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“Look Around You”: A Natural Theology of the Sexes

June 10, 2020
By W. Brad Littlejohn

Editor’s Note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Eikon.

What are men and women? What are men and women for? As this seems to be among the most urgent questions of our moral hour, you could pardon theologians and pastors for running off to answer it and leaving their notes behind. But before we try to answer such a weighty question, we must first ask ourselves another: “how do we know what men and women are for?”

For many Christians, the answer seems obvious: “it’s in the Bible, of course!” But decades of withering critical interrogation have left conservatives wringing their hands with uncertainty about how exactly a biblical narrative featuring polygamy, arranged marriages and bride-prices, Proverbs 31, Mary and Martha, deaconesses, head coverings, and Titus 2 can offer us a clear answer to the question of gender roles in the modern world. Even if we could fit all the biblical data into a set of tidy prescriptions, who’s to say that these still bind us today? After all, we don’t have slaves or cities of refuge anymore.

Faced with an inability to distill a dogma of gender roles that could rise above the vicissitudes of the Bible’s cultural history, conservative Christians have sometimes taken refuge in another answer: “by looking at God, of course.” God, after all, never changes, so if the essence of male and female, the basic principle of complementarity, could be found in God himself, then it would be secure from every assault. With such an answer, I worry, the cure risks being worse than the disease. Rather than clarifying our understanding of sexuality by deriving it from God, we risk distorting our understanding of God by trying to import sexuality into it. In 2016, a fierce controversy flared up in evangelical ranks over the so-called “eternal subordination of the Son,” and many leading evangelical theologians were accused of stumbling unwittingly into a doctrine of the Trinity at odds with the Nicene Creed in their eagerness to find the foundations of male and female roles in the Holy Trinity.

Even setting aside worries about Nicene orthodoxy, the notion that the relationship of Father and Son is somehow the archetype of husband and wife never made any sense on the face of it to this author. Aren’t Father and Son both described in male terms? When the marriage metaphor is used of either Father or Son, aren’t they always presented as the bridegroom, and Israel or the Church as bride? And if the Father and Son are like husband and wife, where and what is the Holy Spirit? Far from presenting a glowing image of a happily-married heterosexual couple, to help anchor traditionalist morality in a sexually-confused age, this train of thought seemed more likely to underwrite homosexuality or polyamory, if one allowed oneself to follow it for long into such blasphemies.

But if we do not look to the Trinity as the archetype of man and woman, then where do we look?

I am reminded of a famous inscription under the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, in honor of its architect, Christopher Wren, buried below: “Reader, if you seek his monument — look around you.” Sometimes we become so wrapped up in looking for something that we forget to stand up and look around, when all the while we are surrounded with answers to our question. At the opening of his great work The Physics, Aristotle set forth a principle for how humans should seek knowledge: if you want to clearly grasp a concept, you must start with that which is “less clear but more familiar” — the sense-world around you.

In this, Aristotle rejected the epistemology of his teacher Plato, summed up in his famous Allegory of the Cave. There, Plato argued that the senses give us access to nothing more than shadows and illusions in the “cave” of earthly existence; to gain true knowledge, we must emerge from the cave into the daylight of spiritual and intellectual reality, and discover the true source of all being and light, the Sun that is the Supreme Good. At last, when our eyes are accustomed, we can look on the Sun and gain true knowledge of all that is.

But there was a fatal flaw in this analogy. You can’t look at the Sun. No matter how long you try to adjust your eyes, it will blind you if you try to look at it directly. God the Holy Trinity is the Sun of Plato’s analogy, the true source of all being, light, and knowledge, the source from which all else derives its existence. But he is also that which can only be glimpsed obliquely, never gazed upon. If you try to look at the Trinity to find an answer to your questions about man and woman, your vision will be blinded, not enlightened. Instead, why not look around you?

“But,” some will object, “doesn’t it say right there in Genesis 1 that humans are created in God’s image?” Is this not an invitation to see human nature as a reflection of the divine being — including our biological nature and sexuality? “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Biblical scholars have argued with increasing conviction and persuasiveness in recent decades that the concept of the “image of God” is more functional and vocational than structural, that it is inextricable from the immediately following dominion mandate: mankind images God by serving as his vicegerent in the task of ruling the world. But even setting aside this point, theologians have long recognized that whatever features of humanity constitute the “image” of God, they cannot be bodily features since God does not have a body.

