Egalitarianism tends to obscure the deeper differences between manhood and womanhood. This has not served us well in the last fifty years. It has instead confused millions and muted a crucial summons for a distinctly masculine care.
What average man or woman today could answer a little boy’s question: Daddy, what does it mean to grow up and be a man and not a woman? Or a little girl’s question: Mommy, what does it mean to grow up and be a woman and not a man?
Who could answer these questions without diminishing manhood and womanhood into anatomical structures and biological functions? Who could articulate the profound meanings of manhood and womanhood woven differently into a common personhood created differently and equally in the image of God?
How many articles have been written about the meaning of being a “real woman” or “real man” that leave us saying, “But all of those wonderful things apply just as well to the other sex — maturity, wisdom, courage, sacrifice, humility, patience, kindness, strength, self-control, purity, faith, hope, love, etc.”? By all means, these mark true womanhood. And they mark true manhood. So, they do not answer the little boy’s question: What does it mean to grow up and be a man and not a woman? Or the little girl’s question: What does it mean to grow up and be a woman and not a man?
For decades, Christian and non-Christian egalitarians have argued, assumed, and modeled that roles among men and women in the home, in the church, and in the wider culture should emerge solely from competencies rather than deeper realities rooted in how we differ as men and women. This means that, from the side of egalitarianism, very little attention has been given to the questions of our little girl and boy. Apart from physiological and anatomical features, the questions seem to have no answers. And today, even those features are pliable.
Way back in 1975, Paul Jewett, who taught me systematic theology at Fuller Seminary, conceded as an egalitarian his uncertainty about “what it means to be a man in distinction to a woman or a woman in distinction to a man” (Man as Male and Female, 178). He did not mean the anatomy was ambiguous. He meant that, whatever deeper differences there are, he didn’t think we could know them.
“The stubbornness of God-given nature creates the need for the egalitarian message to be even more forceful.”
Egalitarians seem not to have been alarmed by this confession of ignorance. Instead, it seems they have been confirmed and emboldened by it. It fits the half-century-old gender-leveling current of the culture. But current is too weak a word. Torrent or avalanche would be more accurate. One need only sample the movies and TV shows of recent years to see the increasing passion with which women are portrayed as being just as physically strong, harsh, impudent, violent, arrogant, vulgar, two-timing, and sexually aggressive as any macho male hero.
One wonders if this passion for the portrayal of Annie Get Your Gun on steroids is perhaps owing to the rising sense that there is something in nature that won’t adapt to our egalitarian portrayal. The stubbornness of God-given nature, then, creates the need for the egalitarian message to be more forceful, even preternatural (Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Superwoman). Such are the trials of those who try to recreate what God made otherwise.
But it really is astonishing that Paul Jewett was unable to identify the deeper meaning of manhood and womanhood. The reason it should astonish us is that he confessed,
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. At the human level there is no ‘I and thou’ per se, but only the ‘I’ who is male or female confronting the ‘thou,’ the ‘other,’ who is also male or female. (Man as Male and Female, 172)
He cites Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner (d. 1966), to the same effect,
Our sexuality penetrates to the deepest metaphysical ground of our personality. As a result, the physical differences between the man and the woman are a parable of psychical and spiritual differences of a more ultimate nature. (Man as Male and Female, 173)
After reading these amazing statements concerning how essential manhood and womanhood are to our personhood and how sexuality “conditions every facet of one’s life,” it is all the more stunning to read Jewett’s agnosticism about the meaning of manhood and womanhood,
Some, at least, among contemporary theologians are not so sure that they know what it means to be a man in distinction to a woman or a woman in distinction to a man. It is because the writer [Jewett himself] shares this uncertainty that he has skirted the question of ontology [what actually is] in this study. (Man as Male and Female, 178)
All human activity reflects a qualitative distinction which is sexual in nature. But in my opinion, such an observation offers no clue to the ultimate meaning of that distinction. It may be that we shall never know what that distinction ultimately means. (Man as Male and Female, 187)
Surely this is a great sadness — and an important clue to how we got where we are today. It is not a great leap from Jewett’s agnosticism about what manhood and womanhood are to the belief that those differences (unknowable as they seem to him) have no God-given, normative status in the nature of things, but only a social status chosen by individuals.
