Alastair Roberts Archive The Natural Family

Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are

A striking feature of modern Christian gender debates is how extensively the tenets of social constructivism have unwittingly been imbibed, by the very people who might claim to be its staunch opponents. Even in arguments from the most conservative quarters, there is a remarkable forgetfulness or neglect of nature, a willingness to forfeit our claim to the ground upon which we stand.

A sort of ambivalence and plasticity of nature is implicitly granted on most sides, as debates maintain a restrictive focus upon divine prescriptions and proscriptions. A neutral or weakly defined nature is supposedly colonized and ordered by competing ideologies, norms, prescriptions, and practices. Even natural law can be spoken of as if it were an abstract matter of speculative reason, rather than the practical poetry of learning to apprehend and move with the living principles of our own created being and world.

The element of truth within the constructivist case, its appreciation of the contestable part played by human will and agency in the structuring of nature, blinds people to the converse: the unavoidable part played by nature in the structuring of human will and agency. This is most evident in the rarity of extensive and attentive discussions of sexual difference as a phenomenon that goes beyond the dimorphism that underlies conjugal union. While differences between the sexes may be admitted, they are seldom attended to and are thereby reduced to an indifferent status. Stephen Clark’s 1980 book, Man and Woman in Christ, is one of remarkably few Christian books that reflect closely upon the far-reaching empirical differences between the subjectivities, agencies, sociality, and lebenswelten of men and women and then relates those facts to Christian teaching.

In the absence of such reflection, Christian teaching on the subject is often presented as if hovering over a relative formlessness of nature. The impression given is that, while there are differences between the sexes, they are not differences that make that much of a difference: the real differences are those made by divinely commanded gender roles. Christian teaching, however, is better understood as a clarification and intensification of internal beckonings of being that we experience as men and women within the world, or as the expression of a music for which our natures are discovered to be the proper resonance chamber.

Aimee Byrd, Glenn Stanton, and Gender Roles

Reading Aimee Byrd’s recent article, The Taming of the Beau, in which she responds to Glenn Stanton’s earlier piece, Why Man and Woman Are Not Equal, I was struck once again by this noteworthy neglect. Stanton’s article, which I believe Byrd misrepresents as suggesting that women are the holders of virtue, grounds its case in an account of the empirical nature of men, arguing that men have a particular tendency to certain vices, which social relations with women help to curb. His argument is not that women are more virtuous than men, but that they are differently virtuous and that the flourishing of male virtue is catalysed and encouraged by the presence and the activity of women.

Byrd, however, transposes Stanton’s more concrete and empirical argument into an abstract and ideological one, accusing him of attempting to rehabilitate Victorian evangelical ‘tropes of manhood and womanhood.’ Yet the Victorian tropes in question, for all of their faults, did not materialize in the sterile vacuum of some speculative philosophy but arose in no small measure from the predominance of women and feminine spiritualities in the evangelical movement (and, in turn, perpetuated these). They also developed in correspondence with the ugly social realities of an age of social upheaval, as extensive and socially destructive patterns of male violence, vice, and drunkenness became prominent in burgeoning irreligious urban populations created by the Industrial Revolution. Contrary to some suggestions, although the relative social value accorded to male and female modes of virtue can fluctuate from age to age and society to society, the shape and reckoning of male and female vices and virtues respectively show strong consistency.

In her response to him, Byrd leaves the empirical social realities and differences of nature that Stanton highlights completely unexplored. These realities and different natures, however, can present prima facie difficulties for anyone seeking to downplay the significance of differences in virtue between the sexes. It is easier to make abstract statements about the equality of the sexes in virtue than to square such assertions with the fact that the vast majority of every single nation’s prison population is male, for instance.

Male identity, in contrast to women’s, and across human societies, is far more consistently invested in demonstrating robust external agency in the world, a difference in tendency that emerges even in the very earliest forms of children’s play behaviour. Men do not have the same profound physical and emotional bond to their offspring that women have. Women’s own bodies are the site where the chief end of their sexuality can be realized, as a man is united to them, a child can be conceived and gestated within them, and where that child can later nurtured by them. Men’s bodies, by contrast, are directed outside of themselves sexually, towards ends realized elsewhere. As a result, their powerfully outward oriented sexual impulse and natural energies are much more easily waylaid where they are not assisted by healthy social norms.

