Thoughts on Theological Anthropology: Man as Male and Female

Scott R. Swain
James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

What does it mean that God created (and that God redeems, sanctifies, and perfects) Adam/man as “male and female” (Gen 1:27; 5:2)? The question of “sex identity” never seems to be far from the surface of conservative evangelical discourse.[1] The recent publication of Aimee Byrd’s latest book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,[2] and the reviews that have followed are only the most recent entries in a decades-long conversation.

Many are tired of these conversations. Can’t we just move on?! Others are dissatisfied with the options currently on the table but worry that raising questions might signal either indifference or, worse, the beginning of a slide down the slippery slope toward theological revisionism. I understand both responses, which are not unrelated to the current state of the discussion, which is often repetitive, sometimes silly, and rarely self-reflective or self-critical.

Over the past couple of decades, I have found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the ways “complementarianism” is defined and described by its contemporary defenders. The Trinity controversy of 2016 not only strengthened that dissatisfaction, it also suggested to me what might be the “structural weakness” (to borrow Bobby Jamieson’s language) lying at the heart of many contemporary approaches to manhood and womanhood.

I’m not interested in rethinking the ordination practices of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. I’m not interested in proposing a “third way” beyond complementarianism and egalitarianism because, well, that’s not how the discovery of truth works (with apologies to Hegel). I’m not interested in “broadening” or “narrowing” complementarianism (for reasons that will become clearer below, I don’t find those categories all that helpful). I am interested in stepping back from the contemporary conversation, returning to first principles, considering the full sweep of scriptural teaching, as well as that teaching’s reception by the church, and asking if and how we might transcend the limitations of our present discourse.

What follows is a first step in this regard. I have three basic points to make. First, contrary to contemporary tendencies toward reductionism, I will suggest the need for bringing a greater number of concepts into play when considering topics of moral and theological significance such as anthropology. Second, I will suggest four sets of gender roles that might enrich the ways we think about the identity and calling of men and women. Third, I will suggest three social concepts that can help us think about the nature and ends of our social lives in general and of our relationships as men and women in particular.

Here’s my thesis: A more diversified account of the social roles of men and women, and a more expansive account of the nature, forms, and ends of our social life will not only better account for a traditional understanding of the roles of men and women in family, church, and society. It will also offer a richer array of opportunities for our mutual agency in realizing God’s purposes for man as male and female.

If conservatives typically worry that expanding agency threatens to erode traditional roles, progressives typically worry that defending traditional roles threatens to restrict agency. Contrary to both worries, I believe that a more expansive theological anthropological framework will better ground traditional roles and further expand the vistas of mutual, personal agency for men and women seeking to live a life that is pleasing to God.

More Concepts, Please

A systematic theology of human beings requires true theological and moral concepts. Because such concepts disclose the nature of reality, they enable us to think well about human beings: their natures and callings, their capacities and ends. True concepts are the building blocks of good systematic theology.

True theological and moral concepts, in turn, must be authorized by Scripture if they are to command our thought and obedience. Scripture may authorize true concepts in different ways. Scripture may remind us what we should have known through the study nature (e.g., natural law) or Scripture may reveal things we never could have known through the study of nature but only through divine self-disclosure (e.g., the blessed Trinity). Scripture, in other words, authorizes true concepts by rehabilitating the natural knowledge of God and all things relative to God and by declaring the supernaturally revealed knowledge of God and all things relative to God.

In order to fulfill its vocation, systematic theology requires a sufficient number of concepts. To take a ready example, the concept of a divine “person” by itself is insufficient for thinking about the person of Jesus Christ. In addition to this concept, we must also have some conception of the oneness of God, of divine and human natures, of the unfolding covenant of grace in history, of various offices (e.g., prophet, priest, and king), and of the sacrificial system. Only with a sufficient number of concepts in place can we think well about the person of Jesus Christ.

The reason for this has to do with the nature of systematic theology. We sometimes think that theology is a “system” in the way that a machine is a system, with different cogs and levers, whose relations to each other are a matter of the machine-maker’s (in this case, the systematic theologian’s) invention. But theology is not that kind of system. As the title of Edward Leigh’s seventeenth-century compendium of doctrine indicates, theology is A systeme or body of divinity. That is to say, theology is not a system in the way that a machine is a system. Theology is a system in the way that a body is a system. The systematic theologian’s job when it comes to theology is not to invent the relationships between one theological concept and another but to discover them.

