Menu iconFilter Results
Topic: Eikon

Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology

November 20, 2020
By Patrick Schreiner

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


When most people hear the name Shania Twain, they think of one song: “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” The lyrics concern the freedom of women to do whatever they want in terms of dress, partying, and having fun. The title is a play on words, Man! I Feel Like a Woman!

In the current culture, some might critique Twain for associating female power too closely with a “traditional” twentieth-century American femininity: hair, dress, makeup, going out with girlfriends. Christians will take issue with her adoption of expressive individualism. She sings about the liberation of women, arguing true womanhood does not mean suppressing the female self.

Much could be said about the song, and I will probably get a few emails for including it here.[1] The point I want to draw attention to, however, is that she presses into her nature as a woman. She writes a song for women as a woman. She sings toward and in light of women’s liberation. She explicitly acknowledges the difference between men and women.

For readers of this journal, a more suitable illustration comes from G. K. Chesterton. In his essay “The Romance of Thrift,” Chesterton explains why it is important to treat men and women differently.

I remember an artistic and eager lady asking me in her grand green drawing-room whether I believed in the comradeship of the sexes, and why not. I was driven back on offering the obvious and sincere answer, “Because if I were to treat you for two minutes like a comrade, you would turn me out of the house.”[2]

Both Chesterton and Shania Twain acknowledge the difference between man and woman. Between how you treat them. Between their natures. But this raises the question: what is different about man and woman? What is their ontology?[3] What is their nature? And where do these differences originate?

In a recent class on complementarianism and egalitarianism, one of my students raised the concern that we should be able to answer the question of why men are allowed to do certain things and women are not in a more robust way than simply, “the Bible tells me so.” He was advocating that we dig for deeper divine reasons for the guidelines.[4]

I agree. Ontological, metaphysical, natural-law grounds are needed as a harmonizing foundation to exegesis for gender complementarity. To put this another way, it is hard to know the ought without an understanding of the is. As Alastair Roberts has affirmed, divinely commanded gender roles should be “understood as a clarification and intensification of internal beckonings of being that we experience as men and women in the world.”[5]

Too often gender discussions only focus on exegesis, which is of utmost importance. But complementarians have neglected nature arguments, thus chipping away the ground on which we stand. We thus unearth a structural weakness in the foundation of a complementarian position.

On the one hand, we may be found thinking that though there are differences, these differences do not make much of a difference. Alternatively, those of us adhering to complementary gender roles might have the opposite structural weakness: too vociferously affirming difference as a reaction to the wider culture.

While debates continue to rage about gender roles, headship and submission, or same-sex sexuality, more fundamental questions must undergird these discussions. For too long we have had the ought conversations without pressing into the is. A deeper why exists that grounds why men and women are equal in essence but complementary not only in roles but in being. Manhood and womanhood are not social constructs. They are written into nature.[6]

In this essay I attempt to give a description of manhood and womanhood from a natural law perspective. These natural law arguments are based ultimately in Scripture, but provide the backdrop for many of the distinctions.

I will overview what natural law is, explain the similarities and the differences between men and women from a biological and sociological point of view, identify a simple description of manhood and womanhood, compare this to the description given in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, respond to some criticisms, and then add some clarifications of my own.

Natural Law

Natural law is the revelation of God’s will through creation. It is the moral truth God has revealed in the created order and made accessible to human minds.[7] There is a moral and meaningful natural order that corresponds to reality, and it is knowable.[8]

Christians believe the world is objectively meaningful and purposeful because God made it. Human beings have been given minds by God which are equipped to discover this meaning and purpose so as to produce flourishing and blessedness. To go against nature as God intended it produces chaos and death. Scripture affirms that the created order reveals God’s moral law.

For example, the topic comes up twice in Romans 1–2. In Romans 2:14 Paul affirms the Gentiles don’t have the Torah, but by nature (φύσις) do what the Torah requires. Gentiles know the right they ought to do even though God only gave the Torah to the Jews. Beneath the surface of this argument resides the presupposition that nature embeds a certain rightness and order to creation that is available to all.

Paul goes on to say this other law (νόμος) is written on human hearts (2:15). It is an unwritten law but written into the fabric of creation and stamped onto humanity’s being. Even people’s consciences (συνείδησις) bear witness to natural law, as there is an ingrained knowing of what is proper and improper.[9] People’s thoughts or conscience either accuse or excuse them because this law is entrenched in their nature.

The same concepts are employed in Romans 1:26–27 when Paul describes the downward spiral of sin and includes homosexuality in his list. He says, “women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” Three times Paul brings up what is natural or contrary to nature. This is the law written on people’s hearts, their consciences.

Paul has employed four terms that revolve around the idea of natural law: nature, law, heart, and conscience. But how do they relate? Budziszewski, though not exegeting Romans 2, argues there are four “witnesses” to natural law: conscience, design of the universe, our own design, and natural consequences.[10]

Four Witnesses to Natural Law
Conscience Something internal that beckons us toward the right, awareness of the moral basics.
Universal Design The design of the universe which points to a universal Designer.
Our Own Design For example, the complementarity of the sexes which shows men and women complete one another.
Natural Consequences Natural penalties for breaking natural law.


Natural law, our consciences, design, and the consequences of breaking this law teach us that an order exists to creation; and this order is discoverable, though it still needs to be interpreted. God is an intentional and precise Creator.

