World-renowned historian William Manchester could write in 1993 that “the erasure of the distinctions between the sexes is not only the most striking issue of our time, it may be the most profound the race has ever confronted.” Twenty-six years later, it is difficult to overstate just how prescient Manchester’s statement was. The attempt to erase the distinctions between the sexes has not only accelerated apace in the ensuing decades, it has evolved and eked into nearly every realm of contemporary life. How should we think about the inevitable confrontation before us? The task at hand is proper discrimination, the drawing of distinctions, and this according to God’s original design.
Written into the creation account is a self-understanding that the depiction of God’s creative acts in Genesis 1 and 2 is not merely an accountant’s schedule — as if supplying a rote list of things God created is the primary aim. Instead, the creation account communicates a morally normative narrative whose aim is to illustrate God’s revealed will for the world — not only in the what of creation and its order, but also in the how. The norming nature of this narrative can be seen most clearly when the author of Genesis breaks the fourth wall and looks into the camera, as it were, to prescribe a normative definition of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). In saying “therefore,” the author grounds his “Thou shalt” for marriage in the foregoing narrative of God’s creation of man and woman.
The New Testament everywhere confirms the morally normative nature of Genesis 1 and 2; for instance, when Jesus counters the teaching of the Pharisees on divorce, He appeals — seemingly against Moses and the Law — to these initial chapters in Genesis. In so doing, He articulates a normative hermeneutical principle: “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:3–9). In other words, God’s original creation presents what ought — and by implication what ought not — to be “so.” Paul, a true disciple of his Master, likewise invokes what seem to be minutiae in the creation narrative — that woman was created from man and for man, and that man was created before woman — in order to ground his exhortations to the churches on male headship (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8–9; 1 Tim. 2:12–13; Eph. 5:22–33).
Creation’s Catechesis in Distinction
Perhaps more fundamentally, it could be argued that the opening chapters of the book of Genesis lay the groundwork necessary for an epistemological framework for everything there is to know about God and about His creation. Revealed in these chapters is nothing short of a Christian metaphysical accounting of the world and everything in it, as well as the one who made it all.
In the first words of Genesis we encounter a fathomless well of theological declaration. The book opens, “In the beginning, God . . .” These words proclaim a God who is before all things, who is eternal. He is in the beginning; in the beginning is God and nothing else. From these four words we can deduce that God is a se, which simply means He owes His existence to none other than Himself. A corollary aids our understanding: all that is not God owes its existence to Him.
Verse 1 in Genesis stands as a summary statement over the rest of God’s creative acts, wherein He makes something out of nothing, ex nihilo, by the Word of His power. This God “created the heavens and the earth” — that is, everything. In this verse is a fundamental theological affirmation known as the Creator-creature distinction. The world can be divided into two kinds of beings: created and uncreated. God is uncreated, and as such is sui generis, unique in the universe in His God-ness. Everything that is not God is created by God, and thus is essentially — in its very essence — different from Him.
From the beginning, the Scriptures catechize in distinction. Discrimination is the act of recognizing or drawing distinctions. To attempt to know anything whatsoever is first to be able to discriminate between it and that which it is not. And the fundamental distinction is between what is caused and what is uncaused, what is dependent and what is independent, what is derivative and what is original; namely between the creation and its Creator.
This fundamental Creator-creature distinction, which must also be understood as the fundamental metaphysical distinction, informs the proceeding distinctions in the creation account. These creational distinctions are real and grounded in God’s creative acts; but they are metaphysically relative compared to the difference between the created and the uncreated Creator. It is little wonder that pantheists, and to a lesser but no less erroneous degree the panentheists, fail to uphold meaningful distinctions in creation. The collapse of the Creator-creature distinction leads to the collapse of all discriminations. If there is no difference between the Creator and His creation, then in what way are any distinctions said to be meaningful?
As God creates in Genesis, He gives form through exhortation, boundary, and fashioning contradistinction. His creative Word commands by calling things into being and then prescribing their existence, which entails setting their bounds and also calling forth their contradistinction. God creates heaven by also creating earth; we know heaven through its juxtaposition to earth. He creates light and defines it in opposition to darkness. The waters above are separated, distinguished, and thus made distinct, from the waters below. God creates dry land, a form that is only meaningfully known through knowledge of its antithesis, the seas. The sun is not the moon nor the moon the sun, because day is not night and its boundary is not to be transgressed.
In the beginning, God created a universe full of distinction.
Created Distinct for Communion
As the creation narrative progresses in Genesis 1, God forms and then fills. Alastair Roberts remarks on the logic of the creation account:
“Days one to three (verses 1-13) are days of structuring, division, taming, and naming. . . Days four to six (verses 14-31) are days of generating, establishing succession, filling, glorifying, and establishing communion.”
