Manhood, Womanhood, and God

Part 1

Staley Lecture Series, Bryan College | Dayton, Tennessee

Over the last 15 years or so, as I’ve been thinking on the meaning of manhood and womanhood, I have come to deal with the issue and frame my questions more and more in terms of who we are as male and female persons in God’s image rather than simply what roles we play as men and women. One of the reasons for this focus on male and female personhood is that it helps me relate the issue of manhood and womanhood to the wider social and cultural issues.

Thinking of sexual and gender issues in the wider social context in turn sheds light back on the implications of the positions we take concerning roles in the home and the church. It may seem surprising, but it is just this perspective on the catastrophe of sexuality in the world that emboldens me to take a public position today that often in the church and even more often in academic circles is regarded as hopelessly out of date.

In other words, I used to ask simply: Is there to be a head in the marriage relationship, and if so, is it the man or the woman who should be? And: Is there to be a primary office of leadership in the church, and if so is it open to women and men?

I still regard those two questions as crucial. But more and more I have come to believe that beneath the questions, “Are men to be the heads of their homes?” and “Should women be pastors?” are questions about the fundamental meaning of manhood and womanhood. For a long time, it seems we have been able to ignore this reality and write our books and articles about biblical texts and focus mainly on the roles of men and women instead of the meaning of manhood and womanhood.

For example, the groundbreaking book among evangelicals in the last 20 years, was a book by Paul Jewett called Man as Male and Female (1975). In it he set the pattern to be followed for two decades: He said, on the one hand, “Sexuality permeates one’s individual being to its very depth; it conditions every facet of one’s life as a person.” But on the other hand, he says that he shares the uncertainty of those who do not know “what it means to be a man in distinction to a woman.” He confesses that “all human activity reflects a qualitative distinction which is sexual in nature.” But then he says, “In my opinion, such an observation offers no clue to the ultimate meaning of that distinction. It may be that we shall never know what that distinction ultimately means” (pages 178, 187–8).

With this premise of agnosticism about who we are as male and female, the discussion could proceed at the level of roles and social conditioning, while the fundamental question of nature and personhood was overlooked. I don’t see this changing too much even today. In fact, the shift recently from talking about sexuality to talking about “gender” signals a further departure from the question of nature and personhood.

Here’s a quote from social historian Jerry Z. Muller (of Catholic University of America) just published last month to give you a handle for understanding the way the words gender and sex are being used in academic women’s studies around the country:

The influence of lesbianism is perhaps the prime reason for the shift within women’s studies from a concern with the roles of women as workers, mothers, wives, and political actors toward an increasing focus on “gender,” defined as the social and cultural construction of sexual identity. The key assumption behind such work is that while men and women are biologically differentiated . . . the characteristic qualities of maleness and femaleness are largely artifacts of culture, and arbitrarily imposed cultural constructions at that. The emphasis on the relative importance of “gender” as opposed to “sex,” then is intended to challenge the assumption that differences between men and women are either natural or immutable. (Coming Out Ahead: The Homosexual Moment in the Academy)

In other words, in contemporary usage, gender refers to what we are by social conditioning and sex refers to what we are by nature, and the shift in focus from sex to gender more and more assumes that maleness and femaleness at the root level of personhood are negligible realities.

I ask: Is it a coincidence that two of the most significant works published recently by Christian feminists are entitled, Gender and Grace (1990); and After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation (1993)? I think the words themselves signal a deepening commitment to the proposition that the fundamental realities of manhood and womanhood (maleness and femaleness) are negligible in defining who we are as persons.

I come to you with a very different conviction in these lectures. I think that what is at stake in whether women serve as pastors or men renounce their headship in marriage is the very dismantling of the created order and the pattern of complementarity that God meant for our good. I believe that the differences between manhood and womanhood are profound and that they matter. Each expression of personhood is equally valuable in the eyes of God because both are created in his image (Genesis 1:27). And that value is meant to come to expression not in a sex-blind, gender-leveling pattern of life, but in a pattern where each complements the other precisely because of the differences, not by making them negligible.

In fact, I think that, in spite of all its legitimate concerns with male abuses, the feminist minimizing of nature-based role differentiation contributes to the confusion of sexual identity today, which in turn causes many relationships to malfunction and in the end gives rise to more homosexuality and more sexual violence and more depression in society. I think James Dobson is right when he said last May,

Feminist resistance to making manhood and womanhood significant in behavior and role determination is partner to some of the most painful social and spiritual issues of our day. (Focus on the Family, May, 1993, vol. 17, No. 5, p. 7)

Nevertheless, the overwhelming preponderance of energy and writing from the feminist wing of the church has been to stress continually the sex-blind assessment of personhood and the leveling of birth-based differences in who we are as persons and ministers.

For example, Gretchen Gabelein Hull, writes, “Biblical feminists lovingly ask the Christian community to abandon artificial role playing and to be sex blind in assessing each individual’s qualifications for ministry” (Equal to Serve, 128). And Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen expresses her confidence that the Bible’s “main thrust is toward the leveling, not the maintenance, of birth-based status differences” (Gender and Grace, 235).