If this is the case, then natural law can be helpful for us in constructing masculinity and femininity.[11] Paul and the rest of the authors in the Bible did not construct gender roles. They recognized them. They based sociological and organizational instructions on a deeper reality found in creational order (1 Cor. 11; 1 Tim. 2; Eph. 5).[12]

The nature of men and women was and is embedded into the order of things, and we can know it.[13] Natural law thus indicates “the difference between men and women is not invented or constructed, but simply recognized. It lies in the nature of things.”[14]

Biologically and Sociologically the Same, Yet Different

The nature of things in terms of humanity can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, but a good place to begin is in adam’s (humankind’s) biology and sociology. If God created things in an ordered way with a purpose, then biology and sociology are key markers, pointers, and symbols in understanding the way things are.

Though biology and sociology do not exhaust this discussion, they are a good place to begin because the body and soul are integrated. Humans are psychosomatic unities;[15] our bodies correspond to who we are.

In this section I simply want to note how male and female are the same, yet different, and different in complementary ways. Male and female fit together, physically and sociologically speaking. These complementarities provide support for moving toward a more philosophical and spiritual description. I must, however, give three caveats before explaining the data.

First, readers must be careful to avoid the crippling stereotypes of the “Rambo man” and the “Snow White woman” which might too easily arise in the mind. Male-female differences can be embodied differently in different contexts and cultures, and recognizing one’s own situatedness and idealistic pictures is an important first step.

Second, differences usually lead to comparison. It is too easy to begin to say men are better at this because their brain is constructed in this way, or women are better at that because they are more holistic. But this leads us down a precarious path.

Differences are not deficits.[16] It is better to think of these as true differences, not in the sense of comparison, but in the sense of fittingness. Each sex will inflect strengths differently. One is not better than another; they are simply different in corresponding ways.

Third, these traits pattern themselves out over large samples of groups, but individuals can certainly break these molds. In other words, not all men or all women fit into these categories. However, a majority do, like a bell-curve. These are not absolutes; they are tendencies.

Having given these caveats, abundant evidence exists that men and women are constructed as same yet different.[17] Fewer of those arguing from a natural law viewpoint stress sameness, but there are so many similarities between men and women that the list could go on for pages. Both psychologically and biologically, men and women are more alike than different.[18]

Our bodies are largely the same: two legs, arms, eyes, ears. Our brains reside at the top, protected by a skull, organs in the middle, and limbs come down to the ground and off our torso. We both have chests and our genitalia are in the same spots. We walk upright. We both have one nose, one heart, one liver, one stomach. Our eyes, ears, muscles, and feet work the same.

Our organs are organized similarly. Our brains are basically the same. Even our genitalia emerge from the same mass of embryonic tissue. If you were to examine several fetuses miscarried in the third month of pregnancy, you would not know the males from the females unless you did a laboratory test to check. This is why Adam declares to Eve, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23).

But there are differences too. Physically, men tend to have more muscle and are generally taller than women. Females tend to live longer than males and they tend to mature more quickly . Physically, our genitalia are different, but there is also complementarity to them fitting together.

Male and female brains are similar but also different in some ways. According to neuroscientist Larry Cahill, the differences are marked, pervasive, and consistent.[19] For example, the hippocampus, which plays a role in memory and spatial navigation, takes up a greater portion of the female brain than the male brain. Other parts of the hippocampus are larger in the male brain. The right and left hemispheres are more interconnected in female brains than male brains. The amygdala, which is involved in emotional memory, is larger in men.

Sociologically, men and women are similar but again different, yet in complementary ways. It has been shown that men “are considerably more aggressive, competitive, and inclined to risk taking or violent behavior than women. Men, for instance, constitute the overwhelming majority of those within prisons in nations around the world and commit practically every crime at a higher rate than women.”[20]

In addition, “Male groups are much more agonistic and prone to direct violence; female groups can be much more prone to indirect and dissembled forms of social conflict. Women tend to prefer smaller groups; men tend to prefer larger ones. Male groups are more hierarchical in tendency; women are more likely to be egalitarian in their group norms. Women tend to be more people and social-emotional oriented than men; men tend to be more thing, task, and agency oriented than women.”[21]

Moving to consider generalities at a sociological level, many have noted that women are more integrative and men prone towards differentiation. Women differ from men in the way their minds, emotions, and bodies function together. Women typically confront situations as an entire person — with their emotions, intellect, and body all involved. Men more easily compartmentalize where they can ignore different aspects of their being. Von Hildebrand puts it this way:

If we try to delineate these specifically feminine and masculine features, we find in women a unity of personality by the fact that heart, intellect and temperament are much more interwoven; whereas in a man there is a specific capacity to emancipate himself with his intellect from the affective sphere.[22]

Edith Stein similarly says this:

The female species is characterized by the unity and wholeness of the entire psycho-somatic personality and by the harmonious development of the faculties; the male species by the perfecting of individual capacities to obtain record achievements.[23]

In this way women tend to perceive more things with their entire person. They respond more immediately and totally. Men on the other hand will respond in a more compartmentalized way. Sometimes men will respond mainly with their intellect, or with their physicality, while other parts of them remain detached. These differences don’t make men stronger or women weaker or men weaker or women stronger, but they are differences. Yet again, these differences complement one another.

The sameness-yet-differentness of male and female are clear. Yet these “traits and tendencies” fall short of constructing a larger telos. These are data points without interpretation. These are pieces of the puzzle without overall construction. We need something tied to these findings, but also something more foundational and philosophical.

Constructing Masculinity and Femininity

So based on biology and sociology, how should we describe masculinity and femininity? If biology is aimed and ordered, if it is a bow pulled taught, if it has a telos, then at what is it aimed?

The most succinct and useful definition has come from J. Budziszewski in his book On the Meaning of Sex.[24] Budziszewski begins with biology because the physical points to something spiritual. The body speaks and pushes us to more ontological and philosophical concepts. He provides the following summative statements based on a theology of the body.[25]

The fundamental meaning of masculinity is potentiality toward paternity.

