How Are Men and Women Different?
What would you say if your little boy asked you, “Daddy, what does it mean to be a man?” or if your little girl asked, “Mommy, what does it mean to be a woman?”
Hopefully we would have something more to say than “you’re a boy so you can be a pastor” or, much worse, “well, nothing; it’s whatever you want it to be.”
Yet how do we answer that question? We start by affirming that both male or female are made in God’s image and are meant to show what God is like in the world. We should also affirm that Christ is Lord and that both male and female should believe the gospel and grow in communion with God. Both were made for union with Christ. Those are the two core principles for manhood and womanhood.
Beyond that, however, I would want my children to know the following five ways men and women are different according to God’s good design:
A – Appearance
B – Body
C – Character
D – Demeanor
E – Eager Posture
Though we can label these differences A, B, C, D, and E, at the risk of being confusing, let’s consider each in the order they are revealed in Scripture and not in alphabetical order.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18).
In these early chapters of Genesis, Adam is created to lead. He was created first, he was charged with naming the animals (2:19–20), he was given the probationary command (2:16–17), and even though Eve ate the forbidden fruit first, God holds Adam responsible (Romans 5:12–21; cf. Gen 3:9). Eve was created to be his helper (cf. 1 Cor 11:3). In Scripture, a helper is not a demeaning role and does not imply inferiority. In fact, Yahweh is often called a “helper” of his people in the Old Testament. At the same time, Genesis 2 affirms that by God’s design, according to the order of creation, the woman is to help her husband. That is her eager posture.
I use the word posture deliberately. Posture is a flexible thing. You can slouch, you can sit upright, be casual, prim and proper, or formal. I use the word posture because we’re not talking about an inflexible office but an inclination—an eager posture. The wife should be willing to be led and the husband eager to take the sacrificial initiative to lead. It would be wrong—sinful even—for a husband to tell his wife “you’re the helper; I don’t help you.” The fact that men were created to lead does not mean that men lead to the exclusion of helping or that women help and are never able to exercise leadership.
Instead, I’m simply noting that male “leading” and female “helping” is what men and women should be intentional to find and eager to accept. Even in the workplace, where a company’s org chart may have men and women positioned at every level, I believe there is still a way for Christians to embrace masculinity and femininity in appropriate ways. This inclination is seen most clearly—in the Bible and in practice—in marriage, but there are reasons to think the Genesis pattern reflects realities that go beyond the marriage relationship. We see for Paul that the Genesis pattern was to be reflected in how women learn and men teach in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-14). Or consider the example of Deborah. She was undoubtedly a strong woman whose influence was important, but she (implicitly) rebuked Barak for not leading the army into battle (Judge 4:6-9). He and his men were to take the lead in Israel (Judge 5:2, 9). This point about posture often has more to do with what men ought to be doing than what women should not be doing. The exhortation is not for women to sit down but for men to stand up.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22).
The world claims that orientation is more essential than gender. It also claims that gender is a construct and actions should correspond to our self-authenticating desires. The Bible, however, suggests that gender carries with it its own ought-ness. Our actions should correspond to divinely created identity.
Our bodies therefore signify a divine design and that design carries an ought-ness to how we use that body. A man has a body that uniquely fits, in a one flesh union, with a woman. It is not designed to fit together in a one flesh union with another man.
Similarly Paul uses this language of “fittedness” or “natural relations” in Romans 1:26–27:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Throughout Romans 1, Paul has been employing the language of Genesis 1 to describe human idolatry and rebellion. In this text, Paul recalls how God created both male and female in Genesis 1 as a biologically complementary pair—a biological complementarity that two women or two men cannot recreate.
In fact, at the risk of being too graphic, it’s worth noting that natural revelation itself suggests that our physiology corresponds to a divine moral injunction. When two men are together sexually, the member that is supposed to give life is often placed in a part of the body where death and decay are expelled. Even apart from supernatural revelation, the very body God has given us suggests that our bodies are designed for a certain purpose, and using our members for any alternative purpose is unnatural and rebellion against the creator.
Why is it that the sexual act is so powerful? Why is it that God determined sex as the moment of one flesh union? Why not holding hands or locking arms? Because God endowed the unique male/female sexual union with the procreative ability—the ability to fulfill the creation mandate in Genesis 1, to replenish the earth, to multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it.
