Our study in the book of Genesis takes us to a cultural flashpoint: the topic of maleness and femaleness.
“God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
This topic, of course, is closely related to the issue of gender: how maleness and femaleness exhibit themselves in social contexts. But can an Old Testament book can be trusted to guide us on such a sensitive topic? Keep in mind that Jesus Christ himself reinforced this teaching, when he said: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matthew 19:4).
Why this topic can be so controversial, personal, sensitive, inescapable—and encouraging
A few things are worth mentioning about the topic of maleness and femaleness before we dive into what the Genesis teaches about it.
First, it is a highly controversial topic. The controversy tends to center on this question: What is the connection between one’s biological sex, on the one hand, and one’s gender identity, on the other hand? Flowing from that question are many others, relating mostly to the many implications this has for how a person relates to others and within society as a whole. This storm has gathered special momentum from a larger trend in Western society that places great emphasis on the moral importance of valuing one’s personal feelings as the very essence of their identity. It has made battle arenas out of sporting events, the military, pronouns, restrooms, and school libraries.
Second, this is a personal topic. We cannot talk about it with cool detachment, as if we might if were are debating whether Shakespeare really wrote all the plays that bear his name. Because every human is—and no one debates this—either male or female, this controversy takes on a personal dimension.
For these reasons, third, this is a sensitive topic. Partially because it is so personal, there are things about this topic that make us angry, tearful, nervous, or uncomfortable.
Someone might reasonably wonder why we should address such a topic. Wouldn’t it be easier to avoid something that is so controversial, personal, and sensitive? Yes, but—and this takes us to the fourth thing–it is an inescapable topic. By that I mean that in your normal course of life, you can’t avoid it. We can almost say about this topic what the poet of Psalm 139 says about the presence of God—
Where can I go from the issue of gender identity?
Or where shall I flee from the presence of these debates?
If I ascend to the library, it is there.
If I descend to the daily news cycle, behold, it is there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the children’s section of the bookstore—
Even there I am confronted with this topic.
Of course, we are not bound to address a topic simply because it is culturally pervasive. The final reason that compels us to address it is this: the Bible teaches it. The same duty that bound the prophets of old binds the preachers of today—
“A lion has roared! Who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8).
With all this in mind, we should note finally that this can be an edifying topic. The debates and the sensitivity swirling around the issue of gender and sexuality can make us approach it with a sense of foreboding and heaviness—and with good reason. After all, everything good God has made becomes the devil’s target for destruction. Our hearts have the perverse tendency to twist anything away from their God-intended purposes, and for our self-serving ends. Yet, if the Bible gives us instruction on the issue of maleness and femaleness, we can expect that this teaching will be a blessing—a cool drink to invigorate us, a beam of sunlight to cheer a dim path.
How, then, will we deal with this topic? Our method will be to turn our gaze toward the text of Scripture with this simple question: What stands out to us about the way the Bible presents this issue of maleness and femaleness? Then, as we glance at the culture around us, we will see more clearly how the Bible’s presentation of maleness and femaleness compares and contrasts with the slogans, ideas, and tendencies manifest both in our hearts and in our surrounding culture.
We can summarize it as follows: When we look at the Bible’s presentation of maleness and femaleness, we see that it is: (1) a bestowal, (2) beautiful, and (3) balanced.
1. Maleness and Femaleness is a Divine Bestowal.
In a straightforward reading of the text, what strikes us first is that maleness and femaleness is something God has bestowed. It is a divine gift. But this must be quickly followed up by clarifying what this does not mean.
This does not mean all cultural expressions of gender norms are divinely sanctioned.
To say that maleness and femaleness is a gift from God does not the mean that any cultural expression of maleness and femaleness is a gift from God. As 21st century Americans, we are in danger here of inserting into the text a portrait of stereotypical American masculinity or femininity. It must be clear in our minds, however, that to say that God made humans male and female is not to put a divine imprimatur on all gender stereotypes. To traditional-minded Americans, the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 may appear to be doing “man’s work”—“she considers a field, buys it, and plants a vineyard.” Likewise, traditional-minded Americans, because they associate domestic work with femininity and hunting with masculinity may think Jacob to be less manly than his brother Esau: “Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents” (Genesis 25:27). These observations reinforce this important statement: to affirm maleness and femaleness as a divine bestowal is to affirm that biological fact of maleness and femaleness is a gift from God, not necessarily all the ways cultures work out these differences according to respective “gender roles.”