This is what almost all the literature is designed to demonstrate: sex-blindness, or gender-leveling. In other words, do not take gender into account. It is not a significant reality in making most major decisions in what you do with your life or how you relate to the opposite sex.

But this gender-leveling and sex-blind approach to life unwittingly corresponds with and advances the forces of our culture that are dismantling human life as God meant it to be.

Illustrations of Cultural Gender-Levelling

1) It is no longer obvious in America that a woman newspaper reporter, like Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald, may not enter the locker room of the New England Patriots just because her gender is different from the naked athletes who happen to be there. That gender-based discrimination against female reporters has lost a good deal of its traditional foundation in the gender-leveling, sex-blind feminist arguments of recent decades.

2) I got a letter dated December 9, 1989 from a chaplain at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, a state prison. He said that against class action suits and other protests women have been brought in as guards in California State Prisons. New prisoners are forced to expose themselves to these women for genital searches. The women supervise the men’s toilet and showering facilities, and the men’s cells are open to the women guards all the time. All this in the name of gender-leveling, sex-blind non-discrimination.

3) In my own hometown of Minneapolis the domestic partners bill passed the city council with scarcely a hitch. It recognizes homosexual and lesbian partners as legitimate families and gives sick and bereavement leaves and other benefits for the same-sex “spouse.”

Minnesota, like every other state so far, does not permit legal marriages among same-sex people. But more and more the “partnerships” are endorsed and legal rights are granted in almost every other way. The Star Tribune reported on May 31 (p. 13A), for example, that one group estimates that there are 10,000 children of lesbian couples conceived through artificial insemination in America. The Minneapolis School District has offered parenting classes for lesbians and homosexuals since 1987. Minnesota has no state law prohibiting adoptions by single parents, homosexuals, or lesbians. All this on the basis of a tidal wave of gender-leveling, sex-blind sentiment in this country for decades.

4) There was a suit brought against Save-On Drug Company in California by a family that said their daughter experienced great psychological harm because in the store the toys were separated by probable gender interest with signs: “Toys for Boys” and “Toys for Girls.”

5) Contemporary music testifies to the gender-leveling efforts. Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” tour attacked every traditional stereotype with male mermaids and steel-plated Madonna as the aggressor. Michael Jackson’s face and hair and body have been remodeled to be effeminate and his high-pitched voice makes the same point. Bill Gaither says that the baseline of contemporary American music has been removed. It makes too much of gender-based differences.

Are evangelical feminists who see the main thrust of the Bible as gender-levelling really moving the church toward this kind of cultural gender-levelling, sex-blind way of life, which comes to climax in open, endorsed homosexuality?

6) Increasingly, secular leaders in the 500 “women’s studies” programs around the country are arguing that heterosexuality itself is the root cause of women’s problems. In other words, we must be consistent and carry the logic of being “sex-blind” all the way if women and men are really to relate as equals. For example, already in 1972 Charlotte Bunch argued like this:

Heterosexuality separates women from each other. It makes women define themselves through men; it forces women to compete against each other for men and the privilege which comes through men and their social standing. . . . Lesbianism is the key to liberation and only women who cut their ties to male privilege can be trusted to remain serious in the struggle against male dominance. (Coming Out Ahead)

Illustrations of Evangelical Movement Toward Homosexuality

I could wish that evangelical feminist impulses did not carry any of them to the endorsement of homosexuality and lesbianism. But my own experience teaches otherwise. I have seen some evangelicals, who once disapproved of homosexuality, be carried by their feminist arguments into the approval of faithful homosexual alliances.

1) For example, one friend of mine from seminary, and now a professor of Old Testament at a university, was nurtured in a conservative evangelical tradition and attended an evangelical seminary. In recent years he has argued for the ordination of women to the pastorate. He has also moved on to say, “On a much more controversial matter, the presence of gay and lesbian Christians and ministers in our churches is for me a similar issue. . . . I believe that the Gospel — as Evangelicals Concerned recognizes — should lead us at least to an affirmation of gay and lesbian partnerships ruled by a biblical ethic analogous to that offered for heterosexual relationships” (Gerald Sheppard, “A Response to Ray Anderson,” TSF Bulletin, Vol. 9, No. 4, March–April, 1986, p. 21).