What’s the significance? You can take a screw out of a machine and describe it truly as a screw without describing its place and function within the larger machine. You can’t do that with an organ in a body. Part of the meaning of the organ is determined by its functions and relations to other organs, the various systems within the body (e.g., respiratory, nervous, etc.), and the body as a whole. This is why considering any topic in theology always requires us to consider a sufficient number of concepts. A screw may be described by itself and, in being so described, it may be described truly. A heart may not.

The “structural weakness” of contemporary complementarianism, as I see it, is that it attempts to account for manhood and womanhood with an insufficient set of concepts. The concepts it employs are not themselves false (e.g., equality, authority, submission). They are isolated, not well complemented by other concepts that are necessary for making sense of who we are and what we are called to be as men and women made, redeemed, and yet to be perfected by the triune God. Like notes abstracted from a larger composition, these concepts by themselves fail to exhibit the harmony of the divine composer’s true intention for men and women.[3]

In the remaining two sections of this article, I want to suggest a fuller set of concepts that, taken together, provide a more expansive framework for thinking about the identity and calling of man as male and female. That fuller set of concepts includes four gender roles and three social concepts.

Four Gender Roles (times two sexes, times multiple social contexts)

In a recent review of J. Budziszewski’s book, On the Meaning of Sex,[4] Bobby Jamieson identifies what I believe is the key “structural weakness” in contemporary complementarian approaches to manhood and womanhood, namely, the widespread tendency of defining manhood and womanhood by means of the marriage relationship. Jamieson’s point is not that biblical teaching on the relationship between husbands and wives has no bearing on theological anthropology. His point is that taking the husband-wife relation as paradigmatic for what it means to be a man or a woman more generally is potentially reductionistic.[5]

Jamieson finds in Budziszewski’s natural theology of sex a more promising approach to addressing the general question of what it means for man to be “male and female.” According to Budziszewski, “a woman is a human being of that sex whose members are potentially mothers,”[6] whereas a man is “a human being of the sex whose members have a different potentiality than women do: the potentiality for fatherhood.”[7]

As is clear from Budziszewski’s book and Jamieson’s review, while biological motherhood and fatherhood provide the starting point for defining womanhood and manhood, biological motherhood and fatherhood do not exhaust the potential meanings of manhood and womanhood. Even on a domestic level, fathering involves more than being a sperm donor and mothering involves more than carrying a child to term. Furthermore, fathering and mothering are modes of male and female agency capable of being exercised beyond a domestic context, even by those who do not exercise those modes of agency in a biological sense. The gender roles of “father” and “mother” are analogical concepts that identify roles capable of being fulfilled beyond the family in civil and ecclesiastical contexts. Deborah, for example, is called a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7); and Paul describes himself as a “father” to Timothy his “son” (1 Cor 4:17; Phil 2:22; 2 Tim 1:2).

If this is correct, we have not one but two sets of gender-specific roles capable of being fulfilled by men and women. Men may be husbands and fathers. Women may be wives and mothers. Moreover, unlike the marital set of roles, the parental set of roles have potential applications beyond the context of the family. Again: Deborah is a mother in Israel; Paul is a father in the church.

In addition to these two sets of gender-specific roles, let us consider two other sets that further enrich our understanding of the potencies of male and female social agency. In 1 Corinthians 11, while discussing the practice of prophesying in the church and the proper decorum that must accompany that practice, Paul appeals to the order of creation: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor 11:8-9). According to Paul, there is a natural order built into God’s creative design for men and women that the church should reflect in its ministry (so 1 Tim 2:13-14).

For the sake of the present discussion, it is important to observe that Paul does not stop there. After reiterating his judgment that “a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” when she prophesies (1 Cor 11:10), Paul adds: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12). The ordered relation between men and women that grounds Paul’s judgment regarding head coverings is not the only relevant relation to consider when thinking about men and women. In addition to the authority-relation of men and women, there is a dependence-relation of men and women that must be taken into account as well, and both of these relations may be understood properly only when viewed in the context of their underlying relation of dependence on God.