The fundamental meaning of womanhood is potentiality toward maternity.

Pope John Paul II, who has written about the body and the relationships between male and female, says, “masculinity and femininity [are] . . . two ways of ‘being a body.’” This is what Spanish philosopher Julian Marias referred to as our “sexuate condition,” referring to everything that is involved in our being sexed (not merely our sexual activity). This includes the biological, but it also includes more.[26]

Budziszewski gives the example of sitting down with a college student who was contending men and women can all do the same things. Budziszewski pointed out there is one very important thing that women can do that men can’t: give birth. Along the same lines, women can’t father children. Biologically, this indicates a difference.

Budziszewski is quick to qualify that though this arises from biology, it does not suspend there. Paternity and maternity are defined more in the spiritual and natural sense. Potentiality can be confused with physical possibility only, but potentiality is more like calling. Motherhood and fatherhood are analogical concepts that can be applied to civil, professional, and ecclesiastical contexts. He goes onto say:

Even though every woman and man is not called to marry and bear physical children, every woman and man, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological, or spiritual mother or father….

Consider a man who fathers four different children by four different mothers, abandoning each mother and child in turn before moving on to a new sexual conquest. Is such a man a father? In one sense, yes. But in a deeper and more important sense, no, because the meaning of paternity is not just procreation, but provision and protection, faithful love…

Now consider a woman who is biologically unable to have children, but who, with her husband, welcomes foster children into her home, pouring love and nurture into their lives. Is such a woman a mother? In the biological sense, no; but because the meaning of motherhood is nurture and sacrificial, self-giving love she is more truly a mother than someone who bears a child before neglecting it until it leaves home. Thus, a woman who never bears a child does not cease to be a woman. Nor is her womanhood diminished, even if she never cares for children, for she maintains the capacity and freedom to live in a maternal way toward others in need of maternal nurture. In this larger sense, “all women are called to motherhood” and “all men are called to fatherhood.”[27]

Pressing this definition forward, manhood, in general, is directed outward(external agency), while womanhood, in general, is directed inward (internal agency). Inward-directed doesn’t mean self-focused and outward-directed doesn’t mean others focused. Men are typically (though not always) initiators, builders, and protectors of communities, while women are formers, nurturers, and sustainers of community.

To return to the physical, a man may deeply love his children, but he has not carried them in his womb and nourished them from his own body. These experiences attach a mother to her child in a unique way and make sense of some of the differences between men and women.

Edith Stein notes most men are more prone to abstraction and what is impersonal, while women are more prone to focus on the concrete and personal. Men tend to be specialists, single-task oriented, while women tend to be generalists and multitaskers. Stein continues saying the female sexuate is oriented toward supporting new life while the male sexuate is oriented toward reproducing and then detachment. The woman thus engages with the world more inwardly, while the man receives the world more externally. Women tend to view things more in totality, while men judge in a more compartmentalized manner.

Stein identifies the essential characteristics of womanhood in this way:

[The woman’s] point of view embraces the living and personal rather than the objective; . . . she tends towards wholeness and self-containment in contrast to one-sided specialization; . . . [with an ability] to become a complete person oneself . . . whose faculties are developed and coexist in harmony; . . . [who] helps others to become complete human beings; and in all contact with other persons, [who] respects the complete human being….Woman’s intrinsic value can contribute productively to the national community by her activities in the home as well as in professional and public life.[28]

Stein and Budziszewski seem to be on the same page, and so does Pope John Paul II, who says the following:

This unique contact with the new human being developing within her [the mother] gives rise to an attitude towards human beings—not only towards her own child, but every human being—which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man—even with all his sharing in parenthood—always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother.[29]

Budziszewski, Pope John Paul, and Stein all base their ontology on biology but also extend it to the spiritual, natural, and calling realms. There is something mysterious, beautiful, and complementary about the difference between paternity and maternity.

Deconstructing Masculinity and Femininity

In this section I want to put Budziszewski’s description of masculinity and femininity in conversation with what is found in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW). In 1991 John Piper constructed a short description of masculinity and femininity. It was a needed task as confusion, debates, and disagreement rained down concerning this topic.

Though the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does not include this definition of masculinity and femininity, it seems to be taken for granted in some complementarian circles as it is contained in the book connected to Danvers. The short description is as follows.[30]

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 differing relationships.

At the heart of mature 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.

Piper admits his descriptions are not exhaustive and are intended to embrace both married and single people, but he does affirm they get to the heart of the matter.[31] In some ways, one could argue Budziszewski’s and Piper’s descriptions overlap and are correlated. In other words, paternity is defined by leading and involves providing, and protecting. Maternity is defined by affirmation, reception, and nurture.

However, the following paragraphs will explain why I think Budziszewski’s description is an improvement, but also an improvement that also needs nuancing and additions. Below are four reasons I think the description in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has some structural problems.

First, the description is oppositional in its construction.

Piper’s description seems to teach that masculinity and femininity don’t exist unless in relation to the other. Piper explicitly states, “a significant aspect of femininity is how a woman responds to the pattern of initiative established by mature masculinity.”[32] To put this another way, the definition capitalizes on differentness rather than sameness. Even worse, it could be claimed that in this framework women are not women without a corresponding man. Yet in this construction a man can exist without a woman, which makes the man the “default” humanity.[33]

Now of course, when defining two similar pairs many are looking for the essence of difference. However, we get off on the wrong foot when we start here. Men don’t become men as they interact with women; nor do women become women as they interact with men or become wives — they are men or women before.[34] While there are elements of truth to Piper’s description, it leans too far in contrasting and opposing male and female. We should aim at a more integrative and even complementary definition.[35]

While physically and sociologically there are differences between men and women, as we have already seen, it is also true that these differences are not absolute. Large overlap exists in physical, mental, and psychological spheres. Men and women are of the same species; their similarities outweigh their differences.[36]

We need to start conversations about men and women with the idea of union or sameness. Perhaps there has been a tendency to undersell the category of “humanity” in these conversations. Genesis 1 begins with sameness, with humanity. Although it does identify humanity as “male and female,” which points to differentness, the emphasis in Genesis 1 is the unity of male and female; they are one species. In 1:26 God says, “Let us make adam (humanity) in our image and after our likeness.” Adam here refers not only to Adam but to Adam and Eve together.

