Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—Or Christlikeness?
Author’s note: In response to an earlier version of this article, a friend offered a substantial critique of “how” I made my case. He worried that it would not “promote respectful conversation” because it “insulted” those on the other side of my argument. He believed its tone would “fuel further division in the church on this issue.” Certainly, none of this was my goal, but in reexamining the piece, I perceive a number of ways I could have made my points in a more respectful fashion and—perhaps—more clearly. I’m content for my views to provoke, but not my manner of presenting them. So as to avoid further offense, I offer a revised version here. Can we call it a mulligan?
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It has become a common trope to argue that “the Bible calls us to Christlikeness, not to biblical to manhood and womanhood.”
I believe this is a category error. It pits good biblical truths against one another. It confuses our ultimate goal of modeling Christ with the different ways God assigns us to do this. And it risks undermining the beauty of God’s different gifts of manhood and womanhood.
I don’t assume those using this phrase intend to do any of this. They may intend just the opposite. My trouble is with the exhortation—the way it says “this, not that,” as if this could be substituted for that because that is not biblical. The exhortation represents theologizing that’s not careful and pastoring that’s not helpful.
ASSUMING DIFFERENT SHAPES
Suppose I was talking to Lightning McQueen the racecar and Mack the semi-trailer truck from the animated Pixar movie Cars. And I said to both, “Your goal is not to be a racecar or a semi-truck. Your goal is optimal automobile performance.” And then I emphasized everything that’s necessary for optimal performance for both racecars and semi-trucks: a full tank of gas, regular oil changes and tune-ups, wheel alignments and rotations, and so forth.
You might call this an example of category confusion. You would affirm that, yes, the shared goal for both racecar and semi-truck in one sense is “optimal performance.” Yet you would say that, in another sense, Lightning McQueen should know what it means to be a racecar and Mack should know what it means to be a semi-truck. They drive differently. They require different kinds of maintenance expertise. And so forth.
The analogy is not perfect, but hopefully you get the point. All Christians must pursue looking like Christ. That should be every Christian’s ultimate goal, and the main thing we’re to fix our sights on. We’re to imitate his love, mercy, and holiness, and there is hardly a masculine or feminine way to do everything. Jesus’ beatitudes don’t come in pink and blue versions, Michael Bird has observed.
Still, Christlikeness will look a little different in different domains or along different pathways. Faith and hope can look one way for a husband, another for a wife; one way for a pastor, another for a member; one way for an employer, another for an employee; even one way for a man, another for a woman, by virtue of the way God has created each. Each position or station or pathway brings different responsibilities, possesses different resources, faces different challenges, seeks various ends.
Some of these differences result from different life experiences. If you are White, ask any number of your minority friends what it is like to be a minority in America. Their experience of learning faith, hope, and love will be different than yours due to a different history.
Some of these differences result from the distinct commands that Scripture gives to different groups. It gives some commands to women and others to men; some to pastors and others to church members; some to employers and others to employees (if I’m permitted a contemporary application of master/bondservant); some to fathers and others to children; some to young men, others to old men, and still others to old women.
In each of these locations, Christlikeness assumes a certain shape. Christ calls my wife and me to be poor in spirit and meek, yet that will look a little different for us. Christ calls both the poor man and the rich man to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Yet they will encounter different challenges in doing so, and different testimonies of grace will emerge on the other side.
Indeed, all these different pathways and opportunities provide us with different opportunities to picture Christ’s glory. The Lord and Savior of his people has good purposes for all of us, and for every changing time and season. He means to fashion a body, not produce robots on a conveyer belt.
So, yes, our goal should always be Christlikeness. But the harder question is always, “How does Christ mean for me to live here, in this domain, with these responsibilities, roles, resources, and assignments?”
PASTORAL SIGNIFICANCE AND DISCIPLESHIP
The opportunity for different testimonies of grace seems to be especially on offer for men and women. This is the one distinction which gets air time in creation itself. Genesis 2 points to both sameness (“in the image of God he created him—Gen. 1:27b) and difference (“male and female he created them”—1:27c). Somehow, that distinction is bound up in our ontology. Are men and women as different as racecars and semis? Or are they only as different as a Honda Accord and a Toyota Camry? In fact, I think the task of defining biblical manhood and womanhood is unexpectedly difficult. We should not associate the idea with any one theologian, definition, or organization. Instead, we should all keep opening our Bibles and studying the matter, as I’ve mentioned in a couple of places.