The decades-long disinclination to ask the question (using Brunner’s terms), What are the “psychical and spiritual differences of a more ultimate nature” between manhood and womanhood? has morphed from Jewett’s agnosticism into today’s antagonism. The question is not only unanswerable; it is unaskable.
“Men, everywhere, all the time, bear a burden, under God, to care for the well-being of women.”
But not asking the question about the essence of male and female personhood confuses everyone, especially our children. And this confusion hurts people. It is not a small thing. Its effects are vast.
When manhood and womanhood, for example, are confused at home, the consequences are deeper than may show up in a generation. There are dynamics in the home that form the children’s concept of manhood and womanhood, and shape significantly their sexual preferences. Especially powerful in forming sexual identity is a father’s strong and loving affirmation of a son’s masculinity and daughter’s femininity. But how can this kind of strong, fatherly affirmation be cultivated in an atmosphere where deeper differences between masculinity and femininity are constantly denied or diminished for the sake of gender-leveling and sex-blindness?
Under pressure to shun the question about deeper and differing inclinations that may define the God-given natures of manhood and womanhood, mainstream Western culture has suppressed one of the realities that God put in place for the flourishing of both sexes. While affirming the importance of mutual love, respect, honor, and encouragement between men and women, there is in our day a resistance against the biblical summons for men to show a peculiar care for women that’s different than they would for men — and a strong disincentive to women to feel glad about this.
But in Colossians 3:19, the apostle Paul told husbands, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” That is not the same as saying, “Neither of you should be harsh.” We can tell from Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:7 that this admonition to men is owing to a peculiarly male temptation to be rough — even cruel — and to a peculiarly female vulnerability to that violence, on the one hand, and to a natural female gladness, on the other hand, to be honored with caring protection and strong tenderness.
This is where biblical complementarians step in to say that something beautiful and vital is lost, when the only summons to men, in relation to women, is the same as the summons given to women, in relation to men. Calls like: be respectful, be kind, keep the Golden Rule.
No, say complementarians. God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women. As a complementarian, I do not say that this calling is to the exclusion of women protecting and caring for men in their own way. I am saying that men bear a peculiar burden of responsibility that is laid on them in a way that is not laid on women.
It’s tragic when a whole culture refuses to tell men that their manhood includes a peculiar kind of care for women.
Modeling the peculiar summons to the man in marriage, Christ dies for his bride to save her, beautify her, nourish her, and cherish her (Ephesians 5:25–30). In Paul’s way of thinking, this peculiar calling of manhood is no more reversible with the calling of womanhood than the work of Christ is reversible with the work of the church.
And since this calling is rooted, not in asexual competencies, but in the nature of manhood itself, its implications for life are not limited to marriage. To be sure, a husband bears unique responsibilities to his wife. But this deeper meaning of manhood does not lose its significance when he walks out of the door of his home. Men, as men, everywhere, all the time, bear a burden, under God, to care for the well-being of women, which is not identical to the care women owe men.
This message, at the heart of complementarianism, has been all but muted in our culture. Many would rather sacrifice this peculiar biblical mandate, given for the good of women, than betray any hint of compromise with egalitarian assumptions. Thus, I am arguing, we have forfeited both a great, God-ordained restraint upon male vice, and a great, God-ordained incentive for male valor.
We have developed a theology and a cultural bias that continually communicates to men: You bear no different responsibility for women than they bear for you. Or to put it differently, we have created a Bible-contradicting, nature-denying myth that men should feel no different responsibility to protect women than women feel to protect men. Many have put their hope in the myth that the summons to generic human virtue, with no attention to the peculiar virtues required of manhood and womanhood, would be sufficient to create a beautiful society of mutual respect. It isn’t working.
Perhaps the disillusionment of these days will give us pause. Perhaps we will consider that we have lost something very important. Perhaps many will wake up to the possibility that it is not noble, but tragic, when a whole culture refuses to tell men that their manhood includes a peculiar kind of care for women.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith?