Toward an Integrated View of Gender Differences On the basis of both physiological and social-science research, we can
conclude that both nature and nurture and the interaction between them become important contributors to the formation of femininity and masculinity. We must challenge a single-factor deterministic explanation of gender differences. One’s natal, chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, internal and external accessory, and pubertal sexual development play a profound role in one’s sexual identity. However, socialization also significantly affects the meanings and behaviors associated with sexual identity.
The interaction of nature and nurture are important in the Christian perspective. The main bodily or physical aspect of human existence is one’s sexually differentiated body. “The fundamental human differentiation which constitutes the true order of humanity is necessarily experienced as sexual
differentiation, and this is a determination of humanity, not an accidental or incidental manifestation of humanity” (Anderson 1991, 51; italics in original). Humanity is being male or female (Strachan and Peacock 2016). That is, structurally speaking, sexuality is the natural state of affairs that determines one’s relationships to others and the nonhuman world. From Anderson’s perspective, being male or female is primary to one’s social relationships.
Social relationships or roles are secondary to one’s gendered humanity. This is not to say that social relationships are unimportant. Sexual humanity is true humanity, and gender informs how people relate to one another. An important implication of Anderson’s (1991) perspective is that being male and female takes precedence over marital and familial roles. This means that we embody the social roles we find ourselves in based upon our sexually differentiated bodies. This sexual differentiation is the intended, holy, and willful differentiation of the Creator of the universe (Strachan and Peacock 2016). Anderson (1991, 35; italics in original) says, “that which we call human being is differentiated creatureliness, experienced as a response to the creative divine Word.”
One’s sexual, bodily existence is the context for living out the image of God. That is, being male or female forms the central, structural category for differentiated human relationships. This differentiation occurs through God’s creative Word and empowerment of humans. Through relationships, humans are to steward and fill the earth. Sexual differentiation provides the somatic experience of both particularity and relatedness. In a profound sense, one’s sexual identity is constituted in one’s relationships with both the same and opposite sex. This mutuality reconciles males and females to collaborate and complement one another in stewardship of creation and living out family relationships while mutually submitting to the will of Christ.
The most compelling evidence that biological factors account for some gender differences can be found in correlations between the social behavior and the physiological attributes of each gender; gender differences in infants and young children prior to socialization; the emergence of gender differences with the onset of puberty, when physiology and hormonal secretion changes rapidly; stability of gender differences across cultures; and similar gender differences among the higher primates. For other examples of gender differences see Debra Soh’s (2020) excellent work, The End of Gender. Whereas these findings may seem to reinforce traditional gender
stereotypes, they do not deny that the socialization process accentuates these tendencies. The issue here regards society or socialization as creating these differences or stereotypes (social construction of gender) or biology as significantly influencing the interests and activities of one gender compared to the other.
Genesis 1:27 records the creation of humans: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” One important implication of this verse is that God created male and female as distinct human beings. We are left to determine exactly what that means and how such differences are to be expressed in male- female relationships. We must turn to the Scriptures for further elaboration on this distinctiveness and then interpret what we find there in light of social- science findings on gender differences. In certain New Testament passages, Paul argues that there are differences between men and women in dress and certain social roles (1 Cor. 11:1–13). These differences are not viewed as a necessary part of the created order, but they are adopted in society. In some passages on how women and men are to relate in households (Eph. 5:21–33), Paul incorporates Roman and Greek household ethical codes and argues that Christians should follow those principles.
Some theologians would argue for specific gender-differentiated household roles or divisions of labor (Köstenberger and Köstenberger 2014; Strachan and Peacock 2016; Strachan 2019). For example, Strachan (2019) identifies these roles for the male as provider, protector, caretaker, and nurturer of the female. One concern with this approach that identifies more traditionally modern male and female divisions of labor as the biblical ideal is that household tasks themselves are difficult to identify as either male or female. More importantly, these modern divisions of household labor may not reflect household division of labor in New Testament times. It is important to maintain the distinctiveness of men’s and women’s sexual differentiation and how this differentiation results in gender identity and expression. However, we need to be careful to see that God-honoring gender identity may involve different gender expressions as cultures change over time.
The Bible has more to say about Christian temperament in general than it does about distinctions between female and male temperament. Paul writes in Galatians 5:22–23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It is
noteworthy that our culture considers these attributes to be feminine. On the basis of these verses, we would argue not only that males and females should be more alike but also that males need to develop the qualities that have traditionally been defined as feminine.
Still another means of viewing gender roles from a Christian perspective is to examine the person of Jesus during his earthly ministry. That is to say, what was Jesus really like as a human? To begin with, we read about a person who experienced a wide range of emotions, but compassion and love were pervasive. The compassion of Jesus is seen in his relationships with the blind man, the woman with the issue of blood, the lepers, the bereaved widow, the woman at the well, and children. Consider also his actions toward people in need—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and reaching out to the lost as to sheep without a shepherd.
The compassion of Jesus was also expressed in his sorrowful emotions during experiences of despair and loss. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because of the unbelief of its people. When he saw Mary and Martha grieving over the death of Lazarus, he openly cried and expressed his own sadness. At other times, Jesus was elated and expressed great joy. When the seventy he had sent out to witness returned, Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). He also told his disciples that if they would abide in his love, his joy would be in them (John 15:10–11).