As George Gilder observed, in contrast to the role of mother for women, which is far more grounded in nature, for men, ‘The most important and productive roles—husband and father in a durable marriage—are a cultural invention, necessary to civilized life but ultimately fragile.’ Marriage is not the creation of women’s virtue. However, it ties men to women in a way that elicits men’s own virtues. The point here is not a superiority of female over male virtue, but the particular form that the development of men’s virtue takes. Nor need this claim exclude the unmarried: a robust marital culture sets norms of behaviour even for the unmarried (chastity and self-control, respect and appreciation for the other sex, etc.).

Tying men to women and children harnesses men’s energies to the construction and protection of society, where otherwise they might run amok. Where men are not tied to women in such a manner, men often try to prove their masculinity in destructive and socially damaging ways. The violence of dysfunctional masculinity is far more of an immediate threat to civilization than dysfunctional forms of femininity: women’s violence is more likely to be directed against their own bodies. Women and the children that they bear exert a centripetal social force upon men, drawing them towards the service and protection of society, directing their self-transcendent sacrificial urge to the benefit of those who are weaker and more dependent.

Recognizing differences in the physical, sexual, and hormonal ordering of male and female bodies helps us to understand broader behavioural and social differences that correlate with these. Each of the specific differences in question, viewed separately, are typically modest in size, have many exceptions and are only tendencies, yet related together they constitute markedly distinctive and dimorphic sets of family resemblances for each sex.

Men are typically considerably more aggressive, competitive, and inclined to risk-taking or violent behaviours than women. Men, for instance, constitute the overwhelming majority of those within prisons in nations around the world and commit practically every crime at a higher rate than women. Across human societies, men are directly responsible for almost all serious violence and war. Men are consistently found to be much more promiscuous than women. Testosterone is correlated with higher levels of confidence, status assertion, and a higher sex drive. Men are also much more likely to take risks (both physical and intellectual), to be fearless, and to be treated as expendable by society.

Important differences in sociality exist too. Differences between the sexes emerge very early on, even before children have any conceptual appreciation of gender (e.g. 40 of 43 serious shootings by toddlers in 2015 were by boys!). Male groups are much more agonistic (not just physically, but also verbally and conversationally) and prone to direct violence; female groups can be much more prone to indirect and dissembled forms of social conflict. Women tend to prefer smaller groups; men tend to prefer larger ones. Male groups are more hierarchical in tendency; women’s are more likely to be egalitarian in their group norms. Women tend to be more people and social-emotional oriented than men; men tend to be more thing, task, and agency oriented than women. Women are more likely to have a verbal tilt in their ability; men are more likely to have a mathematical tilt. Worked out across societies and over time, these weighted tendencies have fairly consistently produced predictable patterns and far-reaching differences in male and female representation in various endeavours and roles. Indeed, these differences in gendered tendencies are often most pronounced in Western individualistic egalitarian societies, where people are freer to follow natural inclinations.

There is a wealth of research on these and related subjects, yet it is unfortunate that I should need to link to any of it. Much of it simply identifies facts that should be clearly apparent to anyone who pays attention to themselves, society, and the world around them, and hasn’t been forgetful of nature. Unfortunately, the facts in question are deeply politicized and contentious, as they radically undermine the possibility of culturally ascendant denaturing feminist projects in so many of their contemporary configurations.

Byrd’s case rests in part upon an interpretation of the Hebrew terms ezer kenegdo in Genesis 2:18. Unfortunately, rendering this as ‘necessary ally’ doesn’t tell us all that much about the way that men and women are actually to relate. Taken by itself such a term is quite vulnerable to the impressionistic importation of extra-scriptural ideology. It is far more illuminating to observe the manner in which Scripture describes the relation between men and women functioning and failing. As we study this, the manner in which the woman is the man’s ‘necessary ally’ will become more clearly apparent.

Perhaps the most striking thing to observe here is that, contrary to Byrd’s account, Scripture powerfully and repeatedly emphasizes the moral suasion exercised by women in relation to their husbands. On regular occasions, wives or women are presented as either leading their husbands or other men astray (Eve with Adam, Sarai’s gift of Hagar to Abram, Solomon and his foreign wives, Jezebel with Ahab, Herodias and Herod) or as the wise counsellors of men in their lives (Abigail and David, Bathsheba and David, Esther and Ahasuerus).

