Manhood and Womanhood

Introduction

At the heart of personal identity and calling is human sexuality. That is to say, at the heart of our created design is our being male and female. Who we know ourselves to be, how we live in relationship with one another and with God our Creator, how we accomplish our mission as God’s creatures, what we experience as fullness of joy and flourishing and fulfillment—all of these realities are tied to our being male and female. It is, therefore, of crucial importance to answer some foundational questions. What are God’s purposes for creating us as men and women? What does it mean to be a man in Christ? What does it mean to be a woman in Christ? Answering these fundamental questions about human sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual roles in a truthful, thoughtful, and loving way is no simple endeavor, especially in a time filled with contention and controversy and conflict over such matters. But leaving the questions unanswered (or unasked), or offering shallow or pat or untruthful answers, results in confusion and sadness and pain as we struggle to be men and women individually and in our relationships. Because the need is so great and the issue is so important and precious, it will be beneficial to articulate more clearly our understanding of the biblical vision for manhood and womanhood and the roles of men and women in church and home. To do so, we will first state what we believe to be the general biblical portrait for manhood and womanhood, and then offer seven specific affirmations as a way both of sketching in more detail some of the chief contours in this portrait and of expressing how we seek to live it out at Grace Church.

 

The Biblical Vision of Manhood and Womanhood

Grace Church believes that the biblical portrait of manhood is one of humble, servant-hearted, benevolent headship. Specifically, men are created with, and called to have, a sense of primary responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women—in contextually and relationally sensitive and appropriate ways—in order that women might flourish in their God-given responsibility to be women. Sin twists and distorts and opposes the living out of this design and this calling in manifold ways and with varying degrees of intensity. But in Christ, men are restored to pursue their created design and calling with joy and love for their good and for the good of women.

Grace Church believes that the biblical portrait of womanhood is one of strong, joyful, discerning submission. Specifically, women are created with, and called to have, great discernment as they respond to, affirm, and nurture the leadership (or lack thereof) that they see in men—in contextually and relationally sensitive and appropriate ways—in order that men might flourish in their God-given responsibility to be men. Sin twists and distorts and opposes the living out of this design and this calling in manifold ways and with varying degrees of intensity. But in Christ, women are restored to pursue their created design and calling with joy and love for their good and for the good of men.[1]

We believe that this is the vision of manhood and womanhood taught by and depicted throughout Scripture. We want this vision to inform and animate our daily life and ministry. Under the broad umbrella of this vision, the following seven affirmations are meant to clarify how and why we seek to live out manhood and womanhood at Grace Church.

 

Seven Affirmations about Manhood and Womanhood

1. We affirm that men and women, created with differences in make-up and roles, are fully equal in worth and significance.

Differences in created make-up and calling are no indicators of significance or greatness or importance or value. Just as the calling of a pastor is no more or less “honorable,” and no more or less significant and worthy, than the calling of a person to be especially devoted to showing hospitality (see 1 Corinthians 12; cf. Romans 12:3–13), so also the calling of a man is no more or less significant or worthy than the calling of a woman. Just as the Son’s role of submission in the Trinity is no more or less worthy and wondrous than the Father’s role of headship in the Trinity (see John 5:19–30) and serves as no indicator of the Son’s value vis-à-vis the Father, so also a woman’s role of submission is no more or less worthy and wondrous than a man’s role of headship and serves as no indicator of women’s value vis-à-vis men. To consider one person’s calling and role as “smaller” or “bigger” than another’s is no sign of being in touch with reality, but manifests a heart which finds meaning and significance not in God’s will for our lives but in how we measure up to others. Such comparison-making is dangerously close to being an expression of pride not love.

The worth and importance of men and the worth and importance of women is rooted in both being God’s special creation, God’s own possession for God’s own delight, and God’s very own image created to reflect his infinite perfections. Since these realities are true of every man and every woman, therefore every man and every woman—with their varied make-ups and roles—are equal in worth, importance, and value.

2. We affirm that men and women together are the singular image of God, whom they image forth most fully as they relate with and serve one another, with all their wonderful and God-given differences, in harmony and complementarity.

According to Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The final clause expressly mentioning both “male and female” clarifies that the “man” and the “him” created in the image of God in the first two clauses includes both men and women. Men and women together are the singular image of God. We can draw at least two inferences from this. First, our ability to image forth or reflect the person and character and excellencies of God is inextricably bound to our living in relationship with others. We cannot, in other words, be the people God created us to be alone and in isolation; we image forth the one God in the plurality of relationship. But second, and more specifically in relation to manhood and womanhood, we image forth God in the plurality of male-female relationships.

