God made humanity in his image as both male and female, which reflects the harmony and relationality of the Trinity, supplies the foundation for the different roles and responsibilities of men and women, was reaffirmed in the life of Jesus Christ, and cannot be reinvented or dissolved by new cultural standards.
To be made in the image of God is to be made as sexed and gendered humans, both male and female. This “sexual dimorphism” reflects the diversity and unity within the Trinity and shows us that we are made for each other. As male and female, humans have different roles and responsibilities that are grounded in the creation; he has responsibilities to lead, and she has responsibilities to accept his leadership and partner with him in fulfilling their joint mandate, relations that are most clearly worked out in the relationship of marriage. While sin entered the world by distorting gender differences, Jesus Christ came as a gendered human and opened the way for our genders and relationships to be redeemed. This does not allow for sex and gender to be redefined; rather, we are to live all the more faithfully within our roles and responsibilities indicated by our sex, while sharing equally in the inheritance of Christ from God.
What does it mean to be male or female? Are gender differences real or simply social constructs? Until recently, most people were content to take their bodily sex and gender as ‘givens.’ However, the changes wrought by feminism, the LGBT+ revolution, and queer theory have made answering these questions more complicated and more pressing, even within the church.
Made in the image of God
The starting point for answering these questions is God, not us. We are his creatures. He made all things, and in his wisdom and goodness, assigned each part of creation its place and purpose. He is a God of peace, not disorder (1 Cor. 14:33), and living well in his creation means living as he intended. The biblical foundations for what it means to be a woman or a man are found in Genesis 1–3.
In Genesis 1, human beings are the climax of God’s creative activity, and the only part of the created order that corresponds directly to him, being made in his image and likeness. This correspondence will enable ‘man’ (i.e., humankind) to exercise God’s delegated rule over his creation (Gen. 1:26–27). All human beings are made in God’s image, with equal dignity, worth, purpose, and blessing.
While we are left to assume that the other creatures are created male and female (cf. Gen. 1:22), our sexual dimorphism—being ‘male and female’—is a significant part of human identity. This binary sexed difference is necessary to fulfill the divine mandate to be ‘fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it’ (Gen. 1:28). But there is more to this difference than the biological necessity of procreation.
In lines two and three of Genesis 1:27, the substitution of ‘male and female’ for ‘image of God,’ and the expansion of ‘him’ to ‘them’ link being made in God’s image to the plurality of male and female within the one humanity. This unity and plurality reflect in some ways the plurality and unity we see in God—one being in three persons. We glimpse this in Genesis 1:26: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’
There is distinction between male and female but no difference in their humanity, image-bearing capacity, purpose or blessing (Gen. 1:28). The focus in Genesis 1 is on their unity and sameness, not their difference. With their creation, God saw that all he had made was ‘very good’ (1:31, cf. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25).
Made for relationship
Genesis 2 gives another perspective with the creation of the first man and first woman, culminating in the one-flesh union of marriage. Their unity and sameness are still evident: both made by God; made of the same stuff (Gen. 2:23), and, in marriage, both contribute to a new kinship line (Gen. 2:24). However, the distinction between the sexes is now more apparent.
They are made at different times. The man is made first (man: Gen 2:7; woman: Gen 2:22; 1 Tim 2:13) and receives the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil directly from God before the woman is made (Gen. 2:16–17).
They are made differently with different origins. The man is ‘formed’ from the dust (Gen. 2:7, cf. animals: 2:20); the woman is ‘made’ from a ‘rib’ of the man (Gen. 2:22; 1 Cor. 11:7–8). Their different names are word-plays on their different origins (man: ’adam/’ish; ground: ’adamah; woman: ’ishshah).
They have different roles and responsibilities. Without woman there was a deficit in God’s creation. It was ‘not good’ that man was alone, so God makes the woman as ‘a helper fit for him’ (Gen. 2:18, 20–22, 1 Cor. 11:9). Without woman, man could not fulfill Genesis 1:28, and creation lacked the unity and plurality of sexed humanity in the image of God.
She is a ‘suitable helper’ (NIV) as his complementary opposite or ‘other half.’ The word ‘helper’ (ezer) does not imply the woman is inferior or superior to the man. It is most used in the OT in reference to God providing help (e.g., Exod. 18:4; Pss. 33:20; 46:1; 118:7) or of military aid (e.g., Isa. 30:5; Ezek. 12:14). It is not a statement about ontology but of role or function. It describes a type of relationship, where the assistance of another is needed. Here, the woman will relieve man’s aloneness observed by God—not his subjective loneliness (although she will relieve that too)—so that together they can fulfill their joint purpose in God’s creation.
