by Valorie Quesenberry
It happened recently on a weekday morning.
I read an online article about a Christian woman speaking out against the actions and attitudes of men in power—actions and attitudes that were, to varying degrees, derogatory to women. And there was a backlash. Against her.
There is division among us about how to honor maleness and femaleness and do so biblically in the present political and moral landscape. And so the word sexism has become common in political discussions and social settings around us. My online dictionary gives the definition of the word as "prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex." And, let’s go on record, that’s wrong.
But, one of the confusing factors going forward is that many of us, especially perhaps those of us who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and earlier, are conflicted by what we see now and by what we’ve experienced in the past. We recall the farce of past political struggles where authentically good men have been blindsided by a woman with a false story backed by an advocacy group. We’ve even witnessed pastors destroyed by untrue accusations, although in this day of unprecedented moral failure that is hard to believe.
But the point is that since we have seen feminism drive a wedge in society and chauvinism become a broadly applied term, we have become skeptical and difficult to convince. Even when there seems to be a good reason. And on the other hand, our college-age and young adult population today is much more open to discussion in these matters. Their inherent drive for authenticity is stronger than their familial and political loyalty. So, it makes sense for us to listen to one another. And, as the body of Christ, both young and old, we must affirm the dignity and value of both male and female and lead the way in honoring them in our everyday interactions and responses.
God Celebrates Both Genders
The fact of the matter is the Bible knows nothing of sexism, in spite of what evangelical-bashers may allege. God made both sexes; He celebrates them both and wants us to as well in our appearance, behavior, and relationships. And since much of what is labeled sexism today is about the treatment of women, let’s just look at it more closely.
First of all, Christianity, along with other “patriarchal religions” has been accused of being anti-woman. Orthodox Jews, for example, also face this criticism.
Eliezer Segal notes, "Few Jewish religious texts have provoked as much indignation and discomfort as the brief passage that is recited by traditional Jewish men at the beginning of the daily morning prayers: 'Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.' . . . Contemporary apologists for the blessing insist that the blessing is not intended to disparage women or imply that they are inferior, but merely to express gratitude for the fact that men are obligated to perform more religious commandments. . . . An old liturgical fragment from the Cairo Geniza contains a more positive formulation of the same themes '…who has created me a human and not beast, a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.'"
And though Christians recognize the deity of Christ and the further revelation of the New Testament, we must answer some of the honest questions about the interaction of the genders in the biblical record.
It is important to recognize that those Old Testament rituals and customs and laws which seem to demean women must be understood in the context in which they were given and, at the core, may even have a positive reason that is unclear to us today. Certainly, they were not given to denigrate the image of our Creator in earthly female form. It was He after all who made the creative decision to pour a reflection of His divine image into two human genders.
The hygiene laws, for example, in Leviticus 15 may seem insulting to women who certainly have no say in the way God created them. But, when one considers that there was little medical aid in primitive times, basically no understanding of bacteria and causes of disease, and the fact that God who created women understands perfectly what is optimal for their health and wellbeing, then these particular laws become protection rather than sexism. God, knowing the human tendency to bend the rules, was aware that unless He instituted harsh penalties for breaking these hygiene rules they would not be kept.
Further, an understanding of God’s creative design for the relationship of the genders to one another is important when trying to grasp the reasons for the biblical commands. In Exodus 34:23, Moses is given the command that all Hebrew males were to appear before the Lord three times every year for certain offerings and worship. At first glance, this seems to indicate that women are unimportant to God. But, taken within the context of the entirety of Scripture, we know that the Creator instituted male headship; He ordained that men would take first and greatest responsibility for what happens to the human family. (That’s why He addresses Adam after the first couple sinned and why Adam bears the larger curse, even though Eve sinned first. In 1 Corinthians 15:45 when Paul is speaking about Jesus coming to redeem humankind, He refers to the “first Adam” not to the “first Adam and Eve.”) So, in Exodus, God was not making a statement against women, but rather issuing a directive to men.
This context is vital if we are to get the real picture of what the Creator designed and blessed and how Satan has tried to corrupt that image throughout succeeding cultures and generations.
Have women been abused and oppressed by men in the name of religion? Absolutely. But that is not because God willed it so. Sinful man has always taken license to do what he wants despite the teaching and example of Scripture. Jesus, in His earthly ministry, interacted with women as He did with men – with dignity, courtesy, love and grace. Those who follow His example do the same.
