By / Jun 6

Editor’s note: Among many of the most pressing ethical issues of our day is deep confusion over what it means to be human. From questions over abortion and racism to technology and sexuality, human anthropology lies at the heart of contemporary cultural debate. In light of the ongoing sexual crisis seen throughout our society, certain realities that once seemed common sense to most are being challenged in what is a failed quest to define our own existence and live independent of God’s created order.

As part of the ongoing research efforts at the ERLC, the following article, as well as the corresponding piece, “What is a woman?”, offer a detailed look at these central questions in light of theological anthropology and philosophy. Each article is followed by a response from the corresponding scholar in hopes to further robust dialogue on these important questions of “what is a man” and “what is a woman” rooted in truths that cut to the heart of the important ethical questions being posed today.

To pose the question “what is a man?” a few decades ago in the United States, and to pose it now in most parts of the world, the inquiry would be met by a snicker or look of puzzlement. The question “what is a man?”—and its counterpart, “what is a woman?”—was/is so obvious that even if no formal definition might be forthcoming, everyone intuitively knew/knows the answer.  Such is no longer the case in some societies today. Thus, the question is here re-proposed. To answer it, I will first summarize two common answers—one historical, one contemporary—then defend the following definition: 

A man is a human being created in the divine image in the male-type of humankind and who inherently expresses the common human capacities and the common human properties in ways that are typical of and fitting for a man.

A historical answer  

Following Prudence Allen’s historical study, The Concept of Woman, I describe in four parts a dominant Greco-Roman philosophical perspective on what is a man, offering for each part an example from Aristotle.1Sister Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C.—A.D. 1250 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985). Allen herself presents the diversity in this Greco-Roman perspective; Plato, for one, differs significantly at many points from it. Aristotle is highlighted because of his influence on Thomas Aquinas and, through him, Roman Catholic theology. Allen traces the widespread acceptance of Aristotelian sex polarity in latter medieval Christianity (pp. 361-407). 

First, sex polarity is the dominant view: men and women are not equal but significantly different, with men being superior to women. Aristotle believed that men and women are opposites as contraries; furthermore, as a pair of contraries, the woman must be the privation of the man. Specifically, women are inferior to men and are identified with matter (rather than form), passivity, and the lowest elements. Oppositely, men are superior to women and are identified with form (rather than matter), activity, and the higher elements.2Allen, The Concept of Woman, 89. 

Second, men are superior to women because men possess the ability to produce seed (sperm), and this “particular aspect of human materiality is . . . the key to all valuation of sex identity.”3Allen, The Concept of Woman, 4.  Aristotle rejected the correct double seed theory that both male seed (sperm) and female seed (ova) are necessary for reproduction.4Allen notes that the philosopher Empedocles (c. 450 B.C.) “was one of the few [philosophers of medicine] before the seventeenth century to have proposed the correct theory of reproduction, namely, that the mother and the father each provide one-half of the seed needed for the production of the fetus.” Allen, The Concept of Woman, 33. Instead, he affirmed sex polarity based on his (incorrect) view that the woman provides no seed in generation because she, as the privation of the man, is by nature colder than the man, who is superior to her. As the colder privation of a man, the woman is a deformed man. 

Third, men are superior to women because men are more highly rational than are women. Human nature consists of both body and soul, which itself consists of two parts. The first is the rational aspect that corresponds to reason; male identity is tied to this higher function of the soul. The second is the irrational aspect that corresponds to the appetite; female identity is tied to this lower function of the soul. According to Aristotle, men and women alike have a rational capacity. In the man, however, his higher power of reason exercises authority over his lower/irrational powers; thus, men have superior reasoning capacity.5Allen, The Concept of Woman, 109.  By contrast, in the woman, her higher power of reason is without authority over her baser powers; thus, women have an inferior reasoning capacity. Therefore, they are “capable only of true opinion and not of knowledge . . . and cannot be wise in the same way as men.”6Allen, The Concept of Woman, 103. Accordingly, being inferior epistemologically, women cannot engage in philosophical pursuits nor participate in public life. 

Fourth, men and women have different functions and thus have different virtues, with men’s virtues being superior to women’s virtues. Specifically, men rule and women obey, and this is according to nature, not just convention.7For the contrast between nature and convention, see Allen’s discussion of Aristotle and the Sophists. Allen, The Concept of Woman, 43. For Aristotle, because ethics involves a capacity to reason and engage in philosophical argumentation, and because of a woman’s inferior reasoning capacity (which is without authority in women), she is not capable of virtuous activity in this realm. Rather, to be virtuous, a woman must place herself in obedience to a virtuous man (who, as naturally superior, rules her) and express her virtues—e.g., compassion, silence—in the private context of her household and friendship.8Allen, The Concept of Woman, 111.

In summary, this dominant Greco-Roman historical perspective offered this answer to our question: a man is a person who is significantly different from and superior to a woman because he is formed rather than deformed, rational rather than irrational, active rather than passive, hot rather than cold, publicly rather than privately engaged, and is the sole contributor to reproduction. Tragically, this framework has exerted and continues to exert a widespread influence, particularly in Western societies, for over two millennia. One appalling consequence is the dishonoring and demeaning of women. This historical answer is a dreadfully wrong answer. 

