Male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Why are some people male and others female?

The philosopher Aristotle offered this theory: “Females are imperfect males, accidentally produced by the father’s inadequacy or by the malign influence of a moist south wind.” Interesting theory–but maybe there’s more to being male and female than which way the wind was blowing.

A schoolgirl offered another theory. She had to write an essay on why there are more women than men in the world. “God made Adam first,” she wrote. “When he had finished, he looked at him and said to himself, ‘Well, I think I can do better than that if I tried again.’ So then he made Eve. And God liked Eve so much better than Adam that he has been making more women than men ever since.” That schoolgirl was closer to the truth than Aristotle–she at least mentioned God and Adam and Eve–but her version of the story isn’t quite the way things really happened.

Why are some people male and others female? Because God designed us that way. In Genesis, the Bible says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The female isn’t a defective male, and the male isn’t the rough draft of which females are the final, improved version. Both male and female are created by God and share equally in his image.

Once we take that as a given, however, we still need to ask: What does it mean to be male and female? Maybe that sounds like a dumb question. After all, anybody who knows anything about anatomy knows the physical difference between male and female. But is the difference in body parts all that distinguishes girls from boys and women from men? Or is there a difference in our very identity as persons and in how we relate to one another? A male body is obviously different from a female body, but is a masculine person different from a feminine person? If so, how?

These aren’t just academic questions. Often the differences between male and female have been distorted and exaggerated, but lately, at least in Europe and North America, the opposite has also been happening. Some people want to blur the distinction between male and female to the point where no difference remains but anatomy–and even anatomy itself is sometimes changed through surgery and hormone therapy.

A sex change operation is perhaps the most extreme case of blurring the meaning of male and female, but it’s not the only one. Another example is homosexuality. A fundamental and obvious difference between male and female is that each is designed for the opposite sex. A man’s body is designed for union with a woman and not with another man. A woman’s body is designed for union with a man and not with another woman. That’s an obvious fact of nature and a clear teaching of the Bible. But even such an obvious distinction is vanishing. Men want to marry men. Women want to marry women. Homosexual couples can’t conceive children, of course, but some want children anyway and try to get them one way or another, by adoption or artificial insemination or whatever.

And the gender blender approach isn’t just affecting the tiny minority of people who are homosexual or bisexual or who want a sex change. It is also having a profound effect on countless others. Many heterosexual men and women are confused. For example, if a man opens a door for a woman, is it chivalry or chauvinism? Women and men aren’t quite sure how to behave or how to relate to each other. This can be even more difficult in the context of the family. Is a husband’s role any different from a wife’s? What does it mean for a husband to be masculine or for a wife to be feminine?

And what about parenting? How is a father’s role any different from a mother’s? Is it important for children to be brought up by both a male parent and a female parent if at all possible? Do children flourish best with a father playing his distinctive part and a mother playing her distinctive part, or is the gender of parents irrelevant to how their children develop?

And speaking of children, how should they be brought up? Should we take a unisex approach and train girls and boys to be as much alike as possible? Or should we train boys to be boys and girls to be girls? If so, what does it mean for a boy to be masculine or a girl to be feminine?

On top of all this, there’s the whole question of male and female in the church. Does God distinguish between the role men play in church leadership and the role women play? Or is this just one more area where men and women are interchangeable? Someone once told me, “I can’t see why anybody would make a big deal about whether pastors and priests should be men and not women. After all, the only difference between men and women is that they’ve got different plumbing!” That’s not the most delicate way to put it, perhaps, but it’s a vivid way of saying that gender is a matter of body parts only, not basic identity.

Now, obviously I can’t do justice in just one program to all the sensitive and controversial things I’ve just mentioned. I mention them to highlight the urgent need to reflect on what God intended when he created humanity male and female. The various examples I’ve brought up are important in their own right, and yet, important though they are, we can’t simply try to deal with them one at a time as completely separate problems. We need to deal with first things first and get at a more basic question, a question that lies at the root of all these other questions: How is a man different from a woman? Is gender just a matter of “different plumbing,” or did God have something more in mind when he created male and female?

Let’s begin at the beginning. Genesis 1 says: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Here the Bible shows what male and female share in common. For one thing, male and female alike are creatures of God Almighty. We are the Lord’s handiwork, and that fact alone gives us enormous significance and value. Every snowflake and quartz crystal, every leaf and insect, every earthworm and elephant, every creature of such a great Creator is exquisitely complex and worthwhile. It’s a marvelous thing just to count ourselves among the amazing creatures of such an amazing Creator.