This is evidenced by the next part of the verse where it says, “and let them have dominion over the fish and sea.” In Hebrew, as in English, the construction is in the plural.[37] The point in Genesis 1 is that adam (male and female) are made in God’s image and they are both tasked with having dominion. They are united in their differentness from the rest of creation and similarity to God. The Bible starts the natural law conversation with sameness; so should we. But this does not mean we should ignore differences as outlined in Genesis 2.

The difficulty is holding together the concepts the Bible affirms: sameness/differentness and union/complementarity. Finding, maintaining, and living the paradox is one of the most difficult tasks for humans.

Second, the description is too atomistic in its wording.

This builds on the previous point but also presses forward. Rather than looking at what it means to be a man or woman in terms of calling, the description goes straight for traits. Too often, it is easy to break down groups into individuals and individuals into traits and then to universalize them.[38]

However, there are actually very few “gendered commands” in the Scripture, pointing more to overlap than opposition. Yes, there are some, but the vast majority of the Scriptures are for both men and women, indicating God typically speaks to humanity as a whole and only rarely speaks directly to one gender.

This is important because the Bible — all of it — is for both men and women. Doing a study on what it means to be a man or woman by selecting texts that directly speak to men or women would be quite short and incomplete. Many of the definitions of masculinity and femininity seem to do just that.

One of my former pastors consistently said the following: “It takes a whole Bible to make a whole Christian.” In a similar way, “it takes a whole Bible to make a whole Christian man or Christian woman.” We would do well to recognize the vast majority of the Scriptures brings men and women into union rather than separating them.

For example, the fruit of the Spirit are for both men and women: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness are not gendered gifts but for adam (Gal. 5:22–23). There has been a tendency, especially in conservative circles, to define or put the emphasis on manhood and womanhood as two separate spheres that don’t overlap, as seen in the description Piper gives. However, it is probably better to view masculinity and femininity as a Venn diagram with a large overlapping middle.

Another argument in support of this is that the biblical authors expect the Spirit to produce in Christians the same kind of virtue and behaviors we see in Jesus. The Bible never claims his virtues are limited to men, even though he was and is a man. The Bible simply calls on believers to be Christlike.[39] Christ is the representative of all humanity.

Third, evidence exists in the Scripture that the descriptors given (lead, provide, protect vs. affirm, receive, nurture) are embodied in both genders, but differently.

Piper’s definition is too atomistic in that the descriptors don’t seem to only apply to one gender. In the Scriptures women lead and initiate (Jdg. 4; 1 Sam. 25; Exod 2; Esther 4; Ruth 3; Prov. 31; Luke 8:43-48; Matt. 15:21-28; Acts 16:14-15), provide (Ruth, Rachel, Zipporah, Prov. 31), protect (Ex. 1:15-21; Ex. 2:1-10; Ex. 4:24-26; 1 Sam. 25; Esther, Josh 2), are strong (Jdg. 4:21; Prov. 31; Pss. 27:14; 31:24; Eph. 6:10; 1 Cor. 16:13), and have authority even in the marriage relationship (1 Cor. 7:4).

In the Scriptures men help (Rom. 16:2; Acts 1:5), are called to be gentle and quiet (Matt. 11:29; Phil. 4:5; 1 Tim. 3:3; Gal. 5:22; 1 Thess. 4:11; 2:2), give life (Prov. 23:22; 1 Cor. 15:45), respond to leadership (Jdg. 4:6-8; Gen. 21:12; 1 Sam. 1:21-28; Prov. 8; Acts 18:24-26; Ruth 3:6-15), are soft and tenderhearted (2 Sam. 12:24; Eph. 5:25-32; Isa. 40:11; Isa. 49:16, 66:13; Hos. 11:3-4; 1 Thess. 2:7; Matt. 23:37).

Piper acknowledges this in his opening chapter illustration where he speaks about his hard-working mother, but then goes on to define femininity in a way that seems to contradict the way his mother acted.[40] While there is some truth to Piper’s definition, and his mother likely embodied his descriptors as well, the definition puts things in an overly atomistic and specific way.

In sum, the description doesn’t take a scalpel but rather a flat mallet that compresses everything in its path. It is interesting that as noted above, the Scripture, as a whole, doesn’t focus on a single description or even embodiment of gender. There are a variety of narratives and presentations, compelling a more complex representation of male-female relations. A better way forward is to see these traits are embodied by both males and females, but differently.

Fourth, the description is not comprehensive enough.

Piper’s description of masculinity and femininity doesn’t get to the underlying difference between men and women, though he admits the definitions are not exhaustive.[41] It looks to the fruit rather than the root. A structural weakness lurks beneath the surface. For example, the statement could be construed in such a way that all women are dependent upon a man or all men lead a woman or that all men have a woman to provide for and lead, something Piper explicitly denies.

