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Topic: Eikon

Sameness and Distinction: Rethinking Assumptions about God’s Design of Men and Women

November 20, 2020
By Jenn Kintner and Joshua Wester

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

A father shames a ten-year-old boy for helping his grandma: “Get out of the kitchen; that’s a woman’s work!” A woman sits dejectedly during a Sunday sermon as her pastor preaches through Ephesians 4:11–13 and says, “Only pastors and elders were given the gift of teaching.” She thinks, “Am I abnormal? I don’t want to be a pastor, but I know God’s gifted me as a teacher. Was that a mistake?” These are real situations where individuals were confronted by a distorted view of sexuality that categorizes things common to humanity as distinctly male or female.

Beyond the church, the world is deeply confused about what it means to be male and female. As our culture’s view of sex has shifted rapidly over the last few decades, even the most basic patterns of living together in society as men and women have been called into question. As a result, pastors, parents, kids, and even spouses are presently facing challenges and rethinking vital questions about gender and sexuality that previous generations simply took for granted. As we’ve considered this issue, one thing that has become clear is that the church needs a better understanding of God’s design for men and women.

This is not the time to be wrong about sex and gender. If anything, the cultural moment we find ourselves in demands that the church articulate what it means to be male and female more clearly than ever before. We must embrace the fullness of what it means to be created as male or female and recognize that sin can distort God’s design in either direction (e.g. a male’s tendency toward either emasculation or hyper-masculinity).

In our tenacity to defend the patterns of God’s design in a culture that seeks to blur the distinction between male and female, it is crucial that we not forget that God made humanity (singular) in his image. But he has purposefully made us male and female (binary), and our distinctions are manifest in more than just physical or genetic traits. We must neither diminish biblical distinctions between men and women, nor create artificial categories to define masculinity or femininity that undermine our sameness as humans. Scripture and nature speak to both the fundamental sameness of the sexes and the beautiful distinctions between men and women.

From the Beginning (Genesis 1-3)

Genesis is a book of foundations. It is where we learn so many fundamental truths about the natural order God instilled in the world. It is also where we see how the Fall has distorted God’s design and how sinful humans reject the created order. In Genesis 1, we see God creating human beings. It is clear that the man and woman are of two different sexes, but distinction is not the only thing emphasized. Genesis 1–2 clearly highlights Adam and Eve’s sameness as image bearers.

When Adam speaks in Genesis 2, he says the woman is “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh” (2:24). Though we often speak of men and women as though the two sexes couldn’t possibly be more distinct, the truth is just the opposite. Not only are men and women not completely different, but in all of creation there is nothing more like man than woman. This is the stated reason Eve was created (2:18). In naming the animals, Adam saw his need for someone like him, not his need for someone different. Moreover, God recognized Adam’s need for someone who was complementary to him, who would be his perfect partner.

Beginning with Sameness

From the beginning, we see that sex is binary. Everyone is created either male or female (Gen. 5:2; Matt. 19:4). Many human experiences and characteristics, however, are not. It is not as though every human trait or activity comes down a conveyor belt to be categorized as either male or female: Rollerblades: female, legos: male, kitchen: female, garage: male, theological training: male, gentleness: female, courage: male. In other words, if we were to create a venn diagram of human characteristics and activities with one circle representing males and another females, there would be much overlap.

Among many other things, the Bible teaches that both women and men should exhibit courage, care, hospitality, generosity, relationality, leadership and submission. But it is important to acknowledge that even the traits or behaviors we have in common are always embodied by either a male or a female. The sex of the person displaying each trait will shape the way it is displayed. Our biological sex matters and is central to our lives as human beings. Instead of being incidental to our identities, giftings, abilities, relationships, or activities, our existence as male or female is integral to each. Who we are, what we do, how we think, feel, and act are not detached from our existence as either male or female.