The creational divisions underwrite the creational communions. Without distinction, there can be no communion. It could be said that form begets forms.
But as the creation narrative in Genesis 1 arrives at day six, it slows down and is taken with communion predicated on distinction. God proposes to make adam, a creature who shares a commonality with creation through his origination from the adamah, the ground, but enjoys a unique communion with God as he is created in the divine image. Yet the adam is also to be distinct from creation, having dominion over it, while remaining distinct from the Creator. An image is, after all, not coterminous with what it images. Even so, the commonalities and distinctions of day six are not complete: this image-bearing adam is created “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). The very words used to describe the creation of the adam in Genesis 1:27 as male and female point to a social-sexual complementarity — another word loaded with unity in diversity — which is further explored in Genesis 2. Adam is “male,” a Hebrew word that etymologically hints at outwardness and prominence as a definitional aspect of this creature, and “female,” a Hebrew word that etymologically hints at inwardness and receptivity.
In Genesis 2, the narrative returns to scrutinize God’s creation of adam on the sixth day. Here the dramatic details to describe this extraordinary creature begin to multiply. The adam is initially created alone. This is the only privation of good mentioned in all of God’s original creation (God declares in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”). But the adam is to be made aware of his aloneness, and God parades the animals before him in order for them to be named. These animals would have presented in their paired, dimorphic differentiation.
Imagine two creatures strolling past the adam, similar in appearance, one slightly larger with a grand mane, the other smaller, yet glorious and sleek, corresponding closely to her mate in form, and the adam says, “Lion.” Two by complementary two they file past. One wonders how long this procession went on before something awakened within him. All around him, the adam observes distinction and correspondence, melody and rhythm, woven through every detail of creation. And upon this realization, God puts the adam to sleep to form from his side his corresponding distinction. Awakening, the adam sees his complementary other, and he gives her a name which points to their unity and diversity: woman (isha), “because she was taken from man” (ish, Gen. 2:23). God designed his perfect complement to be his “helper” — distinction — “fit for him” — correspondence (Gen. 2:18, 20).
Embedded in God’s creation of male and female, man and woman (there is no strict bifurcation between sex and gender in the biblical witness) is a simple but profound theological truth grounded in God’s creative distinctions and necessary for biblical anthropology: mankind is created to be male and female. That is, mankind is dimorphic — existing in two forms, male and female — not dipolar. Just as the land and the seas, the light and the dark, the sun and the moon have contradistinct forms that are not merely two extreme poles that exist to define a fluid middle, mankind is not a spectrum of variegated difference. Male and female He created them.
The Meaning of Mankind’s Dimorphism
Mankind’s dimorphism as male and female is fundamental to understanding God’s purpose for human sexuality and gender. As Oliver O’Donovan writes, “Human beings come into existence with a dimorphically differentiated sexuality, clearly ordered at the biological level towards heterosexual union as the human mode of procreation.”
Mankind’s sexual dimorphism addresses three presenting anthropological errors in our day, which the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood stands resolutely against in its confessional statements. These anthropological errors are feminism, homosexuality, and transgenderism.
Firstly, feminism downplays male-female difference and militates against both male and female form in pursuit of male-female egalitarianism. Feminism starts, according to O’Donovan, “from the personalist position that the opposition of the sexes should have no implications for social interaction.” With this starting point, feminism “is left asking what the point of biological dimorphism is.” Instead of asking the purpose of maleness and femaleness, feminists too often view men’s superior physical strength and stature as inconsequential, and women’s wombs a liability. But in their mathematical calculation that a wo(mb)man minus a womb equals a man, they fail to see how deep the grooves run. The feminist argument begins with desired outcomes instead of God’s creational design and reasons in the opposite direction observed in the Christian Scriptures.
Homosexuality similarly ignores the dimorphic nature of male and female in its rebellion against the created order. This explains why Paul’s treatment of the sin of homosexuality stands at the apex of his jeremiad on mankind’s rebellion against his Creator in Romans 1. At each step along the way, the divine distinctions baked into creation are cast aside in favor of manmade edifices which stand against the laws of nature — an ultimately untenable position. In their willful ignorance of the Creator, mankind turns to worship the creature, thus obliterating the God-given dominion that distinguishes them from creation. This worship flows in the opposite direction of God’s purposed order. Mankind’s failure to acknowledge the distinction between Creator and creature begets a derivative failure, as they relinquish dominion to their subordinates, the “birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:33). This culminates in a rebellion against the fundamental distinction in mankind as male and female. Using women as men and men as women, they trade distinction for interchangeability and spurn divine distinctions, an act that resembles self-worship, which is the ultimate inability to discriminate. The homosexual rebellion is not just rebellion against God, nature, and its crown, it is also a rebellion against the self. It is related to what O’Donovan calls a “false self-knowledge,” which fails “to recognize in our bodies, not only a vehicle for the free expression of our spirits, but also a given structure and meaning which limits that freedom.” Homosexuality is a failure to recognize the given-ness of one’s body — which asks, given for what?