God brings the woman to the man, and he recognizes and delights in her. He names her (2:23; 3:20) and initiates a new family in marriage, leaving his parents and cleaving to his wife (2:24).
These many differences between the man and woman indicate the ordered nature of their relationship, where he has responsibilities to lead, and she has responsibilities to accept his leadership and partner with him in fulfilling their joint mandate. There is equality and sameness between them and difference and asymmetry. This is good, and part of God’s original intentions for humanity (Gen. 2:18, cf. 1:31)!
Partners in sin and brokenness
The sameness and ordered difference are evident in Genesis 3, where man and woman together reject God’s rule and his will for human flourishing.
They have much in common. Both disobey God’s loving command not to eat the fruit (Gen. 2:17). The eyes of both were opened, and both knew they were naked and tried to cover themselves and hide from God. God addressed them both and passed judgement on both. They will both die. Both are mercifully clothed by God and expelled from the garden. While the blessing of children (and promise of the gospel, Gen. 3:15, cf. Rom. 16:20; Gal. 4:4) awaits them both, they have lost the relational harmony they previously enjoyed and have both lost fellowship with God.
Yet there are key differences. The serpent spoke to the woman, not the man (although he may have been present, cf. Gen. 3:1–5, plural ‘you’). The woman was deceived (3:13; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14); the man was not. The woman took and ate first and gave some to ‘her husband’ who was with her. They both sin but they sin differently, and their path into sin includes abdication of their responsibilities, and reversal and rejection of the ordered relationships God intended.
In his response, God restores his pattern of relationships. He calls the man first to give an account (Gen. 3:9–12, singular ‘you’), then the woman. He judges the serpent, then the woman, then the man, who is judged for ‘listening to his wife’ and for eating the fruit (3:17). Instead of providing good leadership for her when she was deceived and led into sin, he followed her lead. As the representative head of humanity, the man receives the sentence of death (3:19; Rom. 5:19; 1 Cor. 15:22) and is driven from the garden (Gen. 3:23–24)—although the woman shares the same fate.
God’s relational order is restored, but as with the whole of creation, it is now subject to distortion, brokenness, and sin. They will still partner together to fulfil Genesis 1:28, but now the woman will have pain in childbearing, and the man will have pain in his labour (3:16–20), and the harmonious ordered partnership they once enjoyed will be marred with conflict and self-interest. She will desire to control her husband, but he will rule over her (3:16, cf. 4:7).
Please note: these are descriptive negative consequences of the Fall not commands—Christians are to turn from these sinful distortions of God’s design for marriage (Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:18–19; 1 Pet. 3:7, cf. Mark 10:42–45). There is never any justification for threats or violence in marriage (cf. Pss. 10:2, 8–11; 11:5–6; 73:6, 8, 27; Prov. 3:31–32, 11:29; Jer. 22:3; Col. 3:19).
Living faithfully as men and women
The blessing of being made in the image of God, male and female, continues after the Fall (Gen. 5:1–3; 9:6–7), and there is no biblical notion of humanity that does not include sex and gender (the lived expression of bodily sex). Women and men are equal and different, and the different gender responsibilities in Scripture are not a result of the Fall but can be misconstrued and misused for sinful purposes. Faithfulness in these matters means not silencing Scripture or adding to it.
Gender ‘identity’ is not chosen by us. It is given by God and revealed in the body God gives. However, there are now rare conditions where a person may be born with ambiguity in their sex characteristics (intersex, Disorders of Sexual Development, cf. 2 Kings 9:32; 20:18; Esth. 2:3; Isa. 56:3–4; Matt. 19:12; Acts. 8:26–40) or experience incongruence between their bodily sex and felt-gender identity (gender dysphoria, transgender). These phenomena do not indicate a ‘third sex’ or multiple genders. They are consequences of the disruption of creation caused by human sin. Those affected are made in the image of God and loved by him. They need love and compassion, biblically-informed care, and the gospel hope of the new creation (Rev. 21:4).
Some people try to locate the differences between the sexes in universal characteristics: all women are like ‘x’ (e.g., relational, homemaking, life-giving) or all men are like ‘y’ (e.g., courageous, strong, leaders). However, these stereotypes are not born out by experience, and the Bible locates the differences elsewhere: in gendered roles and relationships.
