By / Feb 14

There is a rhythm to the account of creation in Genesis 1. The work takes place over six days, with a repeated refrain coming at the end of those days: “God saw that it was good.” God is evidently not inattentive to what he is making. He doesn’t start one aspect of creation and then turn his attention to the next project. He finishes each act, steps back (as it were), and appraises it. As he assesses each day’s work of creation, he can be fully pleased with the outcome. So again and again we read, “It was good,” “It was good,” “It was good.”

That is, until we turn up. At the end of the day when God has made humanity in his image, male and female, he says something different: “It was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The difference male and female image-bearers make to his creation is to lift it from “good” to “very good.” Needless to say, it is not a track record we maintain through the rest of the Bible; but the fact remains, there is a deep fundamental very-goodness to the way God has designed us to be, and our being made as men and women is at the heart of it.

Of course, whenever we talk about God’s design for men and women, significant questions rush to the front of our minds. What exactly does it mean to be a man, or to be a woman? What should it look like? Or feel like? These are not abstract questions. Each of us has some story of how we experience our own sex. Each of us has some sort of instinct about what we are supposed to measure up to and whether we have reached it or remain woefully short of it. Much of how we feel about ourselves, along with our social confidence and our mental health, can ride on this. It matters.

And it is confusing. It feels as though there are so many potential and available answers to those questions, and they don’t cohere. What a man or woman should be like not only varies from culture to culture but enormously within cultures, from one generation to the next and one region to the next –– even from one locker room to the next. I’m not sure I know how to answer all those questions, but I find that two simple observations about the Bible give me the basic coordinates I need to start thinking about it.

More alike than different

The first observation is that the vast majority of what God has to say, he says to us as men and women without distinction. It is obvious to point out, but despite the best marketing strategies from publishers, there is not one Bible for men and another for women. The same Bible is given to both. And all the words within it are for both men and women to read. Even the parts addressed to men are still meant to be read by women, and those addressed to women by men. So whatever differences there may be between us, we must not exaggerate them. We are not different species. It is not the case (to use the language of a hugely popular book from several years ago) that men are from Mars and women from Venus. However much we may mystify, surprise, or delight one another, we are far, far more alike than we are different.

In fact, the very first interaction between a man and a woman in the Bible highlights this very point. We’ve already seen the repeated refrain in Genesis 1 of “It was good,” “It was good,” and finally, “It was very good.” But even more jarring than the addition of the word very is the addition of the word not in Genesis 2. In this close-up account of the creation of Adam and Eve, Adam is at this point on his own. And this time, as God steps back he declares this not good: 

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Gen. 2:18)

The man on his own is inadequate and insufficient. He needs an appropriate other. “Fit for him” here also carries the sense of “corresponding to him,” someone who will be his match. But God doesn’t then immediately create the first woman. Instead, he brings out various creatures before Adam for him to name. And by naming, he doesn’t mean giving each single creature its own personal name; he means taxonomy –– giving each kind of creature its appropriate name. So this involves carefully examining the nature of each species and kind so that he can give it a proper designation. Doing this only brings home to him that each creature is distinct from him. The conclusion? “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:20). The not-goodness of his original situation has not changed. On the positive side, Adam now knows what to call everything; but on the negative side, he is still without a necessary counterpart.

What first leaps out at Adam is not all the things that are different between Eve and him but the very fundamental way in which she is like him. There are differences. He’s not oblivious to that — evidenced by the one-flesh union they quickly enter into. But more fundamental than the obvious differences between men and women is the more fundamental likeness. Our human commonality precedes our sexual difference.

So our shared likeness as human beings is seen in that the vast majority of what God says to us in the Bible, he says to us as men and women without distinction. We’re not directed into separate rooms; we share the same holy Scripture. There may be ways in which we think or behave differently, but this should not be stressed at the expense of how alike we are.

Different and complementary

The second observation is that while it is essential to know that the vast majority of what God says is said to us without distinction, it is not true of everything God says. So while we have obvious differences of biology, the fact that at times we need to hear slightly different words from God indicates these differences extend beyond biology. It does not seem to be the case that, biology aside, men and women are indistinguishable from one another.

How we identify what these deeper, nonbiological differences are requires great care. With an issue so sensitive and far-reaching, we want to make every effort to go only as far as the Bible goes –– no further and no less.

It is very easy for Christians, often without realizing it, to go further than the Bible says. We each have our own deep sense of what constitutes true masculinity and femininity, and we can all too easily assume that sense has come from the Bible, especially if we’re holding it in contrast to what a wider, secular culture around us might be saying. But what seems obvious and instinctive to us about the nature of men and women might reflect our own cultural prejudices more than what the Bible actually says.