This does mean that the fact that humans are either male or female—along with the differences between them—is a good gift from God.
Positively, to say that maleness and femaleness is a gift from God is to affirm the inherent goodness of maleness and femaleness. This is—and always has been—a countercultural position. In modern Western cultures, there is an ever-growing trend to view gender “binarism” as a form of oppression. The question on the table is whether maleness and femaleness a blessing or a curse. The prevailing suspicion is that it is a curse—and this suspicion is enshrined in ancient cultures as well.
In Plato’s Symposium, written about 300 years before the time of Christ, we encounter about the myth of the origin of the sexes. According to this myth, most humans were originally neither male nor female, but a combination of the two. Instead of having just two arms, two legs, and one head, they had four arms, four legs, and two heads. They could get around at enormous speeds, were noisy, and extremely powerful—so powerful, in fact, that they began to worry and bother Zeus, the chief among the gods. Eventually these humans irritated him so much that he took action, throwing bolts of lightning at the humans, which split them down the middle. This immediately settled them down. Then another god, Apollo, healed their wounds, wrapped up their skin, and eventually made humans what they are now: not powerful unisex beings, but males and females, weaker, and needing each other.
What does this myth do? Instead of presenting maleness and femaleness as a divine bestowal, it sees it as a divine curse. It creatively enshrines the suspicion that the differences are not good.
In the Bible, we find a radically different story. By presenting the creation of the two sexes as the act of a good God, Genesis teaches us that maleness and femaleness, along with everything else God created, is very good.
The equality of human dignity shared by males and females is good.
This means that the equality between male and female is good. This is evidently the point of God’s creating Eve from Adam’s rib: to show that the female is of the same substance of the male, a creature who would complement, not compete, with him. Thus, when Adam first encounters Eve, he does not say, “This is someone who threatens my autonomy.” Nor did he say, “This at last is someone who can do my work.” He did not even say, “This at last is someone who can bear my children!” No, he said—
“This at last is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh.”
In Eve, Adam saw someone who was equal to but different from him, and one whose differences completed what was lacking in him.
The differences between males and females are good—including differences of responsibility and capacity.
This means, second, that the differences between maleness and femaleness are good. Two differences are worth pointing out. First, there is the difference of creational order implying a difference in responsibility. God made Adam first, then Eve. This means that Adam was the first to receive the probationary command not to eat of the forbidden tree, and thus bore a special responsibility as leader and representative. When both Adam and Eve failed to obey this command, each of them bore personal responsibility as individuals; but it was Adam who, in addition to his personal responsibility, bore responsibility for the failure of the couple as a unit. Second, there is the difference in capacity. In the vast majority of areas, men and women possess equal capacity. This equality notwithstanding, no one disputes the fact that there are some things which women can do but men cannot, and which men can do, but women cannot—most obviously when it comes to sexual reproduction. But in addition to this, there are some areas in which women tend to excel and men do not, and there are some areas in which men tend to excel and women do not. It is just as absurd to deny these differences as it is to exaggerate them.
As the Bible presents it, the fact that humans are either male or female is not a roadblock to individual expression, as modern Western culture sees it. Nor is it a divine judgment, as the ancient mythologies present it. Rather, it is a good gift from God—a gift that brings flourishing, joy, and beauty.
II. Maleness and Femaleness is Beautiful.
When we recognize that maleness and femaleness is a gift from God, we are better equipped to recognize also its beauty. By “beauty” I mean not the physical attractiveness of males and females, but rather the beauty of something when it answers to its purpose and functions according to its nature. A note within a melody is beautiful because it fits within the flow of that melody. A line within a painting is beautiful when it contributes to the shape of which it is a part. The same is true of the fact of maleness and femaleness: it plays a part within the whole of God’s good purposes.