The way the descriptions are framed seems to assume a marriage relationship, yet the essence of male and female must go beyond this. It is difficult to see how unmarried men and women are able to fulfill this definition, not to mention differing personalities in marriage relationships (unless he is also pointing to potentiality). [42] To put it succinctly, Piper’s definition focuses on husband and wife rather than expanding and multiplying our categories.

Scott Swain recently wrote an article where he requested more concepts to help define manhood and womanhood.[43] The husband-wife relationship (and maybe elder-congregant) seems to have been paradigmatic for the above definition. But men may be husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. Women may be wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. These descriptors exist in familial relationships, but these can even be extended to civil, social, and ecclesiastical contexts.

The possible weakness with the Piper’s description is that every relationship is defined by an authority relation, but there is more to say about manhood and womanhood.[44] According to the Scriptures, authority-submission seems to be part of what it means in certain relationships as male and female, but other relationships should be considered as well.

To put this more precisely, brothers and sisters don’t exist in authority-relations, so what does it mean to be a man who is a brother or a woman who is a sister? I find it interesting that the dominant way of addressing men and women in the Christian community according to the Bible is through the image of sibling. Piper’s definitions don’t seem to help in this regard, but neither does Budziszewski’s, as I will show.

Men are also sons and women are also daughters. But what does it mean to be a son and lead, provide, and protect? What does it mean to be a daughter and affirm, receive, and nurture? Piper’s definition doesn’t seem to travel very far in answering these questions, and therefore we need to ask whether it is sufficient for all the relationships men and women occupy.

In sum, I think the descriptions found in RBMW begin in an oppositional way, are too specific in looking at the fruit rather than the root, don’t respect the overlap of male and female, and are not comprehensive enough for all relationships as male and female. What I am not arguing for is a plasticity of male-female relations, but a more well-defined, broad, but also nuanced description, which Budziszewski presents.

Objections to Budziszewski

I have argued Budziszewski’s descriptions concerning paternity and maternity more accurately get to the heart of masculinity and femininity than the ones found in RBMW. However, it is fair to ask whether the critiques I have leveled could also be applied to Budziszewski, and whether his descriptions suffer from other weaknesses.

In other words, could it not be claimed that he also defines things in an oppositional way, is too specific, doesn’t respect the overlap of male and female, and is not comprehensive enough for all relationships as male and female? And does Budziszewski introduce other weaknesses?

First, in terms of defining masculinity and femininity in an oppositional way, it is true both definitions do focus on differentness. This is natural in trying to describe how male and female are different. However, Budziszewski’s definition does tilt more toward mutuality and union. Paternity and maternity are integrated. Physically you need both a male and female to have a child. Even if we push the conversation more toward calling, people need or at least are made for both paternal and maternal figures in their lives, even if these people are not biologically related to them.

Second, is Budziszewski’s definition too specific? What about singles? What about childless women? What about the disabled? Does he also narrow the definition to the marriage relationship? It sounds as though he leaves these other groups out by using paternity and maternity language. However, he actually moves past the marriage relationship in that he is not talking about husband/wife, but paternal and maternal virtues that go beyond marriage and having children. Although he qualifies his definition, nevertheless, this critique partially lands, which is why in the next section we will have to expand his definition.

Third, does Budziszewski’s definition not respect the large overlap between male and female? In Budziszewski’s definition the point seems to be that the genders will inflect virtues in different ways. He actually avoids this by not listing traits but giving a larger umbrella category. The reason most language (and the Scripture) can be gender neutral is that most of it applies to both male and female. Yet, the genders will embody these traits in different ways. Budziszewski puts it this way:

To say that there is a real difference between manhood and womanhood as such is not at all to say that this difference is simple or all-encompassing. Because men and women are not different species, but corresponding sexes of the same species, each is defined partly in terms of the other.[45]

What we don’t want to lose is that men and women are not just different, but different in corresponding ways that make them natural partners. Each helps bring the other into balance.

Budziszewski’s definition allows women to lead, but to embody leadership in a different way and in different spheres. It allows men to be gentle and quiet of spirit, but in a different way than women. It allows men and women to both be addressed in the Scripture most of the time, but also to embody these virtues in different ways. Men and women reflect the same human nature with equal fidelity and dignity, but reflect different aspects of it.

Men and women are both called to joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness, but it may look differently in each individual. As Alastair Roberts has put it:

Many are inclined to think of gendered virtues in an oppositional manner, as if speaking of a ‘masculine virtue’ implicitly meant that it were not a ‘feminine’ virtue. This is unhelpful. Gendered virtues should rather be understood as those virtues that enable us to live as the sort of distinct symbolic and relational beings that we are. Any particular virtue will typically be a virtue for both sexes. However, each sex will inflect the virtues in its own particular way.[46]

What this means is that some fields of work might be more attractive to women and others to men. But even when that mold is broken, women will embody those roles in different ways than men. For example, a female president of an institution will interact differently than a male president, but both are called to lead, guide, and protect.

The fourth critique that could be leveled against Budziszewski is that he defines things too narrowly in terms of procreation and marriage and teleology. Again, I think this is a valid critique. Budziszewski seems to be aiming for the essence of the difference, but still restricts his description unnecessarily.

Fifth, some might claim that Piper and Budziszewski’s descriptions actually imply the same thing. Budziszewski looks at manhood and womanhood from the sky and Piper from the ground. My whole argument is a distinction without a difference. But because of my critiques of Piper’s descriptions above, I still think Budziszewski’s description is an improvement.

Sixth, it could be asserted that Budziszewski’s definition is not specific enough and doesn’t give enough direction in terms of how this plays out. At least with Piper’s definition there is a sense of what men and women are called to do. I find this critique fair. It does lack specificity. What turns out to be Budziszewski’s strength is his weakness, and what turns out to be Piper’s strength is also his weakness. Having admitted this, I still believe a broader definition is needed now, as more and more people are abandoning ship in terms of “masculinity” and “femininity” because of the weaknesses identified above.

