Andrew Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church London, a member of the NewFrontiers network of churches. At the end of last year, he published a very interesting article on the roles and relationships of men and women from a theological and practical perspective, on the Think Theology blog that he and other NewFrontiers leaders contribute to.
In the first part of the article, he argues that the complementary difference of women and men is the consistent teaching of the Scriptural narrative, and this has both theological and pastoral importance in church and society. I think that he offers a compelling argument here, and includes links to important primary research, and so I reproduce this section with his permission and without further comment from me.
In the second half, he goes on to argue that, because of this complementary difference, men have a distinctive or unique place as guardian-leaders of the people of God. I don’t find this second part at all persuasive, and in a later post I will (rather than reproduce his text) offer a commentary on his argument from the biblical narrative which I believe points clearly in the other direction.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and empty (tohu wa’bohu), and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God separated the light from the darkness, the day from the night, the waters above from the waters beneath, the sea from the land. He distinguished between the sun and the moon, fish and birds, livestock and creeping things and wild animals. As he breathed his life into human beings who bear his image, he differentiated between male and female. He marked off the days of work from the day of rest, Cain from Abel, the holy from the common. God’s work of creation is, among other things, a series of distinctions that bring order to what is formless (tohu), and life to what is empty (bohu). The Jewish Havdalah prayer which ends the Sabbath puts it like this: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who distinguishes between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the other nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labour.”
Complementarity—“a relationship or situation in which two or more different things improve or emphasize each other’s qualities”—is written into creation. There is a fit, a mutual enhancement, a beautiful difference, at the heart of what God has made. The cosmos is made up of all kinds of complementary pairs, with male and female serving as a paradigmatic example: that is why cosmological complementarity is reflected in some human languages (der Tag/die Nacht, le ciel/la terre, el sol/la luna, and so on). The Jewish-Christian vision of sexual complementarity, as such, reflects our vision of cosmological complementarity—and ultimately, behind it, the beautiful difference of Creator and Creation, God and Israel, Christ and Church, Lamb and Bride.
Complementarity is thus markedly different from two other ways of thinking about the relations of created things. On the one hand, Jews and Christians do not believe that male and female are identical. We are not exactly the same, any more than are heaven and earth, or day and night. Genesis 1 is a story of order and life coming through separation, distinction, two-ism rather than one-ism. When the distinctions collapse, there is no life. Life comes through beautiful difference: when the heavens interact with the earth, in the form of sun and rain and soil, you get plants and animals, whereas identical pairs are as barren as a cave (earth above and earth beneath) or Jupiter (sky above and sky beneath). Given the connections between sexual and cosmological complementarity, it is not surprising that abolishing the distinction between heaven and earth is connected to abolishing the distinction between male and female.
A comic example is provided by the contrast between the Jewish Jesus, reflected in the four Gospels, and the Gnostic Jesus we find the Gospel of Thomas. The real Jesus is clear in his response to the Pharisees’ question on divorce: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt 19:4). The Gnostic Jesus sounds as flowery and incoherent in his blurring of distinctions as his modern counterparts do:
When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below—that is, to make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female—and when you make eyes instead of an eye and a hand instead of a hand and a foot instead of a foot, an image instead of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom] (Thom 22).
Without distinctions, creation collapses into a squishy mess. Complementarity is not identity.
On the other hand, nor do Jews and Christians believe in the alterity of male and female, as if we are thoroughly different sorts of beings. We are not wholly same, but neither are we wholly other—and we must be careful that in our bid to ensure that sex distinctions are not erased, we do not cause them to be exaggerated. Men and women bear the image of God together, and our identity is far more fundamentally defined by our humanity than our sex. We are humans first, males or females second, and in Christ, the divisions that do exist within our shared humanity come crashing down: Jews are reconciled with Gentiles, masters serve their slaves, and male and female are united in Christ and made heirs together of the gift of life.
For a number of philosophers, both ancient and modern, the differences between male and female do not express complementarity and harmony, but otherness and conflict. Men and women are destined to strive with one another for mastery, not just at an individual level, but within civilisations as a whole: Western thought is male, linear, climactic and ordered, and involves imposing power over creation, while Eastern thought is female, curved, cyclical and chaotic, and involves surrendering to creation. This might sound familiar, even Christian, to some of us. But if we look closer we can see that it is not one of complementarity but of alterity: of absolute difference, or otherness. It is framed in terms of conflict, triumph, competition, opposition, rivalry, even violence. There is no peace between heaven and earth, or between male and female. There is no love.
