Models of manhood and womanhood: Jesus versus cultural stereotypesWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
What does it mean to be a biblical man or a biblical woman? It’s a question that has preoccupied certain segments of the church, especially in the last generation or two. There’s a prominent parachurch organization devoted to the topic. Books, blogs and conferences have been dedicated to it. Debates are waged online and in print, too often marked by acrimony rather than grace. Dissenters can get painted as heretics, as if they were denying a core doctrine of the faith such as the Trinity or the deity of Christ.
How did we get here and how do we move forward? How can we reaffirm the dignity and value of women and men, created in the image of God and redeemed by his Son? And how do we do all that in a positive and respectful context?
To answer those questions, we need to recognize the cultural stereotypes that have infused the discussion, to contrast these with what Scripture does and does not teach, and to look to Jesus as the perfect model of humanity for both men and women.
A clash of cultural stereotypes
It scarcely bears noting that there’s much cultural upheaval and confusion at present over what constitutes maleness and femaleness. Despite the evidence of Scripture, nature, experience and reason, popular rhetoric continues to insist that male and female are mere arbitrary social constructs that can be redefined however an individual sees fit.
Faced with the challenge of these assertions, it can be tempting to look for reassurance in the cultural standards of an idealized (and imaginary) past – the so-called “good old days” when men were men and women were women, whatever that might mean.
For men, it might mean being tough, taciturn, emotionally reserved, and interested in “masculine” hobbies like cars and contact sports. For women, it could mean being sensitive, verbally expressive, emotionally attuned, and involved in “feminine” pursuits like cooking and crafting. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of those traits, per se. But they can be used to build rigid caricatures of masculinity and femininity that reflect postwar American stereotypes and 1950s TV shows rather than the Scriptures.
The cultural stereotypes run even deeper and older than mid-20th-century America. They’re also harder to spot, and more insidious because of it. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, men were thought to be physically, intellectually and morally superior to women. As a result, men were considered the only ones suited to lead in any area of social and cultural activity. In essence, women were viewed as broken men – weak, fickle, sources of temptation, unfit for leadership, unable to understand complex ideas, suitable only for sex and childbearing. These misogynistic ideas have trickled down through Western culture and too often into the church, past and present.
A matter of heart and character
The Bible has things to say about the roles of men and women in the contexts of family and church. But it has virtually nothing to say about societal roles, outward trappings, interests or personality traits as markers of masculinity or femininity. The foundational scriptural truth about women and men is that both are created in the image of God and called to rule his creation together as his representatives. There’s nothing intrinsically male or female about being assertive or compliant, outgoing or introspective, upbeat or melancholy. There’s no suggestion that men should be more interested in politics and business than in arts and literature, or that women should be the reverse.
David was a warrior king as well as a sensitive poet who wrote the bulk of the psalms. Deborah judged and led Israel during a time of war. Bezalel fashioned the tabernacle with all its artistic splendour. Lydia ran a lucrative fabric and dye company that catered to the rich and powerful of the Roman world. Far from endorsing the patriarchal status quo of the ancient world, the Scriptures repeatedly offer radical departures from it and challenges to it.
For both men and women, the overarching concern of Scripture is for their heart and their character. God not only sees the human heart, but he designed it to reflect his own. Love of God and of others, courage and integrity, justice and kindness, compassion for the poor and the powerless are all hallmarks of what it means to be a biblical man or woman.
None of that is to deny the obvious differences between women and men, or the fact that they reflect these spiritual qualities in uniquely masculine and feminine ways. But it is to recognize that the qualities themselves are internal rather than external in nature. As God reminded Samuel when he was about to anoint David as king, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Choosing the right model of humanity
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:1). And it’s hard to imagine a better piece of advice for anyone. As God in the flesh, Jesus is by definition the perfect model of humanity for both men and women.
Although he was courageous and powerful, Jesus was not macho. In fact, he described himself as gentle and lowly in heart. Rather than waving a sword with militaristic bravado, he called his followers to love their enemies and pray for them. His attitudes and actions scandalized many of his original hearers who wanted him to crush their political enemies, and it’s not hard to imagine him getting a similar response for similar reasons in some corners of the church today.
Scripture portrays Jesus metaphorically as both a lion and a lamb. He could be tough or tender as the situation required, upending the tables of the moneychangers but welcoming children with open arms. He treated women with honour and respect. He was not emotionally distant, but shared his affection, sorrow and joy with his friends. And when it was called for, Jesus wept.
Finally, in the ultimate display of servant leadership, Jesus laid down his life as a ransom for those he came to save. This act not only secured the salvation of the world but also became the universal template of sacrificial love for all his followers, both women and men. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” he told them. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 15:12,13; John 13:35).
Spiritual unity within cultural diversity
It’s evident that God has infused a great deal of diversity into his creation, not least into the human cultures that have existed throughout history and exist today. There’s a rich and seemingly endless variety of customs, dress, and standards of social interaction. In some societies, men and women greet one another with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek, even as they did in the Ancient Near East during biblical times. In other societies, merely smiling at a stranger is considered presumptuous and bad form.
In our own Western culture, informed as it is by so many others, it would be a mistake to insist on one-size-fits-all standards of masculinity and femininity – especially those drawn from a half-remembered postwar past, or worse, from lingering misogynist beliefs of the ancient world. Under our broad cultural umbrella, there’s room for men who enjoy opera more than mixed martial arts, and for women who’d rather watch football than shop for clothes. Our biblical model of male and female should be sufficiently flexible to include men who get choked up at movies as well as women who don’t.
Because God loves unity expressed through diversity, he created humans male and female, two distinct yet complementary sexes, different and yet the same. Both are made in God’s image and given dominion over his creation as his representatives. Through faith in Christ, both are adopted as daughters and sons of God, sisters and brothers commissioned by Jesus to make him known and advance his kingdom. At the end of time, both will be joined forever to the Lord and rule with him in his new creation, much as their first parents were meant to rule in the old (Genesis 1:26-28; Matthew 12:46-50; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:17-18; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; Galatians 3:28-29; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Revelation 5:9-10).
As with all areas of life, it’s deceptively easy to mistake a list of outward behaviours for inward spiritual qualities. But the Scriptures won’t allow that. Instead, they call men and women of diverse tastes, talents and temperaments to a unified heart standard that’s higher and more challenging, and yet profoundly simple at the same time.
In the words of the prophet Micah, “He has told you, O man [and woman], what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Sources and further reading
Wendy Alsup, Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture, Multnomah, 2017.
Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, Zondervan, 2020.
Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher, Jesus and Gender: Living as Sisters and Brothers in Christ, Kirkdale Press, 2022.
Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher, Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women, Bethany House, 2020.
Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society, P&R Publishing, 2019.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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