The church has often been guilty of essentializing manhood and womanhood in unhelpful ways. In our conservative Christian circles, both of us grew up frequently hearing some version of the following: “Men protect and provide. Women help and nurture.” While we can appreciate any attempt to clarify the differences between men and women, especially in the midst of a culture seeking to dismiss or erase these things, to create such hard-and-fast categories is harmful and incredibly reductive. Simply put, stereotypes like these hurt, not help, in a gender-confused age. For instance, within this framework one is forced to conclude that in his culinary enthusiasm the ten-year-old from our opening example has taken on not only the behavior but the desires of a woman. Likewise, such a paradigm would force us to conclude that women are bound by God’s design to refrain from exercising protection under any circumstances. But in fact, neither are true.

A “Proverbs 31 woman” is too often portrayed as weak, needy, and dependent — a caricature of a helpless female who is useful in the kitchen or laundry room but good for little else. But these flawed descriptions don’t match the portrait of the hard-working entrepreneur seen in that passage who provides for her family and employees (Prov. 31:13, 15–16, 18–19, 24). Hospitality and care are often depicted as feminine in Christian gender-stereotypes. And this is understandable, as women often excel in this area. But hospitality and care are also qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24). And we shouldn’t miss that the Apostle Paul uses the analogy of a tender nursing mother to describe his ministry to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:7). When we consider the Scriptures as a whole, instead of isolated verses that may seem to reinforce certain stereotypes, it’s not surprising to find traits such as hard work, provision, hospitality, kindness, and gentleness exemplified by both men and women — these characteristics reflect the attributes of God, in whose image both men and women are made (Gen. 1:27).

Exploring Differences

Though it seems counterintuitive, acknowledging a difference in design doesn’t promote inequality. In fact, the opposite is the case; failing to do so promotes inequality. For example, if average men and women compete in the same athletic competition, the men will likely be faster and stronger. Because men have a built-in competitive advantage, the athletic abilities of women are needlessly diminished by not acknowledging the differences.

Recognizing the inherent strengths of each sex and grasping the beauty of God’s complementary design for men and women fosters human flourishing. To recognize the propensities and strengths inherent to either sex demonstrates the need for both sexes. Our aim should be to realize a robust complementarianism that affirms men and women as both valuable and necessary. At the same time, we must discern our distinctions to allow men and women to flourish as they live their lives “with the grain,” as it were, of God’s design.

Rethinking Exclusion

Once we grasp this fundamental distinction — that everything we do is connected to our existence as men or women — a second related concept also becomes clear. Upon deep reflection, we cannot name a single characteristic or trait that is mutually exclusive in terms of the sexes.[1] But while women and men will both display traits that reflect the image of God and are common to humanity, they will not always display those traits identically.

Provision. Protection. Nurture. Care. Though we can typically associate these traits with a particular sex, each one is regularly displayed by both men and women. But this doesn’t mean that men and women always exhibit these and other traits in the same ways or to equal degrees. In fact, men and women always exhibit these behaviors differently because we do each of these things as either a man or a woman.

Despite our intentions, in creating hard-and-fast categories of gender roles we’ve often misapplied the teachings of Scripture and caused harm and confusion about a critical issue by promoting improper restrictions and limitations. And we’ve done so in a way that has been particularly negative for women. Still, others in the church have responded to this error by insisting there are no distinctions between the sexes and that God intends men and women to manifest each of these traits in equal measure. This also fails to account for the beauty and complexity of God’s design.

Reservoirs Instead of Roles

So, if these traits are not mutually exclusive to, nor equally displayed in, men and women, how should Christians think of them? To answer that question, an analogy may prove helpful.[2] Picture two reservoirs (or wells) side-by-side that are interconnected at the surface. One represents men, and one represents women. They are both reservoirs and they both have water. The water flows between them and overlaps, but the reservoirs are not identical; they remain distinct. Further, think of the depth of each reservoir as representing the natural capacity of either sex to manifest a given trait. Taking the example of love, we would say that men and women are, in general, equally likely to manifest this trait. The same is true of something like generosity. Nothing in our natures, or revelation from Scripture, teaches us that men and women are different in this regard. But what about other traits?

