what’s the difference?

The blowback from last week’s controversial column, “The War on Men,” got me thinking. I cover the complementarian/egalitarian issue every semester, and it’s been a long time since anyone switched sides because of their understanding of Scripture. Both sides seem dug in at this point—there may be less undecided voters on this issue than there were last month in Ohio—and we’re going to have to learn to live together. We need to establish some ground rules, and right now I don’t know what they are.

This is my initial, and perhaps foolish, attempt in that direction (I’m not sure it’s safe to voice this post out loud, but here goes). I’ve noticed that it’s difficult to mention that men and women are different without saying something that will offend someone. If you’re talking about what it means to be a man, invariably that will include something about their strong desire—let’s call it a need—to provide and protect, which will then raise the question, “What? You think women should stay at home and let their man take care of them?”

If you say that men like to take the initiative and women like to receive—a fact demonstrated in the act of sex (even liberals bemoan the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray, noting that it’s hard to imagine men being turned on by a story of sexual bondage in which the man plays the victim) and in the marriage proposal (nearly all women still want to be asked rather than do the asking)—it’ll sound like you’re saying that women shouldn’t ever lead.

So here is my question:  what gender differences can we mention that aren’t offensive? How do you describe the difference between men and women in a way that doesn’t sound demeaning to men or women? Are we allowed to acknowledge the truth that men and women are different? If so, how?

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  1. Great post Mike. I suppose if we start with the ground-up, common-grace approach to trying to understand the difference between the sexes, I would suggest that typically men are physically stronger than women. This says nothing about intelligence, as I find many women to be far superior to me in that department. Merely muscular size being thought of here. And women surely have the corner of the market when it comes to having the wonderful capacity to become pregnant and bear a child, and nurse that child… all very a tremendous and amazing difference from men. Those are so obvious they may seem dumb to mention, but sometimes it is as if we don’t even what to mention physical/biological differences as being meaningful. But if we are, as it seems scripture teaches, psycho-somatic beings, then these physical differences suggest something about our psychological differences too. Hard to believe God made us so physically different and not one ounce psychologically different. But then there is the case of looking from the top-down, that is, from special revelation. Seems to me Scripture assumes, in so many places it is hard to know where to begin, that men and women are different, and that these differences are normal, good, and “the ways things should be”. Minus the curses of Genesis 3, which demonstrate a perversion of the creation, rather than the “way things should be”.

  2. Gender differences exist on a sliding scale. Whatever a person says is going to be a generalization — and some individuals will not fit.

  3. Brilliant. I definitely sense the entrenchment. Perhaps your questions greatest potential, at least for the conversations I am involved in lies in their ability to ask/expose the larger question if differences can even be acknowledged, verbalized, or initially affirmed. For me this is the greatest challenge and the root of the intractability I often experience in these issues. Thank you.

  4. Hi Craig,
    In your post you mention that “Whatever a person says is going to be a generalization–and some individuals will not fit.” I just wondered if you could clarify: do you view these generalizations as broadly legitimate or illegitimate? The individuals that “will not fit”… are they the exception that proves the rule, or do you believe those exceptions destroy the validity of the generalizations?

  5. When I approach this issue face to face, with a real person, I usually say something like this: If you begin with the belief that God created us male and female and pronounced this good, then you must next ask why he made us different. Let’s start with a very easy difference. Women can nurse their babies and men cannot. What do you think God may have had in mind when he chose to make only one of the sexes be able to do that? Did God do that on purpose just to make the woman more vulnerable, weak,and defenseless because he thought she would like that? Since that seems rather mean-spirited, perhaps there was something good God had in mind with this ability? What might that be?

  6. Maybe the key is to talk about our distinctions in the form of a question? Could that be a way to get the point across without offending or alienating the other? Why can’t I stop talking like this? Is it fear?

