I want to define something that at one level is quite simple yet at another level can be hard to grasp. I want to define sex. No, not that kind of sex. I mean male and female—sex. Gender, in our modern discourse, often refers to the accidental and sometimes wished-for properties of humans. Sex, however, points to a concrete reality on the basis of biological and metaphysical norms for males and females.
But to even speak of these things risks falling on either side of a ditch. On one side, patriarchalism embraces male-centred power for the sake of exploitation. I should note that not every patriarchal society has, as a whole, done so. But I mean specifically the newer and so admittedly fleeting definition of patriarchalism. Some will want to push back on my ahistorical definition. So be it.
On the other side lies indifference to sex. As the current story goes, sexual powers only exist as accidental properties—ones which can change and mutate. A man may become a woman or an even irrational animal. Yet such a view misunderstands the nature of sex. Gender fluidity masks, ignores, or makes one indifferent to the essential properties of what makes a male, male and a female, female.
In sum, patriarchalism (male exploitation) vitiates the natural virtues belonging to men and women; denying a difference in the sexual powers of men and women vitiates the beauty and perfection of sex according to nature.
Staying on the path—and so avoiding the hazards on either side—takes a great deal of resistance and courage. It also takes mental effort, which we sometimes overlook. Too often we try to keep on the narrow path by imposing unnatural and accidental properties of gender unto sex, as if these things alone make up sex.
Take the colour pink. After the Second World War, pink became associated with femininity. Not so in earlier eras. Should women then wear pink and men wear blue? Perhaps. But to push for such a conception runs the danger of tripping into yet another hazard: reading cultural norms into the essence of maleness and femaleness.
But do we want to play the game of ascribing certain characteristics (how someone speaks, or their mannerisms) as being masculine or feminine? In many parts of the Middle East and Africa, men hold hands or arms or embrace or kiss—yet this simply means friendship and respect. In North America, we do not. We need to carefully define masculine and feminine traits.
I suspect Paul does something like this in his first letter to the Corinthians. He declares that men naturally should have short hair, while women should have long hair. In these cases, he roots his observation in nature or in creation. So he draws on something stable, yet we know that hair length was an artifact of constructed gender norms in Corinth. So why might Paul make the case?
I think the answer is fairly obvious—at least once it has been discovered it feels that way. Paul understood hair length, though socially constructed, as a particular expression of a deeper natural reality. These accidents of nature (hair length) can fittingly abide on men and women in ways that show what is true about their respective sex.
Men and women share in human nature fully, but they have respective powers that fittingly exist in each sex. Men have the capacity for biological and spiritual fatherhood, while women have the same capacity for motherhood. The capacity or potency for such alone makes one a male or female. The actuality of it perfects that potential.
Yet Christ, single as he was, perfected humanity. He never married nor had a child. How then could he perfect the powers of parenthood and family? The answer comes via the purpose of sex—fatherhood and motherhood in the material context of the family have always pointed beyond themselves. Divine marriage is the meaning of marriage (Eph 5:32).
Let me be overly facile to make the point. Jesus married the church and sired millions of spiritual children. He is fully and perfectly human. So Jesus perfected humanity apart from biological parenthood and family. He did so because he completed the spiritual end embedded purpose within human nature. In line with this trajectory, Paul often calls Timothy his child despite not being biologically related (1 Tim 1:2; 1:18; 2 Tim 1:2; 2:1; 1 Cor 4:17). And so physical marriage and child-rearing do not actualize the full potential of a human. It actualizes an important potency, just not the most important one.
Men and women differ according to sex. As obvious as this may sound, current confusion on the topic of sex betrays a deeper complexity to human life and experience. I suppose we have something to do with this. As someone recently noted to me, by pressing cultural expectations of masculinity and femininity on children, we may inadvertently create the very confusion we desire to destroy.
So what if a boy wants to play with a doll? Maybe he is developing compassion and love for children. Should potential fathers not learn this? Or ought we to only give our male children toy-soldiers and so perhaps deepen the vice of male violence?
The second option strikes me as worldliness. Some of us love the masculinity in the world, and so we impose it on our children. But if fatherhood and family lie at the centre of sex, then we ought to, at the very least, be more cautious in how we present masculine and feminine toys and ideas to our children.
It may very well be helpful for boys to avoid pink to help them live according to their natural capacities. But what if another country defines pink as a manly colour? Well, no matter. If one understands a colour to be appropriate in accordance with nature and as something embedded within a specific culture, dress accordingly. Culture does not exist as a rule or force over us; it exists as the composite the various environments around us—some of which brings about weal, some of which carries with it woe.
We resist its malicious pulls, calling that worldliness, but we do not deny God’s good and common grace in society. We learn math from the world, and we follow societal advances in politics and so on. But we never accept any of these things without submitting them to God’s revelation.
Eve, after all, was named Eve because she would be the mother of all living. That meant something. It still does.