Look up “gender” in the dictionary, and you will probably find “sex” as its definition. As if the words were interchangeable. In the not-so-distant past, “gender” referred only to grammatical fields. But in 1955, a sexologist suggested that we distinguish between biological sex and gender as a way of distinguishing between male and female.
Another fifteen to twenty years passed before his idea caught on. In the 1970s, the field of Gender Studies emerged, and we began to define “gender” as the social construction of biological difference, or what we consider masculine and feminine behavior.
The distinction between sex as biological and gender as the social construction of sex difference was to give us language to explore the dynamic behind why, when a woman in Kenya puts a roof on a house, she’s doing women’s work, but in America, most would consider a female roofer “unfeminine.” In ancient Rome, yellow was the “girl” color; in America, it’s pink; in Kenya all colors are gender-neutral. In America the husband usually drives the family; in some parts of the world, the wife is more likely to serve her husband by driving. These examples suggest there’s a fluidity to how we define masculine and feminine behavior, and how we socially construct our ideals. It was the influences behind these behaviors and the desire to study them that led to the differing definitions of “sex” and “gender.”
In the past few years I’ve seen a rise in the number of Christian small groups and curricula designed around discovering gender differences, and especially the associated question, “What is biblical masculinity and femininity”? More to the point, what social differences did God design to flow from our sex differences?
It appears that Christians are unified in our belief that God made men and women different by design. But we disagree about whether and/or how our biological differences lead to clear and set social differences that we should pursue in order to become our true selves. If we think social differences exist, none of us can agree on what those differences are. I would argue that they are as mysterious as the wisdom of God, and as soon as we assign them clear categories, such as "men are initiators," and "women are followers," we create boxes that confine us in ways God did not intend.
For example, he gave both man and woman dominion and he gave both man and woman the command to multiply. But we tend to put the dominion only with the man, and multiplication only with the woman. And in doing so we miss the emphasis God puts on men and women partnering. We start thinking stuff like, "Kids need to be with their moms more than with their dads." And that men were made for empire-building, but women were made for homemaking—making our singles feel especially unfulfilled.
Here is how Piper/Grudem’s classic text, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, defines masculinity and femininity:
At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.
At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.
These definitions raise some serious questions. First, and most significant, and ironic: what is their basis for authority? Second, if they are correct, does this mean men and women find their true womanhood and manhood only when they are together? If I am alone, do I lose my femininity because I have no man to affirm, receive, and nurture? Am I less of a “woman” during girls’ night out? And when my husband is camping only with guys, does he lose his masculinity because there is no woman to lead, protect, and provide for? Why do we define our gender only in relationship to another human, and one of the opposite sex, no less?
What we conclude about masculine and feminine behavior in the Bible usually comes from picking and choosing our narratives. What if we notice that Jacob cooked stew, Jesus cooked fish (in his resurrected body, I might add), and the deacons served tables for widows? Shouldn’t we conclude that cooking and serving tables is really masculine work?
Why do we gloss over the observations that woman are part of the priesthood of all believers, called to take up the shield of faith and fight (we have “a battle to fight” too)? What about the fact that Proverbs 31 is filled with “war” words, with “valor” being the first. We tend to translate that word as “noble” or “excellence” but it’s the same word used for David’s mighty warrior-men. Men are told to nurture their wives (Eph 5). But according to Piper/Grudem, isn’t nurturing more of a woman’s activity than a man's? I had a student two years ago who was astounded to discover that courage was not a male quality, but rather a human one.
I believe pursuing femininity and masculinity is like pursuing happiness. The best way to attain it is to pursue something else. In this case, we find our true selves, become the men and women God intended us to be, as we pursue Jesus Christ, walk in the Spirit, and demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Sometimes doing so may even, at times, look un-macho and unfeminine to others, while God’s assessment may be “What a woman!” or “What a man!” We are not called to imitate the culture, even the Christian sub-culture. Followers of Christ are called to imitate Jesus Christ our Lord.