When the difference and diversity of male and female come together not in dissonance but in harmony, not in conflict but in complementarity, not in frustration but in fruitfulness, the life of the one God existing eternally and harmoniously as three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is most fully revealed and reflected. This reality is by design. Again, differences between men and women in make-up and role are not indications of differences of worth, but invitations for men and women to see and experience and enjoy the ways in which their differences are complementary and for the sake of fruit-bearing mission. Male and female difference in make-up and role is meant to be an opportunity to discover unity in diversity, and meant, in turn, to reflect the life and love of the triune God.

3. We affirm that manhood is lived out especially and most centrally in men’s relationships with women, and womanhood is lived out especially and most centrally in women’s relationships with men; and that both realities can be experienced whether one is married or single.

If being human is most deeply rooted in living out the image of God, and if living out the image of God is inextricably bound to living in harmony and complementarity as male and female, then our human identity as male or female does not exist in an ahistorical vacuum but is realized and expressed in our lived relationships with the other. That is, our manhood is mainly rooted in how we relate as men with women. And our womanhood is mainly rooted in how we relate as women with men. Biblical masculinity is most fully realized and expressed when men take responsibility for servant-hearted leadership of and self-sacrificial provision for and protection of the women in their lives, in ways that are fitting to each individual relationship and aimed at helping those women flourish as the women they are called to be. And biblical femininity is most fully realized and expressed when women wisely respond to and affirm and nurture biblical leadership in the men in their lives, in ways that are fitting to each individual relationship and aimed at helping those men flourish as the men they are called to be.

Importantly, both realities of full and true biblical manhood and full and true biblical womanhood can be experienced whether we are married or single. Being fully human and living out the full range of human experience are never to be confused; we are called to the former, while the latter is an illusion and can be, if chased after, an idol. Similarly, being fully male or fully female (as God created us to be and calls us to be) and living out the full range of male or female experience (an impossible and perhaps idolatrous endeavor) are to be clearly distinguished in our understanding of manhood and womanhood. Jesus, the most fully human person to have ever lived, was perfect in his masculinity, and he was never married. Marriage provides opportunities for particularly intense manifestations of men and women living in relationship with and for the other, for their good and their flourishing in their respective callings to be men or women. But men can be truly and fully male and live out fully the call to biblical masculinity in their relationships with their mothers and sisters and daughters, and with their female co-workers and female friends and female neighbors. Similarly, women can be truly and fully female and live out fully the call to biblical femininity in their relationships with their fathers and brothers and sons, and with their male co-workers and male friends and male neighbors. Manhood and womanhood will be expressed in a diversity of ways in each of these differing male-female relationships; and the specific complexities of personal histories and time and place can greatly complicate the pursuit of manhood and womanhood in such relationships. Great discernment is needed, therefore, to live out biblical manhood and womanhood in contextually and relationally sensitive and appropriate ways. But the call to pursue biblical masculinity and femininity is not an innuendo for pursuing marriage or preparing for marriage. Married or single, we can and must be, and we will find joy and fulfillment in being, male and female as God created us to be.

4. We affirm that one of the central characteristics of mature manhood—calling for careful articulation and intentional encouragement and continual cultivation and nourishment—is a burden or sense of primary responsibility in and for a man’s relationships with women.

On the one hand, men are to live with the awareness that they will be uniquely called to account for the ways in which they do (or do not) lead, provide for, and protect the women in their lives, and for the consequent shape of their male-female relationships in church and home. We believe that after Adam and Eve rebelled against God by eating from the forbidden tree, God questioned Adam and called him to account first—even though Eve was the first to succumb to the serpent’s temptation—because Adam bore primary responsibility for their relationship (Genesis 3:9). And Adam’s sin was compounded in that very moment, for instead of accepting this responsibility he tried to shirk it (Genesis 3:12). This is not to deny that both Adam and Eve were guilty of sin at the Fall. Though men bear primary responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect the women in their lives, and for the consequent shape of their lives in church and home, this does not relieve women of responsibility before God. Eve was also called to account in the Garden and judged for her sin (Genesis 3:13, 16). The responsibility of women may lie in different areas, and/or may have differing focal points, but it is no less real than that of men, no less weighty, and no less crucial. However, Adam bore a unique guilt, which included a failure to live out the benevolent headship for which he was created and to which he was called. This same creational design and calling remains for all men.

On the other hand, the call upon men to have a sense of primary responsibility suggests that headship (and masculinity) is not constrained to or defined by any single activity or a set of them. The role of leadership to which men are called can and should be distinguished from particular functions that we might (rightly or wrongly) associate with leadership. We believe that men are created for and called to headship in the home (Ephesians 5:22–33) and leadership in the church in the office of pastor/elder (1 Timothy 2:11-15; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16). But this role of servant-hearted, self-sacrificial leadership for which men have been created and to which they are called is less a list of specific functions to fulfill and more a sense of primary responsibility in church and home and a burden to take initiative in leading, providing for, and protecting women so that they might flourish in Christ. We believe that this sense and burden is at the heart of mature biblical manhood.