In particular, a wife is to submit herself voluntarily to her husband, and a husband is to love his wife by self-sacrificially leading, protecting and cherishing her (Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:18–19; Titus 2:2–5; 1 Pet. 3:1–7). Likewise, in God’s household, the church, while all believers equally are equipped by the Holy Spirit to serve the body of Christ, the responsibility of authoritative teaching and governing discipline is for suitably gifted and duly appointed men, and not women (1 Cor. 11:3–16; 14:26–40; 1 Tim. 2:11–3:13). The reasons given for these different responsibilities are theological not cultural—God’s creative purposes in Genesis 2, their disruption in the Fall, the relationship of Christ and the church, and relations within the Godhead. Therefore, they cannot be set aside as merely first century cultural practices or by analogy with slavery. They still apply today.
The Bible recognizes that culture is an expression of human society, and that gender is expressed culturally, and differently in different cultures (cf. Gen. 24:47; Isa. 61.10; Ezek. 16:12; Jer. 2:32). While not a cultural construct, people are to embrace their bodily sex and gender, and express it through culturally meaningful symbols (e.g., clothing, hair) and behaviour (e.g., Gen. 17:14; Deut. 22:5; 1 Cor. 11:4–5; 1 Tim. 2:9–10).
There is diversity in the biblical portrayal of the sexes. There are women who are cooks and seamstresses, help rebuild cities, judge Israel, deal in real estate, run businesses, even kill God’s enemies (e.g., Gen. 27:14; Num. 27:1–4; Judg. 4:4–6, 18–21; Neh. 3:12; Prov. 31:10–31; Luke 10:38-41; Acts 9:36–39), and men who are shepherds, farmers, metal-workers, musicians, cooks, warriors and fighters, gentle and sensitive men, men who weep and embrace (e.g., Gen. 4:2, 20–22; 27:31; 45:14–15; Deut. 28:54; 1 Sam. 16:18; 17:33; 1 Tim. 3:3). This diversity does not nullify or contradict the different roles and responsibilities of women and men in marriage and ministry in the NT, but it does warn against rigid gender stereotypes.
All people are in gendered relationships and experience the unity, plurality, and mutual interdependence of human community (1 Cor. 11:11-12). Marriage is the most intimate expression of this and is based on the unity and complementary ‘otherness’ of the sexes (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4–5). It is the only divinely-sanctioned context for sexual intimacy. Marriage and parenthood are not essential for full personhood or human flourishing (like Jesus!), neither are they ultimate in God’s purposes (cf. Rev 19:7).
Christ Jesus—God incarnate
The goodness of our sexed bodies and gendered human experience is evident in Jesus’s incarnation as a man, whose earthly life and identity were shaped by his bodily sex and the gendered roles and relationships he had as a man, son, brother, male friend (Matt. 12:46–50; Luke 2:21, 23, 43, 48; John 19:26). He expressed his gender in the culture of the day, with the same clothes, cultural expectations, etc.
He continues to be a man, raised, ascended, glorified and ruling at the right hand of the Father. This is not because ‘the male is God’ but because when the Son of God took on human flesh, he took on humanity like ours that is sexed and gendered. And as the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) he is able perfectly to represent both men and women before God (1 Tim. 2:4–5, anthropos; cf. 2:8, aner).
Men and women equally saved
Those who trust in Christ receive a new identity. We are ‘sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty’ (2 Cor. 6:18), and ‘sons of God’, who receive the full benefits of the sonship of the Son—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:14–17; Gal. 4:4–6).
There is now ‘no male and female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:26–28). The deep divisions that belong to fallen humanity are removed. This does not mean the end of biological differences between male and female or the distinctive responsibilities of men and woman in marriage and ministry but that all who are ‘in Christ’ are full heirs with Christ. And although there is good reason to think the distinctions of male and female will continue in the next life (Matt. 22:30–32, where the reference to “neither marry nor be given in marriage” suggests that both men and women are in view, whereas the statement “they will be like angels in heaven” refers to their unmarried state not to sex or gender; Luke 24:15–51; John 20:15–21:14) we will all inherit as true sons—with the firstborn Son himself.
- Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey
- Claire Smith, God’s Good Design: What the Bible really says about Men and Women
- John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism
- Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26
- Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God
- Andreas Köstenberger and Thomas Schreiner, Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15
Gender roles and slavery
- Benjamin Reaoch, Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate: A Complementarian Response to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic
- Denny Burk, What is the Meaning of Sex?