Paul’s comment suggests, then, a third gender-specific role that must come into consideration. The dependence-relation of a child to his or her parent. Again, like its corresponding gender role of father and mother, the dependence-relation of a son or a daughter is one that may exist not only in the context of the family but also–in analogous forms–in other social contexts. As Paul is Timothy’s “father,” so Timothy is Paul’s “son.”

This leads us to a fourth gender-specific role: that of sibling. This role, which represents one of the New Testament’s dominant ways of addressing the Christian community, “brothers” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:4; 2:1, 9, 14, 17; 3:7; 4:1, 10, 13; 5:1, 4, 12, 14, 25), also originates in the context of the family. Men and women come into existence as “sons” and “daughters” and, in many cases, as “brothers” and “sisters.”

To summarize: “Adam” is inflected in two distinct, non-interchangeable sexes, male and female. Those two sexes, in turn, are each capable of existing in four distinct roles. Men may be husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. Women may be wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. Furthermore, while each of these roles originates in the family, the basic social unit of human society, except for the husband-wife relation, the other roles find analogous instantiations in other social contexts. In both civil and ecclesiastical contexts, we may be fathers and sons, brothers and sisters to those who are not members of our natural family.

Two further points are worth observing regarding these gender-specific roles. First, not every role is defined by an authority-relation. Within the context of the family, the husband is the “head” of the wife (Eph 5:23); and children are called to honor and obey their parents (Eph 6:1-2). However, the relation between brothers and sisters is different, as parents often have to remind their children, “Sweetheart, you are not his mother. I am.” Second, roles that are defined by authority-relations do not map exclusively along lines of sexual differentiation. Mothers stand in an authority-relation to their children. Sons and daughters are called to honor their fathers and mothers in the Lord. What is true in the family has broader application in the church as well. Paul thus instructs Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2).

It is important to emphasize that gender-specific roles are not the only roles that are relevant for human society. There are teachers and students, bosses and employees, heads of state and citizens. The point for now is that, when it comes to gender-specific roles, one set of roles (husband and wife) is not sufficient to account for the full array of callings that God has given to human beings as men and women. Christian social teaching about man as male and female, if it is to speak well, must speak about human beings in two sexes, four roles, within the context of various analogous social settings and social purposes (domestic, civil, ecclesiastical).

Three Social Concepts

While suggestive, the four sets of gender-specific roles discussed above are insufficient by themselves to illumine Christian wisdom about man’s identity and calling as male and female. Sex, taken by itself, does not answer every question that arises about human social life. Not all roles are gender-specific.

In seeking to establish a framework for theological anthropology with respect to the question of sex, at least three other social concepts are needed: (1) commonality and equality, (2) diversity and structure, (3) mutual fellowship.[8] If the gender-specific concepts described above are the “notes,” then the three social concepts described below are the “scale” on which those notes play harmoniously, beautifully in accordance with the divine composer’s design.

Commonality and equality

“Commonality” is an anthropological concept that presents itself to us across the entire range of God’s works in relation to human beings in nature, grace, and glory. Human beings have a common nature. God created both man and woman in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27; 2:18-25). God named both man and woman “Adam” (Gen 5:2). Human beings are recipients of a common grace (I speak here not of “common grace” in the technical sense but of a saving grace that is shared in common). Both men and women are recipients of a common baptism (Gal 3:27-28; Eph 4:6). Both men and women are common heirs of “the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). Finally, human beings share a common destiny in glory. As now we enjoy the status of being God’s children by God’s grace, so one day we will be fully conformed to the glorious image of Christ Jesus at his appearing (Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2).

The common nature and status of men and women in nature, grace, and glory entails the notion of our equal standing before God. In creation, our status as the image of God locates us under God’s sovereign dominion and over the rest of God’s creatures. Contrary to the various ways of measuring social standing in the ancient world–ethnic, socio-economic, sexual–baptism accords men and women equal standing before God as heirs of his inheritance (Gal 3:28-29), an equal standing that the church is called to acknowledge in its congregational order as well (James 2:1-5). Biblical teaching regarding the natural commonality and equality of men and women informs later patristic teaching, such as we find in Lactantius’ Institutes, V.15-16 and Augustine’s City of God, XIX.14-17.