In addition to meekness, Jesus openly expressed anger and indignation. In a world under the curse of sin, he responded appropriately with anger. When he witnessed unbelief, hypocrisy, and acts of inhumanity, he took action. Jesus openly expressed his emotions, whether it was to nurture the little children or to overturn the tables in the temple. The picture that emerges is that Jesus was not traditionally masculine or feminine by our current cultural standards but, rather, distinctively human. He incorporated the characteristics of both masculinity and femininity and presented to the world a model of an integrated and whole person.
Changing Gender Relations and Family Life The home is one of the main arenas in which males and females live out their gender. As we express our gendered identities in a manner that glorifies God, we need to understand women’s and men’s roles in family life. A biblical understanding challenges traditional female and male gender roles and offers
a corrective to postmodern and critical theory’s attempts to erase any meaningful differences between men and women.
Women in Family Life Western women have traditionally acquired status in our society through
being wives and mothers. The dramatic redefinition of work along with men’s and women’s roles in the workplace has transformed the ways women and men participate in work and family life. Many women experience contradictory expectations when they begin to pursue professional careers or work full time outside the home. Magazines, films, and television add to the confusion by encouraging romance, marriage, and childbearing while at the same time glorifying the independent, career-oriented woman.
The message given to Christian women is that they must have it all. In an effort to do it all, they become superwomen who suffer stress and frustration, especially if they attempt to balance a career and motherhood. The fallout from this might best be illustrated by the titles of popular books written for Christian women such as Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (2020) and Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society (2019).
In The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women (2004), Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels suggest that there is a “new momism” consisting of a set of standards of success that any mother will find impossible to meet—devoting herself 24/7 to her children with a professionalism that includes the skills of a therapist, a pediatrician, a consumer products safety inspector, and a teacher. In The Myth of the Perfect Mother (2004), Carla Barnhill urges mothers to parent without fear or guilt by reclaiming their personhood in Christ. This means viewing motherhood as a spiritual practice and not as a calling. A mother should be judged less on how her children turn out than on how her spiritual practice of mothering is exemplified by the virtues of love, mercy, humility, peace, justice, and compassion. Rethinking the spirituality of mothering goes a long way in combating the cult of the perfect mother.
Whereas husbands may encourage wives to work outside as well as inside the home, they often do not pick up the slack at home, so the woman is left with a double-duty workload—a second work shift. Wilcox (2004) found that married fathers who express the most traditional gender-role beliefs and whose wives also work outside the home spend about three hours less on
household labor each week than do egalitarian fathers. We believe that Christians should pursue a path of dual leadership and coparenting. Husbands and wives should be on the cutting edge in working for interdependence and role flexibility in this cooperative venture.
Men in Family Life The traditional definition of masculinity has also been evaluated
negatively by emerging research on men. Men are described as so emotionally restricted that they are often strangers to their wives; fathers are so emotionally absent that they are often more a “phantom man” than a “family man”; boys grow into manhood with a “wounded father” within, resulting from an emotionally distant father they never knew; and what men learn about power, achievement, competition, and emotional inexpressiveness results in their entering relationships with other men with great caution and distrust.
Fatherhood has received careful attention in the past decades. The effect of fatherlessness has been documented as an aspect of social and civic concern since the 1990s. According to 2017 US census data, more than one in four children lived in a home without a father. David Blankenhorn (1995) argues that the decline of the father’s role as caregiver, moral educator, head of the family, and breadwinner has been enormous. Although we are cautious about offering a single explanation, there is a wealth of research evidence suggesting that the diminished presence of the father is responsible for increases in a variety of social ills such as juvenile delinquency, youth violence, domestic violence against women, child sexual abuse, children living in poverty and economic insecurity, adolescent childbearing, and unwed pregnancy. In contrast, living with an involved father has been associated with better educational outcomes (Whitney et al. 2017), and father presence in the household is associated with greater emotional and social well-being (Adamsons and Johnson 2013). This does not mean the mere presence of the father is enough to overcome father-absence per se (Schoppe-Sullivan and Fagan 2020). That requires strong fathering, which can have a profound effect on children and all of society (McLanahan, Tach, and Schneider 2013).
More recent definitions of fatherhood describe both the economic and the direct activities associated with it (Schoppe-Sullivan and Fagan 2020). Fatherhood is increasingly understood as providing both direct engagement
—including male warmth and responsiveness to children and control or authority—and indirect provision through economic and process needs such as educational opportunities, daily physical resources, and access to parks and recreational activities (Pleck 2010). The emphasis here is on both the emotional and behavioral engagement of the father with his children as well as the indirect provisions of shelter, education, and medical care. Fathers having intimate relationships with their children is crucial to children’s well- being. This aspect of fatherhood represents a significant change for men operating with a traditional view of masculinity.
The Christian men’s movement Promise Keepers has strongly emphasized emotionally involved fathering as a major plank in its construction of Christian manhood. Men need to be committed—especially in their relationships—to Christ, family, and the church. A number of Christian organizations continue to work to strengthen the father in the home.
Bradford Wilcox (2004) notes that when compared with both fathers who do not attend church and fathers from mainline churches, fathers in evangelical churches tend to be warmer and more expressive in their fathering. Family values have become the key markers of evangelical identity. A legitimate question to ask is how evangelical family values and ideology correspond with men’s behavior in family life. Wilcox uses the term soft patriarchy to describe the “softening effect” on men who are regular attendees of conservative churches, shown by greater emotional engagement with wives and children.