Thus, Budziszewski’s definition avoids the trappings of some of Piper’s descriptions and allows for more emphasis upon union, sameness, complementarity, and how these things can look differently from one individual to another. It gives guardrails without boxing in. It gives categories without being too specific. Though it is not as specific as Piper’s description, it allows more contextual flexibility while also affirming complementarity.

Improving Upon Budziszewski

I have argued Budziszewski’s description is an improvement. However, I have also reflected on how Budziszewski’s definition is both too specific and too broad — too specific in that it does lean toward married couples, and too broad in that it doesn’t give enough specifics in terms of how this will be played out in relationships.

Because of Budziszewski’s own “structural weaknesses” I have added to his descriptions by including the following phrases.[47]

The fundamental meaning of masculinity is sonship, brotherly love, and potentiality toward paternity.

The fundamental meaning of femininity is daughterhood, sisterly love, and potentiality toward maternity.

Each of these expand and enlarge how men and women are defined by their relationships in the body. I did this for three reasons.

First, my definition more explicitly expands past the marriage relationship by beginning with sonship and daughterhood.[48] Budziszewski’s definition too quickly pushes to what we can become, but neglects what we are. We are all offspring of God (Acts 17:28).

Sonship and daughterhood don’t need to be actualized or potentialized. To speak only of paternity and maternity immediately puts the conversation in the realm of marriage, while for many people the marriage relationship will never happen. Teleology needs to be balanced with genesis and ontology.

Humanity’s most fundamental relationship, as both male and female, is with God. We are God’s sons and daughters. Humanity is not only aimed at “paternity and maternity.” We are born as sons and daughters. But in another sense we are also called to be sons and daughters. We are called to perform what we are.

We continue as sons and daughters in the family of God, albeit in a heightened way. When describing masculinity and femininity we need to press both back to our beginning and forward to our future. Men are sons. Women are daughters. This is our first sociological relationship. It is also our first calling.

Second, my definition expands past the marriage relationship by including the most common biblical idiom given to Christians: familial. Paul and the rest of the biblical authors call the covenant community “brothers and sisters.” We are to treat all as brothers and sisters, thereby implying we are all brothers and sisters as well.

The familial metaphors expand when describing the church. God is our Father. Christ is the husband and our brother (Heb. 2:11; Rom. 8:29). The church is the bride. Interestingly, when Jesus is asked about the new creation, he asserts there won’t be marriage. Brotherhood and sisterhood will encompass all our relationships in the new creation (Matt. 22:30).

Though this familial language is directed at the church specifically, there is also evidence that brotherhood and sisterhood is the reality all humanity should aim for. The church is simply humanity remade, redeemed by blood and given the Spirit.

Including the language of brotherhood and sisterhood thus embraces a more fundamental reality and all humanity — children, singles, the disabled, and the widowed — are more explicitly included. Complementarity goes beyond wife and husband, beyond mother and father.

Third, my definition includes the virtue of love, which is the supreme virtue. Jesus asserted multiple times there are “weightier” matters of the law or “most important” commands (Matt. 23:23; 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31). In short, some things are more important than others. According to Jesus and Paul’s words, love is the greatest (1 Cor. 13:13; Matt. 22:36-40).

To put this in the frame of this discussion, love is greater than authority-submission. To leave out love neglects the weightier matters of what it means to be male and female. Neither does including love “cancel” authority-submission.

Any definition that does not include love explicitly seems to be lacking, as this is the highest calling. It allows some specificity without getting too narrow. And as Piper explains, sometimes this love will be reflected in leading, affirming, and protecting; sometimes this love will be reflected in affirming, receiving, and nurturing.

Males and females will embody these in different ways based on their different roles, based on who they are interacting with, based on what social situation they are in. In fact, there are different types of love: parental, friendship, benefactor, and beneficiary. Love is only love when aimed at and respecting the reality in front of it. We are all called to love. This love will be refracted in different ways based on differing relationships.

Conclusion and a Few Implications

This article has attempted to give a natural law argument for male and female that supports complementarity. However, in doing so we revisited some previous descriptions of masculinity and femininity, arguing they were too oppositional, too specific, didn’t appreciate the overlap of male and female, and not comprehensive enough for all relationships as male and female.

In sum, there is a structural weakness in saying that men lead, provide, and protect while women affirm, receive, and nurture. It is not that this definition is untrue in some situations, it is simply not true in enough situations to stand as the heart of masculinity and femininity.

Budziszewski’s definition focuses on paternity and maternity and gets to the heart of the issue while also allowing more flexibility. It recognizes differences but does so in a more balancing way. It allows for different embodiments of virtues and doesn’t put male and female in an oppositional relationship.

However, Budziszewski’s description has its own weaknesses. It focuses too much on the marriage relationship, majors on teleology and potentiality, and doesn’t specify any virtues. Adding sonship/daughterhood, brotherhood/sisterhood, and love expands his description to more relationships and includes the supreme virtue.

The strength of Piper’s description is that it puts flesh on the practicality of masculinity and femininity. His weakness is that by so doing he leaves out quite a few relationships that don’t fit under that banner. The strength of Budziszewski is that his description is broader and thus fits various contexts. The weakness is that some might walk away not knowing exactly what this looks like.[49]

One implication of this paper is that the church, and evangelicals in general, need both mothers and fathers in the spiritual sense. Both genders reflect the virtues of the Spirit in different ways. This is another way that God has given the body a variety of gifts that should all be employed in building up the body of Christ.