Still, there is an even more fundamental point to make. Surely, whatever “the image of God” means, it is meant to name something unique to humanity. We alone have the image of God — that is the whole point of the passage. So, is sexuality, is male-and-female-ness, something unique to human beings? To ask the question is to laugh at it. And yet it is astonishing how rarely in discussions of “complementarianism” anyone makes the point that our sexual complementarity is a basic part of our animal nature. Perhaps we can learn more about what it means to be male and female by looking at birds and bees than by attempting to gaze into the mysteries of the Holy Trinity.

To be sure, there are important objections and qualifications to be made: as humans, we are more than our mere biological nature, and the emotional bond of husband and wife certainly does uniquely reflect God’s love in a way that no animal can. But pause for a minute to consider the basic point: the natural world around us is full of testimonies to the basic biological necessity of two sexes. Without male and female, there is no reproduction. Without reproduction, there is no continuation of the species. Why did God create us male and female, then? Well, for the same reason he created other animals male and female: because herein is his chosen means of ensuring the propagation of each kind, including humankind. We cannot stop there, of course; there is more to be said, but we must certainly start there. Reproduction is much more than mere copulation; for many animals as for us, it involves protecting, fostering, and raising our offspring, and in this too male and female each plays a distinctive role rooted in distinctive biology: the one predominantly guarding, the other predominantly nourishing. The inescapability of sexual difference and yet the indispensable complementarity of the sexes is everywhere on display around us.

Of course, one cannot draw any precise lessons from these basic observations on the natural world. The roles of male and female penguins are quite different from those of male and female lions, so which is meant to teach us about the roles of male and female humans? The point is not to try to derive a script for gender roles from watching BBC nature documentaries. The point rather is twofold: (1) to insist, against those who would try to minimize or deny gender differences, that they are minimizing or denying a basic datum of the created order; and (2) when asked why men and women should be different, and what for, to point insistently back to this mundane biological necessity. This latter point, blandly obvious though it may seem, is particularly important for Christian discourse today, given the number of progressive Christians who insist that since in Christ “there is neither male nor female,” neither should there be any real difference between male and female in the church or even in the family. Whenever I hear anyone say this, I’m tempted to ask, “So you’re a Shaker then?” The Shakers were an oddball semi-Christian religious sect in the early decades of America that, among other things, forbade procreation (although, in a curious reversal of the modern theological roles, they also argued for an archetypal male and female in God). The reader will not be surprised to hear that the Shaker sect all but died out quite some time ago. Transcendent though the eschatological reality of the church may be, for now, in history, the church must carry on through history, and that means, among other things, having and raising children. For this task, there is unquestionably male and female.

So, then, we find that by looking around us rather than trying to stare at the Sun, we have a blindingly obvious answer to our question, “What are men and women for?”: “To be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Of course, to answer this question is to raise a dozen more. The need of the hour is for guidance on what men’s and women’s roles should be: which sex should do what when it comes to caring for the children or bringing home the bacon, or serving the church and community? As I noted already, the myriad examples of diverse roles in the animal kingdom cannot offer us clear or consistent guidance here. But they at least point us in the direction of which questions to begin asking: if it is indeed the case that our sexual complementarity is geared toward the end of raising families, then how do the unique features and tendencies of a man’s biology and psychology best equip him to serve this end? And how do the unique features and tendencies of a woman’s biology and psychology best equip her to serve this end? The answers will be of necessity imprecise, and depend significantly on cultural context, but certain regularities will suggest themselves.

And sure enough, when we consult the wisdom of the past and ask how millennia of diverse human cultures and civilizations have tried to think through this mystery of man and woman, we find that, despite myriad variations of practice and manifold injustices, certain regularities present themselves. Every culture has recognized the indispensable reality of male and female, and sought to preserve and protect the distinction. Every culture has in different ways tried to equip men to defend and provide, and women to care, heal, and nourish. With nature and history already pointing us in the right direction, we can look back to Scripture, not for a comprehensive code of gender roles, but for additional clarity and insight into that which, as Paul himself says, “nature itself teach[es]” (1 Cor. 11:14).

It is in the nature of such wisdom that it is perhaps less clear-cut and definitive than we might like, but if we try to escape the murk of earthly life by gazing at the Sun, we will see neither Sun nor world clearly. Just so, we gain nothing by trying to solve the mystery of male and female by penetrating the mysteries of God; let us rather have the patience and humility instead to fumble faithfully in the shadows, ready to learn by long years of experience rather than sudden leaps of exegesis what it means to be man and woman.

Brad Littlejohn is President of the Davenant Institute

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