We must of course be careful not to read modern conceptions of equality back into Scripture (see the next point). But we must also remember that modern conceptions did not appear ex nihilo. Modern conceptions of equality, insofar as they go astray, are themselves corruptions of something originally positive and good that, when located within the larger economy of God and all things in relation to God, finds its proper meaning and significance. God named them “Adam” (Gen 5:2). God commanded that we baptize them (Matt 28:19; Gal 3:27-28). God promises them future glory (Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2). And these common blessings bring with them shared responsibilities and callings in nature, grace, and glory (Gen 1:28; Rom 6:3-4; Eph 4:4).

Diversity and structure

Talk of shared responsibilities and callings brings us into the sphere of social reality. And here both natural and revealed theology teach us that, modern egalitarian visions notwithstanding, diversity and structure are essential to well-functioning societies.

Not every form of diversity, or even every form of inequality, is inconsistent with commonality of nature and equal standing before God. In his discussion of humanity’s status as male and female, Thomas Aquinas mentions various forms of natural inequality that do not compromise or threaten our fundamental status as creatures made in God’s image, baptized in Jesus’ name, and destined for God’s kingdom. Even in an unfallen world, Thomas argues, there would have been disparities in knowledge and virtue, in bodily strength and beauty, and in domestic and civil roles and responsibilities.[9]

The question, of course, is how can such differences and distinctions square with our common nature and equality before God and men? Is equality simply an (eschatological?) ideal, incapable of realization in the here and now of our social lives? Must all forms of social diversity and structure threaten our shared status as the special objects of God’s creative, redeeming, and perfecting work?

The answer is “no.” But to perceive why a negative answer is necessary, we must think more deeply about the relation between equality and diversity, and also about their end. “What is required,” according to Oliver O’Donovan, is “a coordination of our understanding of equality with our understanding of the humane forms of community. To have any substance a claim for equality must reflect decisions about what differentiations are constructive and healthy for human existence and what are not. But those decisions in turn reflect a judgment about which differentiations help, and which hinder, the meeting of person with person on the basis of equality, with neither slave nor lord.”[10]

Certain forms of social order are inherently unnatural, the products of the fall. In Book XIX of The City of God, Augustine identifies slavery as a form of social order that is inconsistent with our common nature and our common good. Other forms of social order, he argues, are not necessarily unnatural, despite the fact that they are regularly corrupted and distorted by sinners. These natural forms of social order presuppose in their exercise our common nature as human beings and aim at our mutual fellowship. Commenting on the paterfamilias, the head of the Christian household (NB: a broader category than today’s nuclear family), Augustine states:

This is the origin of domestic peace, or the well-ordered concord of those in the family who rule and those who obey. For they who care for the rest rule,–the husband the wife, the parents the children, the masters the servants; and they who are cared for obey,–the women their husbands, the children their parents, the servants their masters. But in the family of the just man who lives by faith and is as yet a pilgrim journeying on to the celestial city, even those who rule serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power, but from a sense of the duty they owe to others–not because they are proud of authority, but because they love mercy.[11]

That which distinguishes Christian social order is its submission to a twofold ordering principle: the Christian exercise of authority is ordered under God and to God. It is ordered under God in that it recognizes God-given orderings of human social relations while refusing to engage in sinfully disordered forms of human social relations. The Christian exercise of authority is ordered to God in that it recognizes that all creaturely forms of authority are not ultimately designed to serve those in authority (the definition of tyranny!) but rather to serve those under authority, to promote their temporal and eternal well-being, the latter consisting of eternal fellowship in the city of God.

Classical Christian social teaching learned the latter lesson from the Lord himself, who did not come “to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This leads us to our third and final social concept.

Mutual fellowship

Rooted in our common nature, ordered under God and to God, Christian social order is realized in mutual fellowship. As O’Donovan observes, community–the sharing of all things in common within the context of a common life–is not merely the context of virtue formation in Christianity (as it is in the Greco-Roman world). Christian community is the goal of virtue formation.[12] The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father reach their term in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14). And what is true of divine saving agency is true of created, redeemed, sanctified, and glorified human agency as well.