First, the fact of maleness and femaleness is beautiful because it answers to God’s purpose that humans bear his image.
In its first mention of maleness and femaleness, the Bible does not present it as a means to reproduction, sexual pleasure, or even companionship, but as a reflection of the Divine Being. In other words, it becomes a way in which we see God’s nature.
This means that maleness alone is insufficient for us to understand fully what God is like, just as femaleness alone is insufficient for us to understand what God is like. Rather, God’s image is reflected in a race of human beings who are either male or female. This explains why, although God is consistently referred to by male pronouns and is rightly called “Father,” he uses attributes belonging exclusively to females to help us better understand who he is. As one theologian put it: “The uniqueness and richness of feminine qualities no less than those of the masculine capacities find their origin and example in [God].” In Deuteronomy 32:18, God refers to himself as “the God who gave you birth.” He compares himself to a mother in Isaiah 66:13 when he says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” But it is not only tender qualities associated with femaleness that God employs, but the fierce, aggressive ones as well: “Like a [mother] bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open” (Hosea 13:8).
Second, the fact of maleness and femaleness is beautiful because it answers to God’s purpose that humans fill the earth.
Recall the poetic cadence of the Genesis narrative. When God first creates the world, it is unformed and unfilled. Then God begins to make forms and fill in those forms. He creates the sky, a place for birds—then fills it with winged creatures. He creates the sea, a place for fish—and fills it with sea animals. He also creates the earth, a place to be ruled by a race of humans—and so creates humans with the capacity for reproduction as male and female.
Third, the fact of maleness and femaleness is beautiful because it answers to God’s purpose that humans enjoy fellowship with God, not just as isolated individuals, but as interconnected individuals.
Humans’ enjoyment of God be something like the enjoyment of a movie or a meal: the togetherness enriches the experience. There is a deep human impulse to invite others to enjoy something that delights us. A child calls for his mother to see the beetle he has found. A friend tells another friend about a book he has read and wishes the friend would enjoy it as much as he did. In fact, he even expects that if it is a really good book, the friend will notice aspects of that book’s goodness which he himself hadn’t noticed. In a similar but infinitely greater way, God’s nature is so deep, so profound, so multilayered, that although you can enjoy him by yourself, it is in community with others that you can enjoy him even more. Now, the fact that maleness and femaleness makes us different, and provides the capacity for a race of human beings, answers to God’s multifaceted glory. We need people different enough from us to stand from different angles and see what we, by ourselves, could never see. So when God created humans, he made them male and female.
III. Maleness and Femaleness is Balanced.
When we compare the Bible’s presentation of maleness and femaleness with the view of our culture, we see how balanced it is. The Bible presents God as the source and purpose of maleness and femaleness—for from him, and through him, and to him are all things! The world fails to see this, and thus loses balance. Consider these examples of imbalance when it comes to maleness and femaleness.
First, there is the imbalance of making maleness and femaleness less than what it is.
This approach says, “What matters is not so much whether you are male or female, but in what your feelings tell you.” It insists that one’s body is not as real as one’s thoughts, that biological sex is not as important as your psychological inclination, that one’s “gender identity” may be different from one’s biological sex. This approach typically takes a cultural stereotype of masculinity and femininity and sneers at people for conforming to it, and celebrating them for rebelling against it. The underlying dogma is: don’t let anyone tell you that your body matters as much as your feelings. This dogma seems very modern, but it is really a very old debate dressed in 21st century garb. For millennia, philosophers have debated which is ultimate: mind or matter? This debate recognizes the fact that there often seems to be a rift between our feelings and reality, but it fails to solve any real problem by turning them into enemies, each trying to imprison the other. Those who accept the view that their feelings are more important than their biology believe that they cannot be happy until either their feelings change or their body changes—which is why the possibility of surgically or hormonally altering one’s body seems to be, in the short run, at least, an attractive option.