A contemporary answer 

In response to evangelical feminism, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood proposed the Danvers Statement (1988) with Wayne Grudem and John Piper editing Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (1991). While not directly answering our question, the latter work defined manhood. Modifying that definition for our purpose, RBMW’s answer is that a man is a person whose “heart of mature masculinity” is characterized by “a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.”9John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991,2006), 29. Henceforth, RBMW. This answer stands in conjunction with another modified definition: a woman is a person whose “heart of mature femininity” is characterized by “a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”10RBMW, 29.  Five observations follow, but first a clarification is needed. 

RBMW articulated these derived definitions in the context of a repeated and biblically grounded affirmation of the equality of men and women in terms of essence. For example, men and women alike are created in the divine image; thus, even if role differences between men and women exist, by nature the sexes are equal. This perspective is a far cry from and much needed corrective to the historical answer presented above. 

The five observations are: First, the definition focuses on a man’s roles: leadership, provision, and protection.11The Danvers Statement underscores this focus: “Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart” (Affirmation 2). Second, these roles are primarily (though not exclusively) for a man who is a husband. Third, RBMW noted that this “roled” approach is a secondary matter, with the more fundamental matter being a man’s nature (though it did not treat this latter aspect).12As for points 2 and 3, RBMW offers, “We are persuaded from Scripture that masculinity and femininity are rooted in who we are by nature. They are not simply reflexes of a marriage relationship. Man does not become man by getting married. Woman does not become woman by getting married.” RBMW, 21. One wishes that the book would have developed those two concepts beginning with nature. An improper approach is to define a thing by listing its roles, activities, and functions. Rather, a proper definition is about the nature or essence of that thing. For critiques of this “roled” approach (and, by extension, other “roled” approaches), see Jordan L. Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue: A Defense of Gender Essentialism,” Southeastern Review 12.1 (Spring 2021): 15–35; Patrick Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” Eikon, vol. 2.2 (Nov 20, 2020). Fourth, the definition of a woman is formulated in relationship to the definition of man.13This observation is the center of many critiques of the RBMW approach. For example, David C. Freeman, “The Search for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Preliminary Response to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” Alliance Studies at Ambrose University College (November, 1999), available at https://online.ambrose.edu/alliancestudies/  Fifth, these points underscore the fact that RBMW, while well-meaning for the context it addresses, does not penetrate below the surface to actually define manhood and womanhood in terms of nature or essence. Thus, the derived definition of a man is reductionistic. 

An essential answer

The need to properly define a man by focusing on his nature leads to the definition presented at the outset:14My thanks to Gracilynn Hanson for her work on female-gendered embodied image bearing, from which my definition is adapted. “Establishing a Framework for Female-Gendered Embodied Image Bearers in a Redemptive Context” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2022). 

A man is a human being created in the divine image in the male-type of humankind and who inherently expresses the common human capacities and the common human properties in ways that are typical of and fitting for a man. 

A brief justification follows:15For further discussion, see Gregg R. Allison, Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021).  First, God created human beings in his image, and those made in his image are either male or female (Gen 1:26-27). In other words, there is the general kind—humanity, or humankind—of which there are two types: male-gendered image bearers and female-gendered image bearers.16For simplicity sake (and while recognizing the contemporary bifurcation in the use of these terms), in the following discussion, the terms “gender” and “gendered” are synonymous with the terms “sex” and “sexed.” Second, there is no such thing as a genderless or agendered human being; rather, God created his image bearers as either men or women. He did not begin with some kind of generic human being then add on genderedness as a secondary characteristic or type. Everything about human beings as divine image bearers is gendered. 

