September 11 is a day for remembering. As the Heartland Leadership Network’s first meeting of the Fall landed on that date, we reminisced about what ministry was like before 2001, considering how things have changed.
To fuel our thinking, one of our members led us in an online poll. One entry read: “Gender terms I knew before 2001…” Of the options given, every participant selected the same answer: Two — male and female.
The next query read: “Gender identity classifications I know now…” All but one selected the answer: “three to nine.” Sure enough, we were able to list more than ten gender labels, from “gender fluid” to “gender non-conforming.”
How did we go from two gender identification terms to an ever- increasing jumble of overlapping labels? If self-identification is the only criteria for the determination of gender, it appears that the number is limited only by people’s imagination. But should something as deep-seated and consequential as gender be left to the imagination? is sparked a lively discussion, which resulted in a few good takeaways.
Everyone in the room agreed that God made human beings in His image and that in creating people God formed two genders — male and female (Genesis 1:27). However, just stating this fact, it was concluded, doesn’t do the discussion justice.
It needs to be thought through. In particular, a robust and practical theology of biblical masculinity (maleness) and femininity (femaleness) needs to be articulated and lived out by believers.
It is too easy to write o all these gender identifications as the result of sin and leave it at that. The confusion about gender is rooted in mankind’s rejection of God and His revelation; however, behind every label is a person. People matter, regardless of what label they stick on themselves.
Each person has a story. That story may be filled with unfulfilled desires, shattered expectations, abuse, and rejection (sometimes at the hands of people who claim the name of Jesus). Before we start dispensing discussion-ending statements about gender, we should first listen and try to understand. Any biblical theology of personhood rings hollow when we don’t care enough about people to dignify them by hearing them out. e worn cliché is still true: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. We would do well to start by listening.
When it comes to masculinity and femininity, talk is cheap. What is needed are real-life examples. To say that most people do not grow up in families where biblical masculinity and femininity are modeled well is a massive understatement.
Because my father died when I was very young, I grew up in a single-parent home populated with females. My heart longed to understand what it meant to be a man, so I was constantly on the lookout for male role models.
I was fortunate. Men in the church stepped up and engaged me, so I have never lacked “fathers.” Men being role models of fathers and husbands was the most important ministry the church offered me in my early years. Rather than bashing the plethora of gender labels, we would do better to put our energy into relationally relating the goodness of God’s purpose in making us male and female. This means engaging and including people so that they can see and experience God’s goodness in gender.
Of course, before we can live out God’s intended purpose for men and women, we first need to understand biblical masculinity and femininity. We need to work at (re)discovering God’s good vision for men and women. What was God thinking when, after creating man and woman, he proclaimed them “very good”? What is the essence of male and female? What is “very good” about biblical maleness and femaleness? What is healthy and life-giving about biblical masculinity and femininity, and how do they play out in our 21st-century culture?
These questions are well worth rolling up our sleeves, digging in, and answering. Here are some starter thoughts.
Don’t overlook the obvious: gender goes deep, but race (i.e., humanity) goes deeper still. When Adam awoke from his slumber and saw Eve for the first time, I’m sure he immediately noticed and appreciated some of her differences. However, his first remarks highlighted their similarities: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23).
Adam initially exulted in the fact that he now had a companion who was like him—another human being. As a relational being, Adam was delighted to have someone like him to talk to, to work together with, to care for, and to love. Both Adam and Eve were image-bearers of God, capable of rejecting justice and mercy, strength and beauty, protection and nurture. Regardless of gender, humans share an essential sameness and equality, which must be valued and respected.
Adam and Eve were also created to be an effective and unified team. Eve was not an exact clone of Adam. When Adam saw Eve, it was only kind of like looking in a mirror. Indeed, it was far better than looking in a mirror!
After creating Adam, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God’s solution to this problem was not a replica of Adam. Instead, God determined, “I will make a helper suitable for him” In other words, God solved man’s “aloneness” problem by creating not just another human being but another gender of human being who complemented and completed Adam. Harmoniously united, male and female re ect most completely the image of God. God’s intention was that the complementary nature of male and female working in harmony and unity would re ect Him on earth.