One of the most counter-cultural verses in all of Scripture is 1 Corinthians 6:19–20:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, or you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
As we teach our children at home and in the church, we must not merely skip to the right conclusions without unfolding for them all of the arguments that lead to those conclusions. Don’t merely teach “sex is between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage.” Explain why that is the case. And no explanation of that point is sufficient until we communicate a biblical understanding of the body. The body isn’t incidental to us as human persons. God created our bodies and called them good. This same God took on human flesh in the incarnation. God is going to resurrect our bodies. Our bodies are therefore not incidental, and how we use our bodies is not a separate matter from who we are and how God made us to be. God created male bodies and female bodies, different bodies that carry moral “oughts” according to God’s good design.
For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head (1 Cor. 11:6).
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering (1 Cor 11:13–15).
A number of scholars have suggested that head coverings and veils in late antiquity were signs of modesty. Our culture, of course, may have different signals than these, but ultimately we should see in these passage is that Paul suggests men and women are different and should look different. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 11 is complicated, but at its core he is asserting that confusing the appearance of our genders is contrary to nature. When Paul says that nature itself teaches long hair is a disgrace to man, he’s not making a universal statement about hair-length but he is making two universal statement about gender. First, he’s asserting it isn’t right for men to look like women. Second, how this plays out will be somewhat determined by the culture. These two core principles undergird Paul’s primary point: men should not seem to be women or express themselves in a feminine way, nor should women express themselves in a masculine way or seem to be men.
Of course, we cannot be overly exacting with this principle. Samson had long hair as a sign of his strength. We shouldn’t become Pharisees who walk around with tape measures assessing everyone’s hair length. But Paul is providing us with a principle that the way we express ourselves should correspond to our gender.
I’ll admit, this principle is tricky. We shouldn’t use this principle to endorse cultural stereotypes of hyper-masculinity or hyper-femininity—“Real men wear Stetson hats, drive pick-up trucks, can fix anything, hunt, fish, and know everything about baseball.” If that’s the standard of “manliness” then many of the godliest men I know aren’t “real men.” At the same time, these cultural stereotypes are significant in that they show that our cultural recognizes that some aspects of life can be more or less masculine or feminine.
So how might this apply in our day? Hopefully we might all agree with at least some examples. Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears a cocktail dress it is a disgrace for him? Does not nature itself teach us that if a man puts on lipstick it is a disgrace for him? In our cultural context, these actions express femininity, not masculinity.
Pastors, parents, and church leaders must be extraordinarily thoughtful on this point. Can “real men” enjoy musical theater, ballet, or shopping. Of course they can. On the other hand, pastors, if you’re discipling a young man who told you he loves to wear pink pajamas, he never misses an episode of The View, and he would make his wife confront on intruder in the home, you may need to have a conversation about whether he’s appropriately expressing his masculinity.
Yes, I know, some of the examples are culturally situated. The Bible, of course, makes no explicit prohibitions against men being decked out in all pink. And yet, if masculinity and femininity are going to have any conceptual content, we cannot avoid certain cultural cues. This makes pastoring difficult—how to say something practical about masculinity and femininity without being overly rigid. But it wouldn’t be the first area where we need wisdom to apply broad principles into specific areas.
Pastors, in a day when male movie pirates, figure skaters, and stand-up comedians wear eye liner, we cannot ignore this question. The Bible may not give us every detail we might want on this topic, but it does, at least, affirm an essential truth no longer obvious in our day—it is disgraceful for a man to appear to be a woman and a woman to appear to be a man. That is the theological foundation under 1 Corinthians 11.
Of course, we must apply these truths with all the appropriate graces necessary in our discipling contexts. If someone from your church struggles with gender identity issues or gender dysphoria, deal patiently with them and sympathize with struggles they’re experiencing. Point them to 1 Corinthians 11, not as a way of shaming them, but for instruction. Teach them that God made men and women to be different and when we confuse those differences we’re confusing what God designed to uniquely glorify him.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess. 2:7–8).
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thess. 2:11–12).