Third, the ground for the distinction between these two types is biological. Men and women are fundamentally different because of chromosome, hormones, and other physiological particularities (e.g., genitalia; skeletal, muscular, and brain structures). Thus, a man is a human being who is characterized by a penis, testicles, the production of sperm, a general range of testosterone to estrogen ratio (T/E2) that is different from that range in women, a general range of muscle mass that is different from that range in women, and more.17Helpful contributions include J. Budziszewski, “The Meaning of Sexual Differences,” and Paul C. Vitz, “Men and Women: Their Differences and Their Complementarity; Evidence from Psychology and Neuroscience,” in The Complementarity of Women and Men: Philosophy, Theology, Psychology, and Art, ed. Paul C. Vitz (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 9-34, 182-215. In discussions of biological differences, some people offer objections from the (alleged) ambiguity of intersex conditions. For responses to these objections, see Tomas Bogardus, “Evaluating Arguments for the Sex/Gender Distinction,” Philosophia 48 (3) (2020), 873-892; Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgendered Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2021); do Vale, “Gender as Love”, 312-27. From this biological foundation flows a man’s capacity to impregnate women and his potential of being a father.18Appeals to biology are often part of a “natural law” argument in discussions of manhood and womanhood. For example, Patrick Schreiner, in “Man and Woman”, offers a short treatment of biological sameness and difference between the two sexes. In part, he relies on J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Wilmington, DE: Ignatius Press, 2011). Interestingly, various implications are drawn from this natural law argument. In the example that was just given, because of biology, a man possesses the potentiality for fatherhood and a woman possesses the potentiality for motherhood. For further development, see Budziszewski, “The Meaning of Sexual Differences,” 25-29. As a second example, because their reproductive organs are more on the “outside” of their body than are the complementary “inside” organs of women, men are more externally oriented than women, who are more internally oriented. A third example centers around potency: biologically, men are relatively strong, and women are relatively weak, which translates into men being leaders, initiators, protectors, and warriors who are courageous, aggressive, and fearless. As Schreiner explains, “Men are typically (though not always) initiators, builders, and protectors of communities, while women are formers, nurturers, and sustainers of community.” Schreiner, “Man and Woman,” 76. A fourth example draws the following implication for husbands and wives: “the logic of asymmetry operates, and the relationship is profoundly advanced, when partners differentiate: namely, the man by responsibility-assuming and secure-making and mission-defining, and the woman by promoting and strong-helping and rest giving.” Sam A. Andreades, enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship (Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2015), 133. The large range of implications drawn from biological realities of men and women should caution us to be circumspect about the consequences we locate in human nature.   At the same time, this position is not what is generally considered to be gender essentialism in the sense of biological essentialism or determinism.19In agreement with Fellipe do Vale, grounding a definition of man in biology does not reduce human nature in general nor the nature of man in particular to biological factors. Nor does this point imply that the answer to our question is that a man is completely explained by biology. Fellipe do Vale, “Gender as Love: A Theological Account” (PhD diss., Dedman College of Southern Methodist University, 2021), 145. As he explains (pp. 148-49), biological essentialism destroys human freedom and moral responsibility, and dismisses the influence of culture and context on the expression of one’s gender (soon to be discussed).

Fourth, God created men and women alike with (1) human capacities: rationality, cognition, memory, imagination, emotions, feelings, volition, motivations, purposing, and more; and (2) human properties—gentleness, courage, initiative, nurturing, patience, protectiveness, goodness, and more. These are common capacities and common properties;20Some of these properties would be the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and Christian virtues (e.g., wisdom, humility). there are no particular capacities and properties that belong exclusively to men or to women.21Note that these common capacities and properties illustrated differ from biological attributes described above. At the same time, given the divinely created design of embodied genderedness, these common capacities and common properties must and will be inherently expressed in gendered ways that are appropriate to men and appropriate to women. Men typically and fittingly express these commonalities in male-gendered ways, and women typically and fittingly express these commonalities in female-gendered ways. 

Fifth, articulating what these “typical and fitting” expressions look like is notoriously difficult. Three errors must be avoided. The one is to so differentiate male and female expressions that the properties expressed become two distinct properties; for example, male goodness and female goodness.22My thanks to Marc Cortez for suggesting this problem in an external reader report. The second error is to so stereotype these expressions that men and women who don’t “fit the mold” become confused and doubt their maleness and femaleness. The third error is to consider “typical and fitting” to be anything that cultural context allows.  

As for the first error, the trajectory tends to end up in a double-columned chart with the headings “characteristics of a man” and “characteristics of a woman;” each column is populated by properties that belong uniquely to men or uniquely to women. To illustrate, the common property of nurturing inevitably falls under the second category as we simplistically view that property in terms of mothers breastfeeding their babies. While the biological foundation necessitates that only women can nurture in that manner, men are not thereby excluded from possessing the common property of nurturing. An example is a man who coaches Little League baseball, affirming his players’ progress, developing their batting skills, and correcting errors and meltdowns without belittling his team. 

As for the second error, and relying on Robert Spaemann’s Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’, “Persons are not roles, but they are role-players, who stylize themselves in one or another manner.”23Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996/ET 2006), 84. For our purposes, then, “man” is not a role, but “a man” is a role-player; as such, he expresses himself within a culturally-stylized framework. In one context, a man wears a ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots, loves to hunt and fish, smokes cigars, attends NASCAR races, and drives a monster truck. In another context, a man wears an apron and chef’s hat, loves to cook and bake, sips San Pellegrino, attends operas, and rides around in a convertible MINI Cooper. We err when we insist on stereotyping expressions of maleness, elevating what is contextually stylized to a universal sign of being a man. According to a famous proverb, a man is one who has planted a tree, written a book, and fathered a child. Improperly understood and applied, this maxim means that the vast majority of XY-chromosome human beings are not men. That conclusion, of course, is absurd. 

As for the third error, affirming that male expressions are contextually stylized does not mean that just any expression is “fitting” for a man. Scripture clearly draws the line. To take one example, a key expression that is culturally influenced is clothing, and Scripture denounces cross-dressing as an abomination to the Lord (Deut 22:5). This law is not only a sartorial rule; it gets to the nature of a man, who is to express himself appropriately as one whom God created to be a man. For a second example, Scripture prohibits “soft” or “effeminate” men, probably a reference to those who play the passive role in sexual activity with other men (1 Cor. 6:9). A man who postures himself and acts effeminately is crossing a biblical line.24The application of this point becomes of concern due to the constantly changing clothing industry and what it proposes for clothes for men and women. For example, is it “fitting” for men to wear bow neck blouses or cropped sweaters? As difficult as application might be, developing a list of proper and improper clothes is a time-consuming and never-ending task and may not turn out to be as helpful as one might expect. Fellipe do Vale offers an interesting discussion from an Augustinian framework of love; see, for example, his development of love and secondary goods like clothing. “Gender as Love”, 257-58. 