2) Another example is a woman who went to Wheaton with me back in the late sixties. Several years ago she argued that removing hierarchy in sexual relations (which is what all egalitarians want to do) will probably mean that the primacy of heterosexual marriage will have to go:

It would appear that, in Paul, issues of sexuality are theologically related to hierarchy, and therefore the issues of biblical feminism and lesbianism are irrefutably intertwined. We need to grapple with the possibility that our conflicts over the appropriate use of human sexuality may rather be conflicts rooted in a need to legitimate the traditional social structure which assigns men and women specific and unequal positions. Could it be that the continued affirmation of the primacy of heterosexual marriage is possibly also the affirmation of the necessity for the sexes to remain in a hierarchically structured relationship? Is the threat to the “sanctity of marriage” really a threat to hierarchy? Is that what makes same-sex relations so threatening, so frightening? (Karen J. Torjesen, “Sexuality, Hierarchy and Evangelicalism,” TSF Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 4, March–April 1987, pp. 26–27)

3) The Evangelical Women’s Caucus was split in 1986 over whether there should be “recognition of the presence of the lesbian minority in EWCI” (“Gay Rights Resolution Divides Membership fo Evangelical Women’s Caucus,” Christianity Today, October 3, 1986, pp. 40–43). We are glad that many evangelical women distanced themselves from the endorsement of lesbianism. But what is significant is how many evangelical feminists considered the endorsement “a step of maturity within the organization” (e.g. Nancy Hardesty and Virginia Mollenkott). In other words, they view the movement away from role distinctions grounded in the natural created order as leading inevitably to the overthrow of normative heterosexuality. It seems to us that the evangelical feminists who do not embrace homosexuality will be increasingly hard put to escape this logic.

4) Paul Jewett, too, seems to illustrate a move from biblical feminism toward endorsing certain expressions of homosexuality. In his defense of equal roles for men and women in Man as Male and Female in 1975, he said that he was uncertain “what it means to be a man in distinction to a woman or a woman in distinction to a man” (178). That seemed to us to bode ill for preserving the primacy of heterosexuality.

In 1983, he reviewed the historical defense of homosexuality by John Boswell, who argued that Paul’s meaning in Romans 1:26–27 was that the only thing condemned was homosexual behavior by heterosexuals, but not by homosexuals who acted according to their “nature.” Jewett rejected this interpretation with the words, “For [Paul] the ‘nature’ against which a homosexual acts is not simply his individual nature, but the generic human nature in which he shares as an individual” (“An Overlooked Study: John Boswell on Homosexuality,” Reformed Journal, Vol. 33, Issue 1, January, 1983, p. 17).

Then in 1985, Jewett seems to give away the biblical case for heterosexuality in a review of Robin Scroggs’s book, The New Testament and Homosexuality. Scroggs argues that the passages that relate to homosexual behavior in the New Testament “are irrelevant and provide no help in the heated debate today” because they do not refer to homosexual “inversion,” which is a natural orientation but to homosexual “perversion” (129). Jewett says, “If this is the meaning of the original sources — and the scholarship is competent, the argument is careful and, therefore, the conclusion is rather convincing — then what the New Testament is against is something significantly different from a homosexual orientation which some people have from their earliest days” (Paul Jewett, Interpretation, Vol. 39, No. 2, April, 1985, p. 210).

This undermines the foundations of manhood and womanhood.

So, my judgment is that evangelical feminism will inevitably move the church more and more the way these evangelicals have gone, because in their zeal to overcome role distinctions based on maleness and femaleness they are (not intentionally) undermining the very foundations of manhood and womanhood as God intended them to be.

This undermining works itself out in the home and then spreads. Evangelical feminists almost never address the question: How do you answer a child’s question: “Daddy, what does it mean to grow up to be a man and not a woman?” Or: “Mommy, what does it mean to grow up to be a woman and not a man?” James Dobson is totally right to insist that you can’t reduce this question to the generic, “What is a caring person?” That misses the crucial created element of manhood and womanhood. And these are massively relevant (Focus on the Family, May, 1993, vol. 17, No. 5, p. 7. “And at the heart of that is the issue of what is a man? If you try to reduce that issue to just: what is a caring person, you make a good point but miss a crucial created element called manhood that is relevant”).

There are dynamics in the home that direct the sexual preferences of the children and shape their concept of manhood and womanhood. Especially crucial in the matter of sexual preference is a father’s firm and loving affirmation of a son’s masculinity and daughter’s femininity (Gerald P. Regier, “The Not So Disposable Family,” Pastoral Renewal, Vol. 13, No. 1, July–August, 1988, p. 20). But how can this kind of affirmation be cultivated in an atmosphere where role differences between masculinity and femininity are constantly denied or minimized for the sake of gender-leveling and sex-blindness?

If the only significant role differentiations are based on competency and has no root in nature, what will parents do to shape the sexual identity of their children? If they say that they will do nothing, common sense and many psychological studies tell us that the children will be confused about who they are, and will therefore be far more likely to develop a homosexual orientation or act out their masculinity or femininity in confused and exploiting ways.

To me it is increasingly and painfully clear that Christian feminism is an unwitting partner in unravelling the fabric of complementary manhood and womanhood that provides the foundation not only for biblical marriage and biblical church order, but for heterosexuality itself.

And what is at stake in whether women serve as pastors or men renounce their headship in marriage is, I believe, the very dismantling of the order that God ordained for our good and for his glory. Whether this is so, or is just my opinion, you must judge. I will try to give biblical arguments this evening and tomorrow morning and evening. I invite you to consider and to think biblically.