The Bible and the Binary (Part Two)
In the previous post in this short series I argued that when compared with their contemporaries, the New Testament authors take a radically different approach to masculinity. For Greco-Roman authors, masculinity was a performance and the status of ‘real man’ was something to be attained through action, but the New Testament authors never suggest that masculinity has to be attained and they don’t really even engage in the gender conversations being had in the world around them. Rather, they believed in the freedom of the gender binary: that male or female identity is God-given and unchanging, thereby giving the freedom for people to be how they are without it changing who they are.
So, does this mean that the freedom of the gender binary leaves the body as the only difference between men and women? Can we live with a functional one-gender system where our identity as male or female doesn’t really make any difference to the way we live our lives? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the New Testament lays down two ways in which our identities as male and female should be expressed.
Different External Presentations
First, the New Testament teaches that men should be recognisable as men and that women should be recognisable as women, especially in terms of dress and physical appearance.
This would seem to be the key point behind Paul’s complex discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The principle Paul is expressing is that men and women are different – the gender binary – and therefore this difference should be observable in how they follow their culture’s customs for male and female appearance, especially when in the context of corporate worship. How we present ourselves is meant to be a way of celebrating the gender identity God has given us, and for most of us our secondary sex characteristics (e.g. facial hair, hip width, muscle mass, fat distribution, pitch of voice etc.) help this presentation. This is obviously complicated by the fact that cultural customs change over time, but perhaps the general principles are that one’s God-given identity as male or female should be discernible from one’s appearance and that we shouldn’t seek to actively create ambiguity about our gender.1
Second, biblically speaking, sexual difference is expressed in different roles, not in different mannerisms, personality traits or preferences. The freedom of the gender binary makes this possible. Our identity as a man or woman is already set and therefore does not need to be created through performance. Rather, how we live is meant to flow out from that God-given identity. This means that all men have the same role to play, but because of the diversity within masculinity, we may perform that role in different ways. Likewise, there is a role for women to play, but different women will perform that role in different ways.
We see this in the fact that almost all the explicitly gendered commands of Scripture talk of role alone (e.g. Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 2:8-12; Titus 2:2-6; 1 Peter 3:1-7).2 Of course isolating from Scripture exactly what the male role and the female role are is more difficult, especially when looking beyond the contexts of marriage and the local church, and I’m not going to venture into that in this series, but the key point is clear: when the New Testament differentiates by gender it does so almost solely to discuss role, not mannerisms, personality traits or preferences.
Beyond these two elements, I think it’s hard to find biblical material which explicitly talks of differences between men and women.
Finding the Bible’s Teaching
‘Explicitly’ is the key word in that last statement. It alerts us to one last point which is worth making in this discussion of the freedom of the gender binary in the Bible. It’s the question of how we find the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be a man or a woman.
It’s common for people to build an understanding of biblical masculinity and femininity by looking to examples in Scripture. We turn to Ruth, Esther and the Marys for a biblical picture of femininity, and to David, Paul, and, supremely, Jesus for a biblical picture of masculinity. But when we do this, how do we know which elements are the individuals being a godly woman or godly man, and which are just them being a godly person? Which elements of the example of Jesus should women not follow because they are female and he is male?
The reality is that there is no way for us to isolate the gender-specific elements of a biblical figure’s example unless the text explicitly tells us that this was part of them being a godly man or woman. What is usually happening when we use biblical examples to construct masculinity or femininity is that, whether knowingly or not, we pick the examples that fit our preconceived ideas on gender expression and ignore those that don’t. The examples are reinforcing what we believe, not shaping what we believe.
This might actually mean that the Bible says a lot less about gender expression than we want it to. I think it probably leaves us with the different external presentations and different roles and not much else, but this is because the biblical authors understood the freedom of the gender binary. Our identity as male or female is given to us by God and is expressed in our external presentation and the different roles we play, leaving us the freedom to express our unique, God-given personalities, mannerisms and preferences.
Some people will not like this conclusion. They will see it as a watering down of the differences between men and women which will be destructive to individuals and to society. But I think the practical outworkings of the freedom of the gender binary are a good thing, and that’s what I’ll explore in the next post in this series.
- 1 This same principle – that our God-given identity as male or female should be observable in our external appearance – would seem to be the best explanation for the prohibition of cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5. While some have argued for cultic or military explanations of the command, the maintaining of the separation between male and female is the most contextually well-supported reading, as argued in Peter J. Harland, “Menswear and Womenswear: A Study of Deuteronomy 22:5,” ExpTim 110 (1998), pp.73-76.
- 2 The discussions about how women should adorn themselves in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 could perhaps be seen as exceptions to this. Some might argue they deal with preferences. But the focus of both passages seems to be about where women are finding their value: in the external, or in what actually matters to God, the internal. Thus they are discussions about godly character and living, not personal preferences for certain clothing and accessories.