What is “Biblical” Masculinity and Femininity?

Preston Sprinkle

What’s a biblical view of manhood and womanhood? Toss out this bomb of a question in your next Bible study, and you’ll likely see it explode into a vast array of cultural stereotypes. Men like sports and adventure, while women like to talk and nurture children. Men are protectors and providers, while women are homemakers. Women are emotional, while men are not emotional—as if lust and anger aren’t emotions. 

But there we go again: Men are more prone to lust and anger. Is this in the Bible? Are predispositions toward lust and anger biologically determined realities for men, or just culturally shaped assumptions? Or both? 

What are the actual biblical prescriptions for (not just descriptions of) masculinity and femininity? 

I don’t intend to give an exhaustive response here. I simply want to point out that most of our expectations for masculinity and femininity come from culture, not the Bible. 

Take King David, for instance. David is often seen as a manly man when he heroically opposed Goliath and took him down with a stone before chopping off his head and carrying it twenty miles to Jerusalem. Grunt, burp, fart—manly man! But what about when David was sitting on a hilltop playing his harp, weeping, and writing poetry while his brothers were off at war? Was the artistic David masculine, or just the warrior David? 

Or what about Bezalel and Oholiab—the two men empowered by God to sew fine garments (Exod 31:1-10)? Were they masculine? Is the Proverbs 31 woman truly feminine when she considers a field and buys it, or only when she rises early to serve her family? Was Jesus the epitome of masculinity when he turned over the tables in the temple? What about when he wept over Jerusalem and longed to gather his children as a mother hen gathers her chicks? Is that manly, or no? 

The fact is, true men in the Bible kiss other men, cry, are tender and called to be tenderhearted, and are profoundly emotional and relational beings. They are called to turn the other cheek, to love—not kill—their enemies, to weep with those who weep, to raise up and teach their children, to be sensitive and kind and peacemakers, and to embody many other virtues not typically considered masculine by our culture.

The same is true with femininity. Most of our stereotypes come from culture, not the Bible. To illustrate this, look at Titus 2, the famous “what older women should teach younger women” passage. Paul writes: 

[T]each the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is goodThen they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and childrento be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at hometo be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

There are 10 things Paul tells older women to teach younger women. And 8 of the 10 (the ones in green) clearly and equally apply to men throughout Scripture. Only two of the ten might exclusively apply to women (the ones in pink… and yes, that’s me using a cultural stereotype). Even here, the phrase “busy at home” might be a female-specific thing, but remember the historical context: most husbands and wives worked the fields or ran the shop together. It’s only after the Industrial Revolution that men go off to work while wives stay at home, so Paul’s words “busy at home” probably shouldn’t be taken as Leave It To Beaver-ish as they seem.  

The fact is, almost all of the biblical commands and virtues are gender-neutral. Be loving, kind, peace-making, tender-hearted, courageous, forgiving, submissive—they equally apply to both men and women. While there might be some gender-specific behavior embodied by men and women in the Bible, there’s a lot more overlap than we sometimes realize. When it comes to genuine, biblical masculinity and femininity, the Bible is quite openhanded about what is expected of men and women, reflecting the beautiful diversity of God’s good creation. 

The Bible’s “openhanded” approach to male and female expression also makes good scientific sense. Males and females are actually different, and not just in their anatomy. We are not born “blank slates” with different anatomy, made masculine or feminine by our social environment alone (see Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, esp. 346-350). The fact is, men are more aggressive than women on average; men are more prone to commit violent crimes than women; women are less sexually promiscuous than men; women are more nurturing and agreeable than men. These are statistical and biological facts, not simply byproducts of our cultural upbringing (though culture certainly plays an interactive role with our biology). 

But these differences are generally true, not categorically true. That is, males are generally more aggressive than females, but this might be true 60-70% of the time. While most boys like rough-and-tumble play more than most girls, some girls like rough-and-tumble play more than some boys, and—this is a super important point—this doesn’t make the girls any less female or the boys any less male.

Cultural stereotypes are born out of biological and cultural generalities, which is understandable. It’s certainly not wrong for a boy to like rough-and-tumble play, and if a girl loves playing with dolls, there’s no need to give her a toy truck. These general differences are good; David’s defeat of Goliath was good. But so are the exceptions, the traits that are more typical of the opposite sex but not exclusively required. 

Cultural stereotypes become dangerous when they are seen not as biologically shaped generalities, but as codified expectations that are then weaponized to force non-conformers to adhere to the majority, or to make them feel like they aren’t really who their biological sex says they are.

If we come full circle, the Bible actually resonates deeply with what we see in the science of sex difference. We see plentiful examples of biologically based differences on a general level in Scripture. We also see beautiful space for the exceptions—the military-leading Deborahs and the tent-peg-wielding Jaels. David was male and masculine, both when he was strumming his harp and when he was fighting Goliath.

The Bible celebrates sex differences and all that comes with those differences. It also celebrates and embraces the humble saints who color outside stereotypical gender lines. 

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