Do “gender roles” apply beyond marriage? Most of us would confirm that biological differences have a specific place in defining the relational dynamics of husbands and wives within a marriage covenant. But what about gender distinctions in broader society and in the workplace? It’s the question from an anonymous young woman.
“Hello, Pastor John! My question is whether gender alone should affect the way a Christian views his or her identity? And should gender alone change the way he or she behaves, outside of marriage? If so, how and why? It seems most questions of this type get answered related to gender roles within the family, and not at the level of mere gender alone, even among singles.”
Well, the answer is yes, gender alone — that is, our sexual maleness or femaleness alone — is an essential part of our God-given identity, whether we’re married or not. You are who you are everywhere you are, and with whomever you are. Your core identity as male or female does not change according to your audience or your relationships.
“Our sexual maleness or femaleness is an essential part of our God-given identity, whether we’re married or not.”
You have God-given stability, constancy in who you are. You’re not a chameleon in your sexual personhood. Your sexuality is rooted in your biological and anatomical identity. More than that, it’s rooted — as we are discovering more and more every day in sociological and psychological research — in the distinct workings of the male and female brain, and the psychological out-workings of those distinctions.
They’re all of life. Just go to YouTube and type in almost anything, like, “Are men and women different?” Or, “What’s the difference between men’s and women’s brains?” You’ll get all kinds of amazing documented research about how different men and women are in their very biological, psychological natures.
Now, as Christians, we believe that the brain and the soul are not identical but interrelated in mysterious ways that have profound correspondence. All Christians agree that we are morally responsible before God for our thoughts and our feelings, even though our brains (the organ inside our skull) and our hormones are involved in what we think and feel.
The mystery of how the brain and the supra-physical soul are related is probably incomprehensible to finite people. That would be my guess. I don’t think we’ll ever fully comprehend this mystery.
But we know that what the brain does in thinking and desiring reflects reality in the personhood. I mean, a personhood that is more than physical — the personhood that will exist after death, when we go to be with Christ, before the resurrection.
In other words, we are persons in the presence of Christ, enjoying Christ as “far better,” as Paul says, even though we don’t have bodies (Philippians 1:23). The brain is down there rotting in the grave, and our soul, our personhood, is in heaven with Christ.
The differences that exist in general between men’s and women’s brains along with the innate differences that mark our lives are profoundly woven together with the supra-physical personhood.
So my answer is yes. Yes, our sexual identity as male and female is part of our true God-given, body-based, brain-based, soul-based identity — whether we are married or single. It is relevant for all our relationships, not just one of them.
“There is nothing magical about a wedding ceremony that turns a man into a man or a woman into a woman.”
When we are spiritually and physically and psychologically whole and healthy, this will manifest itself with scarcely any self-consciousness. A mature, healthy woman does not consciously try to be a woman. She just is what she is — and so with a mature healthy man.
Christ and the Church
Now, let me come at it one other way — from Ephesians 5. Paul gave us a picture of distinct manhood and womanhood in marriage, a picture that is relevant, I’m going to argue, for men and women outside marriage. Here’s what he wrote:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22–24)
So far, that’s the dynamic of the husband’s leadership and his wife’s glad support for that leadership. Now keep reading:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)
Now there’s the dynamic of protection. Christ dies to save her, to rescue her, to protect her from the devil and from sin and from hell in the analogy with the church.
Husbands are willing to die to rescue, to save, to protect her in every kind of way she may need it. Now look at verse 29: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.”
There’s the third element. First, we saw leadership. Then, we saw protection. Now here’s the dynamic of provision. A husband feels a special God-given responsibility. I say special, not sole, God-given responsibility, but a special, unique responsibility in the family to be a nourisher, a cherisher, a provider for his wife and the family.
In my little book What’s the Difference? I define manhood or masculinity like this:
“Inside and outside marriage, our sexual identity as male and female are wonderful, inescapable parts of who we are in every relationship.”
At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s different relationships.
I define accordingly womanhood or femaleness or femininity like this:
At the heart of mature womanhood (or femaleness or femininity) is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.
Now you can hear in each of those definitions, that a man’s manhood and a woman’s womanhood are relevant to all their relationships, but in differing ways. This follows from the fact that there is nothing magical about a wedding ceremony that turns a man into a man, or a woman into a woman.
What a woman has been becoming all her life is what she will be in marriage. What a man has been becoming all his life, he will be in marriage. They can’t turn on manhood, and they can’t turn on womanhood like a switch on their honeymoon.
How to Date
When a woman contemplates marrying a man, she doesn’t have to do it blindfolded. She can watch the man for a year or two years. She can be involved in a dating relationship or an engagement relationship.
All that time, if she is a discerning woman, she can see the evidences of whether a man’s instincts and inclinations reveal a deep-seated sense of benevolent responsibility to lead and provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to his different relationships. She can see the trajectory of his life and what kind of leader and provider and protector he will be in marriage.
Neither he nor she suddenly becomes a biblical man or woman on the day they are married. So for these reasons, my answer to her is yes. Inside and outside marriage, our sexual identities as male and female are wonderful, inescapable parts of who we are in every relationship.
The best way to become the kind of men and women we ought to be in all the relationships of life is to immerse ourselves gladly in all of Scripture, absorbing all of its implications for manhood and womanhood, and then fix our eyes on men and women who walk in the most biblically mature way.