The Difference Between Masculinity and Femininity

silhouette of a couple on a rocky beach
One of the first things we learn about humanity in the book of Genesis is that God chose to create us with two genders that reflected His image. Near the end of the first chapter of Scripture, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.”

In the last 40 to 50 years or so, theologians have increasingly sought to suss out the implications of humanity being created with these two genders. One side of that biblical debate, the complementarian side, has suggested that the roles of men and women are very clearly defined by Scripture’s understanding of gender. The other side, the egalitarian side, suggests that the New Testament’s understanding of believers’ freedom in Christ transcends strictly prescribed roles.

At times, the conversation between these two different groups of Christians has devolved from debate to heated arguments. And having read much of the literature from both “camps,” I’ve often been frustrated by both the content of some of these arguments as well as the strident tone with which they’ve been delivered.

My purpose in writing today isn’t to resolve the longstanding theological tension between these two groups. However, I was encouraged this week to come across a new interview with psychologist and Bible teacher Larry Crabb addressing these very issues, one that speaks from a different perspective than I’ve typically seen from either side in this ongoing theological debate.

Crabb, who’s currently serving as the scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University in Denver, talked with Christianity Today’s Caryn Rivadeneira about his new book, Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. In the interview, he voiced his own frustration with the standard complimentarian/egalitarian dichotomy, specifically how it perhaps fails to address some key questions with regard to God’s purpose in creating two genders:

“Rather than getting into the egalitarian and complementarian fray and asking what it means to get women who’ve been put down by society up where they belong, and to get guys who are too bossy and authoritative a bit more humble and more respectful to women, I thought it would be wiser to give some thought to what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine. Both of those questions have been relatively unaddressed.”

Crabb begins to answer those questions by observing what we see about gender in Genesis 1:

“If God made us in his image, then we need to understand who God is and ask, ‘How do women reflect something about God, and how do men reflect something about God?’ Theologians talk about the immanent Trinity—how God gets along within himself. They make two points. One, God the Father moves toward and into the Son, and gives all that he is to the Son (Heb. 1). Two, the Son invites and receives all that the Father gives him. Then the Son moves this right back to the Father. So I see a Trinitarian dynamic of moving into and inviting.”

Accordingly, his understanding of masculinity and femininity flows from that theological foundation:

“I do believe that God made us male and female so males can reflect one side of that dynamic, and females can reveal the other side. This is supported by the words for male and female in Genesis 1. Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it. Femininity is a relational style—an invitational way of relating to other people that says, ‘I invite you to come to me. I’m not here to control you. If you move toward me in godly movement, you’ll find an inviting and nourishing and supportive, wise woman who’s going to be there with you in all the godly movement that you make.’ Masculinity is a relational style of seeing a situation that needs to be dealt with. Rather than passively letting someone else deal with it or aggressively taking over and bossing everyone around, masculinity moves gently and meaningfully into that situation.”

Later in the lengthy interview, Crabb summarizes what’s at stake if we don’t approach the subject of gender with theological accuracy:

“If we don’t understand a man’s call to relate in a particular way and a woman’s call to relate in a particular way, then we’re not going to be revealing the character of God in the way we relate. God’s not going to get the glory. And it’s rather central in Scripture that the whole point of all that God is doing is for his own glory. … As I see it, my calling is to put divinity on display in humanity, to put the character of God on display by the way I relate to others. And if I’ve been called to relate in a particular way that the Bible calls masculine and if you’ve been called to relate in a particular way that the Bible calls feminine, then that strikes me as getting to the very heart of what the Christian enterprise is about.”

I think what’s most appealing to me about Crabb’s interpretation of what Scripture says about gender is the way it affirms the reality of substantive, purposeful distinctions between the genders while at the same time focusing on the opportunities those distinctions provide to serve and love one another in a way that glorifies God.

His perspective on biblical masculinity challenges and encourages me, both as a man and as a husband. It’s my “job,” in this way of thinking, to vigilantly, prayerfully pay attention to my wife, my family’s needs and the spheres of influence into which God has sovereignly placed me. It’s also my “job” to encourage my wife as she grows in her own understanding of what it looks like to be an inviting, nourishing and supportive presence in her world — both within our home and in her other relationships and responsibilities.

In other words, my role is to “remember what’s important” — and then to do, it as Crabb puts it.

How do Crabb’s thoughts and observations about what constitutes biblical masculinity and femininity reflect your own convictions and experiences in these areas?

About the Author

Adam Holz
Adam Holz

Adam R. Holz has served as an editor and writer for Plugged In for 15 years. He also spent a decade working for The Navigators, mostly as associate editor for Discipleship Journal. Adam is the author of the NavPress Bible Study “Beating Busyness.” Adam and his wife, Jennifer, have three children and enjoy watching movies, playing board games and playing music together.