Gender: Male and Female in Interpersonal Expression

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from Sanctified Sexuality: Valuing Sex in an Oversexed World
by Sandra L. Glahn and C. Gary Barnes

Gender as a Useful Category

In the not so distant past, the word gender referred only to grammatical fields.[1] But in 1955, sexologist John Money introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender as a role. Another fifteen to twenty years passed before his idea caught on. In the 1970s, the academic field of gender studies emerged, and people began to define gender as the social construction of biological difference. So sex was the word to describe biological difference such as “male and female,” and gender referred to the social outworking of that difference—“masculine and feminine behavior.” That is, sex is ontology (who a person is), and gender is ethology (what a person does).

One of the limitations that had been inherent in women’s studies was a too-narrow focus on the physical differences of men and women outside of cultural construction. Recognizing this weakness, Joan Scott wrote a seminal essay, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” published in The American
Historical Review.[2] In it, Scott called for a shift from “women” to “gender” as a historical category of analysis. She emphasized the definition of gender favored by social historians—the social organization of the relationship between the sexes. Scott’s interest lay in more than sexual differentiation; it was in exploring relationships of power. Such a shift, she felt, would broaden the field to include exploration of the historical and cultural construction of roles assigned to the biological differences and attributes of both men and women. Although people on both the left and the right challenged her, Scott’s idea caught on, and the emphases and scope of historical research underwent significant shifts.

With the expansion in focus from only sex/biology to include gender/social outworking of sex difference, historians broadened the conversation to such questions as, How have people through time viewed masculinity? and What have they considered feminine? and especially, What have been the power relationships between men and women?

A recognition that culture shapes views of masculinity and femininity has led contemporary scholars to read ancient texts more critically to delineate the difference between representation and reality. For example, when reading a writer such as Cicero, who used “woman” imagery to insult Antony in The Second Philippic, a contemporary scholar might—instead of taking Cicero’s commentary on women at face value—consider how Cicero was using gender as part of a rhetorical strategy to insult Antony’s enemies.[3] Consequently, the scholar might ask, “What were the actual norms of femininity?”

More recently, we have come to understand that much of what we once attributed to “women’s intuition,” such as knowing the best time to talk to the boss (e.g., after he has had coffee), is now understood by many as something not innate to women. Rather, it is mainly due to a social-power difference. Women, who have been historically lower in social power, have spent more time observing and scrutinizing those in power, and become more attuned to their nonverbal cues.[4]

The shift from “women” to “gender” also caused scholars to do more reading between the lines as an emphasis on political history in the academy broadened to include more social history. For example, since the emperor Octavian passed laws allowing exemption from manus (male supervision) for mothers who birthed three or more children, the contemporary historian might observe that “exemption as incentive” suggests that many women preferred autonomy over being under male authority.

The distinction between sex/biology and gender as the social construction of sex difference helped provide language to explore the dynamic behind why when a woman in Kenya puts a roof on a house, she’s doing women’s work, while in America, most would consider a female roofer as doing work that is “unfeminine.”

My friend Musa is a member of the Pokot tribe in Kenya’s Rift Valley. He stands about six foot two, and he is what many Americans would consider masculine. Several years ago, he came to the United States to attend a pastor’s conference, and after spending a day in workshops, he sat bewildered with my husband and me.

“What is wrong with pink here?” he asked. He motioned to the pastel pink watch he was wearing. “All day people give this strange looks.”

“Ah,” I said. “In America, men usually don’t wear pink watches.”

He looked at me with furrowed brow. “Why not?”

“Most Americans associate pink with females,” I told him.

He scoffed. “You can’t wear some colors because they are for male or female?” Then he said basically that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard.

“You don’t associate certain colors with men or women in your country?” we asked.

“No. Pink is just a beautiful color.”

In America the husband is often the one who drives the car when a family is together; in other countries, the wife is more likely to serve by driving. And while pink is often considered the “girl” color in the United States, in ancient Rome, yellow was the color for girls. “Masculine” men at Versailles in the eighteenth century wore lace, high heels, hose, and long, flowing hair; today, such dress would not generally rank as “masculine.” These examples suggest there’s a fluidity to how we define masculine and feminine behavior and how we socially construct our ideals of gender. And it was the influences behind these sorts of behaviors and the desire to study them that led to distinguishing between “sex” and “gender” for the sake of studying social behavior.