  7. In response to Tom Beetham: A generalization is just that. It is largely true, mostly true, but not always true in every case. On Myers-Briggs tests women are more likely to be “F” in moral judgements and men more likely to be “T”, i.e. women are more feeling-oriented and men are more thinking-oriented. No one knows if this is cultural or somehow chemical/hormonal. But, I cannot expect any particular woman to be an “F’ or any particular man to be an “T.”

    I don’t personally like the generalization that men are more adept at sports than women are. I don’t know if, as a generalization, that is true. It might be for all I know. But, it sure doesn’t fit me.

    Things get even worse, if one attempts (like Terri McGarry) to read the mind of God about the divine purpose of gender differences — many of which are not absolute anyway.

  8. Thanks for your response Craig. That helps me to understand what you were originally saying. To respond to Mike’s most recent post… I am ready for the ?????s to come to a humble close. I think this is an area where the Church has caved in largely because of cultural pressure to do so. Granted the church has learned a lot from the culture too: women are indeed our equals as image-bearers of God. This must never be compromised in the slightest way. Yet it seems that even a cursory reading of scripture suggests clear God-given differences between men and women. We must speak clearly where the scriptures speak clearly. Some statements in the CBMW (Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) may be over-stated, but at least it seems they are trying to stand on firm biblical teaching regarding these scriptural differences between men and women, when many of us are a bit too timid to do so. Give us your thoughts Mike! We can handle them. We respect (even if we disagree with) your opinion. Otherwise we wouldn’t read your blog! Lay it on us brother…

  9. Follow up edit: I do not mean by “I am ready for the ?????s to come to a humble close” that there are no longer serious questions and issues to be dealt with in this area. We need to keep asking questions. My point is that there is a time to start providing clear answers to some of our questions when the scriptures allow/command us to. I feel that there is too much mushiness (is that a word?) in the Church on these issues, when there could be more firmness if we would simply submit to the Bible’s leading, wherever it leads… We need questions, but the world and the Church are in desperate need of some answers too, especially in the area of womanhood and manhood.

  10. Thanks for asking this, Mike. Both sides are clearly entrenched, and both are often guilty of missing the point the other side is making.

    When you say “gender differences,” keep in mind that gender itself is a social construct, of which biological sex is only a part. Too often we conflate the two, and what usually ends up happening at that point is that socialized aspects end up getting put in the wrong (biological) category. If these things were truly essential, we’d see them manifest universally.

    I think talking about gender differences might cause less offense if we really stop and look at the language we’re using, and understand we’re only speaking from our own gendered and culturally limited frame. Even your description of the sex act is from a male perspective — I’m not delegitimizing it (if you’ll pardon the pun); I’m only saying words like “embrace” and “surround” and “envelop” would work just as well as words like “penetrate,” but are perhaps less familiar to a male audience. So even at that level, the gendered assumptions are at work and showing up in your language. They do not speak for everyone — speaking as if they do is what causes offense, because in so doing, you have erased the other’s perspective.

    So I think it can be done, but you need to check your assumptions and challenge your own language. You are, after all, speaking cross-culturally.

  11. Pam: Thank you for replying, but I wonder why you assigned a term to me that I never used. You mention the term “penetrate” which you say was “showing up in your language” and is “what causes offense” because it “erased the other’s perspective.” But I didn’t use this term–you did–so I really don’t know why you would say I said it. My description was one “takes the initiative” and the other “receives.” Do you disagree with this, or think that it in some way deligitimizes the other?

    I appreciate and value our cultural differences, but I doubt that the main gender differences are as culturally unique as you might think. I understand that there may be an outlier here or there, but having lived in China for two years and traveled around Europe and Asia quite a bit, I’ve find gender differences between men and women to be fairly constant. So I don’t think it will do to say there are no universals here because we’re all limited by our cultural perspectives. That’s not what most people find when they live in other cultures.

  12. What causes me to feel offended in the discussion of gender issues is when people on one side show a lack of respect for my entire gender and hint at or even say that we are only equal to men in justification. This happened to me in a discussion I just had with a complementarian relative so this is a timely post! The biological differences are obvious, but it is in assigning more value to one or the other genders that causes trouble for me. So I am coming to believe that the way to speak about gender differences without offending people is to not stereotype either gender and to speak in a way that shows that you respect and value the person you are talking to regardless of gender. Of course, the latter statement must be true or this will come through in your words and people will be offended!

  13. I’m going to have to side with Pam on this issue of what, if any, gender differences the sex act displays. It is my experience that when questioned on the subject, most men will say that they like the woman to take the initiative on occasion. Like I said, this is my experience, so it may not be yours.
    I think that simply making assumptions based on our observations of culture and behavior is a poor way to get at the heart of a philosophical matter. Although it’s a good start. I appreciate this discussion, because in the act of discussing and weighing different arguments, I think we can come to more sound conclusions, even if not final answers. We just have to avoid getting too touchy over the issue if we want to discuss it at any length.
    With that said, I’d like to quote from a previous post by Terri, “When I approach this issue face to face, with a real person, I usually say something like this: If you begin with the belief that God created us male and female and pronounced this good, then you must next ask why he made us different.”
    I really like this comment from Terri. It really gets me thinking. It gets me pondering about what God may be communicating through gender, instead of thinking how unjust the treatment of women has been over the history of the world. I guess to come to any consensus we’ll have to put our feeling aside for a time.

    Principally, I think God shows three things about Himself in creating. First, He showed that He is artistic by making things beautifully. Some things seem to have no other purpose than to just look nice! Second, He shows that He is pragmatic; he makes things to work a certain way, and some things, it seems, He created just for a practical use. Third, I think He endows purpose and meaning into his creation; that it has a beginning and end – a story if you will.

    How does God’s creation of gender demonstrate these three aspects of his creation? Gender seems to show a beauty all its own – the physical shape of a woman, and likewise of a man are depicted in artistic ways by humans and are appreciated each for their unique beauty. Likewise, the male and female bodies have a unique way that they each work, and a practical use and purpose in child-bearing, specific to each gender. Thirdly, each gender seems to have a unique story and purpose.
    The Biblical story seems to show that each gender has it’s unique beginning – the garden stories in Genesis – and each will have it’s middle, and eventually it’s end. I think the curse of Genesis shows the unique affect sin had on each gender. Man will be predisposed to overrule the woman’s feelings, the woman will be predisposed to desire a relationship more than doing what God has created her uniquely to do. Haven’t we seen this throughout history?
    But I think in Christ, our stories can be free from the curses. We can find freedom in each gender doing what God created it to do, and each individual – physically, spiritually, and in practical everyday living. That looks different for everyone, but in Christ we can all flourish, as long as we don’t consign ourselves to curses. For one thing, I think we are all too preoccupied with who should be in charge, and not enough about cooperating and using our unique gifts! Thanks for reading. =)

  14. This seems very wise, Gina. Thanks! I think the key is your comment that our culture tends to assign value to our differences. Is it fair to say that our culture tends to suggest that male traits are superior to female ones? If so, this would explain why both men and women feel that even speaking of gender differences is a way of demeaning women. What a tragedy. The next time that fellow suggests women are only equal to men in justification, I’d ask if that’s because women are so far ahead in all other areas. Pity the man’s wife, if he has one.

  15. Jackie: I agree with most of this, probably in part because it’s a general description of the importance of gender in the story of creation, fall, and redemption. I suspect that we’d have more disagreement when we actually discuss what the male/female gender differences are–which is why I asked the question in my original post. I agree that men enjoy women to initiate sex, as you say, “on occasion,” but my point is that the act itself has a more rigorously defined role for each. And it’s entirely appropriate to use our experience to do philosophy, as Plato and Aristotle did.
    I was surprised to read that gender will eventually end. Do you think that we won’t be male and female on the new earth?

  16. If this were anyone else’s blog, I would probably start the discussion by mentioning that men are better than women at driving lawnmowers.

    An important part of the context for our discussion is the fact that in all of God’s universe, the thing most similar to a woman is a man. It is the hundreds of things we share in common that cause us to be shocked/outraged/amused when we are confronted with the differences between us.

  17. Thanks, Rick, for not bringing up the incident. Unlike one fellow who you know very well, I do give my wife a turn at mowing the lawn, as a way of expressing how much we’re alike (and probably because of the incident).

    Are you sure the most similar thing to a man is a woman? I may be wrong, but I thought the answer was football.

  18. This is an issue I’ve run into recently on some message boards. I think I would classify myself quite complementarian, but I’ve been chatting with some gals and guys who clearly have either what you’d coin a very “conservative complementarian” or a “traditional” view. I’ve heard arguments that purport how “clear scripture is that women should only stay at home and maintain it for her husband.” These same people (both women and men) assert that if women do any work it must be conducted out of the home, but not at the cost of her maintaining the home and having children.

    This view confuses me a bit. I understand where they get this idea from- the scripture mentioning a woman must maintain the home (titus or timothy?) but in history (biblical history or otherwise) did this ever literally come to mean staying at home, cooking, cleaning, etc? In agrarian societies wouldn’t women have been essential to the “workforce” which at the time was based around farming. Surely women did work on the farms and lands, which was often the source of income for families. But now since jobs have moved “out of the literal household” in a more commercial & technologically advanced society, suddenly a line is drawn?

  19. Mike – I was not aware that I said using our experience was necessarily bad when philosophizing, only that making too many assumptions based on pre-conceived notions is bad – such as cultural ones. Also, experience only goes so far; can we think outside of our own experiences? On the contrary, I think its good to make keen observations about reality as a starting point of getting at the truth.
    To address your experience of gender differences being universal, could it be that cultural differences pertaining to gender are more sparse now that culture is more globalized? Taking a look at history, there has been more than one female-dominated society, and also one can look to the African American culture as an example of female-domination in gender relations. Do you have much experience with the African American culture?

    But back to the idea of what the sex act demonstrates about gender. I see much more complex things happening than just a giving of one person and a receiving of another. I observe both the male and female giving and receiving love and pleasure in the sex act. Or do you mean that the male gives sperm? In that case, I think its also good to note that structurally, men give only half of the genetic material needed to form another human.

    To answer your question about what causes people get offended when it comes to gender differences – I observe that the principalities and powers in the world hold hierarchies of value based on race, sex, social and economic status. These hierarchies should not be part of God’s kingdom, as described by Paul in Gal. 3:28. Hierarchies create feelings in us of superiority and inferiority that tend to alienate us from each other, rather than celebrating our unique gifts and abilities as a God-given good. For example, I personally feel belittled, as a stay-at-home mom, when my friends (both believers in Christianity, and those who are not) tell me that I need to get a real job. That makes me feel as though my role in raising my children is of no value to society or to my family, which in turn makes me not want to stay at home with my children. I’m sure a lot of women feel the same way.

  20. Jackie, I think men who are the primary caretakers of their children feel the same way as you described — if you ask me, it’s less a devaluing of at-home moms than a devaluing of the job of childraising itself.

    Mike — The cross-cultural comment was in reference to the cross-cultural nature of speaking from one gender to another, assuming your experience is the other’s experience. Yes, I realize I used the word “penetrate” when you did not — I used it in order to make a point about engendered language. “Initiate” vs. “receive” is really no different. (And “initiative” is, after all, the nominative form of “initiate”…) So yes, I do disagree — that is not my perspective on the sex act, so your word does not represent me. It is in assuming that it does which erases my perspective. I am aware my words may not represent your perspective — I would make a grave error if I used them in such a way as to imply that they did, and you would be well within your rights to call me out on it.

    The thing I find confusing about this is you have asked for feedback, and you have received some. Was that question merely rhetorical?

  21. Pam: Please don’t take my responses as a sign I wasn’t sincere in inviting feedback. I think responding is necessary for me to hold up my end of the conversation. So not responding would actually be a sign that my question was rhetorical. I think it’s clear that you and I disagree about whether there are transcultural gender differences, and that we both think the other is in denial. It’s also clear that women have too often been mistreated and devalued by men, and so even having a conversation like this is bound to be difficult. I wouldn’t blame a woman who feels belittled by her Christian friends for being a stay at home mom to be suspicious of any talk about gender differences. It understandably sound like code for “you’re not good enough.” This is heart breaking, and I don’t know how we get past this.

    Jackie: I appreciate where you’re coming from, and I think I understand your position, and please know that I respect it even if I disagree at points. Regarding my experience in Africa, I have been to Liberia and I have students from Malawi, Chad, and Kenya. They actually scratch their heads over some of the conversations we are having. Africa is quite diverse but for the most part it is fairly “traditional,” so I don’t think you’ll find much support there for the idea that our experience of gender difference is entirely our culture talking.

    My hobby horse is fighting Gnosticism, so I put a lot of weight on the fact that we are embodied creatures. We can’t separate our spirits from our bodies. I don’t want to say more about the sex act for fear of getting an R rating on my blog, but if you think about it I think you’ll realize that within the wonderful mutuality of sex there is a difference of roles.

    I understand that “hierarchy” is a loaded term and I wish there was a better one. I would only say that you and I live within many hierarchies. My boss is over me at work, the elder board is over me at church, and my kids are under me at home. The key for me is to remember that difference in role or function does not mean difference in essence. I submit to my boss, but he is not worth more than me. We are entirely equal in our humanity. Likewise, to bring up one of the hot spots in evangelical theology (and I’m sure you’ll disagree), the Son is eternally submissive to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28), yet he is eternally equal to the Father as well. I realize that “submit” is a loaded term as well, and I feel badly about using it, but that is the term God chose in Ephesians 5:22-24.

  22. Mike: Yes, truly we are missing each other (which was my initial point above).

    This is a far bigger conversation, but I would just like to challenge you on two things, if you’ll allow it:

    First, the key to any communication — especially cross-cultural communication, and I would say that every communication is in some ways cross-cultural — is listening well. Really well. If you ask for feedback, but deflect it when it comes, I’m not sure you’re listening well. If you can encounter students and colleagues with a variety of opinions every day, yet maintain “it’s been a long time since anyone switched sides because of their understanding of Scripture,” I’m not sure you’re listening well. (Count me as one such person. I can provide a list of others, if you’d like.)

    Second (and this gets to a much larger issue), if you must bring in the Danvers Statement language about “equal in essence but distinct in role,” please realize you are using two terms which are not parallel. A role is something that a person can put on and take off — as in a theatrical role, or a workplace role. It is not a permanent arrangement. Even your role of submission to the authority of your boss is not permanent. If a “role” is a permanent thing — e.g., one person always leads, and the other always follows, due to their biology — it is no longer a role. It is essence. And if one always leads and the other always follows, again due to biology, they are not equal. The second half of the statement actually contradicts the first. The Danvers Statement is, on this point and many others, rhetorically creative at best, and disingenuous at worst. Complementarians who conclude, as Gina’s relative did, that the equality is in justification alone, are simply following the logic of the movement.

    Having said all that, I do deeply respect you as a scholar and love you as a brother. But honestly, Mike, you’re missing it. And when you admit you’re missing it and ask for input, well… the counselor in me will respond. Please don’t dodge the input you’re being given, especially from women, many of whom are reticent to comment due to strong cultural messages about their inferiority to men’s intellect. Listen well.

