DIFFERENT BY DESIGN
The Problem with the Biebs
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Sometime after that God created humanity in his image to reflect him and represent him in all of creation. To succeed in our glory-reflecting mission, God created us as male and female.
It’s worth noting that God didn’t have to make us that way. God could have made humans to be like single-celled amoebas (which are asexual), or hermaphroditic earthworms (which are both sexes at the same time), or some kind of indeterminate middle sex (like Justin Bieber).
But he didn’t. Apparently God likes maleness and femaleness. He not only made his image bearers male and female, God also filled the plant and animal kingdoms with males and females too—like millions and millions of little reminders of the glory of man and woman, who are the image of God.
It may seem obvious to say it, but God likes it when men and women act in accordance with his design. We know this because God celebrates the differences between men and women by honoring each with unique and irreversible roles. The outward appearances of these roles may change slightly from culture to culture, but the basic roles never change. As an obvious example: men are not designed to give birth to children, because God gave the role of motherhood to women.
When Equal Is Not the Same
Sadly, not everyone likes the beauty of the differences between men and women as much as God does. Take most of history, for example. For far too long many societies treated women like second-class citizens. Even cultures that had a strong presence of the Christian faith sometimes ignored the fact that God had made men and women equally good, equally important, and equally human beings.
Today, however, the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction. The distinctness of men and women is not celebrated very often anymore. Instead, we live in a society that tries to minimize, downplay, or ignore the differences between men and women in virtually every area.
This battle against God’s design goes by many names. Sometimes it’s called “feminism,” and sometimes it’s called “egalitarianism.” The latter is a big word which basically means “equalism.” Nothing is wrong with being equal, of course. The poison in that word is found in the ism part.
Here’s what I mean. Men and women should be regarded as equals. Gender, race, income bracket, etc., should not affect how we are judged in a court of law. Being equal in that sense is great, and being unequal in that sense is a great injustice. But (grab your thinking hats, kids) being equal and being the same are totally different categories.
A and B are equally letters, but they are not the same letter.
Chickens are turkeys are equally birds, but they do not taste the same.
Screws and screwdrivers are equally tools, but they have different (complementary) uses.
Shirts and pants are equally clothing, but they have different ‘jobs’ when covering your body.
Likewise men and women are equal in value, equal in dignity, equal in their need for salvation, equal in Christ, and so on. Men and women really are equal, but they’re not the same. This is so simple that every child can see and understand this point. Now sometimes children express their understanding of these differences accurately, and sometimes they say things like, “Boys don’t wear pink.” We know that some boys do wear pink, but at least the child understands that boys and girls are different. If that child grows up with a dad who acts like a man and a mom who acts like a woman, then they’ll soon sort out their prejudice against pink. They’ll learn that the differences between men and women go much deeper than cultural practices, running right to core of who we are and how God wants us to live in his world.
But if that child learns about manhood and womanhood from a gender studies course at an overpriced college, then rest assured that they’ll confuse being “equal” (which is good and right) with being “the same” (which is obviously wrong), and all manner of nonsense is sure to follow.
Here is where people cry, “Foul! Foul!” when there is no foul. If men and women really are different by design—that is, if men and women are equal but not the same—then to respect men as men and to respect women as women means that we must understand and celebrate their God-given differences. (To respect the design of the screwdriver means not treating it like a screw. You honor both the screw and the screwdriver by using them in accordance with their design.)
Different by Design
If we were to search the Scriptures for all that God says about what he created men to be and to do, our summary might go something like this: God has designed and called men to lead, provide, and protect.
Now leading doesn’t mean doing everything. In fact, the best leaders know their own weaknesses and call upon the strengths of others around them to get the job done. Rather, leadership means initiative. Men are called to take the initiative in serving others, providing for others, and protecting others with the strength that God has given them.
Complementary to the others-centered, benevolent initiative of men, the Scriptures show us that women are designed by God to receive, nurture, and support. Women do not “just so happen” to have the reproductive organs for receiving, nurturing, and supporting life. That’s backwards. Women have the reproductive organs for receiving, nurturing, and supporting because that is what God designed and called women to do in every sphere of life.
Speaking of reproductive organs, it’s folly to think that they are an accident too. God designed sex such that one partner is the initiator and the other partner is the receiver. It is anatomically impossible to get around giving and taking, initiating and receiving, because the shape of our sexual organs mirrors the shape of our souls.
Disagreeing with God
All of this reminds us that God knows what he’s doing, and he knows what he’s talking about when he speaks to how we were designed to live as men and as women. In fact, to ignore what God says about how we’ve been made would be like rejecting the manufacturer’s instructions on a very complex invention. Doing so only sets us up for needless pain, frustration, and heartache.
When we are confused about something as deeply intrinsic to our lives as our sexual identity, men and women will always be affected by this cultural confusion. None of this catches God by surprise, nor does it reflect his original design.
In fact, the very first act of disobedience (sin) followed from a reversal of roles. Instead of leading and protecting his wife, Adam deferred his responsibility to Eve and they both fell into sin. When God speaks to them in the next chapter (Gen. 3), he explains how their sin will cause the peace of God’s world to unravel. Notice, too, that the heart of God’s explanation is how sin will effect men and women in their callings. Their roles did not change because of sin, but sin would now make it harder to fulfill them. God warned that men would now struggle to provide and protect (Gen. 3:17-19), while women would struggle to be mothers and wives who receive and support their husband’s leadership (Gen. 3:16).
History has proven God right on this point time and time again. Instead of leading, protecting, and providing for their families, many men succumb to laziness, while others become abusive and domineering. Likewise, women have increasingly begun to act like men, thinking that “freedom” will be found in doing what they want instead of being who God designed them to be. But that’s kind of like the “freedom” of being unencumbered by a parachute. Sure, you’re technically more free to move about the cabin, but you’re actually a slave to gravity. Let the reader understand.
Humbly Listening to Jesus
In Jesus, men can become the leaders, providers, and protectors they are created and called to be. As the apostle Paul explains, this looks like the life of Jesus himself. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).
In other words, men are called to love with a love that bleeds. This is a self-sacrificial love. Men sacrifice by working hard, and by using their strength to heal and protect instead of harm or destroy. Men sacrifice by taking the initiative, instead of waiting passively for others to act. Husbands sacrifice by pursuing their wives as friends and lovers, instead of making them beg for conversation or romance. Husbands sacrifice by guarding their eyes and their hearts from lust, thus keeping faithful to the promise they made to their wives. Husbands sacrifice by serving and helping around the home. Husbands sacrifice by being humble, patient, and kind toward their wives, remembering that they are fellow heirs to the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).
In Jesus, women can become the receivers, nurturers, and supporters they are created and called to be. As the apostle Paul explains, this looks like the church’s response to Jesus: “As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24).
Now the idea of submission can be confusing for people in the 21st Century, especially since the word is so often abused. Yet the meaning of the term should be taken not from cultural misunderstanding but from God’s original design. As we have already seen, this means women are called to support. Far from being a denigrating term, the word used of women in Genesis 2 (“helper”) is actually a word that is sometimes used of God in the Scriptures. This means women are called to often the kind of support that helps and strengthens those around them. This may be spiritual support, as in encouraging and building up others. It may be economic support, as when a wife works from home or in the marketplace (Proverbs 31). In marriage feminine support includes praying for your husband, not withholding yourself from him sexually, helping around the house with the basic needs of the home, raising the children, etc.
When men and women trust Christ, receive his Spirit, and listen to what he says, they are enabled to act like the men and women that God created them to be. In turn, they honor God, bless each other, and benefit the world by celebrating and embracing their distinct roles according to God’s wonderful design.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.