The Biblical view of maleness and femaleness avoids this imbalance by teaching us that both body and mind, sex and feelings, are a gift from God. True, in a fallen world, the relationship between our feelings mind and our body is often confusing. True, our feelings may not always correspond to our body, but it is a tragic mistake to condemn one or the other to destruction or mutilation. Neither hormonal or surgical changes on the one hand, nor repression of one’s feelings on the other hand, can bestow what a person truly longs for: unqualified love and acceptance. But that is exactly what Jesus Christ offers in his death and resurrection for us.
Second, there is the imbalance of making maleness and femaleness more than what it is.
This approach says, “What matters most about you is your maleness or femaleness.” This approach typically takes a cultural stereotype of masculinity and femininity, and forces people into it—celebrating them if they conform, judging them if they do not. The Bible’s presentation of maleness and femaleness brings balance to this imbalance. It teaches us that a male’s maleness matters—not because a man manages to live up to the cultural male ideal, but because his maleness is a gift from God. It teaches us that a female’s femaleness matters—not because she has managed to live up to the cultural ideal of femininity but because her femaleness is a gift from God.
We may put it this way: “By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of your gender expression: salvation is the gift of God: Not of masculinity, lest any man should boast. And not of femininity, lest any woman should boast.” This does not devalue the importance of maleness or femaleness—no more than Ephesians 2:8-9 devalues the importance of good works. Rather, it puts all works in their proper place.
Third, there is the imbalance of making maleness or femaleness all about one thing. Every culture tends to do this, and these things tend to be sex, family, or power.
The thing that is sneaky about this imbalance is that all three of these—sex, family, and power—are intimately connected with maleness and femaleness, and each are good and necessary in their own right. It is true that God created humans with the ability to reproduce, and with that ability, he created the capacity for sexual appeal and sexual desire. And it is true that God created humans to beget children. It is also true that God created males with powers distinct to maleness and femaleness with powers distinct to femaleness. But with our sinful propensity for pride or despair, we make maleness and femaleness all about one thing or another. Sex, family, and capacities distinct to maleness and femaleness—none of these things are sturdy enough to support what maleness and femaleness is all about: only God is.
Scripture’s Balance: From God, Through God, and For God is the Fact of Maleness and Femaleness
To say that sex differences are all about God is not to be simplistic. Romans 11:36 declares, “For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever!” This is the grid through which we must see everything, including our maleness and femaleness. It originated with God and has its goal in God. And between the “from” and “for,” it must be redeemed through the work of God. How does this happen?
One of the most important statements about a Christian view of maleness and femaleness is found in Galatians 3:28: “In Christ Jesus, you are all sons [and daughters] of God through faith. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In this text, the Apostle Paul is not teaching that male and female no longer exist—no more than he was saying that there were no longer slaves or free, Jews or Greeks. The differences in race and, for the time being, social class, continue to exist. The point is that, because of Christ, these differences no longer became the source of discontentment or despising others.
The solution for all of us, then is to see our true value and only salvation in Christ alone. I cannot point you to your feelings, to your masculinity, to your femininity, no more than I can point you to your race or your money or your religion to give you significance, satisfaction, and security.
This is why, if you are troubled by our culture’s changing views on gender and sexuality, look to Christ. Christ did not say, “Go into all the world, and preach that men should be men and women should be women.” They should be, but no one will get to heaven by being man or woman. He said, “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” Put Christ out in front—his love, his life, his triumph over sin and death, his work of redemption—and see what follows!
Likewise, if you are troubled by your own maleness or femaleness: look to Christ. You are tempted to think that if you could change your body to match your feelings, could such a change give you what you really long for? What you really long for is something deeper than that. You want someone to look at you—you with all your insecurities and flaws—and say, “I love you”—and really mean it! But that is what Jesus did by dying on the cross. And when you see that he loves you, you will also see that he made no mistake in making you for who you are. So you can trust and obey him.
Finally, if you have despised others in your heart—whether a woman despising men for their maleness or a man despising women for their femaleness—look to Christ. Is your self-image so fragile that it must be propped up by demeaning treatment about the opposite sex? See that what Christ offers not only rebukes your arrogance, but also satisfies what you are looking for: significance, not in your being a man or being a woman alone, but in being a man or woman that loves and honors Christ and others.