5 Things to Avoid When Discussing the Bible's Teaching on Gender

An Important Conversation

When it comes to gender, we live in confusing times. For many, gender has become merely a subjective reality. We are male or female because we perceive ourselves as such. As a result, we can alter our gender identity at will, because our perception of ourselves may change over time. In addition, gender is often viewed as socially constructed. We are male or female because we were raised as boys and girls according to certain stereotypes of what it means to be a boy or girl. But again, these stereotypes are changing, and so may our gender identity.

Where do we turn in this age of rapidly increasing gender fluidity? Arguably, the answer is God’s word. But even here Christians don’t always agree on how to understand the biblical teaching on gender.

Here are 5 cautions for you to consider when discussing the Bible’s teaching on gender:

1. Avoid looking at the biblical teaching on gender piecemeal.

In previous decades, many biblical scholars have studied individual passages of Scripture on men and women, interpreting each in a way that favored particular presuppositions. They reinterpreted conventional readings on a case-by-case basis, resulting in a cumulative case made up of weak links that ultimately made for a less than persuasive case overall.

Increasingly, in recent years, biblical scholars have been discovering the importance of understanding a given passage in light of the larger storyline of the Bible. In our recent book on the subject, we try to show that the overall story of Scripture, and God’s design for man and woman in particular, is wonderfully consistent and coherent. Our understanding of this design doesn’t just rest on interpreting only one passage but reflects the cumulative picture painted by Scripture as a whole. Even if we didn’t have 1 Timothy 2:12 in our Bibles, we’d still find the same pattern of male leadership and male-female partnership that is characteristic of God’s plan for man and woman from the beginning! We see the same pattern throughout Old and New Testament times.

...the overall story of Scripture, and God’s design for man and woman in particular, is wonderfully consistent and coherent.

We believe this emphasis on biblical theology is a unique contribution we are able to make to the body of literature on this topic when most volumes contain individual chapters devoted to key passages that do not connect the theological "dots" between these passages. With this in mind, we’ve set out to trace the theme of God’s design for man and woman through Scripture.

2. Be careful not to embrace the idea that male leadership is merely a result of the Fall.

The apostle Paul didn’t think so. Among other things, when he wrote “I don’t permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man,” he grounded his directive in the fact that the man was created first, and then the woman (1 Tim. 2:12–13). In other words, the man’s leadership is shown to be embedded in God’s creation design, preceding the Fall. That’s the way Paul read the Genesis narrative, especially chapter 2, and while he only cited one aspect of it in 1 Timothy in support of his contention, there are several other indications of male leadership in Genesis 2 as well: the fact that the woman is created from and for the man (Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 11:8–9); the fact that she is called the man’s “suitable helper” (Gen. 2:18, 20); and the fact that the man names the woman in this inconspicuous but culturally significant act of leadership (Gen. 2:23).

Those who claim that the man assumes authority over his wife as a function of the subversion of God’s original design after the Fall have not seriously taken into account the discussion of God’s original purpose for gender given in Genesis 2 before the Fall and the New Testament references to Genesis 2 in support of sustaining the same pattern in the church as it awaits Christ's return.

3. Avoid equating traditional with biblical marriage.

Traditional marriage may be rooted in Christian teaching on marriage, but it is not the same as a truly biblical marriage. Traditional marriage is often described as some kind of division of labor, such as the man going to work and providing the family income, and the woman staying home, doing household chores, and taking care of the children.

However, biblical marriage goes much deeper than this kind of division of labor. It is based on a heart-felt embrace of God’s good, wise, and beautiful design of male leadership and male-female partnership that can only be experienced by Spirit-filled disciples (Eph. 5:18). It is part of God’s end-time purpose of bringing all things in this universe back under Christ’s lordship (Eph. 1:10). In this way, the husband and wife witness to God the Creator and to Christ his Son who died on the cross to reconcile us to God. The two become one just as Christ and the church become one, as head and body (Eph. 5:31–32). There is unity, there is sacrificial love, but there is still authority. However, it's an authority that has the best interests of the other person at heart and is not simply a structured division of roles.

4. Recognize the limitations of compartmentalization when assessing the significance of God’s design for man and woman.

In the evangelical world it has become quite common to compartmentalize issues into first-, second-, and third-level doctrines in order to distinguish between the core gospel message and ancillary issues. This is understandable and helpful for the most part, but it doesn’t do full justice to our particular topic. Being male or female is a foundational and integral part of every person’s existence. To relegate our sexual identity and roles to the periphery is inadequate.

God's Design for Man and Woman

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger

Husband-and-wife biblical scholars set forth a robust biblical theology of gender, examining key texts, employing sound hermeneutical principles, and considering important historical influences related to the Bible’s teaching on manhood and womanhood.

While technically God’s design for man and woman may not be a salvation truth, practically it is indispensable for every person to know and experience in order to live their lives as followers of Christ in this world, as beings created by God as male or female by design and for a purpose. Ultimately there may be implications for the salvation of souls in that the living out of our roles is an integral part of living on mission for God, especially in testifying to our great God who has a wonderful plan for the confused and struggling people in fractured relationships all around us.

5. Finally, avoid the avoidance of the topic of biblical manhood and womanhood in your church!

Don’t be afraid to talk about it! True, the topic has often proved to be difficult and divisive in the past, so it’s understandable if pastors and leaders shy away from penetrating and convicting teaching on the subject. Why would anyone want to antagonize those in their church who may differ with regard to what men and women may or may not do?

Avoiding the subject, however, may come with a hefty price tag: the loss of couples and families entering into a more profound understanding and deep maturing experience of how God designed them as men and women, learning how he wants them to relate to each other and to partner together by exercising their own unique and distinctive roles together on mission for God. This loss of the opportunity to tenderly attest to the God who created us according to his sovereign design may be considerable.

While we should be sensitive to the challenges we face in addressing this topic, we would also encourage each other and our church leaders to be bold and courageous, embracing the responsibility to teach people about God’s design for man and woman!

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