The book of Proverbs has this principle at its heart: the young man’s quest for the personified Wisdom over her counterpart Folly is paralleled and related with his quest for a wife. These two interwoven themes finally coincide in the acrostic presentation of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31. The quest for wisdom is about the party to whom you will give your heart. As men give their hearts to women and Wisdom, women have a tremendous power to move and inspire them.

Once again, this is not a claim that women are more virtuous than men. It develops beyond the recognition that the presence of women tends to provoke in men and male society an appreciation of a specific moral telos that encourages the development of character. It relates women to the force of wisdom in men’s lives, expressing the truth that a good and wise woman elicits and encourages virtue in a man who is loving, faithful, and attentive to her. Men and women are akin to different musical instruments, each wonderfully displaying the same virtues, yet in quite contrasting ways.

I have identified three different areas where an unhelpful narrowing of focus can be seen in Byrd’s piece. First, she fails to attend to the pronounced empirical differences between men and women as groups that Stanton highlighted. Second, she handles historical understandings of gender roles as if unalloyed ideology, rather than as practical attempts to respond to and address prevailing social realities, realities that arose in part on account of natural differences between the sexes. Third, she restricts her biblical analysis to an unclear term in relative isolation, rather than seeking to ascertain the larger biblical picture. At each of these points, she limits the part that nature, empirical reality, and scriptural narrative are permitted to play in the conversation. As these dimensions are marginalized, unchecked gender ideologies are given ever freer rein. Christian teaching on the subject becomes ever more of an abstraction, slipping its moorings in concrete natural, historical, and biblical reality.

It is not my intention to pick upon Byrd here: she is merely illustrative of problems that are far more widely evident, problems of which others may be more fitting exemplars. However, these problems have unfortunate consequences. Where we cease to be attentive to nature, to the nitty-gritty of history, and to the breadth of biblical teaching, complementarian teaching may appear to be somewhat arbitrary, willfully selective, or to rest on peculiar contingencies of redemptive history. The fact that complementarian theology has become an -ism in our quarters is in part a result of this, I believe. The prescriptive and the ideological have eclipsed the descriptive.

Biblical Teleology and Sexual Realism

By contrast, the focus in the biblical teaching on sex is less upon gender roles and rules than it is upon the fact that men and women are created differently, for different purposes, with different strengths, and with different natural orientations. The teaching is principally descriptive, rather than prescriptive: men and women have different callings because they were created as different ‘genres’ of human being. For instance, the fact that, across ages and human cultures and down to the present day, men have dominated in the exercise of direct social power is not a result of ideology or even of sin, even though in our world it is invariably adumbrated and attended by both respectively. In speaking of man as the ‘head’, Scripture isn’t primarily saying that the man should be the head: it is saying that the man is the head. Although such statements are not merely descriptive, we should never miss the descriptive force that lies at their heart.

Attempts to avoid or dissemble this reality often proceed from a methodological atomization (a problem that many of the studies I linked above share). Groups are broken down to individuals and individuals are broken down to individual traits. This assumption often drives a quest for one universal set of characteristics that can or should be applicable to each and every man or woman. An inordinate amount of attention is given to the variation within men and women as groups and upon the overlaps between them, variation and overlap that supposedly scuppers any attempt to speak meaningfully of sex differences.

This methodological atomization blinds us to the differences that play out on the broader planes in which traits are integrated within persons, persons within larger groups, and larger groups within societies. Many of the most significant differences between men and women emerge on these levels. Men and women are not just defined by the differences between two classes of atomized individuals, each class considered in detachment from the other. The fuller meaning of maleness, for instance, tends to emerge as men relate to women. This is not difference ‘as such’ between two detached entities, but a more specific set of differences that emerges through our relations, like the beautiful differences-in-relation that constitute a piece of music. Differences between men and women are also differences between men and women as social groupings, social groupings in which differences come to fuller flowering. For particular men, for instance, this means that one becomes a man as one learns to be a man among men and as one learns to be a man to a particular woman and/or to women more generally.

Finally, as two distinct genders—genres—of human beings, men and women represent two distinct solidarities. It is in these larger solidarities that the greater differences can be seen, differences that are seldom so obvious in any single member of them. We are the ‘sons of Adam’ and the ‘daughters of Eve’, terms capture some of the underlying logic at play in Genesis and elsewhere in Scripture. When we think in terms of these solidarities, we will recognize that the more extreme or particular manifestations of manliness or womanliness, and not just the lowest common denominators and more universal features, are significant. For instance, although most men don’t work directly in construction and agriculture, it is still the sons of Adam who are peculiarly and overwhelmingly responsible for taming and exercising dominion over the wildness of the world. While many women may be single or childless, the daughters of Eve are still the ones through whom life and the wider communion of society come.


