The Bible and the Binary (Part One) image

The Bible and the Binary (Part One)


In the first post in this series, I shared about my moment of revelation concerning the freedom of the gender binary: how God’s creation of us as male or female, and his gift of that identity, gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are, therefore meaning we do not have to perform to reach the status of being a ‘real man’ or a ‘real women’. Genesis 1:27 was vital in this realisation, but my change in thinking also grew from recognising the radically different approach to masculinity taken in the New Testament in comparison to that found in the wider Greco-Roman world. I realised that the New Testament authors recognised and understood the freedom of the gender binary and applied it in their approach to masculinity.

Masculinity in the Ancient World

In the Greco-Roman world, gender was understood on a spectrum, best thought of as a vertical scale, with masculinity at the top and femininity at the bottom. The scale was vertical because masculinity was deemed better than femininity, so it was a scale you wanted to move up, but there was always the risk you could slip down. Your position on the scale was determined by your position in society and by how you lived. Maud Gleason summarises what this meant for masculinity: ‘Masculinity in the ancient world was an achieved stated, radically undetermined by anatomical sex’.1 That is, masculinity had to be performed.2

In this system, to be a real man, at the top of the scale, you had to be someone who exercised mastery. So, for example, Aristotle claimed that ‘the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female’ (Pol. 1259b) and Seneca, when describing male and female, states, ‘the one class is born to obey, the other to command’ (De Constant. 1.1). By contrast, someone who was mastered by others and who took a subordinate position would be deemed feminine. This meant that only freeborn Roman males could ever hope to be truly masculine, while slaves were automatically placed in an effeminate position because they were under the mastery of another.

But it wasn’t just mastery of others which was important, mastery of oneself (i.e. self-control) was also a key element of the performance of masculinity. Cicero suggested that the senses are liable to ‘give way in a womanish fashion’ if not carefully mastered (Tusc. 2.48), and Philo believed that ‘the female element, the senses, may be made manly by following masculine thoughts’ (QG 2.49).

This understanding of gender also explains the sexual ethics of the Greco-Roman world: the issue was not who you had sex with so much as what role you played in the sexual act, the active role was deemed masculine and the passive role was deemed feminine.

The body itself was a consideration in all of this, but it wasn’t definitive.3 Having a male body wasn’t enough to ensure that you would be considered a real man and having a female body didn’t preclude you from achieving some level of masculinity (although you couldn’t actually become a man). In 4 Maccabees, for example, a mother who exhibits incredible control of her emotions while watching her seven sons be tortured and martyred is praised as being ‘more noble than men in fortitude’ (15:30).

This approach to gender is amazingly pervasive in world of the New Testament and is found in Greek, Roman and Jewish authors.4

Masculinity in the New Testament

When you look at these discussions of masculinity, you find the regular use of recurring ideas and specialised terms from the ongoing cultural conversation. The idea of the gender spectrum seems to have been almost universally held (at least among the literate classes represented by the texts we have access to), as is the idea that masculinity is superior to femininity. The key idea that mastery is at the core of masculinity is likewise nearly universal and there are plenty of recurring motifs, such as women being imperfectly formed men and men being hot and women cold. This seems to have been a hugely prominent cultural conversation, with a defined vocabulary and common themes. But what is striking about the New Testament is that it doesn’t seem to take part in this conversation.

The Language of Masculinity

For example, there is barely any use of the standard terminology of the conversation. I can think of only two examples.

In 1 Corinthians 16:13, in a list of quick imperatives as he heads towards the close of the letter, Paul tells his readers to ‘act like men’ (ESV). This is a word which was strongly associated with the performance of masculinity (the verb andrizō is linked to the noun andres ‘men’). However, it is not clear that Paul evokes the Greco-Roman gender scale in using the word. Some commentators note the pairing with the following command (‘be strong’) and see a link to the commands to be strong and courageous in the Old Testament. Others suggest that in the context of 1 Corinthians (especially 3:1, 13:10-11 and 14:20) Paul’s point is about maturity, not masculinity. Thus a translation such as ‘be courageous’ (NIV, NLT) may better communicate Paul’s meaning, capturing the sense of the word without the gendered implications which he doesn’t seem to be endorsing. 

The other example of the standard terminology for masculinity in the ancient world used in the New Testament is also in 1 Corinthians; it is the word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The base meaning of malakos (the singular of malakoi) is ‘soft’ (it is used to describe clothing as ‘soft’ in Matt. 11:8 and Luke 7:25) and in the context of the gender conversation in the Greco-Roman world it had the sense ‘effeminate’. But the ancient definition of effeminate was somewhat different to our modern definitions. Men would be described as malakos for a huge variety of behaviours that were deemed unmasculine, including an excessive interest in one’s physical appearance, removing body hair, a love of luxury and even having too much sex. In the context of sexual activity, malakos was used to describe males who took the passive role in same-sex sexual activity. The range of meanings of malakos was therefore pretty broad. We have to work out which elements of the word’s meaning Paul was seeking to evoke.