In summary, we return to our essential definition:

A man is a human being created in the divine image in the male-type of humankind and who inherently expresses the common human capacities and the common human properties in ways that are typical of and fitting for a man. 

This definition has important overlap with Jordan Steffaniak’s recent proposal of the causal type of gender essentialism.25Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue,” 22-23, 31-33. Steffaniak presents five variants of essentialism; do Vale rehearses four types. “Gender as Love”, 147-54. He opts for an eschatological kind essentialism, modified by the Augustinian love framework.   This is the view that human essence or nature is the ground—the fundamental cause—from which flow human characteristics. While this proposal does not directly address our question, a definition derived for our purpose is that a man is a person who is biologically grounded and ordered to express the common human virtues in a masculine way. To put this notion in a broader context:26Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue,” 32.   

Human beings of either sex can practice every virtue indiscriminately. Men are not designed to practice protection whereas women are designed to practice nurturing, as if it is a scale of extremes with men and women on opposing sides and only physically capable of pursuing certain virtues. Men and women can pursue all the same virtues—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, self-control, etc. However, biology does determine that men have differing levels of capability than women to display particular virtues and differing levels of potentiality to display them.

His illustration echoes an earlier one: “For example, a mother is ordered to express nurturing in a different way than a father upon the birth of a child. Since only the mother is capable of breastfeeding a child, she is given to a form of nurturing that the father is not. While the father can display the same amount of nurturing, he cannot display the virtue in the same ways. Therefore, the social characteristics can be shared by both, but each sex has the potential to display them differently.”27Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue,” 31.  

The advantages of this essential definition of a man include: making a clear break from the disconcerting Greco-Roman framework; moving the discussion from a focus on secondary matters like roles and grounding it in nature or essence; encouraging more work on the metaphysics of manhood and womanhood; removing the stumbling blocks of stereotyping male and female roles, behaviors, responsibilities, vocations, and other matters that stem from cultural and ecclesial preferences, traditions, and prejudices rather than from Scripture; and directing future work to champion the pursuit of Christlikeness. As Spaemann, in his presentation of persons as role-players, urged Christians, “take on the only true role that a human being can play—‘putting on Christ.’”28Spaemann, Persons, 85. He appeals to Augustine, Confessions, 8.12.29 (which cites Romans 13:13-14).  This expression (Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27) is typical and fitting for men—and for women as well. 

A response to “What is a man?” from Katie McCoy

It’s been said that the simplest things can be the most difficult to explain, and that no more so than the definition of a man or a woman. 

Gregg Allison’s response to the question “what is a man?” navigates through cultural and ecclesial misunderstandings, weaving together natural theology, historical philosophy, and contemporary critique as well as avoiding the simplistic vernacular that, in some quarters, has compounded confusion in evangelical discourse. 

Allison’s definition and defense emphasize the ways in which male and female are corresponding parallels, both biologically and relationally. First, the historical survey of male-female polarity illustrates the effect of Aristotelean thought on Western culture and Christian historical theology—an influence that has led to misguided claims about the differences between male and female in rationality and capacity. These mistaken views further illustrate the connection between one’s knowledge of biological development in utero and one’s understanding of substantive equality between male and female personhood.

Second, the appraisal of the relational definition in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the seminal work in complementarian theology, demonstrates the misguided emphasis on roles. We may make allowances for the historical context in which RBMW was written and the cultural ideas to which it responded. But we must acknowledge the ways in which the work has imposed, as Allison describes, a “reductionistic” definition of man and woman, one that so emphasizes roles that substance of gender is often conflated with the expression of gender.

Critiquing one’s own “camp” is never easy and often misinterpreted. I must express my appreciation for Allison’s thoughtful interaction, and my hope that he and likeminded theologians will expand upon these points. At times, theological discourse on gender has overstated “roled” relationships and advocated specific virtues or dispositions for specific genders. Consequently, its extrapolations have devolved into ascribing “particular capacities or properties” of character to specific genders rather than emphasize the gendered expressions of those capacities or properties. 

As Allison notes, stipulating how a man communicates these traits is “notoriously difficult.” He skillfully avoids the tendency toward gender essentialism by grounding male and female differences in biology but rejecting a biological determinism that ignores cultural influence. Still, given that human beings are irreducibly male or female, while also being personally more than their maleness or femaleness, how ought we to understand the relationship between the gendered self and the sexed body? 

In Theology of the Body, John Paul II identifies this in the “nuptial meaning of the body,” or “the communion of persons” that exists in the marital union. Thus, man understands his identity as a man through his similarity to and difference from the woman, and vice versa.  “Femininity is found in relation to masculinity and masculinity is confirmed in femininity. They depend on each other.”29John Paul, II, Theology of the Body in Simple Language (Philokalia Books, 2008), 16. John Paul II discusses at length how the celibate person also fulfills the nuptial meaning of the body by being “married” to God (168, 173). However, given the metaphor of human marriage between a human male and human female (Eph 5:22-33), this lacks the fullness of the relational meaning of gender for the unmarried man or woman.   Yet even this locates the substance of masculinity and femininity exclusively in the relationship between husband and wife. In a definition that would exclude even the Apostle Paul, no wonder Christian theology feels so gridlocked on this question.

