One of the biggest challenges to Christians who would argue for a notion like “biblical manhood and womanhood” is that the very idea sounds strange to modern audiences. It often sounds like Christians are trying to impose a sort of playacting or subjective role-playing on others.
Yet being a man or a woman shouldn’t be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, hidden inside an enigma. No, if “biblical manhood and womanhood” is going to genuinely persuade people today, Christians have to show that it’s normal. Not normal judged by the changing standards of society, of course, but normal in the sense that it makes sense of the way the world actually is. Biblical sexuality is normal because it’s just how God made the world. Biblical sexuality is natural.
But how do we demonstrate this? Stereotypes and anecdotes won’t work. We need something more. And this is where natural revelation is our friend.
Nature and Natural Revelation
The term nature may bring to mind National Geographic or The Nature Channel. This isn’t wrong, but it’s only one subset of what Christians mean by natural revelation. Yes, natural revelation includes creatures like the horse (Proverbs 26:3) and the ant (Proverbs 6:6), and it includes aspects of creation like the stars and the heavens themselves (Psalm 19:1). We can even learn about God’s “invisible attributes . . . in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).
But natural revelation also includes human nature — the basic knowledge of God, reality, even morality that is imprinted on every human heart (Romans 1:18, 32; 2:14–15). The apostle Paul can even appeal to nature when teaching men and women how to dress and interact with the opposite sex in a public social setting (1 Corinthians 11:14).
When Christians argue for “natural revelation,” what they mean is that God has created the world, including humans and human nature, in a way that it is intelligible, durable, and consistent. After the fall, nature is certainly marred, and sinners abuse it, but the message of redemption is not a salvation from nature or a rejection of it, but rather a restoration of the original goodness of nature and the proper ordering of it to its original good end — the worship of and communion with the triune God. And biblically speaking, most people can still recognize nature and what it teaches. It can’t lead them to salvation, but it does keep them accountable.
So, for our conversation about manhood and womanhood, nature teaches us that “man” and “woman” are real categories and not social constructs. Manhood and womanhood are real created constitutions. While there is a long and layered conversation about this topic in the history of philosophy, I would like to argue for this claim by highlighting some of the recent findings in the sciences. You might be surprised to know what’s out there. Even though we live in an age of secularism, reality is a stubborn thing.
Down to Every Cell
Recent breakthroughs in human genetics have made it clear that humanity is fundamentally dimorphic, which is to say, human nature is irreducibly male and female. Writing in 2001 for the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Understanding the Biology of Sex and Gender Differences, Theresa Wiseman and Mary-Lou Perdue concluded, “Males and females have partially different genomes.” This led them to call for “research on sex at the cellular level.” That call was taken up by Paula Johnson in 2013, who said, “Every cell has a sex — and what that means is that men and women are different down to the cellular and molecular level. It means that we’re different across all of our organs, from our brains to our hearts, our lungs, our joints” (quoted in Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body, 196). So, at the bare minimum, nature teaches us that God created humans male and female.
This physiological difference between men and women is most obvious in the world of professional sports. As the transgender ideology has gained more social acceptance, athletes who are biologically and genetically male have begun competing in women’s sporting leagues, with predictable results. In at least one instance, the natural disparity was too much for even otherwise sympathetic onlookers.
Ultra-popular podcaster and mixed-martial-arts color commentator Joe Rogan protested that people with male bodies should not compete against people with female bodies. He argued that male bodies have denser bones, larger hands, and greater muscle mass. This set off a small controversy, but Rogan was supported by the science. Dr. Ramona Krutzik explained that Rogan’s comments were accurate. More than this, Dr. Krutzik pointed out that genetic and hormonal “imprinting” accounts for males having a significantly higher level of aggression than females. In addition to distinct anatomical features, men even have a different chemical makeup.
Wired to Lead
This point about male aggression has been noticed by social scientists as well. In 1973, Steven Goldberg published The Inevitability of Patriarchy, in which he argued that biological differences between men and women explained the preponderance of male leadership across social and political institutions. Importantly, Goldberg conducted a global study of diverse societies across the world. He was not limiting himself to “Western” patterns. He updated his argument in 1993 in Why Men Rule, emphasizing statistics from contemporary workplaces, but reasserting his main thesis. In a 1991 essay, he explains it this way:
It is precisely the male’s greater tendency to respond with dominance and attainment behavior to the cues of hierarchy and status that is rooted in neuroendocrinological differences between males and females. Loosely speaking, we can conceptualize this as a neuroendocrinologically rooted greater male competitiveness that is elicited by hierarchy or status when there is hierarchy or status differentiation. (When Wish Replaces Thought, 75)
For Goldberg, this means that there is scientific evidence to suggest that men are more attracted to conflict and competition, whereas women are more attracted to nurture and relationship-building. Men are more likely to skip the personal details and get down to the business at hand, whereas women want to get to know their conversation partner on a more intimate level. And Goldberg believes that this then explains why men tend to attain leadership and even dominance across society. It should be noted that Goldberg makes no ethical evaluation of this, and many of his observations could also be used to explain bad behavior. But what’s important is his identification and explanation of a steady general truth about men and women.