We want to say what the Bible says; we also want to say it only to the extent that the Bible says it. Sometimes we can take a genuinely biblical idea and run with it in a way that the Bible itself never does. What we end up saying might not be contradicted by Scripture and may well be consistent with one aspect of what the Bible says, while not actually being biblical. The Pharisees give us a number of examples of how easily this happens. They rightly took the Old Testament law seriously. But they often mistook their application of God’s law for the law itself. So those who didn’t obey the law in the exact way that they did were regarded as disobedient.

I suspect the same often happens when it comes to discussions of what Christian men and women are meant to do or be like. Principles found in Scripture get applied in prescriptive ways that exceed the scope of the original text, and anyone who disagrees is accused not of disagreeing with the application but with the Bible itself. I’ve seen this sort of thing numerous times, particularly in the conservative churches from which I have come. I think of one church where, in mixed prayer meetings, women were discouraged from praying at the beginning because it would discourage men from taking the lead in prayer. I can imagine (just about) this being well-intentioned to start with (perhaps seeking to apply 1 Timothy 2:8 –– “I desire then that in every place the men should pray”?), but by the time I encountered this practice, it had already been hardened into a rule about what men and women should do: men should always be first to pray in a mixed gathering; women should always hold back and wait until the men have prayed first.

So those of us (I include myself) who believe that Scripture teaches that only certain qualified men should serve as pastors or elders in the church need to be careful not to then take this teaching and start applying it to contexts the Bible never speaks to, such as women leading in certain secular contexts. Or those who take the Bible’s teaching to husbands and wives and then end up prescribing from this which spouse should be doing which tasks in the modern home.

Saying what the Bible doesn’t say or overextending what it does say are both forms of adding to Scripture. But we must be equally careful not to subtract from Scripture. And if (in my experience) adding tends to happen more in conservative churches (perhaps an unintended consequence of wanting to take the detail of Scripture seriously), then (also in my experience) subtracting tends to happen more in less conservative churches (perhaps an unintended consequence of not wanting to be bound by rules and conventions that aren’t biblical). Either way, all of us are in danger of both.

The fact is, it is clear from Scripture that differences between men and women are not just physiological. And while we mustn’t over define what these differences are, neither must we deny they exist at all. This is especially important given that it is increasingly common to think that being equal must mean being the same in every respect –– that equality cannot properly exist where there is any kind of difference. But the Bible challenges this way of thinking. Our very difference is what makes each gender distinctly glorious. We can’t simply hope to swap out a man for a woman, or a woman for a man, and assume it will make no difference.

Content taken from What God Has to Say about Our Bodies by Sam Allberry, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

By / Sep 8

In 2012, Dan Cathy—son of Truett Cathy, who founded the much-loved Chick-fil-A restaurants—answered honestly and affirmatively when asked whether he opposes gay marriage. “Guilty as charged,” he replied. Although there was an immediate reaction against Chick-fil-A, comments by the mayors of both Boston and Chicago to the effect that Chick-fil-A might be barred from operating in their cities provided the spark that lit the fuse of counter-protest. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, seized the moment to make a call for a show of support for the Cathy family. At the grassroots level, customers flooded into the restaurants to provide a measure of protection for the company. Publicly, the message was clear: There were many Americans who did not want to see Chick-fil-A suffer for the sincere statement of values offered by Dan Cathy. The demonstration of solidarity with Chick-fil-A offered the company shelter and perhaps led the company’s critics to wonder whether they had overplayed their hand.

The reaction of secular statists toward Chick-fil-A suggests that Cathy’s opinion is not one that will be tolerated for long. Cathy’s opponents believe his opinion is not merely deserving of their disagreement, but, what is more, that it should be viewed as a clear evil, which should be extinguished by political means if necessary.

Some will say that the critics of Chick-fil-A were correct in their moral intuitions because the company stands in the same place as segregationists of the Old South. This type of argument must be faced in order to successfully maintain the viability of religious liberty defenses against an indiscriminate and aggressive assault.  If the conclusion of American law and policy is that resistance to gay marriage is essentially equivalent to a preference for slavery or segregation, then religious liberty will serve as no shield at all because there is no respect for those invidious points of view. Thus, it is necessary to respond to the assertion that opposition to gay marriage is morally equivalent to support for slavery or segregation or both. Throughout the following discussion, keep in mind that the goal is not to convince the reader of the case against gay marriage. Instead, the goal is to convince the reader that opposition to gay marriage is neither invidious nor unworthy of respect.

Rather than beginning with the idea of traditional marriage as a structure that opposes the future of what marriage could become, we should instead see traditional male-female marriage as the tremendously good institution that it is and has been. It is an answer to the problem of human loneliness and incompleteness. This relationship is also fruitful. While marriage gives the man and the woman a companion in the form of each other, it also leads to the reproduction of human beings such that we have families, clans, villages, towns, cities, and, ultimately, states and nations. Interestingly, Aristotle did not identify the individual as the basis of political society. Instead, he viewed the family (based on the man and the woman) as the fundamental unit. It is easy to see why. Without male-female procreation, society literally has no future. Traditional marriage sets forth an ideal in which the man stays with and supports the woman both while she is most vulnerable during pregnancy and later while they both care for children. Marriage recognizes that the man and woman are both necessary to the creation of the child as well as the process of child rearing. It is important to note that marriage follows biology. Marriages rose out of the physical and reproductive complementarity of men and women. Without sex and reproduction, there would likely be no such thing as marriage. It is, therefore, no surprise that many theists view marriage as God’s design.