But that’s not all. Not only is humanity a work of art created by the Supreme Artist, but, in a sense, we are his self-portrait. God created us in his own image. He made us to show forth something of his own glory and personality. We’re not divine, we’re not God, but there is something godlike about us, for God created us in his image. This is true of male and female, girls and boys, men and women alike. This means, among other things, that I can’t mistreat or despise a fellow human of either sex–or myself either, for that matter–without offending the God who created humanity in his image.

All people bear God’s image. In fact, God was so pleased with the man and woman he made that he wanted lots more. He blessed the first man and woman with a mandate to reproduce and grow in number until they filled the earth. At times there have been religious people who talked as though the forbidden fruit in paradise was sex, and that intercourse and reproduction were a result of falling into sin. But that’s not what Genesis says. Male and female and the attraction between them and sex and having babies were part of God’s good design from the start.

One last thing about male and female in Genesis 1: both share in ruling over God’s other creatures. This is a privilege we all have and a responsibility we all share, whatever our gender. We’re created and called to use our position and power for the glory of God and for the good of God’s other creatures. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned against God, we’ve all misused our position and made a mess of that calling, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is what people, both males and females, were created for. Man and woman together are the crown of creation.

Genesis 1 states all of this briefly but clearly. Then it adds, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” It’s good to be God’s creature! It’s good to bear his image! It’s good to be male and female! It’s good to be partners in the growth of the human race! It’s good to be partners in ruling over God’s creation! In fact, it’s very good!

But on the way to “very good,” there was one point at which God said “not good.” Genesis 1 gives an overview God’s creation of male and female and summarizes it all as “very good,” but Genesis 2 backtracks a bit and gets into more of the details of how God made the man and the woman, and in a crucial part of the story we hear God saying “not good.”

Here’s what happened, according to Genesis 2. First God formed Adam from the dust of the ground, from ordinary material elements, from the same stuff all things are made of. Then he breathed into Adam’s nostril’s the breath of life, and Adam became a living being, a soul with a special, God-given life. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. He also encouraged Adam to eat of any tree in the garden except one. If Adam ate of that tree, God said, he would surely die.

But even though Adam was alive and active as God’s greatest earthly creation, something was still missing. At this point in the story, the phrase “not good” suddenly pops up. The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So what did God do? Did he make the perfect helper right away? No, he first prepared Adam to appreciate this special helper by having Adam take inventory of a whole bunch of creatures that weren’t suitable helpers for him. God brought animal after animal to the man, and Adam gave each a name. “But for Adam,” says Genesis, “no suitable helper was found.” After seeing and naming all those different animals, Adam was still alone in some sense. Sure, Eden was lovely, and the animals were companions of a sort, but Adam still hadn’t found a fitting companion and helper. He hadn’t found someone on his own level who could be his partner and support in the lofty calling to bear God’s image and fill the earth and rule over creation.

So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

When Adam woke up and saw Eve, he knew immediately that this was it! This new creature wasn’t just another animal to name. She was his own kind. She was just as human, just as much God’s image-bearer, as he was. And so he exclaimed in delight, “This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

Adam felt an immediate, instinctive attraction to Eve, and men have been attracted to women ever since. “For this reason,” says Genesis, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

Genesis 2 concludes by saying, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Adam was magnificently masculine; Eve was fabulouslessly feminine; both were happily human; and neither felt ashamed or inferior.

When we think about male and female, one temptation is to exaggerate the difference. As one popular author puts it, “women are from Venus, men are from Mars.” But the Bible brings us down to earth. It says woman comes from man, man is born of woman, and both come from God. They share the same dignity as God’s image-bearers and the same calling to fill the earth and care for it in keeping with God’s plan.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Scripture says, “In the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). Male and female have been made from each other and for each other. Any differences that exist are not there for ammunition in a battle of the sexes but for complementarity and cooperation.

Men and women aren’t from different planets, and we shouldn’t exaggerate our differences. When Adam saw Eve, he didn’t say, “What planet did this thing come from?” He said, “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” He knew he was looking at his other half. As male and female, we need to see how much we’re alike and how much we’re interdependent. It’s foolish to exaggerate our differences.

By the same token, however, it’s also foolish to pretend there are no differences except for a few minor matters of anatomy. There’s a fundamental unity in the way God made us, but there are also differences in the way he created us, differences that shape our very beings as male and female.

Look again at the story in Genesis 2. God didn’t create Adam and Eve at the same time. He created Adam first, before Eve. He placed Adam in the garden to take care of it, before Eve existed. He invited Adam to eat of any tree but one and warned against disobedience, again before Eve existed. When God was getting ready to create Eve, he didn’t say, “I will create someone for Adam to help.” He said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.” Also, when God made Eve, he didn’t start from scratch and make her from dust, as he had when he formed the man. Instead, he formed her out of the man. When Adam met Eve, she didn’t name him. He named her and defined her in relation to himself.

These aren’t minor details. They’re important. The woman was formed from the man and for the man. That’s essential to the story, and it’s foundational to the Bible’s teaching of how God intends us to live as male or female. A number of Bible passages about male and female build upon the differences laid out in the creation story. I can’t get into all those passages right now, but in the time we have left, let’s get to the heart of the matter and summarize the basic biblical teaching on the relation between male and female.

In a detailed study of the Genesis story, Raymond Ortlund, Jr. speaks of two realities: male-female equality and male headship. Genesis teaches both, and so does the rest of the Bible. Ortlund defines male-female equality this way: “Male and female are equal in the sense that they bear God’s image equally.” Ortlund then defines male headship by saying, “In the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, man and woman, the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.”

Don’t misunderstand this definition. Male headship is not male domination. Mature maleness isn’t about bullying or controlling, and mature femaleness isn’t about being a cowering doormat. It is the curse of sin that twists healthy male headship into male domination, but that’s not how it was in the beginning. When Adam first met Eve, he didn’t say, “Oh, good! At last I’ve got somebody to boss around!” He saw someone with intelligence and dignity equal to his own, someone who was part of himself.

Within that equality and oneness, Adam in his manhood was to lead and have primary responsibility, while Eve in her womanhood was to gladly affirm and support Adam; and the two of them together were to image God and care for his creation. This was God’s intent for healthy male headship in creation, and it is God’s intent revealed in the New Testament for healthy male headship among those who belong to Jesus.

In this message and in the rest of this month’s messages, we’ll be exploring what it means to live as male and female in light of God’s Word. I hope you find the programs helpful. But if you’re not quite convinced by something I say, or if you want to know more, let me recommend a book that’s helped me a lot in my own study of these matters. The book is called Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway Books). It’s edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, and it includes valuable studies by a number of capable Christian men and women. The authors provide the kind of in-depth treatment that I can’t offer in the course of just a few short broadcasts. If you can get a copy somewhere, I recommend it.

In summarizing the main thesis of this book, John Piper says, “At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” This understanding of male and female is a long way from men as sexual predators and women as sex objects, or men as tyrants and women as doormats. It’s also a long way from saying that being male or female is just a matter of somewhat different anatomy.

The Bible’s teaching on manhood and womanhood helps us to avoid the gender blender blunder. The gender blender blunder isn’t just a matter of men wearing earrings and ponytails or women wearing brushcuts and combat boots. Those things aren’t such a big deal compared to the more basic matter of not understanding who we are. We need to affirm that God created us male and female, and that this shapes our identity and our relationships. We need to get rid of phony stereotypes that invent or exaggerate differences between male and female, but we also need to get rid of the notion that all differences between male and female are a matter of backwardness and bias. Some differences are fundamental and real. They are rooted in how God created us. Pastor and author James Boices says,

Sexuality is the result of the creative act of God. Men are not women. Women are not men. One of the saddest things in the universe is a man who tries to be a woman or a woman who tries to be a man. ‘But who is superior?’ someone asks. I answer: A man is absolutely superior to a woman–at being a man; a woman is absolutely superior to a man–at being a woman. But let a woman try to be a man or a man try to be a woman, and you have a monstrosity.

That still doesn’t answer all the tough questions, of course. We still have a lot of hard thinking to do as we sort out what is or isn’t appropriate for us as males or females in family and church and society. But at least we have a starting point. We wrestle with these questions, not as genderless persons who invent ourselves as we go, but as males or females designed by God to play complementary parts in his great plan for humanity.

As a man created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, my goal is not simply to be whatever I decide to be, but to be the man God designed me to be. And to know what that means, I can’t depend only on my own opinions or on signals from society around me. I have to listen to the God who created me and to what he says in his Word.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.