What Boys and Girls Need
Such sentiments are surely striking, perhaps even offensive, and yet they keep showing up. Jordan Peterson, the popular psychologist and author, has made similar points. In his book 12 Rules for Life, Peterson says,
[Boys] are less agreeable (agreeableness being a personality trait associated with compassion, empathy, and avoidance of conflict) and less susceptible to anxiety and depression, at least after both sexes hit puberty. Boys’ interests tilt towards things; girls’ interests tilt towards people. Strikingly, these differences, strongly influenced by biological factors, are most pronounced in the Scandinavian societies where gender-equality has been pushed hardest: this is the opposite of what would be expected by those who insist, ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct. It isn’t. This isn’t a debate. The data are in. (293)
Instead of dominance, Peterson emphasizes agreeableness and disagreeableness. Boys have more tolerance for disagreeableness. Often, disagreeability is an expectation and a requirement for male social interaction. Peterson believes that this has profound implications for educating and mentoring boys and girls. They require different approaches, and they often need leadership and affection from different people.
Adolescent boys, especially, need affection from other males and older males, particularly their fathers, and they need to be challenged by competition and conflict, but in constructive rather than destructive ways. They don’t need to fight, but they do need to wrestle. Girls, on the other hand, need to be taught how to manage personal relationships and feelings like empathy in ways that are moderate and not all-consuming. They need to be taught how to give themselves to a relationship without being overtaken by it.
These two areas of emphasis are not mutually exclusive, as there are common moral truths in both, but the depth of their impact and the complexity of their social manifestation does indeed differ between the sexes. Peterson attaches a lengthy list of sources to back up his claims (on pages 377–378 in his book).
It is, of course, possible for various individual claims and studies to be challenged. Students of nature are not infallible. And exceptional cases are also possible. There are certainly some males and females who conform less to the norms explained above. But when the observer moves back from the trees to perceive the forest as a whole, a consistent picture emerges.
And for the Christian, this makes perfect sense. The various social expressions of masculinity and femininity demonstrate not only a neurological or chemical reality, but a creational reality. This is how God has made man and woman. Man is the head; woman is the body (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23). This has physical, moral, and sociopolitical implications.
Truly Human in Christ
So, what does nature teach? It teaches us that men and women are real, and that men and women are different. It also teaches us that men and women have certain distinct anatomical, physiological, and psychological characteristics. For Christians, this means that they have different abilities. It also means that they have different spiritual opportunities and challenges.
If men are created by God for leadership and the assumption of sacrificial responsibility for the good of those under them, then we should expect that sin will twist these goals toward domination and conquest. Young men are easily led by their bellies instead of their chests. But the right way to correct such sinful inclinations is not to try to eradicate the drive for competition or even conflict. We should not try to emasculate men. Instead, the right way to correct a disorder is to reorder it, to point to the proper way for men to be men. And the same is true for women. Sin turns their virtues into their vices. Redemption, on the other hand, makes the crooked places straight. Pastors and Christian leaders should work with the grain of nature, disciplining and directing our anthropological attributes toward noble ends.
Christian pastors and teachers should not be afraid to talk about these specific aspects of reality. Natural revelation, properly understood, will actually expand our understanding of special revelation and bring us to a fuller, more nuanced, accurate, and effective teaching about men and women.
This has just been an introduction to a study that could consume a lifetime. What we see is that natural revelation is real. To quote Jordan Peterson, “The data are in.” And the data support the biblical teaching. The Bible teaches us more, of course. It teaches us that sinners will misuse nature in the selfish pursuit of gain and conquest. Apart from grace, nature will become cruel. Yet grace does not abolish nature, but rather restores it. God restores our original image most fully in his Son. Indeed, it is in and through Christian graces like self-sacrificial and spiritual communion that men and women can be the right kind of natural, truly human in Christ.