It is also the case that we have known for several years now that as a group children who grow up in traditional, two-parent homes have better experiences than their peers from single-parent or divorced homes in virtually any social statistic one might wish to name. There is inadequate evidence with regard to children in homes with same-sex parents, though it is interesting to note that the sociologist Mark Regnerus performed such a study and was made the subject of an investigation by the University of Texas (his employer) for his efforts.

Given the facts of biology and the practical realities of raising children, male-female marriage makes a tremendous amount of sense. So, with both reason and revelation in mind, many Christians and others have insisted that marriage should continue to have its traditional shape. This is not some bizarre, novel, aggressive position. In fact, this was the position of President Obama until a few years ago.

It is illustrative to consider views from antiquity on slavery versus those on gay marriage. While the history of slavery is as long as human history itself, there is evidence that it was always something of a live issue. Aristotle included a discussion of slavery in his Politics.  The text dates back to the 4th century B.C. It is clear that there were people who thought slavery was wrong and who gave reasons against the practice. To my knowledge, there is no such record of advocacy for gay marriage in antiquity.

Where gay marriage has prevailed in courts, jurists have treated the case against it as though it were completely irrational. But is it really so?  There is an exchange from Plato’s Republic in which Thrasymachus challenges Socrates to defeat his highly empirical argument on justice:  “Justice is the interest (or advantage) of the stronger.”  It’s a pretty good argument, really, though Socrates gets the better of the sophist.  At the beginning of the exchange, Thrasymachus tries to prohibit the use of certain arguments by Socrates.  Socrates replies that his brash interlocutor has done something like trying to prevent him from arguing that six times two or three times four is twelve.  When I look at the public debates over gay marriage, I see something like that dynamic.  The proponents of gay marriage say to the defenders of traditional marriage, “You may not argue from the physical complementarity of the sexes.  Okay, proceed.”  To set up the playing field in such a manner is to rule out three times four and two times six by way of arriving at twelve.

Remember that one may find the opposition to gay marriage rational and still disagree. To affirm that the opposition is rational merely means that one can see how the opponents justify their position and that their reasoning does not resemble the words of a person who thinks the moon is made of green cheese.  Arguments against gay marriage are not of the “green cheese” variety.  It is important to note, though, that arguments advanced in favor of something such as race-based segregation do take on the quality of “green cheese” assertions.  They partake substantially of irrationality.

Given this background, it would seem that to insist that members and institutions of the Christian church should suddenly reject the essentially unanimous testimony of history (and Christian practice and scripture) regarding marriage as an opposite sex arrangement demands too much. The key point here is that their opposition to changes in marriage is not invidious or at least not necessarily so.  To attempt to compel the agreement of Christians and others on the matter of marriage means to compromise integrity rather than to achieve a triumph over hatred and superstition.

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of how gay marriage will affect families.  I do not know the answer to that question.  But the potential impact on religious liberty is a clear and present danger. If it becomes normal to view opposition to gay marriage as basically akin to racism, then tremendous damage will be done to Christian institutions. The engines of the secular state will roll right over them. They will lose the right to participate in the public life of our country.

One precedent to consider is the situation of Bob Jones University, which lost its tax exemption because it forbade interracial dating. Although I affirm that the university’s policy was racist and ugly, will it similarly come to pass that Wheaton College or Franciscan University of Steubenville will lose their tax-exempt status because they refuse to recognize gay marriage or hire those who have same-sex spouses? Will the writers of laws and regulations try to prevent students at such places from obtaining federal loans or other aid on the basis of some discrimination perceived as unjust? Many will argue that such action against Christian colleges and institutions is exactly the kind of initiative that should be taken. But if it is true that opposition to gay marriage is different in kind rather than in degree from various race-based discriminations, as I have argued above, then the ability of Christian and other religious institutions to participate in public life should not be threatened.

Rights such as religious liberty have traditionally been protected by constitutions for exactly the reason that they are highly vulnerable to democratic intrusion by majorities.  Without some renewal of appreciation for that fundamental dynamic in our law, we will see both incursions and corresponding resentment increase.  A refusal to tolerate differences rooted in conscience and religion makes enemies of people relative to the state.  The error is an unforced one.  We should hope that future policymakers and jurists work by clear light in this regard.

Note:  This essay is excerpted and adapted from the text of his book The System Has a Soul (2014).