I would welcome Gregg’s additional research on this perennial issue and hope he will expand his commentary on the relationship between man/woman and male/female. 

Read “What is a woman?” by Katie McCoy

  • 1
    Sister Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C.—A.D. 1250 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985). Allen herself presents the diversity in this Greco-Roman perspective; Plato, for one, differs significantly at many points from it. Aristotle is highlighted because of his influence on Thomas Aquinas and, through him, Roman Catholic theology. Allen traces the widespread acceptance of Aristotelian sex polarity in latter medieval Christianity (pp. 361-407).
  • 2
    Allen, The Concept of Woman, 89.
  • 3
    Allen, The Concept of Woman, 4. 
  • 4
    Allen notes that the philosopher Empedocles (c. 450 B.C.) “was one of the few [philosophers of medicine] before the seventeenth century to have proposed the correct theory of reproduction, namely, that the mother and the father each provide one-half of the seed needed for the production of the fetus.” Allen, The Concept of Woman, 33.
  • 5
    Allen, The Concept of Woman, 109. 
  • 6
    Allen, The Concept of Woman, 103.
  • 7
    For the contrast between nature and convention, see Allen’s discussion of Aristotle and the Sophists. Allen, The Concept of Woman, 43.
  • 8
    Allen, The Concept of Woman, 111.
  • 9
    John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991,2006), 29. Henceforth, RBMW.
  • 10
    RBMW, 29. 
  • 11
    The Danvers Statement underscores this focus: “Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart” (Affirmation 2).
  • 12
    As for points 2 and 3, RBMW offers, “We are persuaded from Scripture that masculinity and femininity are rooted in who we are by nature. They are not simply reflexes of a marriage relationship. Man does not become man by getting married. Woman does not become woman by getting married.” RBMW, 21. One wishes that the book would have developed those two concepts beginning with nature. An improper approach is to define a thing by listing its roles, activities, and functions. Rather, a proper definition is about the nature or essence of that thing. For critiques of this “roled” approach (and, by extension, other “roled” approaches), see Jordan L. Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue: A Defense of Gender Essentialism,” Southeastern Review 12.1 (Spring 2021): 15–35; Patrick Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” Eikon, vol. 2.2 (Nov 20, 2020).
  • 13
    This observation is the center of many critiques of the RBMW approach. For example, David C. Freeman, “The Search for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Preliminary Response to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” Alliance Studies at Ambrose University College (November, 1999), available at https://online.ambrose.edu/alliancestudies/ 
  • 14
    My thanks to Gracilynn Hanson for her work on female-gendered embodied image bearing, from which my definition is adapted. “Establishing a Framework for Female-Gendered Embodied Image Bearers in a Redemptive Context” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2022).
  • 15
    For further discussion, see Gregg R. Allison, Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021). 
  • 16
    For simplicity sake (and while recognizing the contemporary bifurcation in the use of these terms), in the following discussion, the terms “gender” and “gendered” are synonymous with the terms “sex” and “sexed.”
  • 17
    Helpful contributions include J. Budziszewski, “The Meaning of Sexual Differences,” and Paul C. Vitz, “Men and Women: Their Differences and Their Complementarity; Evidence from Psychology and Neuroscience,” in The Complementarity of Women and Men: Philosophy, Theology, Psychology, and Art, ed. Paul C. Vitz (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 9-34, 182-215. In discussions of biological differences, some people offer objections from the (alleged) ambiguity of intersex conditions. For responses to these objections, see Tomas Bogardus, “Evaluating Arguments for the Sex/Gender Distinction,” Philosophia 48 (3) (2020), 873-892; Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgendered Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2021); do Vale, “Gender as Love”, 312-27.
  • 18
    Appeals to biology are often part of a “natural law” argument in discussions of manhood and womanhood. For example, Patrick Schreiner, in “Man and Woman”, offers a short treatment of biological sameness and difference between the two sexes. In part, he relies on J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Wilmington, DE: Ignatius Press, 2011). Interestingly, various implications are drawn from this natural law argument. In the example that was just given, because of biology, a man possesses the potentiality for fatherhood and a woman possesses the potentiality for motherhood. For further development, see Budziszewski, “The Meaning of Sexual Differences,” 25-29. As a second example, because their reproductive organs are more on the “outside” of their body than are the complementary “inside” organs of women, men are more externally oriented than women, who are more internally oriented. A third example centers around potency: biologically, men are relatively strong, and women are relatively weak, which translates into men being leaders, initiators, protectors, and warriors who are courageous, aggressive, and fearless. As Schreiner explains, “Men are typically (though not always) initiators, builders, and protectors of communities, while women are formers, nurturers, and sustainers of community.” Schreiner, “Man and Woman,” 76. A fourth example draws the following implication for husbands and wives: “the logic of asymmetry operates, and the relationship is profoundly advanced, when partners differentiate: namely, the man by responsibility-assuming and secure-making and mission-defining, and the woman by promoting and strong-helping and rest giving.” Sam A. Andreades, enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship (Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2015), 133. The large range of implications drawn from biological realities of men and women should caution us to be circumspect about the consequences we locate in human nature. 
  • 19
    In agreement with Fellipe do Vale, grounding a definition of man in biology does not reduce human nature in general nor the nature of man in particular to biological factors. Nor does this point imply that the answer to our question is that a man is completely explained by biology. Fellipe do Vale, “Gender as Love: A Theological Account” (PhD diss., Dedman College of Southern Methodist University, 2021), 145. As he explains (pp. 148-49), biological essentialism destroys human freedom and moral responsibility, and dismisses the influence of culture and context on the expression of one’s gender (soon to be discussed).
  • 20
    Some of these properties would be the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and Christian virtues (e.g., wisdom, humility).
  • 21
    Note that these common capacities and properties illustrated differ from biological attributes described above.
  • 22
    My thanks to Marc Cortez for suggesting this problem in an external reader report.
  • 23
    Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996/ET 2006), 84.
  • 24
    The application of this point becomes of concern due to the constantly changing clothing industry and what it proposes for clothes for men and women. For example, is it “fitting” for men to wear bow neck blouses or cropped sweaters? As difficult as application might be, developing a list of proper and improper clothes is a time-consuming and never-ending task and may not turn out to be as helpful as one might expect. Fellipe do Vale offers an interesting discussion from an Augustinian framework of love; see, for example, his development of love and secondary goods like clothing. “Gender as Love”, 257-58. 
  • 25
    Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue,” 22-23, 31-33. Steffaniak presents five variants of essentialism; do Vale rehearses four types. “Gender as Love”, 147-54. He opts for an eschatological kind essentialism, modified by the Augustinian love framework.  
  • 26
    Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue,” 32. 
  • 27
    Steffaniak, “Saving Masculinity and Femininity from the Morgue,” 31. 
  • 28
    Spaemann, Persons, 85. He appeals to Augustine, Confessions, 8.12.29 (which cites Romans 13:13-14). 
  • 29
    John Paul, II, Theology of the Body in Simple Language (Philokalia Books, 2008), 16. John Paul II discusses at length how the celibate person also fulfills the nuptial meaning of the body by being “married” to God (168, 173). However, given the metaphor of human marriage between a human male and human female (Eph 5:22-33), this lacks the fullness of the relational meaning of gender for the unmarried man or woman. 
By / Sep 2