In the pagan vision of identity, there is union without distinction; in the deist vision of alterity, there is distinction without union. But in the Christian vision of complementarity, there is union and distinction, same and other, many and one. In Christianity, male and female bear the image of God together, with neither male nor female able to fully express it without the other, and the clear distinctions that exist within creation are ultimately reconciled within the life of the Triune God (in whom we find identity and alterity, sameness and otherness, one and three) and in the incarnation (in which heaven meets earth and Word becomes flesh).
Before the world is created, we do not have primordial strife and violence, but perichoretic peace and joy within the Trinity. Our future hope is one in which heaven and earth come together, with the glory of the one transforming the other (which is why most of the pairs of Genesis 1 find themselves transcended in Revelation 21: there is no moon, no need for the sun, no sea, no darkness, no sexual intercourse, and heaven and earth are beautifully married.) The final destiny of the cosmos, and the marriage of Christ and the Church, reflect neither conflict nor collapse but complementarity, as the glory of the one permeates and suffuses the other. Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!
Complementarity and Creation
Given this theological framework, it should not be surprising that men and women are strikingly different in all sorts of ways that transcend cultural variations. Not only do these differences not disappear in purportedly sex-neutral societies; there is evidence to suggest that some of them actually increase, as people are freed to do what they actually want to do. (To take one widely reported example, differences in mental rotation between men and women are higher in countries with greater sexual equality.) The bell curves for men and women are centred in different places, and not just for obvious physical traits (height, strength, hair, and so on), but also for hormonal, psychological and interpersonal ones.
Men are typically more aggressive, competitive, fearless, likely to take risks, promiscuous and prone to violence than women, and testosterone is aligned with higher levels of confidence, sex drive and status assertion. Women are, on average, more prone to neuroticism and agreeableness than men. Consequently, men are generally clustered at the upper and lower extremes of society: men are not just more likely to be very rich or very powerful (which prompts all sorts of public debate), but also far more likely to be criminals, killers, homeless, excluded or imprisoned (which doesn’t).
Male groups are more characterised by sparring, fighting, power structures and banter, while female groups are typically smaller, more indirect in confrontation, egalitarian in structure, verbally dextrous, and oriented around people rather than things. Gendered trends can be noticed before children are particularly aware of which sex they are (to take a tragic example, 40 of 43 serious shootings by toddlers in 2015 were by boys), and even in our closest animal relatives (the male preference for trucks over dolls extends to rhesus and vervet monkeys). Julia Turner, the editor of Slate, commented recently that the boyishness of her twin sons had provided a significant challenge to her commitment to gender as a social construct, offering the fascinating remark that despite her egalitarian bona fides, “There’s a there there.” To which ethicist Christina Hoff Sommers mischievously responded in The Federalist: “Indeed there is. And it takes a liberal arts degree not to see it.”
I mention all this not to validate any or all of these differences as if science somehow renders them virtuous, let alone to excuse the male propensity to promiscuity and violence. I mention it for four reasons. One: complementarity appears to be hardwired into us as human beings, even from the perspective of mainstream secular scientific and sociological research. The vast majority of human societies have known this intuitively, but in a culture like ours, where most of us have never fought for our homeland, died in childbirth, gone down the mines or settled a frontier, it has become forgotten. Facts, however, are stubborn things. Two: there is an interesting correspondence between many of these traits and the sorts of things we would expect to find if Genesis 1-4 was true, and the man (adamah = “earth”) had been given the task of guarding the garden against attack, and the woman (havah = “life”) had been identified as the mother of all living. Three: at a pastoral level, it can be reassuring to hear that we are not imagining it when we observe, as we all do, that men and women are generally predisposed to different sorts of sins or weaknesses (#MeToo #ToxicMasculinity #HeForShe etc), and disciple people accordingly.
And four: it also sheds interesting light on the (very obvious) biological differences between men and women, and their significance. Imagine an alien visiting earth, and discovering that one sex was taller, stronger and hairier than the other, with sexual organs which were external and faced outwards, while the smaller partner’s sexual organs were internal, and served as the location of both sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Then imagine them discovering that, generally speaking, one was better at forming relationships, holding small groups together and working with people, while the other was more suited to external agency, risk-taking and working with things. Finally, imagine them being introduced to biblical categories for describing the sexes: towers and cities, warriors and gardens, priests and temples, the blood-spattered groom and the pure spotless bride. Which would our alien think was which?
Andrew Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church London, and has degrees in history and theology from Cambridge (MA), London School of Theology (MTh), and King’s College London (PhD). He is an award-winning columnist for Christianity Today, and has written ten books, including Incomparable, Spirit and Sacrament and Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat.