Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Why gender matters


Since at least the Victorian era, a gender-bending and gender-blending agenda has been at work. And this, in turn, represents a throwback to the cult of sodomy we find in the ancient world. It suffered something of a hiatus when the church was strong, but as the influence of the church as a social force has gone into steep decline, we are witnessing a reversion to the old blurring of sexual identity.

Symptoms of this are manifold, viz., abortion rights, queer and transgender rights, unisex Bibles, bathrooms, feminist theology, &c.

From a Christian standpoint we need to ask, why does gender matter? And once we begin to give it serious thought, we see that distinctions of gender run wide and deep in theology and ethics.

Godhood & Gender

Gender-specific titles and role relations are applied to God in Scripture. They designate two persons of the Trinity.

Are these relations essential or merely economic? Throughout the NT, Christ’s filial relation to the Father is treated as a mark of his divinity. Cf. G. Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (Eerdmans 1953); B. Warfield, The Lord of Glory (Guardian Press, n.d.).

Divine sonship not only means that he is the Son of God, but by virtue of his filial relation to the Father, is divine in his own identity. So this would imply the eternal sonship of Christ.

And since fatherhood and sonship are correlative, that would, in turn, imply the eternality of divine paternity as well. Hence, gender distinctions figure in the very nature of the Godhead.

God's communicable attributes need not have an earthly counterpart. But God is the source of all possibility and actuality. If there is to be a world at all, it must mirror or shadow forth a few of the communicable attributes of God:
"Though we call God by names derived from the creature, God himself first established these names for the creature. Indeed, although we first apply to the creature the names which designate God because of the fact that we know the creature before we know God; essentially they apply first of all to God, then to the crea-ture. All virtues pertain first to God, then to the creature: God possesses these virtues 'in essence,' the crea-ture 'through participation,'" H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Banner of Truth, 1979), 94.

And God has willed that this world faintly mirror his inner life. He has decreed that the Church be one as the Father and the Son are one (Jn 17:22-23). God the Father is the father after whom every other fatherhood is named (Eph 3:14).

This is often denied on the grounds that God is sexless. But although that is true, it fails to distinguish between different levels of abstraction: masculinity is more general than maleness, while maleness is more general than manhood. Even though God is sexless, it doesn’t follow that God is not masculine—at least in some respects. Scripture does not ascribe gender to the Spirit of God. The Creator/creature, exemplar/exemplum relation is still one of analogy, not identity.

For example, many animals are male without being manly. A man is a specific instance of maleness.

Likewise, we can say that the writing of Dante, Spenser, Milton, and Scott is manly or masculine, while the writing of Jane Austen, Christina Rossetti, Eudora Welty, and Sigrid Unset is womanly and feminine. Now, strictly speaking, their writing is sexless. It consists of inanimate words on a page. Yet their respective writings embody certain stereotypical properties of masculinity or femininity.

We could even extend that to more abstract art forms. We could say that the music of Bach, Handel, and Beethoven is very masculine while the music of Mendelssohn is more femi-nine.

The universal is not wedded to the particular. That's what makes it a universal. Being es-sentially timeless and transcendent, it can be exemplified in many times and places.

Godhood & Manhood

The fact that gender designations and role-relations are applied to God and his creatures alike assumes some level of analogy between the Creator and the creature. Many men have taken this to mean that divine gender designations and role-relations are mere metaphors, representing an extension of human language, sexual distinctions and social institutions to God.

But if gender is an essential and eternal aspect of the Godhead, and if gender-specific terms are applied alike to God and man in Scripture, then this does, indeed, imply an analogical relation, but in the opposing direction—flowing from the Creator to the creature—and not merely metaphorical, but metaphysical. Divine fatherhood and sonship are exemplary for human fatherhood and sonship. Manhood is not the model of Godhood; Godhood is the model of manhood, as the imago Dei (Gen 1:26-27).

Godhood & Womanhood

But where, if anywhere, does the feminine figure in this framework? Well, not only does Scripture designate a father/son relation, but also a husband/wife relation. Yahweh is the husband of Israel while Christ is the bridegroom of the church.

This is no doubt an economic rather than an essential relation, yet it is grounded in an es-sential relation, for the roles are complementary—as answering one to the other. So there’s an asymmetry between essential masculinity and economic femininity.

And this also has an exemplary aspect. Christ’s relation to the church is the underlying paradigm for man and wife. Marriage is the mirror of election.

Manhood & Womanhood

The male/female dialectic generates, quite literally, as well as figuratively, all of our social relations and social institutions.

It generates the vertical, primary and secondary relations, viz., parent/child; father>son/ daughter; mother>son/daughter; grandparent/grandchild; aunt/uncle-niece/nephew.

It generates the horizontal, primary and secondary relations, viz., siblings; brothers, sisters, cousins, and second-cousins.

By extension, it generates analogous social relations not based on blood; whether supe-rior/subordinate relations (e.g., king/subject, commander/foot-soldier, teacher/student, boss/employee) or peer relations (friends). This is the basis of hierarchical institutions in government, the boardroom, the schoolroom, the pulpit, and so on.

There is a nested hierarchy of social relations: within the Godhead you have the eternal father of the eternal son. This does not, of itself, prove the essential or functional (unless economic) subordination of the Son to the Father, for we must still make allowances for the relevant level of abstraction in comparing the divine examplar to the human exemplum. Many things that hold true in a human father/son relation do not carry over to the inner life of the Godhead, or vice versa.

God is, in turn, the exemplary model of manhood, fatherhood, sonship, and husbandhood, for men and women. Men and women are, in turn, the exemplary models of manhood, womanhood, fatherhood, motherhood, husbandhood and wifedom, for their sons and daughters.


By striking a blow to gender, liberals strike at the root of theology and anthropology alike at a single stroke. So the stakes could not be higher.

None of this is to deny that tradition roles can be abused. But you can only abuse a role if you have a role to abuse. The abuse does not negate the use. And unnatural or ungodly roles are inherently abusive of God, self, and others.


I wish to thank Dr. John Frame for commenting on a preliminary draft of this essay.

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