Complementarians, without folding on arguments for distinct gender roles, can press more into familial language. Not every male-female relationship should be framed with authority-submission. Familial language in the church far outpaces the gender role passages, but perhaps we have lost focus on these.

Overall, I hope this article serves to further the discussion on the beautiful unity and complementarity of men and women. I don’t think natural law arguments for masculinity and femininity have been employed enough, and evangelicals would do well to press further up and in. Exegesis still needs to be done, but Paul bases his commands on a fundamental reality found in creation. We need this foundation as well, or else we might be found to be building our house on sinking sand.

Patrick Schreiner is Associate Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[1] Though I generally despise the word “toward” in titles, I put this as a gesture of humility. This is not the last word on the subject. Nor do I think I have this issue cornered. I suppose it would take decades of the entire church thinking about this to satisfactorily describe the unity and complementarity of men and women. I thought this essay would be a good place to catalogue some thoughts on the topic in hopes of pushing the conversation forward. My hope is that we all can continue to have more precise conversations about what it means to glorify God as both men and women.

Thanks to Tom Schreiner, Julia Mayo, Josh Hedger, Brandon Smith, Matthew Emerson, Allyson Todd, Scott Swain, Jennifer Kitner, Jason Duesing, and Hannah Anderson for reading this before it was published and helping me hone and clarify the argument.

[2] Gilbert Keith Chesterton and James V. Schall, The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 4:123.

[3] Paul Jewett affirms maleness and femaleness are essential, not peripheral, to our personhood. He says, “Sexuality permeates one’s individual being to its very depth; it conditions every facet of one’s life as a person. As the self is always aware of itself as an ‘I,’ so this ‘I’ is always aware of itself as himself or herself. Our self-knowledge is indissolubly bound up not simply with our human being but with our sexual being.” Paul K. Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 172.

[4] These questions are similar but also distinct to when Piper asks if complementarity between men and women is beautiful, satisfying, and fulfilling. His essay deals not so much with the exegetical argument but more in terms of whether people can live with it. John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 33.

[5] Alastair Roberts, “Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are,” Blog, The Calvinist International, 13 September 2016,

[6] People use terms in different ways. In my opinion manhood and womanhood transcend cultural expressions. Masculinity and femininity are socially constructed, not in the sense that they are disconnected from natural law, but that each culture will express these differences in culturally specific ways. I personally am unsure of how to relate our embodied gender with the soul. Farris gives two historical models: gender is an essential property of the soul (Thomistic) or gender is an essential property of the earthly body and a common property of the soul (Gregory of Nyssa). Joshua R. Farris, Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 224–29. Gregory in On the Making of Man is famous for constructing human sexuality in such a way that it is not a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. He says sexuality will not characterize humanity in its resurrected form, though Cortez interprets him as saying there will be some continued significance of gender. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 5, Series 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 5.2; 16.5; 16.7; 25.10. Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 51–52.

[7] Hannah Anderson was right to point out to me that nature’s witness still requires interpretation. Sometimes conversations on natural law assume the witness is simply downloaded into our brains, but we must acknowledge subjectivity still exists.

[8] Whether one sees manhood and womanhood as intrinsic to nature or the result of social ideals and stereotypes is a dividing line. Certainly, the two can also be integrated, but nature precedes sociology.

[9] The term “conscience” (συνείδησις) is a key aspect of Stoicism. Conscience is a word in the realm of knowledge. The word itself is derived from the verb synoida which is a compound of oida which means “to know.” With syn it means to know “with” or “with oneself.” It meant therefore to know immediately or intuitively. For the Stoics, this concept concerned the ethical norms we approve of in our experience and action.


[10] J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Wilmington, DE: Ignatius Press, 2011), Part 2. In a complementary (I had to use the word one more time) way, Joe Rigney gives three witnesses to God’s design: nature, Scripture, and culture. He says culture is the expression of nature in a particular time and place. “Because our nature is bent, our culture is also bent.” Joe Rigney, “What Makes a Man — or a Woman? Lost Voices on a Vital Question,” Desiring God, 9 September 2020,

[11] Cortez gives a different view from this article. He argues gender essentialism is not required for maintaining a traditional sexual ethic or a complementarian view of church government. He says God can stipulate norms irrespective of underlying biological realities. He gives the example of God choosing the Levites who would serve as priests. It is not because they had essential qualities that made them essentially different from the other tribes. In the same way he forbade marriage with Canaanites, but there was nothing essentially different between Israel and Canaan at a biological level. Marc Cortez, ReSourcing Theological Anthropology: A Constructive Account of Humanity in the Light of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 209.

[12] With the inclusion of Ephesians, some might wonder if Paul’s household codes all fall under natural law even in the case of masters and slaves (Eph. 6:5–9). However, Paul doesn’t use a natural law argument for masters and slaves. He does not base master and slave relationships in created order. In fact, the rest of Scripture demonstrates this relationship goes directly against natural law. Paul speaks to a bad situation attempting to make it better.

[13] Piper agrees. He says the Bible does not leave us ignorant about the meaning of masculine and feminine personhood. He affirms Paul’s commands are based on the permanent facts of creation. Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 35. Storkey puts it this way: “We can accept that our sexuality is indeed a given, part of the deep created structure of our humanness. The differences in our sexual makeup are part of the rich complementarity that God has breathed into creation. Yet, a creational perspective is different from a ‘natural’ one; sexuality is not simply that which defines our ‘nature.’ Creation is ordered, not by something people used to call the laws of nature but by complex normative structures that define and delineate our various relationships God has created a norm for the structure of reality and breathed an ethical order into it, and that has implications for our sexuality. Far from being driven by the unremitting desire to procreate, we have the responsibility to use our sexuality responsibly and to act always in love. How we express our sexuality matters, and we remain accountable to God.” Storkey, Origins of Difference, 127.