But even if our opinion of those differences amounts to nothing more than chromosomal assignments and body types, those assignments and types themselves possess distinct stewardships. God has established two different ways of being human, and they are both beautiful and good. Christlikeness therefore asks, “How can I best steward that particular assignment?”
Which means, the topics of manhood and womanhood possess pastoral significance. They are not just ontological facts we assent to. They offer design principles we aspire to, which means learning to walking the pathways not so much of law but of wisdom. Ways of being yield wise and less wise ways of living. You might say, there are better and worse ways to drive a racecar, better and worse ways to drive a semi, and those aren’t exactly the same. Which further means, there is a role for discipleship. Just like Lightning McQueen and Mack need a little individual instruction, so men and women benefit from some specific discipleship.
To be clear, then, our pastoring and our discipleship must never impose more than the Bible imposes, lest we take the path of the Pharisees. The primary way a man acts like a biblical man is to obey everything the Bible says to everyone but also to men. And so with a biblical women. Moving beyond this into different “ways of living,” as I just suggested, pushes us into the realm of wisdom, and wisdom and law offer different kinds of moral “oughts.” Wisdom is grounded in creation. It keeps us from folly, which is not perfectly overlapping with sin. Wisdom points to tendencies and typicallys and usuallys. Yet it allows for a little more flexibility, making adjustments for seasons, for personalities, for specific giftings (for my elaboration on this paragraph, see here).
CHRISTLIKENESS AS ABSTRACT, COLORLESS, ANTINOMIAN
However, when we say, “The Bible calls us to Christlikeness, not biblical manhood and womanhood,” we effectively remove manhood and womanhood from the pastoral and discipleship docket.
I dare say, the substitution, albeit unintentionally, turns Christlikeness into something androgynous, gnostic, anti-physical. It inhibits the incarnational potentiality of Christlikeness, as if Christlikeness cannot distinctly inhabit all the idiosyncratic nooks and crannies of human existence and demonstrate Christ’s dominion there in that specific way.
Instead, Christlikeness becomes generalized, non-specific, colorless, and genderless. To use the language of the philosophers, it melts the many into the one, like a box of crayons melting into brown gray.
Again, I doubt anyone making this exhortation means to do this. Some of them might even wish to maintain the differences between men and women. Yet, as I said before, it represents careless theologizing and unhelpful pastoring. It leaves men and women with nothing distinct to learn.
If I really wanted to turn the screws, I’d even say the phrase is a touch antinomian. This idealized, abstract concept of Christlikeness inevitably rests in tension with any rule structures that God has established for men and women in the home or church. As such, these rule structures look arbitrary, unfair, even a little cruel, at least in comparison to the now androgynous Platonic ideal of Christlikeness. So at most we concede that the Bible offers these distinct structures, but we don’t explain them, fill them out, or give them any space in our books or sermons.
Instead, we minimize the differences. We say nothing about what those differences might mean for the discipleship of our sons and daughters. Frankly, we’re a little embarrassed by them, which is the sign of our antinomianism.
A STAINED GLASS WINDOW
Yet what if Christlikeness doesn’t look like just one thing? What if there was a male kind and a female kind? A kind for the writer and the singer, the architect and the builder? The nine and 90-year-old? The Nigerian tribal chief and the New York subway driver? The mother and the father? The sister and the brother? The husband and the wife?
Might Christ’s beauty refract just a little differently from each of these angles? Offering a more resplendent display of his glory, like a stained-glass cathedral window instead of the monochromatic glum of a beer bottle?
I assume those pushing biblical manhood and womanhood off the discipleship docket don’t want the monochromatic glum of a beer bottle, either. But to them I’d say, be careful not to just emphasize and celebrate one thing. What do you retweet and praise? Only the affirmations of how God made men and women the same? Or do you say, “Praise God!” when someone affirms our difference, too?
In fact, the various kinds of diversity given by God, including gender diversity, makes us all richer. We learn from one another across those differences. So Lightning McQueen has something to learn from Mack and Mack from Lightning.
I am not a woman and I will never fully understand how it feels to be a woman.* Yet God requires me to try by telling me to live with my wife in an understanding way. And so my mind must reach, stretch, lean forward in the attempt. I’m forced out of myself, my natural narcissism left behind. This might require self-denial in the beginning, which always looks painful beforehand, but ultimately I acquire a larger identity and a bigger world. My wife learns, too, but from her own angle. And don’t we both learn more about what it means to be like Christ in the process?
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*Except for the last two sentences, this paragraph is excerpted from Rule of Love (Crossway, 2018), 29.