Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Describing Manhood and Womanhood

I once had a professor, very good in other respects, who told me that men and women were different but that we cannot (and should not) say how they are different beyond obvious biological differences. Any attempt to do so was, in his thinking, an unwarranted generalization, certainly one unwarranted by the Bible. This was in reaction, I believe, to the concept of biblical manhood and womanhood promoted by people like John Piper and Wanye Grudem. I found my professor's position unconvincing.

It was interesting that another professor at the same school strongly emphasized the importance of the fact that we are embodied beings. He taught that our bodies are essential to us. We are material beings who have been given life. This has implications for gender differences. I remember him making a point that LGBT advocates have been able to promote a low view of the body because many Christians already viewed humans as essentially souls. Looking back at my notes from his class, I find this note: "More work needs to be done on the content of gender differences. (We had quite a bit of discussion in the second half of class.)" 

Indeed, the physical differences between men and women can be too easily minimized, as if they didn't make much of a difference apart from reproduction. But God has made us in wisdom, intricately and purposefully designing men and women differently. Not only did he give them different responsibilities, but he gave them different physical designs to match those responsibilities. These differences are ingrained in our natures, not restricted to roles we play in certain contexts. 

Allan C. Carlson describes the traditional family as the "natural family" because it is not merely traditional, but rooted in nature (see his books, The Natural Family: A Manifesto and The Natural Family Where It Belongs). Men and women are designed to create the natural family and to build society in conformity to it, but our society continually suppresses and rebels against this design in the name of the unnatural ideology of egalitarian individualism. 

So contrary to what my professor taught, I believe the Bible teaches that men and women are different and that these differences are not a total mystery. The fundamental differences are taught in the biblical account of the creation and naming of man and woman (see Genesis 1-5). They can be found in other parts of Scripture. Furthermore, they can be observed in nature. The Bible treats this knowledge as common sense. When it says that a particular army became like women (Jer. 50:37, 51:30, Is. 19:16), it assumes you know this is not a compliment. When it asks if a woman can forget her nursing child or fail to show compassion on the son of her womb (Is. 49:15), it assumes you know that this is a rhetorical question. 

One passage where some of the characteristic strengths of men and women are described is 1 Thessalonians 2. There the apostle Paul compared himself, Silas, and Timothy to a mother and a father. This does show that men can and should have virtues like gentleness that are more characteristic of women, just as the whole congregation can be exhorted to "act like men" in 1 Corinthians 16:13, that is, to be courageous. But at the same time, it affirms that men and women have unique gifts and strengthens which particularly equip them for their place in life.
"But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us." (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)
A woman is uniquely designed be nurturing and tender. She is designed to compassionately share her self with her children. She carries them in her womb and even after giving birth keeps them alive with her body, giving them milk. A mother best exemplifies what it looks like to be gentle and affectionately desirous of someone. And while not all women become mothers, all women have the nature of mothers, engrained as it is into their embodied existence. And therefore this sacrificial care, personal affection, and gentleness is characteristic of femininity in general. 
"For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12)
A man is designed to rule and to lead others to accomplish the mission. Note the words Paul uses. "Exhort" - a father calls his children to act. "Encourage" - a father motivates his children and gives them confidence. Without this, children get provoked to anger. "Charge" - a father entrusts responsibility to his children and holds them accountable. To see an example of what this fatherly exhortation looks like, read Paul's second epistle to Timothy. While a mother is best equipped to nurture and comfort a child, a father is best equipped to correct and direct the child unto maturity. Both of these elements are important for a child's upbringing. And again, while not all men become fathers (Paul, for example), all men have the nature of fathers. 

More could be said. If you are interested in more in this vein, you might listen to C.R. Wiley's talk "Toxic Matriarchy" here or read one of his books, Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos. I think this topic is particularly an important point for millennial men like myself. While older generations of men might have been more prone to be overly distant, workaholic, or harsh, my sense is that millennial men tend to turn away from these faults and are prone to become overly informal, lazy, or soft. While we should be accessible and loving, we must not neglect the fact that we are particularly designed to have gravitas and bear authority so that we might lead others onward.

While 1 Thessalonians 2 does not encapsulate everything about manhood and womanhood, it assumes a knowledge of gender distinctions which our culture is hesitant to admit. Our culture is hesitant to affirm that there is a natural order at all - this impinges on my freedom to be what I want. Instead, all these distinctions must be explained as mere social constructs, which can and should be challenged. But if a design deeper than a social construct undergirds traditional gender distinctions, then it would be wiser to make peace with the Creator and begin to learn how to live in the world he designed.

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