We live in a pornified culture. From popular television shows to music, and even billboards along the highway, pornographic images and language are pervasive. As it becomes more normal and increasingly ubiquitous, we may wonder: is there any hope for unseating pornography from its cultural position of power and influence?

Ray Ortlund, with his signature optimism, answers with an emphatic, yes! In his new book, The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility, Ortlund pens a letter to young men charging them to do just that — to take up the noble cause of dismantling the pornography industry by the power of the Spirit and with the grace of Jesus. The Death of Porn is unique from start to finish. I suspect it will be a spark that ignites a movement lasting for generations. Ortlund recently talked with us about this and more. Read more below.

Your latest book, The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility, as the title suggests, tackles the topic of porn. What compelled you to write this book?

I wrote this book because so many of the magnificent young men I know are held back by this one thing: porn. I long to see this generation of men set free, men rediscovering their dignity and purpose, men perceiving women with the same God-given dignity and glorious purpose. And if enough men dare to believe in their true greatness, we will be at a turning point — the death of porn, the birth of revival.

It’s a unique book in that it’s written as a series of letters from you, “an older man” (your words), to your reader, presumably a younger man. What inspired you to take this approach?

I was inspired by a letter from way back in 1791. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote a letter to a young politician named William Wilberforce. It was the last letter Wesley wrote before he died. He called Wilberforce and his friends to give their lives to bringing down the slave trade in the British Empire. And they did. It took a lot of courage and many years. But they succeeded. And now it’s time for the young men of this generation to fight for the freedom of everyone being exploited by the predatory porn industry.

The Death of Porn is a book that seeks to help liberate men and women from the chains of pornography, and it does that primarily by pointing to Jesus, our union with him, and the call he places on our lives. Why is remembering Jesus, and remembering who he’s made us to be, a more effective antidote against the pull of pornography as opposed to the “white-knuckling” approach that we often encounter? 

No one is helped by being pressured, cornered, or shamed. The only way we really grow is the opposite — by being dignified, included, and lifted up. I believe that with all my heart. After all, the Bible says, “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:7). So let’s move all our chips over onto the square of God’s grace, and let’s find out what only he can do for us — and through us — in this desperate generation!

The tone of the book is overtly optimistic. Considering the cultural behemoth that is the pornography industry, why should Christians share this optimism? Can we really bring about the death of porn?

Short answer: Yes! If the risen Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, then we have no right not to be wildly optimistic. I only hope that my book is optimistic enough, given what Jesus can do.