Biblical Masculinity and Femininity

A Principle 

The past few decades have seen a rise in the number of Christian small groups and curricula designed around discovering gender differences with the goal of conforming to biblical gender norms. The question such studies has sought to answer is, What is biblical masculinity and femininity and how do we conform to such behaviors? More to the point, such discussions have tended to revolve around exploring what social differences God designed to flow from sex difference. And whereas women’s ministry in the past tended to focus on older women teaching wives how to love their husbands and children (based on Titus 2:3–4), many of today’s evangelical churches are now also teaching women how to act like women and men to act like men.

Christians are generally unified in believing that God made male and female different by beautiful design.[5] A problem arises, however, when we seek to list the sex-specific behaviors male and female should adhere to in order to become their true selves. Statements such as “man is sacrificial worker” versus “woman as submissive worker”[6] take commands given to husbands and wives and extrapolate to make them representative of something innate in all males and females. Such an approach also requires overlooking biblical calls for men to submit to others (e.g., Eph. 5:21) and for women to love sacrificially (e.g., 1 John 3:16). Some even speak of the need for men and women “to be faithful to their genders” and refer to the existence of the “male and female soul.”[7]

In many cases evangelical teaching about what constitutes masculine and feminine behavior has followed Western cultural stereotypes. Consequently, we risk teaching essentialism as “biblical gender roles.” And we also reveal race bias, class bias, and geographical bias in doing so. For example, in 1950s middle-class America, the idea that “God designed women to stay home and care for children, and God made men to work outside the home to support their families” was viewed by many White Protestant Americans as divine design for gender. But what about women who chose celibacy—were they going against design by leaving the home and working to survive? And wasn’t life better for children when both parents were home and often accessible to their children throughout the day, as is still the case in agrarian societies? if sex-specific actions are innate, why had women-at-home men-in-the-workplace not applied to female domestic workers leaving their children for survival? Or why was it okay for women in the developing world to sell vegetables in the market instead of staying in the hut? Such observations lead us to a fundamental principle: If a practice cannot be applied in all cultures across the lines of race, class, and gender, it must not be a “biblical” expression of gender. That is not to say such practices are unbiblical. They should just not be exported as a scriptural, universal ideal.

[1] See Benj. Ide Wheeler, “The Origin of Grammatical Gender,” Journal of Germanic Philology 2, no. 4 (1899): 528–45.

[2] Joan Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 1053–75.

[3] See Nancy Myers, “Cicero’s (S) Trumpet: Roman Women and the Second Philippic,” Rhetoric Review 22, no. 4 (2003): 337–52.

[4] Ronald E. Riggio, “Women’s Intuition: Myth or Reality?,” Psychology Today, July 14, 2011,

[5] Complementarians frequently describe egalitarians as not believing in the complementary relationship of men and women. In response, a group of evangelical egalitarian scholars published Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), putting the very word in the title to emphasize that they
believe in complementarity—they just don’t equate the innate gender differences with hierarchy of roles.

[6] Robert L. Saucy, and Judith K. TenElshof, eds., Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001), 186, 188, 192. Such references raise the question of what the basis is for making such statements. Is there such a thing as an intersex or “born-eunuch” soul?

[7] Saucy, and TenElshof, Women and Men in Ministry, 186, 188, 192.

This post is adapted from Sanctified Sexuality: Valuing Sex in an Oversexed World by Sandra L. Glahn and C. Gary Barnes. This title was released on September 22, 2020. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

God created humans as sexual beings before pronouncing his creation very good. And while we continue to witness many cultural changes relating to sex and gender, one thing that remains unchanged and timeless is the foundation for sexual intimacy—God’s beautiful design for the flourishing of those created in his image. Editors Sandra L. Glahn and C. Gary Barnes bring together twenty-two expert contributors in the fields of biblical studies, theology, and psychology to address the most important and controversial areas of sexuality that Christians face today. From a scriptural perspective, the contributors address issues such as:

  • Male and female in the Genesis creation accounts
  • Abortion
  • Celibacy
  • Sexuality in marriage
  • Contraception
  • Infertility
  • Cohabitation
  • Divorce and remarriage
  • Same-sex attraction
  • Gender dysphoria
  • The theology of the human body


Sandra Glahn
Th.M., PhD, is a professor in Media Arts/Worship and pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. Glahn is a journalist and the author or coauthor of twenty books. For more, check out her blog at
C. Gary Barnes
is professor of biblical counseling at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is a licensed clinical psychologist, board certified by the American Board of Christian Sex Therapists, a clinical member of Sexual Wholeness, and an ordained Anglican priest.

About Author

Sandra Glahn, Th.M., PhD, is a professor in Media Arts/Worship and pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. Glahn is a journalist and the author or coauthor of twenty books. For more, check out her blog at

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