According to the book Reasons for God by Tim Keller (p. 249), "It was extremely common in the Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure, because of the low status of women in society. The church forbade its members to do so. Greco-Roman society saw no value in an unmarried woman, and therefore it was illegal for a widow to go more than two years without remarrying. But Christianity was the first religion to not force widows to marry. They were supported financially and honored within the community so that they were not under great pressure to remarry if they didn't want to. . .” In India, widows were voluntarily or involuntarily burned on their husbands' funeral pyres. Christian missionaries were a major influence in stopping these century-old practices and ideas.
Taking all of this into account and choosing to be a woman who wants to follow Christ and image that to the world around me, I must not subconsciously go along with Satan’s blueprint for destroying the beauty of the complementary genders God created. In order to realize the majesty of the original design, at times I have to step back and recognize that, though it is often corrupted by those who practice evil, the expression of maleness in the way God intended is holy and good, and a rich gift to women who understand its place.
I love being a woman. I celebrate my femininity in its various appropriate expressions. It is my opinion that every woman should do her best to honor the gift of womanhood by caring for her beauty of body and spirit in a way that makes the Creator look good. And part of embracing our own God-given gender assignment is recognizing and appreciating the differences in the opposite sex. In other words, when I get a clearer understanding of what maleness is, I better appreciate both the contrast and the complementarianism of femaleness. I think that’s how God intended it to work – an ongoing display of His genius in creating two that together make one – His complete image.
Good Expressions of Maleness
So, let’s look at a few of the amazing contributions good men make to our planet.
Recently, I scrolled to an Instagram post of a father peering down at his infant. The baby was lying on an exam table, staring up into his father’s face. The guy was smiling down at his child, his blond man-arms placed on both sides of the baby in a hovering, protective stance, his hair tousled, stubbly grit on his face, triceps flexed. And I wondered once again. How is it that a tough burly guy with weathered skin and raw strength can produce such a soft, downy, innocent scrap of humanity? How is it that such a tiny person can come from such power?
The answer, of course, is the master plan of our Creator. He was the One who decided that a human child should have both father and mother. And it is a beautiful thing. The fragile seven-pound bundle is testament to the fact that a man is necessary for human life to begin, that from his strength the growth of life begins. And this contrast of baby-ness and manliness I saw in that post is cherished by women; we see it often in favorite pictures of dads holding infants.
And like this, there are other times when one can glimpse the unique contribution men make to our society, our families and our church life.
In one of the towns where we pastored, there was a factory downtown that I often passed on my way to pick up my children from their Christian school. My family was humored when I remarked one day how I delighted in seeing the parade of men coming out of the factory at a certain time every day, their lunch boxes in hand, walking to their trucks and cars. This queue of blue-collar guys leaving work was a visual of men being men, working, providing, keeping society going by taking responsibility. Now, some of them may have been rascals with deplorable character and little regard for their families or futures. But, on the whole, they represented what is good and right in American men – a commitment to provide.
It takes little to get my sentiment going, I guess, because I see this sort of thing everywhere, as I observe men working on construction sites, driving big trucks, changing tires, working in fields, digging ditches, etc. Does that mean that women cannot do hard manual labor? No, women have unique stamina in many extreme situations, though physically they are not endowed with the same brute strength and muscle mass. Of course, there are women who are able to take on these kinds of tasks. But there is something heartening about men being men, taking on the rough tasks, enduring without complaining the grime, sweat and strain of hard labor. And of course, it must be said that every task a woman can do is not necessarily something she should do. Even in the division of ordinary labor, it seems to me that God calls us to honor gender distinction and role. And it is singularly a man’s arena when strength is called upon for the task at hand. The sight of men coming together to push a vehicle or pull a rope or myriad other tasks reminds us that they were made for power and purpose. God refers to Himself in this role when the Bible describes how He fought for His beloved, Israel. "The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (Isaiah 52:10). God is imaged as a strong man baring his powerful arm to fight for the one he loves.
I glimpse this sort of manly magnificence, if you will, in the church. When the men of the congregation react as men in the worship service, in their fellowship afterward, in their response to God, I feel warmed, safe, reassured. There is no substitute for God’s men following resolutely after Him. And it is heartening to see men banding together to solve a problem whether it is on a work site or in a church foyer. This bringing together of mind and muscle for the good of those around is one of the best demonstrations of what God put into the male heart.
And He also gave to the male species an entirely different viewpoint and data bank than the female species. Even in everyday things, it sometimes amazes me at the almost innate knowledge men have – the make and model of cars (really?), the specific plays and calls of the referee in sports of all kinds (how do they know that?), the names of parts on a car (even if they’re not mechanics), the habits of and characteristics of animals (and which ones we should not be afraid of!), the direction and general routes of interstate and state highways (wait a minute, east and west are numbered odd or even?) and the best way to drive a nail or change a tire. Now, I know there are some women who are just as knowledgeable and maybe more so in some of these areas. But it seems to me that there are a greater percentage of men who just naturally gravitate toward this kind of stuff.