Longer answer: Our risen King loves to inspire social justice. For example, the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s launched schools, hospitals, libraries, orphanages, and labor unions. It awakened Christians who addressed prison reform and poverty and slum housing. They could have shrugged their shoulders and said, “Nothing ever changes in this world. Why even try?” But what cowardice that would be! What a betrayal of Christ himself! The fact is, those brave Christians did make their world a better place. 

Now, in our time, our risen Lord is calling us to be his new resistance movement in a world of injustice, saying a loud no to the porn industry — stigmatizing it, marginalizing it, diminishing it — and saying a loud yes to the worth of every man and every woman. Let’s give our lives to the liberation of this generation, not because we can foresee our chances of success, but because we can see the worthiness of the cause. And we know that Jesus loves to flip impossibilities into actualities!

You talk a lot in the book about nobility. How would you define the term nobility, and what does nobility look like in practice?

Our God-given nobility is a major theme in the Bible. For example, “But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands” (Isa. 32:8). There is nothing second-rate in Jesus! All he is for us, all he brings to us, is noble, uplifting, worth reaching for.

Here is what the biblical word noble means: a heart that’s all-in. Not a perfect heart, but a generous heart that cares for others, including every victim of porn.

In practice, it looks like a Christian man reaching out to one other man — any man who wants his freedom back. And that Christian guy nobly shares his heart, his honesty, his vulnerability with that friend. And together those two men begin a journey into a new impact they’ve never dreamed could be theirs. It starts small, but it makes a big difference, because the risen Jesus is right there with those two men. 

To that point, one of the practices that you advocate for in the latter half of the book is the act of confession. You say, “We don’t overcome our sins by heroic willpower. We confess them to death” (89). How does the act of confession diminish the power of sin and the shame that it brings?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer nailed it: “The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him.” We never do well, when we cover up our sins, hidden in the secrecy that shame demands. 

But when we dare, by faith in Christ crucified, to confess our sins to a faithful brother, we are no longer alone. We step out of the shadows of denial and start walking in the light together (1 John 1:7). We can finally turn to God in prayer and find healing (James 5:16). Any man who lives in ongoing confession will never be alone again. It is so freeing!

As the book’s subtitle suggests, you are not just calling your reader to a life of personal purity, though that’s certainly included. You are trying to convince your reader that “we can make a world of difference.” You say, “Jesus is calling you to build a new world of nobility, to the furthest extent of your influence, for the rest of your life” (103). Can you talk about that?

Porn is a justice issue. Yes, our personal character is on the line. But even more, our social conscience is at stake. Jesus is not saving isolated individuals here and there. He is creating a new community of beauty in this world of brutality. We, in our life together, are his liberating counterculture, and his “holy city” will last forever (Rev. 21-22). He is calling every man in this generation to join with him in building his new world right here, right now.

Relatedly, in the final chapter you offer practical ideas on how to build this world of nobility. As a father of three boys, one of them really hit home for me. You tell the reader to “educate the rising generation in our history and our stories of nobility,” and then you say something striking: “if you don’t fill their imaginations with greatness, porn will fill their mind with ugliness. Our kids long for nobility. God has planted it deep within them. Teach them how to be at their best” (107)! For fathers and mothers and mentors helping raise children in our day, how important is this? Where’s a good place to start?

We grownups can and must invest in our children for their long-term future. How? For starters, let’s read to our children. Every evening after dinner, rather than watch TV or look at our phones, let’s cuddle on the sofa and read good books to our kids. Let’s read aloud the great stories of the Bible — even acting them out together! Wouldn’t that be fun? And let’s read to them The Chronicles of Narnia, the legendary tales of chivalrous knights, the heroic stories of valiant soldiers and sacrificial mothers and courageous reformers and brave explorers. Okay, there’s a time for silly books. But let’s make sure our kids fall in love with the inspiring stories! They’re going to need all the inspiration they can get, when they face the future as adults.

Undoubtedly, there may be some reading this interview who find themselves in the throes of pornography addiction, experiencing shame and wondering if they can put this addiction to death in their own life, much less the society at large. What would you say to that person? How would you encourage them to move forward?

Yes, some readers are thinking that very thing right now. I’m glad to say this: You are not alone. You are not beneath God’s grace. You are not such a spectacular sinner that you can defeat the risen Savior. But there is one hard step you must take. You must call a faithful friend right now and say, “Can we get together? I’m not doing well, and I need help.” And the two of you get together this week. And you pour your heart out. And with your faithful friend, you begin a new pattern of weekly get-togethers for honesty, prayer, and healing (James 5:16). Yes, it can be embarrassing. But your outpouring of confession and sorrow is where the Lord himself will visit you with his powerful grace. Your new beginning is just a phone call away. It’s how you can start a new life — in transparency, honesty, openness. Jesus himself awaits you. So, make the call?

Your book’s dedication page is one of the most beautiful and hopeful I have ever read. When you think about your grandchildren’s generation, knowing the culture they’ll encounter as they grow up, what are your hopes for them?

I hope, most of all, that my grandchildren will feel deep within how good God is, how glorious he created them to be, how bitterly distasteful all sin is, how life-giving Jesus is, how powerful Christian community is, and how they can advance the cause of Christ in their generation. What will matter far more than what they own is what they believe. If my grandchildren, and yours, will believe the gospel in its totality, they will not just cope; they will flourish. And the world they hand down to their children will be a better place, for the glory of God.