It is important, additionally, to emphasize that biblical manhood is not a license for men to demand submission from women (the command given to husbands in Ephesians 5 is not to make their wives submit, but self-sacrificially to love their wives). It is not a justification for a domineering attitude and way. It leaves no door open for asserting superiority of worth or righteousness or value or significance. It does not confuse strength with bravado or abrasiveness, nor does it make the mistake of assuming that strength is incompatible with meekness and gentleness and humility and admission of wrongs. It never confuses one’s self with Christ, who is always the ultimate head and authority and leader and Lord of every woman and every man. Rather, mature biblical manhood exhibits itself in humble, servant-hearted, benevolent headship in its relationships with women. It is self-sacrificing for the good of women (Ephesians 5:25-28), it is gentle and understanding and seeks to honor women (1 Peter 3:7), and it always strives to aim the hearts and hopes and affections of women ultimately to Jesus Christ as their Head and Lord.

5. We affirm that one of the central characteristics of mature womanhood—calling for careful articulation and intentional encouragement and continual cultivation and nourishment—is a glad freedom to submit to strong, Christ-like male leadership, and therefore mature womanhood also entails a wise responsiveness to the actual leadership, weak or strong, which a woman discerns in the men in her life.

On the one hand, mature biblical femininity rejoices in strong, Christ-like male leadership, as the church rejoices in Christ’s own leadership (Ephesians 5:22-24). In this light, biblical female submission is not shackled to a bare command and an undesirable or unworthy calling, but is meant to bubble up from the springs of joy experienced in healthy and wholesome male-female relationships. When, in their relationships with men, women know safety and security not threat and neglect and abandonment; when they receive from men honor and respect not belittling and stereotyping; when they are confident that men view them as treasured human equals, fellow heirs of the grace of life, and a sacred trust not as objects of self-gratification and the butt of jokes; when they behold in men strong yet meek initiative-taking not the insecurity of domineering conduct or the inattentiveness of apathy and idleness; when women see men give up their rights and sacrifice themselves for the good and flourishing and joy of women not assert themselves or play the blame-game or flee from the face of difficulty and trial—when, in other words, women see and experience strong and Christ-like male leadership, submission becomes no burden but almost a glad reflex and a glorious and full calling. We believe, therefore, that it is a confident, compelling, and glad freedom for submission—not a timid, unattractive, and coerced subservience—which stands at the center of the femininity for which women were created, to which they are called, and in which they can now grow because of Christ.

On the other hand, the sad reality of our world since the Fall is that male leadership is often a far cry from God’s intention for it. Strong, mature, Christ-like male leadership is rare. Weak, pubescent, self-asserting men who equate manhood with macho-ism and merely play-act at (or try to avoid) leadership abound. And most men fall somewhere between these two poles. As a result, another central characteristic of biblical femininity is a wise responsiveness to the leadership, weak or strong, that women discern in the men in their lives. Biblical womanhood is a call to wisdom. It entails the exercise of great discernment, as women evaluate where the men in their lives are at, consider what these men might need to grow in maturity as men, and then seek specific ways in which to encourage and prod and affirm and fortify and care for them so that they might grow in biblical manhood. When men are mature and Christ-like in their leadership, women will be free and glad both in following their lead and in seeking ways, whether antiphonally or fugally, to nurture and reinforce that lead. But when men are immature, or needing to grow in maturity in conspicuous ways, mature femininity will so speak and act and love and live as to stir up men to the manhood to which they are called. And, crucially, this speaking, acting, loving, and living will abound with the aroma of a gentle and submissive disposition, not because the woman is weak or a push-over, but precisely because she is strong in her pursuit of full joy in God’s call on her life and in her desire to help men become what God calls them to be in ways that do not undermine that calling. Clearly, this incredibly complex and challenging calling requires continual discernment and dependence on the Spirit’s guidance. The complexity of the responsibility also underlines the need for community. For mature womanhood is not a “Lone Ranger” effort to “fix” male shortcomings in one’s own wisdom and strength; rather, mature women rely on the wisdom and strength and grace God gives through community as they seek to live in healthy relationships with men (part of Ruth’s wisdom and grace is that she acts as she does with Boaz in Ruth 3 as a result of her relationship with and the counsel of Naomi).

