (Gen 2:24- 25). This rejoining of the man and the woman can only occur because they are sexual counterparts.
Same Nature, Different Roles
God intended that these good differences between the man and the woman would be expressed in the different roles the man and the woman would fulfill, and ultimately result in the fruitfulness of image-multiplication (i.e., child bearing and rearing; see Gen 1:28). But sin would eventually upset the original harmony of creation. After the Fall, both men and women would feel the tug to abandon their God-given roles and despise the complementary nature of their design (see Gen 3:16). The man would be tempted to yield to the extremes of cowardly passivity or cruel domination, while the woman would be enticed to usurp the man’s role as leader. The man and the woman would also endure the curse in their respective roles: the woman in her role as the one who brings forth and cares for new life, and the man in his role to provide for his family (Gen 3:16-19).
But as the story unfolds, Scripture maintains and extolls these good differences established by God in the created order. Throughout the Bible we see men fulfilling their calling to be leaders, protectors, and providers of their families, the nation, and the church. Men are designated as kings, judges, military leaders, and prophets in the Old Testament, and apostles and pastors in the New Testament. Women are blessed with the responsibility to bring forth and care for new life, care for their homes and families, and teach other women to do the same (1 Tim 5:14; Titus 2:3-5).
During the time of the judges, God delivered Israel through the leadership of a courageous woman named Deborah (Judges 4-5), but this was an exception to the pattern of Scripture, not the rule. Also, while there were a number of prophetesses in the Old Testament (Ex 15:20; Judg 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron 34:22; Neh 6:14; Is 8:3; also Luke 2:36), and women prophesied and prayed in the gathered community of the early church (1 Cor 11:4), only men were authors of authoritative Scripture.
Yet, although Scripture places the burden of leadership squarely upon the man, it is also careful to exalt the beauty and goodness of the woman as she fulfills her role. For example, Proverbs 31:10-31, while maintaining the woman’s role as the one who nurtures new life and cares for the home, also tells us that the God-fearing woman is trustworthy (v.11-12), hard-working (v.13-15, 19), competent in business (v.16, 18, 24), physically strong (v.17), generous to the poor (v.20), devoted to the needs of her family (v. 21), sensible to aesthetic beauty (v.22), and full of wisdom and kindness (v.25). Her character endows her inestimable worth (v.10) and a well-deserved reputation (v.23).
The differences between man and woman with respect to our roles existed prior to the Fall and are, through the gospel, being restored for the glory of God and the joy of His people. In Christ, both men and women stand on equal spiritual footing and will receive the same eternal inheritance (Gal 3:28). But in God’s good design, we are different and are thus tasked with different roles.
Contemporary Gender Confusion
Sadly, many in our society view these good differences as little more than the cultural artifacts of a paternalistic era. To emphasize such differences as, by God’s design, something intrinsic to our very personhood is to hold onto tradition for its own sake and ignore the obvious progress of history.
But few anticipated that our turn from these gender differences between men and women would lead to the questioning of gender altogether. What was previously considered fixed by our nature is now a quality assigned (rather than discovered) by doctors at birth. If you are biologically male but “identify” as a female, your “assigned” gender is irrelevant. Now, for the sake of your own happiness you must live according to the gender you choose, not one you have been given.
But can Christians yield to these kinds of claims about gender? And does it even matter? Shouldn’t we agree to disagree about these issues that aren’t directly related to the gospel and salvation?
Why Christians Hold the Line on Gender
While Christians who hold the line on the issue of gender run the risk of ridicule, name-calling, and—probably in the near future—job-loss, we cannot agree to disagree about this vital issue. First, to suggest that these matters are not directly related to the gospel is actually false. The gospel is the good news of God’s restoration of creation, not the eradication of it. When men and women are regenerated by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, they begin a process of discipleship as men and as women. In other words, for a man to grow in Christlikeness is to grow in godly masculinity. For a woman to grow in Christlikeness is to grow in godly femininity. To suggest that these differences are insignificant has immediate effect on the gospel as it regards our sanctification.
Second, Christians cannot yield on this issue because to do so hurts others. As we’ve seen in the past few months, with regard to social conduct and legislation, once a gender binary is abandoned (a person is either male or female), the logical spiral from questioning gender differences to eliminating gender differences is certain and swift. The Church, however, is tasked to preserve and promote the good things in culture, serving as salt and light (Matt 5:13-16). When the Church compromises on this issue, we allow a lost culture to drift further and further into rebellion and harm.
Finally, Christians cannot hedge on the issue of gender because to do so would obstruct the glory of God. The glory of God is not displayed in mankind generically, but in man and woman together, each fulfilling their God-given design and role. And, if God has chosen to display His glory in this specific way, then to blunt the contours of our respective gender differences is to blunt the contours of God’s glory. In other words, when we downplay our differences as man and woman, we hide the particular glories of God behind a riddled fence of ambiguity.
Christians must be willing to say, along with Jesus, that “[God] in the beginning made them male and female” (Matt 19:4). Granted, there are instances of genital defect and chromosomal complexities. But these cases are rare and should be dealt with carefully on a case-by-case basis. But handling anomalies requires that we are solid on the rule: if you exist as a human, you exist as either a male or a female. The choice is not yours to make, because your gender is a gift and a stewardship from God. But this willingness to hold to these good differences also requires that we live them out in our homes, churches, and places of employment.
Upholding our Good Differences
Practically, this means that Christian men are called, out of love for their families and their church, to resist passivity, reclaim the helm of leadership, and give themselves to leading, protecting, and providing for their family members and the people of their church. Christian women are called to gladly follow their husband’s leadership and, married or unmarried, give themselves to the work for which they have been fitted as females. And we must teach our children to embrace these good differences.
But Christians must be also willing to grieve for the current state of people in our society. A man who really thinks he is a woman needs compassion as well as straightforward truth, and the parents of children who claim to identify with another gender need clarity and courage. I pray that we can, with the gospel, give them all of these things, and more.
These are strange and difficult times. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Nor should we merely resign to the inevitability of what is happening around us. We have work to do, first in our homes, then in our church, and in our communities. And by God’s grace, our efforts will exalt the gospel, serve others, and become the means by which God’s glory shines even brighter in this dark world.