By / Jun 24

Last week there was a considerable amount of conversation generated after multiple screenshots of comments posted in a Facebook group began to circulate on the internet. The name of the group is not important, but both the content in question and the makeup of its members is. In the screenshots, very critical comments were captured about Aimee Byrd, the author of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. And judging only from the handful I looked at, the comments were obviously intended to mock and belittle. Moreover, they were mostly posted by men. 

That men would take to social media to openly mock and ridicule a woman is disturbing, but worse still is the reality that a large number of the members of the Facebook group in which it was posted are pastors and ministers. To be fair, many people are members of discussion groups on Facebook and elsewhere that they never even visit. And some of these groups have such active participation that even those who engage more frequently can’t possibly be held responsible for the content or comments featured in every post.

But with those caveats aside, the issue is bigger than a small number of men attacking a woman on the internet. Consider for a moment, why some would object to Byrd’s work. In her books and other writings, Byrd questions a lot of established norms. Though she remains substantially aligned with more conservative positions on the roles of men and women in the church, her work has challenged practices that (she believes) wrongly portray Scripture’s teaching in this area and stifle the ability of women to utilize the gifts God has blessed them with. And in making her case and criticizing the status quo—specifically among conservative Reformed evangelicals—she has also criticized things this group holds in esteem. 

Byrd, for instance, has been a vocal critic of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which is perhaps the main exponent of complementarian theology. But more than criticizing the organization, she has leveled specific criticisms at the theology undergirding portions of CBMW’s approach to gender roles and has at certain points questioned the orthodoxy of theologians like John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

Markers of fear and immaturity

Anytime a person questions an established norm they can expect pushback. And it’s generally true that the more significant the object of one’s criticism is, the more intense the pushback will be. When it comes to Byrd’s work, I have found myself challenged by her criticisms but largely in step with those she criticizes. But honestly, I wasn’t surprised by the kinds of mean and misogynistic comments that were leveled toward her, not because those kinds of things are acceptable, but because they are easily explained. In this case, the personal attacks that were leveled at Byrd can be explained, at least in part, by the same reasons that similar attacks are often wielded against other women in conservative theological circles.

Belittling, demeaning, or in this case, making a public spectacle of one’s ideological opponent is more than some kind of cathartic exercise. The truth is that all of us are more fragile than we like to pretend. And when we feel attacked, the natural response is to seek to protect ourselves. Often, when we turn to insult rather than engage someone who questions our beliefs, it’s about reassuring ourselves that we have taken up the right cause. Mocking an opponent instead of engaging their ideas is a way of saying to ourselves and those we agree with, “Look at them. They couldn’t possibly be right. Right?” 

That kind of behavior is a marker of fear and immaturity. It’s a way to stay safe in the retreat position. Besides, if you never actually engage someone you disagree with, you’ll never lose. Not only that, but sometimes we’re threatened by more than a person’s ideas. Sometimes it’s their popularity we find intimidating. We’re concerned too many people are coming under their influence, so we take every opportunity to tear them down in hopes that others would be too ashamed to be associated with such a controversial person or group.

No pass for disobedience

But whether one is surprised or not by this behavior, the point is that none of this conduct is becoming of a Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught those gathered before him to treat others as they desire to be treated (Matt. 7:12). We know those words as the golden rule. And for most of us, they have grown familiar, as though it were Christianity 101. But what is so interesting to me is that many of us tend to act as though the longer we’ve been in the faith, the less important these “elementary” teachings are. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. A believer never gets a pass for disobedience, no matter how many theology books one has read or acts of service one has rendered.

Byrd deserves an apology. And she’s not the only one. No matter how embattled a person or group may feel, if they claim to be followers of Jesus, there is never just cause to treat another person with anything less than the dignity and respect every image-bearer deserves. If anything, this standard is raised even higher when it comes to our brothers and sisters in Christ  (1 John 3:14). And certainly this kind of charity and respectful engagement should be modeled by those in Christian leadership, especially if one believes (as I do) that God reserves specific pastoral and leadership functions for men. Believing this means men are called not only to protect women, but to show honor to them as well. And in this case men failed in spectacular fashion.

Aimee Byrd is not my enemy. She is my sister in Christ, and the cruel treatment she’s been subjected to is wicked and inexcusable. Those with the courage to put forward ideas and offer constructive, if critical, feedback will help make the church stronger. Man or woman, those who would speak and act in good faith, even when it dissents from the status quo, deserve to have their voices heard and their words taken seriously. They don’t deserve to become a punchline, and certainly do not deserved to be mocked or ridiculed on the basis of their sex or appearence.

Seeing this play out on the internet ought to give each of us pause. The sinful desire to mock or shame our opponents is not limited to men or to those with certain theological beliefs. It runs through all of us. We are broken, sinful, and fragile people. We want not only to protect ourselves, but for people to think well of us. But if we are a part of the family of God, we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44) and turn the other cheek when we are wronged or mistreated (Matt. 5:39). And if we can do those things, surely we can love and bear with one another even in the midst of disagreement.