As always, context is key. Paul doesn’t actually explain the meaning of malakos but it’s position in a list of actions which will exclude one from the kingdom of God show that it must be something he considered serious and sinful. Also, the terms in the list either side of malakos both refer to sexual activity: it is preceded by ‘adulterers’ and followed by arsenokoitēs, which would seem to refer to men who engaged in same-sex sexual activity. There is therefore a good case to be made that Paul’s use of malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is designed to denote males who take the passive role in same-sex sexual activity, with arsenokoitēs then denoting the active partner.5 So translations such as ‘men who have sex with men’ (NIV 2011) are probably best (and ‘effeminate’ (NASB) is unhelpful).  Once again, we find that Paul uses language from the gender conversation, but without the gendered overtones.6

The Themes of Masculinity

It is also striking that when the New Testament discusses themes which would usually be gendered in Greco-Roman literature, its discussion does not talk about them in gendered terms. For example, self-control is clearly a significant theme in the New Testament, but it is not linked solely with men. It is a Christian characteristic, not a male one. Sexual ethics are discussed, but not in gendered terms. The gender of those involved matters, but it is not affected by the activity. This is particularly striking when we note that Jewish authors, whose sexual ethics were closer to those of the New Testament than to other Greco-Roman authors, speak of sexuality in highly gendered terms. Philo talks of males who play the passive role in same-sex sexual activity as experiencing ‘the disease of effeminacy’ and as experiencing ‘the transformation of the male nature to the female’ (Spec. 3.37).

One exception where there does seem to be some overlap with Greco-Roman ideas is in the fact that husbands are called to be in authority over their wives, with wives instructed to be in submission to their husbands. This would seem to be masculine mastery much like we would find in Aristotle or Seneca. But even here there is a surprising anomaly: the New Testament does not use the usual masculine language of mastery, even though wives are commanded to be in submission to their husbands. Rather husbands are told to love (Eph. 5:25, 28; Col. 3:19), to honour, and to show respect to their wives (1 Pet. 3:7). This is a form of male mastery, but it is radically different from that usually found in the Greco-Roman world. A second difference is that this is an outworking of their identity, not a performance to attain it.

The Performance of Masculinity

Perhaps the most important evidence supporting the idea that the New Testament authors understood the freedom of the gender binary is that, unlike the non-Christian Greco-Roman sources, they never suggest that masculinity is something to be attained through performance. As we’ve seen, for Greeks, Romans, and Jews, masculinity was a performance, and the status of ‘real man’ was attained through actions. Gender was understood on a scale, not as a two-part binary, and you had to act to determine your position on the scale. There was thus no security in one’s gender identity.

But the New Testament authors see male and female identity as static, and when they give gendered instructions they are an outworking of that static identity, not a way of attaining the identity. So, for example, when husbands and church elders are told to exercise masculine mastery – in the radically different, Christian form discussed above – they do this as an outworking of their identity. They master because they are men, not so that they can really be men. The husband is already the head of the wife, he doesn’t need to become the head (Eph. 5:23).

This is an outworking of the freedom of the gender binary. Men are already men and so they don’t have to do anything to become real men. Women are already women and so they don’t have to do anything to become real women. They do have different roles to play (as I’ll explore in the next post), but roles flow from, rather than create, their gendered identities.

All of this suggests that the New Testament authors take a radically different view on masculinity and gender to their non-Christian contemporaries. They don’t see gender on a spectrum where men have to perform to be masculine; they don’t even bother taking part in the conversation about such performance. Rather it seems they have understood the freedom of the gender binary. The reason they don’t call men to live in certain ways in order to be men is because they know that God creates us male or female and so whatever we do and don’t do, we are a man or a woman based on how God has created us. And when they do talk about what men and women should do, it’s always as an outworking of that God-given identity, and never a condition to be met in order to create the identity. Biblically speaking, gender is given to us by God; it is not created through performance.

This leaves unanswered the question of whether there should be any discernible difference between men and women or whether we can live out a functional one-gender system. I will tackle this question in the next post in the series.


  • 1 Maud Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, 1995), p.59.
  • 2 I should note that the focus on masculinity in this post is because it is the topic which I have studied; my master’s research explored masculinity in the New Testament. While I imagine the same conclusions could be drawn from a consideration of femininity in the ancient world and the New Testament, I have not yet studied this. I hope, however, that the example of masculinity achieves the aim of this post and demonstrates that the New Testament authors approached gender as a God-given identity.
  • 3 This was certainly true, although how exactly the sexed nature of the body was understood has been debated. For several decades it was widely believed that the ancients subscribed to a one-sex understanding of the body, in which the bodily differences between men and women were just an inversion of one biological sex. (This view was mostly strongly put forward by Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.) However, more recently this view has been challenged and it has been argued that the one-sex model and two-sex model sat alongside each other. (This has been argued by Helen King in The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence.)
  • 4 One of the best introductions to Greco-Roman views on masculinity is Craig Williams, ‘Effeminacy and Masculinity’ in Roman Homosexuality (2nd edn; Oxford, 2010), pp.137-176.
  • 5 See, for example, the discussion of this verse in Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved (Zondervan, 2015), pp.105-117. Also Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon, 2001), pp.306-312, although note the comments below.
  • 6 This is the point where I feel Robert Gagnon (The Bible and Homosexual Practice) makes a misstep. Though he rightly concludes that Paul is using malakoi to refer to ‘passive partners in homosexual intercourse’, he sees a gendered element in this which is not warranted by anything Paul says: ‘For them [Philo and Paul], an attempt by the passive partner to feminize his appearance is simply the logical corollary or symptom of the root problem: namely, playing the receptive female role in homosexual intercourse’. This is almost certainly true of Philo, who uses explicitly gendered language in his discussion of same-sex sexual activity, but Paul never hints that the masculine identity of the passive partner is actually affected. He knows that the freedom of the gender binary means that a man’s position as a man cannot be affected by what he does.

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