Modern America often “fights” its debate over the nature of manhood and womanhood through media, with results that spill into real life. While this debate is not new, the last few decades have turned our discussion into some “new-to-us” areas.
Sigourney Weaver, for example, shocked moviegoers in 1979 by starring as a sci-fi action hero. In “Alien,” she abandoned beauty and soft lighting for a tough, gritty fight-to-the-death against a hideous space creature. Why did Ripley, Weaver’s character, fight as she did? It was because she stood alone — that is, without any men left to stand with her or before her. When protectors were wanting, she became one. She reshuffled her role because there remained no “real” men.
Not surprisingly, audiences now expect female characters to fight as an action hero and have pivoted their expectations for men. “Pajama Boy,” for example, seems far more common than John Wayne, which points to a central paradigm from this debate: You cannot redefine womanhood without also affecting the understanding of manhood. They go together.
As Christians, we therefore enter these developing debates not as separate questions of manhood and womanhood, but in a much broader discussion on the nature of humanity — male and female — in light of the nature of God and salvation.
How should we answer our culture? Our culture follows most cultures, and answers this question with nostalgia. While it proves tempting to long for and proclaim a simpler time when “men were men and women were women,” such nostalgia confuses what comforts us with the kingdom of God. Indeed, things were simpler and in some ways better then, but never perfect. Our gospel hope compels us to recognize that the past was also filled with its own measure of problems.
Our message must propel hearers beyond the way things are and were to the way things will be. That is, our declaration of what should be between men and women now derives from our hope of how things will most assuredly end in Christ. Biblically, God teaches us what will be, our redemption in the necessary collision of the doctrines of salvation and eschatology, by the doctrine of creation.
First, both man and woman are equal in value, worth and dignity. Therefore, any affirmation of what manhood is must be complemented by a view of womanhood that affirms purpose and honor in both genders. Humanity, at its core, is incomplete without both man and woman, because our understanding of one fuels the other. Thus, Adam and Eve’s marriage reflects humanity’s common dignity, male and female.
Second, the only definition of marriage that communicates the equal dignity of both man and woman is the marriage union of one man to one woman. That is, when two men “marry,” what is the stated value of woman in that relationship? There is none. When two women “marry,” what is the purpose of man? Again, no dignity remains. When one man “marries” multiple women, are man and woman equal? No. The only relationship that conveys every person’s inherent value is the marriage union of one man to one woman. Our definition of marriage, therefore, is a civil rights issue that unites not only the genders but the generations. Both young and old, male and female, are most likely to prosper in the context of such a marriage because it alone draws together God’s good design in creation (in Adam) and redemption (in Christ) while also providing both protection and nurturing in the world today.
Third, God’s creation of Adam and Eve in marriage anticipates the relationship between Christ and the church. Our view of marriage, as we live it and state it, defines not only humanity’s value, but also God’s saving hand. Our view of the gospel must never be separated from our view of marriage. For a man to proclaim Christ with his words and to neglect the protection of his wife and kids is to deny the gospel. It is merely on his lips, not his heart. On the other hand, the husband who protects his wife displays Christ’s love for the church, just as the woman who submits to her husband reflects the church’s submission to Christ.
While our society arms itself on the left and right for this phase of the culture war — with competing views of how good or bad things used to be for men and women — we must put on truth in love primarily by being men not absent from protecting the women in our lives. Especially in my own marriage, I must sacrificially love her to pave a way for her prospering. She is my body, and I am hers. Indeed, when I falter in this call, I must repent that I may convey who the real hero is: Christ crucified.
— Peter J. Link Jr. is chair and assistant professor of Christian studies for the School of Christian Studies at Charleston Southern University.