  23. Pam, you didn’t leave me a safe place to respond, so I won’t. I’ll stop commenting on this thread and we’ll still be friends. Thanks for sharing, it was instructive.

  24. I did my research on this topic more than 20 years ago, so I am a little out of touch. I thought that that “equal in essence but distinct in role” was based on the model of the trinity. Are the roles in the trinity permanent arrangements, or can they be put on and taken off?

  25. I like your question, Rick. I think the story God tells of the progression in relationship within the Trinity is awesome! Because Christ submits to the Father, the Father exalts Him to the highest place, and gives Him authority over all! He gets that high place by making himself NOTHING! Isn’t that a wonderful picture of what authority should be? And then the Spirit is sent out to build the Church. Christ was also active in creating, as was the Father and the Spirit – oooh they have a shared strength! All three are also active in redemption – the Father chooses us, the Son redeems us through his death on the cross, and the Spirit sanctifies us in the Truth. I don’t believe that the Trinity shows a hierarchy, but a cooperative relationship where the strengths of each person are used to their fullest. I believe it shows mutual submission, as Paul also instructs the Church to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. But I suppose I am completely out of my league discussing theology here. Women of course aren’t built for such things. Lol!😉

    Mike: You probably won’t agree with me, but I think hierarchies are unnecessary when it comes to submission. I think we should all submit to one another’s strengths. Take the formation of a rock band for instance. Usually, one person will come out as the leader, because they are good at leading. Other band members may be good at singing or playing an instrument, but would rather not organize the band. Leading is a gift of individual personalities, and I don’t think it is exclusively of men. But I do think there are differences in the sexes, I just don’t think think they are universal, but only generalities. Let’s not go making eternal truths out of everything!

    Thanks again, Mike, for having the courage to engage in this conversation. I realize it can be pretty uncomfortable for us all, but I have a lot of respect for you for doing it anyway.

  26. Rick McGarry: I’d recommend the work of Kevin Giles on this topic.

  27. Thomas McCall’s essay on the topic (from “Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Systematic and Philosophical Theologians on the Trinity”) was more coherent and compelling than Giles’ work. I disagreed with it, but thought it was clearly stated, well argued, and moved the discussion forward.

  28. You know, I think the answer you’re looking for has nothing to do with the actual topic. Let me try to explain that. You can substitute race, politics, any controversial topic for the male/female one and have the same question. The question is: how do you have a conversation about an extremely loaded emotional topic without someone being offended. I don’t think you can guarantee that offense won’t be taken, I think we have already determined patterns for public discourse, but I think you can do it carefully. I think that Pam is right about one thing: you have to listen. I’ve been discovering that the Internet is a tricky place to have those conversations. Arguments are written on blogs that allow for very little true discussion because people aren’t really writing with apologetics in mind. A blog (or article) by its very nature says, “Here is what I think, respond.” When I think a more winning relational approach would say, “What do you think, why?” and then attempt to ground it in the Christian world view. That’s extraordinarily hard to do without the real life component, and so I’m not surprised by ugly internet wars. I often wonder what the aim of most bloggers is (especially religious ones). I say this not to imply that Christian blogs are worthless, but that a lot of what I read is not done with care. There’s too little listening and too much “Here’s my opinion.” I’m sorry I went into a little rant, I don’t think you do this, but I think I’m finally giving voice to a lot of what I’ve been feeling. It is one thing to write about a topic you are passionate about, and I think it is incredibly worthwhile to do so. Where would the world be without writers? But I think that the balance on the internet has tipped away from the reader. We are trained to defend ourselves in the comments section, or fire off our own inflammatory blog post and wait for the responses to come in. It seems like a fairly poor apologetic method. Does this make sense? Does it sound like it’s answering the question? I guess my answer to your question is to think first about who you’re speaking to. Try to make sure you hear them first, then respond yourself. Whether someone is offended after that is not your responsibility (though it may be worth your concern).

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