Eve was a “suitable” helper for Adam expressly because she complemented him and filled out the team. God created woman to be a strong warrior at man’s side so that together they could accomplish what Adam could not accomplish alone, namely, rule creation as God’s representatives, reflecting His nature. The Hebrew word for “helper” (ezer) appears 21 times in the Old Testament. Twice, both in Genesis 2, it describes the woman. But the majority of uses of this word refer to God himself as the helper of his people. If “helper” is part of the nature of God, then “to help” is to reflect something true about God.
Then, the word “helper” does not connote a position of weakness or inferiority. Instead, it highlights the interdependence of man and woman.
“In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman,” writes Paul (1 Corinthians 11:11 ESV). We should not lose sight of this truth. Paul admonishes the believers in Ephesus to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV). In other words, believers in the church, both male and female, whether single or married, are to reveal the love of Christ by pursuing the best for each other in uni ed teamwork. We, the church, are a team, a body. As we work together, submitting rst to Christ, then to one another, we will re ect together, as male and female, the glory of Christ.
We don’t get to see God’s intention for masculinity and femininity played out in perfection because sin enters the picture so quickly. Instead of seeing God’s positive purpose in male and female, we get the reverse: how not to live out God’s good intentions for men and women.
The Bible makes it clear that Adam was with Eve when Satan tempted her to sin (Genesis 3:6). Rather than protect her from Satan’s lies, Adam passively followed Eve into sin. Later, rather than owning up to his responsibility, Adam callously and cowardly blames Eve (Genesis 3:12). Although it was Eve who first sinned, God holds Adam responsible. Adam had failed to lovingly lead Eve toward God, protecting her from Satan’s deceit. We have to wait for Jesus, the “last Adam,” to see biblical masculinity played out as God intended. Jesus gave himself for the church to make her holy (Ephesians 5:25-27). Among many things, biblical masculinity involves taking the initiative to lead others gently to God and to courageously protect them from evil. is kind of masculinity is not dominating and self-aggrandizing. Rather, it serves others for their good.
God’s good intention for the female gender was also corrupted by sin. In explaining the consequences of sin, God said to Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16b NIV). is tragic sentence proclaims the exact opposite of what God had intended for the relationship between the sexes. Eve’s “desire” for her husband was a craving to control him (see Genesis 4:7). She wanted to dominate him, not share dominion over the earth in harmonious teamwork with him.
This verse heralds the beginning of a tragic history of power struggle between the sexes. This competition is the reverse of biblical femininity. Woman was not created to control man but rather to complement and complete man in the mission God had given to both Adam and Eve. Biblical femininity is not competition; it’s cooperation. In biblical femininity, the woman employs her qualities of responsiveness, compassion, empathy, endurance, gentleness, warmth, hospitality, diplomacy, politeness, supportiveness, wisdom, sensitivity, intuition, intelligence, sincerity, spirituality, vulnerability, expressiveness, faithfulness, and charm (to name just a few!) not to control and dominate the man but instead to make him better, to improve the relationship and, in teamwork with man, to help him accomplish Spirit-directed goals.
Returning to our Heartland Leadership Network, the last entry of the poll read, “In the next 15 years, I want my church to be de ned by…” Of the four good options given, every single person chose the same answer: “love.”
Our highest calling as believing men and women, whether in the family or the church, is to demonstrate the love of God. We don’t do this by uncritically accepting and embracing every gender description we hear. Instead, we do this as men and women by intentionally living in unity and teamwork that rejects and exalts Christ. As Christian men and women, we must humbly and courageously take strides in the delicate dance of mutual submission, not by discarding gender distinctions but rather by living out biblical masculinity and femininity with joy. – by Kip Cone
Kip Cone is proclamation pastor at Winona Lake, Ind., Grace Brethren Church. He co-chairs the Heartland Leadership Network, a regular gathering of Charis Fellowship pastors and leaders in Indiana and Michigan.