It is no accident that the letter “T” is wed to “L,” “G,” and “B” in the progressive mind. Transgenderism is the same project in self-definition by another name. Transgenderism obliterates male-female distinction — at best trading out forms, at worst treating sexuality as a fluid dipolarity — and treats the human body as a plastic that exists for self-actualization, not as a given form. In transgenderism’s animating spirit, O’Donovan rightly detects not one but two ancient heresies:
“It is the first and decisive step in contemporary manifestations of the Manichaean spirit to regard nature, not as a gracious gift of the Creator, but as a problem to be overcome.”
“If I claim to have a ‘real sex,’ which may be at war with the sex of my body and is at least in a rather uncertain relationship to it, I am shrinking from the glad acceptance of myself as a physical as well as a spiritual being, and seeking self-knowledge in a kind of Gnostic withdrawal from material creation.”
The Manichean roots for a god against the natural world; the Gnostic seeks a god liberated from the natural world; but the Christian confesses a God who fathers the natural world and then enters into it as the incarnate Son.
Though the rebellions against God and His will are manifold — rebellions that include but are certainly not limited to these anthropological errors — they have a common root: the failure to rightly discriminate in God’s creation. From the woman who desires manly rank, to the effeminate man who looks to another man for what only a woman is designed, to the one who thinks gender is incidental and not fundamentally bound to sexual form, perhaps even going so far as to attempt a surgical creation ex nihilo to confirm a fiction — these are all various degrees of the same rebellion. But from the beginning it was not so; therefore it must not be so.
Transgressing God’s Creational Distinctions
By creating what He has created in the way He created it, God has meticulously laid down in all of creation distinct, form-norming grooves that by their very existence warn against transgression. God summons these distinctions as witness against his people in the midst of their sinful rebellion during the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah:
“Do you not fear me? declares the Lord.
Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea,
a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail;
though they roar, they cannot pass over (עבר) it.” (Jer. 5:22)
This perpetual “barrier” against the sea is, literally translated, a statute, a prescription of the divine will. The prescriptive boundary between land and sea in Scripture represents God’s prescriptive authority, which is grounded in His creative power. God’s authority is bound up with God’s ordination of distinctions. In the book of Job, God asks the beleaguered man, “[W]ho shut in the sea with doors . . . and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther?’” (Job 38:11). The book of Proverbs has Wisdom recalling, “When [God] established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command” (Prov. 8:28–29). But unlike the seas, which are obedient to God’s ordinances, the people of Jeremiah’s day were failing to heed God’s righteous discriminations. God indicts them in language that recalls His perpetual statue for the seas: “They know no bounds (עבר) in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice” (Jer. 5:28). Their base error is an act of indiscrimination, which has led them into deeds of evil against God’s created order.
If we are to be found faithful, we will seek to uphold proper creational discrimination. This must include both proper worship of God — and not His creation — as well as a right apprehension of dimorphic sexual distinction that participates in a purposefully stratified world. It is no coincidence that the constituent doctrine of the church — the union of Christ and His church — trades in marital imagery that is predicated upon God’s creation of man as male and female. And thus neither is it mere happenstance that we find ourselves defending this very confession against the powers and principalities of this age.
Colin Smothers serves as Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Associate Pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.
William Manchester, “A World Lit Only By Change,” U.S. News & World Report (October 25, 1993), 6.
Alistair Roberts, “The Music and the Meaning of Male and Female,” Primer 03 (2018), 3. Accessed on October 2, 2019 (https://primerhq.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/primer-03-the-music-and-the-meaning-of-male-and-female.pdf).
I am borrowing the imagery of “melody” and “rhythm” to describe natural complementarity from the end Perelandra, the second book of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.
Oliver O’Donovan, “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage,” Journal of Religious Ethics 11, no. 1 (Spring 1983), 141. This fundamentally teleological understanding of creation persists even where the telos is materially absent: “Within the framework of the Christian understanding of marriage, however, femaleness and maleness have a meaning which, since it is generic to humankind, is significant also for those in whom the teleological meaning of their sex is not, or cannot be, individually instantiated; that is, for the unmarried and the sexually handicapped.” O’Donovan, “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage,” 142.
O’Donovan, “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage,” 142.
O’Donovan, “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage,” 151.
O’Donovan, “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage,” 142.
O’Donovan, “Transsexualism and Christian Marriage,” 147.
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