[14] J. Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014), 50.

[15] Storkey says, “if our differences are ‘fixed,’ part of our very biology, there is little we can do to alter them.” Storkey, Origins of Difference, 7.

[16] Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender & Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 1990), 77.

[17] Clark asserts the differences between men and women should be stated descriptively rather than evaluatively, they should not be viewed as absolute, we should recognize that both sexes possess every trait, and that many trait comparisons are not universal but hold only within the same social group or within the context of male-female relationships. Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980), 374–77.

[18] Wedgeworth’s article is an example of going straight for differences rather than sameness. Steven Wedgeworth, “The Science of Male and Female: What God Teaches Through Nature,” Desiring God, 11 September 2020,

[19] Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex, 38.

[20] Roberts, “Natural Complementarians.”

[21] Roberts, “Natural Complementarians.”

[22] Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Man and Woman (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1965), 13.

[23] Edith Stein, The Writings of Edith Stein (London: Peter Owen, 1956), 142.

[24] Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex, 35–65.

[25] Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex, 54, 58. Budziszewski seems to have been influenced by Pope John Paul II who said “we should observe that in Genesis 4:1 the mystery of femininity manifests and reveals itself in its full depth through motherhood….the mystery of man’s masculinity, that is, the generative and ‘paternal’ meaning of his body.” John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 210–11, 217.

[26] Julian Marias, Metaphysical Anthropology: The Empirical Structure of Human Life (Penn State, PA: Penn State University Press, 1971). The English word sex derives from the Latin word secare, which means to “to cut or divide.”

[27] Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex, 55–56.

[28] Edith Stein, Essays On Woman, ed. L. Gelber and Romaeus Leuven, trans. Freda Mary Oben (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996), ?

[29] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988), 18.

[30] Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 35–36. Piper admits definitions are risky and pleads that people not jump to implied conclusions. He asks that anyone who critiques his definitions would put them in ways that he would agree with. When one reads these statements, they might be tempted to import some off-putting previous teaching or actions from their past. But before one does, it is important to go and read Piper’s whole chapter first where he elaborates on each phrase. He is more nuanced and careful than a Twitter world and cancel culture allow.

[31] Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 35.

[32] Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 45–46.

[33] Thanks to Julia Mayo for pointing this out to me. Some might claim Jesus’ maleness is an argument in support of male as the default humanity. However, the Scripture rarely points to Jesus’ maleness, but rather to his humanity (Heb 2:14, 17–18; Phil 2:7; Col 1:15–16). This is not to deny Jesus’s maleness. However, Cortez and other church Fathers are also right to point out Jesus is put next to Logos-Sophia which is a female personification. But some scholars have taken this point too far. Cortez, ReSourcing Theological Anthropology, 190–211.

[34] Piper affirms this as well. “They [the sexes] are not simply reflexes of a marriage relationship. Man does not become man by getting married.” He goes onto say the form of leadership will vary based on the different relationships man has with women. Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 44. However, the descriptions make it hard to see how both of these can be true.

[35] Piper admits his aim is to point out the uniqueness of the male and female personhood, since the tendency when he wrote it was to stress the equality of men and women by minimizing their difference. This was written right before 1991. Thirty years later this is still true in the wider culture, but maybe complementarians in their reaction have oversold the differences. Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 33.

[36] Though I don’t follow Gregory of Nyssa in all his anthropology, his logic implies the imago Dei is what is most essential to being human, not sexual differentiation. Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 48.


[37] Though some have argued the use of adam is significant for “headship” arguments I find this argument lacking. Grammatically this makes little sense in Hebrew. There is no neuter gender in Hebrew and adam does not mean male gender in Scripture. Additionally, the emphasis is on union in Genesis 1, not headship.

[38] For much of this point, I am dependent upon Roberts’s argument. Alastair Roberts, “Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are,” Blog, The Calvinist International, 13 September 2016,


[39] For more on this topic see Cortez, ReSourcing Theological Anthropology, 205.

[40] He says, “Mother was strong. I can remember her arms even today thirty years later. They were big and in the summertime they were bronze. But it never occurred to me to think of my mother and father in the same category. Both were strong. Both were bright. Both were kind. Both would kiss me and both would spank me. Both were good with words. Both prayed with fervor and loved the Bible. But unmistakably my father was a man and my mother was a woman. They knew it and I knew it. And it was not mainly a biological fact. It was mainly a matter of personhood and relational dynamics.” Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 31.

[41] Under the description of “at the heart of” he says they are not exhaustive. Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 36.

[42] Piper admits that a man can be masculine in this way without being married or even around women. This is what he means by “a sense of.” This also can be true of those who can’t physically provide or protect their family. However, even with the caveats, the descriptions still lend themselves to marriage relationships. Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 36.

[43] Scott Swain, “More Thoughts on Theological Anthropology: Man as Male and Female.” Reformed Blogmatics, 14 May 2020.

[44] Piper does say his definition needs to be in relation to man and woman’s differing relationships.

[45] Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex, 51.

[46] Alastair Roberts, “A Biblical Gender Essentialism?,” Alastair’s Adversaria, 1 September 2014,

[47] Both of these descriptions are rooted in biological distinction.


[48] Hannah Anderson pointed this reality out to me in personal correspondence. This point comes largely from her.

[49] Scott Swain mentioned to me in personal correspondence that this is where the virtue of prudence applies in a natural law scheme. Prudence discerns appropriate applications in appropriate contexts and does not require pre-formed conclusions like a rules-based approach.

Did you find this resource helpful?

You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.

Donate Today