It is important to stress again the crucial distinction between role and function: the role of submission to which women are called can and should be distinguished from particular functions that we might (rightly or wrongly) associate with submissiveness. There are few activities concerning which there is biblical warrant to restrict always to only men or only women. Being created for distinct roles in church and home is fully compatible with women engaging in many of the same activities in church and home that men participate in (for just a few examples, see Acts 18:24-26; Romans 16:1-5; 1 Corinthians 11:5; 2 Timothy 1:5; Titus 2:4; and note the omni-competent and wonderful woman of Proverbs 31, specifically the kinds of activities she is engaged in). Additionally, submission, and a submissive disposition, may express itself in a variety of potentially surprising ways, and what will mark such expressions as biblically feminine is the spirit in which they are performed and the aim for which they are undertaken. That is to say, what might be judged too hastily, superficially, and facilely as masculine behavior is often actually, given the time and context and need and manner, biblical femininity expressing itself, desiring to submit to mature male leadership, exuding a gentle and submissive demeanor, and faithfully seeking to stir and encourage men toward biblical manhood.

The submission of biblical femininity is, therefore, not passivity. It is not merely doing what one is told with unquestioning acceptance. It is not subservience. Biblical womanhood is not relegation to some smaller sphere of influence or significance or greatness, restricting women to activities of lesser worth or importance. It is not marked by the sloth of acquiescence, lacking the courage and refusing the effort needed to help men grow as men. It is not a call to unthinking silence or the inactivity of incompetence. Neither does it feed off the demonization of men, or engage in unloving, ungrateful, and unhopeful disparagement of the shortcomings of men. And it is not a call to confuse the leadership of men in their lives with the leadership of Christ, who remains at all times a woman’s (and a man’s) ultimate authority. Rather, mature biblical womanhood exhibits itself in humble, strong, joyful, discerning submission. It is fully capable and gloriously fearless in its submission to men (1 Peter 3:5-6), it brims with beauty and strength that can win men to the way of righteousness (1 Peter 3:1-4), and it abounds in wisdom and winsomeness and tenderness and tact as it seeks to stir up and affirm and nurture mature biblical manhood for the good of both men and women and for the glory of Christ.

6. We affirm that history is riddled with abuses of male headship, and abdications of biblical female submission, and misunderstandings and misapplications and malformations and perversions of the biblical vision of manhood and womanhood; and that our own history as a church has exhibited (and will continue to exhibit) many of these sad realities.

We believe that speaking of headship and submission is such a sensitive topic less because the realities, when seen for what they are, are unattractive, and more because so much abuse and perversion of manhood and womanhood has flown under the banner of “headship and submission.” It is a great sadness to us that men and women in every era have abused or abandoned their God-given roles. But because a truth can be, and has been, abused and perverted is ultimately no argument against its truthfulness and goodness. Rather, it is a call for repentance and for a reorientation to the shape and aims of life, and of manhood and womanhood, for which we were created and to which we have been redeemed.

Thus, we admit the grievous reality that men have often used their call to leadership as an excuse for sin and abuse, or shirked their responsibility of leadership out of laziness and loveless-ness and pride. And we acknowledge the sadness that women have often used their call to submission as an excuse for slothful acquiescence, or rejected the calling altogether for a vision of reality which is deemed more suitable. We acknowledge these failures, and we repent for our complicity in them as individuals and a body. We also admit that, for as long as we are on this side of the new heavens and the new earth, our continued pursuit of biblical manhood and womanhood will be stained with more sin and more failures and more distortions. For as long as the Lord tarries, repentance must be a distinguishing mark of our lived life as a community of men and women.

7. We affirm that, forgiven through the cross of Christ and raised to new life with him, we can now undertake the difficult task of growing in mature masculinity and femininity, fully dependent on the Spirit for conviction of sin when and where we fail, for wisdom to wade through the complexities of our contexts and relationships, and for strength to persevere in the great call that is upon us.

The Christian life, and the history of the world, is full of sin and failure, but it does not end there. We are called not simply to admit our wrongs, but through repentance to know grace and the hope of righteousness and life and peace. We will surely need to repent often in our pursuit of the biblical vision of manhood and womanhood. Indeed, the vision is hard to live out in a fallen world, and it is filled with complexities because of the varied nature of our contexts and the multiplicity of relationships we have. But we are confident that because of Christ, and by the empowerment and guidance of the Spirit, we can truly grow in maturity and persevere in grace as we seek to be the community God calls us to be, filled with men and women loving and serving and relating with one another in healthy and wholesome ways, and bearing the fruit of righteousness and joy.

 

Conclusion

The preceding phrase suggests an eighth affirmation with which it may be appropriate to conclude. We affirm that the biblical vision of manhood and womanhood is the path to fullest flourishing and deepest joy in communion with one another as men and women and with our great triune God. Thus, we are concerned with biblical manhood and womanhood not, in the end, in order to cross our theological t’s and dot our confessional i’s. Rather, our chief aim and our confident hope is love and joy and fellowship with one another and with God, for our good as men and women, and for the glory of Christ.


[1]    These articulations, and many of the following reflections, have been greatly influenced by the “vision” laid out by John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Wheaton: Crossway, 1991). If you would like to reflect further on the matter, our ministry staff would be glad to direct you to other helpful resources on manhood and womanhood.