It must also be said that manliness can be expressed in artistic and domestic ways. Where would we be without incredible painters like Michelangelo or singers like Caruso or other men who bring their male perspective to their jobs as chefs and musicians and designers? Those men who sit in a studio or office or a pastor’s study are no less men for their vocation. Rather, they bring the viewpoint of male strength and appropriate authority to the area in which they express their calling to lead and steward. This is very needed in our world. A man need not live in a tree stand to be manly; it is only one way he may choose to express his maleness – this distinctive modality under which he is to honor his Creator. (There are women hunters as well, so this activity, like many others, need not be the highest measure of masculinity. And it must also be said that men and women [as in many other activities] hunt differently; the motivations and responses are usually not the same).
Being a man is about accepting the given physical template as a sacred trust and imaging God as a human male in the distinctive way the Bible describes. It is less about a certain set of activities and more about how he interacts with the opposite sex as prescribed in the Bible and how he fulfills those characteristics of God which represent maleness in the portrait of Scripture.
Reflections of God’s Image
Men reflect certain characteristics of the image of God that women do not, at least not in the same full expression. We understand this from the symbolism of the Old Testament in describing God’s covenant with His beloved, Israel and in the contrast of role set forth in Paul’s teaching about Christ and the Church.
For instance, the nearness of a man in a woman’s life brings a measure of reassurance that nothing else does, especially in instances of tragedy or grief. I think the loss of this comfort must be one of the worst aspects of widowhood. God surely understands this part of our human relationships because He says in Deuteronomy 33:27, "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." Our Heavenly Father refers to His comfort and protection in a way that makes us think of the comforting arm offered by a man to a woman. Certainly, a hug from another woman is welcome and reassuring, but there is something about male strength (father, brother, grandfather, cousin, husband, etc.) that gives a woman strong solace.
As the only man in a hospice office where he once worked, my husband was told by one of the women that she was glad for his presence in the building. While I’m sure there are some who would bristle at the thought that a woman would say that, I understand what she meant. Men are awesomely designed to represent strength and protection and to care for the women around them. And women are designed to enjoy that. I don’t remember ever seeing a teenage girl upset when her boyfriend offered her his jacket on a chilly day, do you? No, because it’s a gesture that says, “I want to take care of you,” and we thrill to the beauty of that. The word husband has in its origin the idea of “caring for; stewarding” as in animal husbandry or conservation or as in the ancient word “husbandman” Jesus used to refer to one who took care of the vineyard. The idea of a man being a husband is that he is to care for and cherish his wife.
Whenever and wherever a man steps up to aid or protect or honor a woman, there is God in earthly image. There is nothing demeaning in that. He did not make men with this instinct as an insult to a woman’s person or abilities, but as a wordless bow to her value. Woman does not respond to man’s offer of assistance because she is inferior, but rather because she is aware that he recognizes in her the treasure of femininity and is designed to respond accordingly. What feminists all over the world want, they have in the original plan of the Creator – esteem and value. If they only had eyes to see it.
Biblical Portraits of Holy Manliness
The Bible gives beautiful examples of the pattern God intended.
When Ruth symbolically was covered with Boaz’ robe, that was manly provision. A Jewish man would symbolically throw the skirt of his robe over a woman to show that he had taken her under his care. Ezekiel 16:8 uses this metaphor in its description of God’s provision for Israel.
When Jesus stood between the accused woman and the Pharisees, that was manly protection. He did not approve of her sin, but He was willing to offer rescue. He stood with her in her time of vulnerability.
When Christ died on the cross, that was manly sacrifice. He, the Prince of heaven, paid the Bride price with His own blood, willing to offer Himself out of love for the Church.
The Old Testament timeline is the story of God betrothing Himself forever to His people, Israel, a divine narrative of cherishing and protecting and providing.
There has never been and never will be a plot against woman in the heart of our God. How could there be? He designed her with His own hands and brought her to the man, the human symbol of His cherishing heart who was to love her as his own flesh.
The God of heaven is against those who dishonor His human creation, male and female. He will hold them accountable. He celebrates every time a man goes out of his way for the good of a woman. He rejoices every time a woman responds with appreciation to the chivalry of a good man. Yes, there exists in our culture today what some have termed “sexism.” God has an eternal definition of that – sin. Whenever a person’s God-assigned and lovingly-bestowed gender is used to insult or manipulate, it is sin.
God doesn’t make mistakes. What He made was very good. Male and female are very good. The true beauty of that is still veiled. Only with the vision of eternity will we really understand the glory of the symbolism and the majesty He put within us, a faint reflection of His eternal power and person.