Notice what Paul is doing in these passages. First, he describes his own ministry among the Thessalonians like that of a nursing mother: gentle, affectionate, sacrificial. Second, he describes his ministry as “fatherly”: full of exhortation, encouragement, and leadership. Paul identifies these demeanors as corresponding with one gender more than the other.
I don’t believe Paul is suggesting that one set of virtues are exclusively feminine or exclusively masculine. After all, he’s describing himself as ministering “like a nursing mother.” At the same time, Paul clearly suggests that certain demeanors fall more naturally along gender lines. When Paul thinks of nurture, affection, and gentleness he thinks of a mother. When he thinks of exhortation, discipline, and charge, the think of a father.
Yes, each man and each woman is unique. But no matter our personality types, fathering is generally marked by a hortatory demeanor and mothering marked by gentleness—which is saying something given the people that moms work with every day!
Ultimately, in Paul’s mind a mom has a certain demeanor and a father has a different type of deameanor, and these demeanors correspond with the natural inclinations of their gender.
I also believe that Scripture provides us with the crowning characteristic of a godly woman and that crowning characteristic of a godly man. We hear about both in 1 Peter 3:1–7:
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. 7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
Peter enjoins women to be respectful, pure, and gentle, while he enjoins men to show honor, understanding, and caring leadership. From this passage, we might suggest that the crowning characteristic of a woman is true beauty and the crowning characteristic of the man is true strength.
These two categories (feminine beauty and manly strength) are prominent throughout Scripture. For instance, in this passage, Peter focuses on instructing women to pursue the right type of adornment (not outward but inward). Paul gives similar instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2:9–10:
Likewise also . . . women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
Similarly for men, Paul refers to a sanctified, manly strength in 1 Corinthians 16:13–14:
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
Of course, this is a command to the whole church—men and women—but it is telling that Paul associates strength and courage with masculinity, a perspective embraced throughout Scripture (cf. 1 Kings 2:2).
So what do we learn from Scripture’s emphases on female beauty and masculine strength?
Though not universally true, it is broadly true that most women pay at least some measure of attention to cultivating external beauty: from time spent putting on make-up and fixing hair to how they dress. This attention to beauty signifies something about the created order. Women are wired for beauty. The Bible appeals to that natural feminine impulse and warns women not to settle for any lesser beauty than the internal beauty of Christlikeness. Women are made for this type of beauty, it is their crowning characteristic.
Similarly, men generally are physically stronger, more interested in sports, more willing to indulge war movies, and more inclined to activities like competitive hunting or fishing because they are wired for strength. The Bible appeals to that natural masculine impulse of strength and warns men not to settle for any lesser strength than the strength need to follow God and lead in a way that mirrors Christ’s own tenderhearted strength. Men are made for this type of strength, it is their crowning characteristic.
What do we say then to our sons and daughters who ask, “Daddy and Mommy, what does it mean to be a man or a woman?” Tell them they are made in the image of God and for union with Christ. And then tell your daughters that they should strive to be beautiful in the way God wants them to be beautiful. And tell your sons to strive to be strong in all the ways God wants them to be strong.
A FINAL WORD OF CAUTION
My aim is not to perpetuate stereotypes. Fabricated lists of masculine and feminine traits can often become pharisaical and run the risk of excluding godly, masculine men and godly, feminine women.
At the same time, in an effort not to perpetuate stereotypes some complementarians simply are not granting the fullness of what Scripture affirms on masculinity and femininity—a theology that goes far beyond merely “Men should be pastors and lead their homes.”
I hope from these Scriptures we see there is, in fact, an “ought-ness” to manhood and womanhood. There is a difference; a difference that should not be eradicated but celebrated; not confused but clarified. These are truths we should happily embrace, not be shamefully embarrassed about.
Yes, the cultural winds are blowing stiff and strong against the church on these issues. But the good news is that behind us lies a massive river of divine design in every human person that is flowing in this direction. God’s created order cannot be re-engineered by sinful human ingenuity. This is how God made us to be and it’s how we can flourish as men and women made in his image.
This article is an edited version of lecture by Kevin DeYoung delivered at the CBMW Pre-Conference at The Gospel Coalition National Conference in 2019.