Consider the idea of beauty. Beauty is more often associated with women, both biblically and culturally. This is why Peter instructs women not to allow their beauty to be from outward adornment (1 Pet. 3:3). Men and women both possess beauty, but it is associated with women in a unique way. In terms of their natural capacity to manifest a trait, we would argue that women are gifted by God with deeper reservoirs for beauty than men. Such an example may seem rudimentary, but the idea becomes clearer when we think of a concept like nurture. Men are not exempt from nurturing or exercising care, but women, in general, have been gifted by God to display this characteristic in a special way (1 Thess. 2:7; Isa. 49:15). Again, both Scripture and human experience attest to the deep natural capacity of women to nurture. Part of this is built into human biology. For example, it is no accident that women are able to breastfeed. But women’s gifting in this area extends far beyond caring for infants or children. Nurture is a unique part of God’s design for women.

Men, however, often have a greater depth to draw from when it comes to strength or protection (Deut. 1:29-31). Paul acknowledges this when he instructs the Corinthians to “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). God intentionally built this into male biology. He doesn’t call men to protect their families because men happen, on average, to be stronger than women. Instead, strength and the ability to protect are a part of his design for men — the physical make-up follows the intended function. But this does not mean that strength and the ability to protect are limited to men. Nor is it the case that nurture is limited to women, which is why Paul described his care for the congregation in Thessalonica as being tender like a nursing mother (1 Thess. 2:7).

What happens when we ignore sameness or distinction?

There’s often a temptation to either heighten the importance of sex and gender or ignore it completely. This tendency is seen in foundational social science research as well. Lawrence Kohlberg[3] and William Perry[4] included only male participants in their studies, respectively, on moral development and intellectual and ethical development. As a result, women often didn’t score in the upper stages of their development schemes. And understandably so, since they were being evaluated against metrics designed for men. Outraged, women responded with studies of their own, focused exclusively on women. Belenky et. al,[5] Marcia Baxter Magolda,[6] and Carol Gilligan[7] all published studies that included women, sometimes exclusively.

These studies often elevated the importance of sex as though these distinctions signified completely different species.[8] But interestingly, this further research involving women revealed different patterns as well as an ethic of care[9] that were not seen when the research was narrowly focused on men. Taken as a whole, the research revealed what we might expect: women and men are more alike than different when it comes to intellectual and ethical development, but the research also revealed distinct patterns and perspectives between the sexes.[10]

From this research we see there is a danger in neglecting our distinctions. Ignoring these distinctions tends to make a man’s experience the norm. To diminish either our differences or our similarities devalues women. And we see this take place in both the church and the world. To make us the same takes away from God’s unique design of men as men and women as women. It also denies our God-given purpose of glorifying him as either males or females.

This diminishing happens most often in the secular culture around us. In the name of progress and liberation, society today is doing everything possible to flatten or erase any distinctions between the sexes. But one’s biological sex is not a mutable characteristic, and the idea that it is incidental to one’s personhood is especially damaging to women and children. Women need not view themselves as inferior or inherently deficient because their biological makeup is substantially different than that of a man. That men are on average taller and stronger than women, for example, is of no consequence to our understanding of the ontological equality of men and women. But ignoring our differences disregards men’s and women’s experiences as such and denies an important aspect of our humanity. Far from indicating a lack of equality, taking note of these distinctions actually affirms the necessity and complementary nature of the two sexes.

In the church, however, we often witness the inverse of this problem. Mindful of the Bible’s teaching about the differences between men and women, the church has frequently downplayed or overlooked the fundamental commonality of men and women as humans. To see men and women as wholly distinct from one another is to deny our common humanity. To affirm that men and women are equal in essence, dignity, and value, as the Scriptures do, is to affirm that men and women are equally human. As human beings, each of us experiences life as either a male or female, yet it is critical to remember that every person experiences life in the world as a person. Therefore, both our created differences and our created similarities should be further explored to better understand and celebrate manhood and womanhood without essentializing either in ways that God doesn’t.

How do those findings match up with Scripture?