Christian social order has an equalizing tendency. This tendency is rooted in the saving agency of Jesus Christ. In John 15:15, Jesus states: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” The point, of course, is not that Jesus is abdicating his position of divine Lordship in relation to the disciples. The point is that he has exercised his authority in order to elevate their social status, giving them access to “all” that he has heard from the Father. By revealing the fullness of the Father’s heart to them, Jesus has raised the disciples from the status of servants to the status of friends, granting them the truest and highest dignity that human beings can enjoy.

All Christian social order has an equalizing tendency toward friendship, toward mutual agency and mutual fellowship in the good things of God. This doesn’t mean that all Christians are friends–at least not yet–for our spatial, temporal, and social finitude precludes this. Nor does it mean that there is no place for authority in the family, the church, and society. It does mean that all Christian agency is friendly, aimed at mutual agency and mutual fellowship, including the agency of those in authority.[13]

Thus, when Paul describes the social virtues of love in 1 Corinthians 13, one of his repeated themes is love’s willingness to defer to the agency of others so that it can develop, be exercised, and contribute to the common good: “love is patient . . .” (1 Cor 13:4).[14] Similarly, when Paul describes the end of authoritative ministerial agency in Ephesians 4, he says that the body of Christ will reach maturity, under that ministerial agency’s guidance, when each part of the body is working properly to contribute to the body’s growth (Eph 4:16; cf. 1 Cor 12:4-7).


God created man as male and female. In God’s sovereign goodness in nature, grace, and glory, these two sexes array themselves in diverse gender-specific roles as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, roles that, in turn, have manifold applications in family, church, and society. Some of these roles involve authority-relations, others do not. All of these social relations presuppose our common humanity and are ordered to our mutual fellowship, under God and in communion with God.

Where does this leave us in our understanding of the identity and calling of man as male and female? My goal has not been to address every question that a theology of sex identity should address but rather to sketch a sufficiently complex conceptual framework within which such questions might be addressed. In concluding this already lengthy discussion, I want to make one observation about the shape of our existence as male and female.

There seems to be a built-in teleology to our sex identity. Husbands and wives become fathers and mothers. Fathers and mothers bear sons and daughters. Sons and daughters become brothers and sisters. Men and women are born. Men and women die. But this cycle is not circular. It is teleological. One day, they will no longer marry or be given in marriage (Matt 22:30). In that day, there will be no more husbands and wives and therefore there will be no more fathering and no more mothering. In that day, all will be sons of God (Rev 21:7) and all will be brothers and sisters of the one appointed to be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29). Learning to walk together as men and women therefore not only involves learning who God made us to be and living in accord with God’s good design. Learning to walk together as men and women also involves learning who God has redeemed us to become and, in a manner appropriate to the overlap of the ages in which we live, learning what it means for all of us to be sons and daughters of the living God and brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. The better we learn this lesson, the more beautifully we will grow into our social identity as the bride of Christ, which is the ultimate end of our life together.


[1] Here I follow Prudence Allen, who distinguishes “sex identity (the natural state of females and males)” from “sex activity (sexual intercourse leading to childbirth)” (The Concept of Woman, Volume III: The Search for Communion of Persons, 1500-2015 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016], 13).

[2] Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).

[3] On the notion of “contrapuntal harmony,” with application to the complementary nature of the sexes, see John Ahern, “Contrapuntal Order,” First Things (April 2020):19-22.

[4] J. Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014).

[5] Bobby Jamieson, “Book Review: On the Meaning of Sex,” by J. Budziszewksi.

[6] Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex, 54.

[7] Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex, 58-59.

[8] These three concepts are drawn from Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 262.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q 92, art. 1, ad 2; I, q 96, arts. 3-4.

[10] O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, 263.

[11] Augustine, City of God, NPNF, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), XIX.14.

[12] O’Donovan, Entering into Rest, Ethics as Theology 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 8.

[13] On the relationship between friendliness and friendship, see O’Donovan, Entering into Rest, chap. 6.

[14] O’Donovan, Entering into Rest, 2