Biblically, that’s what one would expect to find. There are not two separate types of knowledge or two ethics in Scripture, one for men and one for women. Both men and women are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Both are fallen (Rom. 3:10–12, 23). Both are redeemed through believing the same gospel (Rom 10:9; Acts 16:31; Col. 1:13–14; Eph. 2:8–9; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 9:12; Rom. 3:23–25). Men and women are addressed separately in certain passages (Deut. 22:5; Gal. 3; 1 Tim. 2; Col. 3; Eph. 5; 1 Cor. 14; Titus 2; etc.), which helps to clarify distinctions about what it means to be male and female. But throughout the Bible, the vast majority of commands and instructions apply to both men and women.

Faithful Expression of Maleness and Femaleness

As committed complementarians we understand that God has established certain distinct functions for men and women. We believe, for example, that God calls men to exercise leadership in a unique way in the church and in the home. Similarly, we believe that certain teaching roles within the church are reserved for men. But even in such cases, we recognize that God calling men to lead in the church and home in no way means that women are prohibited from exercising leadership or using their teaching gifts (in appropriate ways) in either context. We readily affirm Paul’s instruction for wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1-5, and Colossians 3:18. But the fact that women are called to submit to their own husbands does not mean submission is a “feminine” trait. Within the church and before God, men and women are both called to practice submission (1 Pet 5:5; James 4:7; Titus 3:1).

For too long, the church has operated with a deficient understanding of sex and gender. We’ve been unprepared to answer the questions about manhood and womanhood posed by a ten-year-old boy being told to get out of the kitchen and by the woman in the church pew asking, “Did God make a mistake in making me a gifted teacher?” We need to be able to address the sameness and the differences of the sexes without resorting to unhelpful stereotypes. It is only by thinking carefully about these issues that we can begin to appreciate the fullness of God’s design, which is beautiful, robust, and complex.

Men and women are different by design. As we live our lives, we not only pull from different depths in different areas, but in our embodiment of these traits and behaviors, our masculinity and femininity are expressed. Whether she is speaking at a conference, leading a team of co-workers, or preparing a meal for friends and family, everything Jenn does, she does as a woman. And the inverse is true for Josh. Everything we do, we do as a male or a female, and in everything we do, that reality finds expression. To faithfully express the fullness of God’s design, we need a theology of sex and gender that can affirm these distinctions without undermining the fundamental sameness of men and women as both image bearers and human beings.

Josh Wester serves as Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and is a ThM student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jenn Kintner holds a Doctorate of Education from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the Office Coordinator at the ERLC.

[1] We recognize there are specific categories that are exclusive to each sex. For instance, fathering is always masculine and mothering is always feminine though both are gender-based expressions of parenting.

[2] No analogy is perfect. We acknowledge this attempt to illustrate the way God designed men and women cannot perfectly address the complexity of these issues. Still, we believe the reservoir analogy can helpfully illustrate the primary but non-exclusive nature of certain traits.

[3] Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1981).

[4] William G. Perry, Jr., Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).

[5] Mary Field Belenky et al., Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic, 1997).

[6] Marcia Baxter Magolda, Knowing and Reasoning in College: Gender-Related Patterns in Students’ Intellectual Development (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).

[7] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[8] Many of the studies set out alternate schemes for men and women, but even as they do so the overall structure of development remains very similar, showing that men and women are more alike than different in their ethical and epistemological development while demonstrating different patterns and perspectives.

[9] Carol Gilligan in her research cited that “women for a combination of psychological and political reasons voiced relational realities that were otherwise unspoken or dismissed as inconsequential.” See Carol Gilligan, “Hearing the Difference: Theorizing Connection,” Hypatia 10, no. 2 (1995): 123. Several of the researchers in addition to Gilligan emphasized a similar theme of care. As secular researchers they rightly observed this pattern of moral reasoning that appears when women are added, but they wrongly explain and apply this ethic. They recognize the connected relational reality that women tend to exhibit in decision making, but in some of the research wrongly use it to justify abortion as an ethically good decision. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 4.

[10] For more explanation on the similarities and differences of these schemes, see Jennifer Kintner, “Alike but Different: Epistemological Development of Men and Women,” Eikon 1.2 (2019), 20-27.


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