The distinguishing features of each sex are more akin to family resemblances than to absolute and universal differences. As individual members of a given sex, we show a remarkable and beautiful variation among ourselves, while still being recognizably members of our sex, a sex quite distinct and different from the other. Each of us can manifest different facets of what it means to be a man or woman, while being bound together by our participation in a broader subjective and intersubjective reality that we hold in common with other members of our sex.

Reacquainting ourselves with the ubiquitous natural reality of sexual difference is difficult in a gender neutralizing society in which we have been trained not to notice or to resist it. It is also difficult in churches where sexual difference has been so extensively ideologized and cut off from its roots in nature. However, within such a renewal of our communion with this natural reality, the possibility of a rediscovery of the rich poetry of sexuate sociality is opened up. The beauty of a delightful difference that is not merely difference as such, but, as it were, a musical polyphony of mutually eliciting glorious modes of personhood escapes a society that balks at the natural reality of the sexes. Yet ears once stubbornly covered in resistance or dulled by joyless prescriptions and abstract ideologies can be reopened to the music of nature, exciting us into the liberating flow of creation’s dance.

By Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.

10 replies on “Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are”

My primary criticism of Alastair Robert’s posts / articles is that they end, or at least end too soon. This is really helpful work. Thank you, Alastair.

Alastair wrote,

“In speaking of man as the ‘head’, Scripture isn’t primarily saying that the man should be the head: it is saying that the man is the head. Although such statements are not merely descriptive, we should never miss the descriptive force that lies at their heart.”

This is a quite helpful point, and relates also to how we speak of the Trinity. Scripture says that God is “like” a mother at various places, but it never says that 1st Person of the Trinity is “like” a Father, rather that He “is” the Father, the archetypal Father from Whom all fatherhood in Heaven and Earth gets its name.

Which means we have to get past the idea of the Fatherhood of God as being mere metaphor, but rather as God’s nature, and from that, the nature of reality. The fatherhood we have is derivative of God’s Fatherhood.

Alastair said: “Stanton’s article, which I believe Byrd misrepresents as suggesting that women are the holders of virtue, grounds its case in an account of the empirical nature of men, arguing that men have a particular tendency to certain vices, which social relations with women help to curb.”

I think your article here, Alastair, does a good job for presenting the empirical evidence that men have a particular tendency to certain vices, which social relations to women help curb.

But I don’t think Stanton’s article did that well at all.

Stanton’s article oversimplified the problems that society experiences from unattached males. He claimed that men settle down when they are married. While that is undoubtedly true in many cases, it is also true that some men marry and do NOT become any more civilised than they were before. In fact, they abuse their wives and kids egregiously. And this abuse can be done without any physical violence, without even laying a finger in anger on the wife. Many abused wives eventually leave and divorce their abusers. These abusers are then – again – unattached males, and most of them go on to find a second victim …. and maybe other victims down the track as well.

The problems in society, and the preponderance of men in jail, are very much related to this. Many men who abuse their female partners are not in jail for abusing their partners (because it’s so darn hard to get them convicted for those crimes, and because most of what goes on in domestic abuse is not sanctioned in the criminal code). They are in jail for other crimes. But many of the men in jail have abused female partners as well as committed the crimes they are in jail for.

I think that any nuanced discussion of this issue needs to take this into account., And you can find plenty of empirical evidence to back up what I’m saying, if you wish to do so.

Also Alastair, could you have read into Byrd’s article things that were not there?

She stated that she was offended by Glenn Stanton’s saying “Women make men behave.”

That, I think, was the primary theme of her article. She was quite okay with the idea, as propounded by Stanton (and yourself) that men and women are different.

But she was contesting the formula that ‘women make men behave’ because it all too easily comes across as making women responsible to fix men’s bad behavoir and improve men’s selfish character.

The biblical descriptions ( biblical narratives) which show how men and women behave, both virtuously and wickedly — are a much neglected part of the gender debate in Christendom.

For instance, the Levites Concubine (Judges 12-21) is in my view the best case study of domestic abuse in the Bible, It illustrates how abusive men recruit allies in the community and the church, and how other men foolishly buy the lies of these abusers and then help them carry out their wicked agendas, all the time thinking they are behaving valiantly. This story tells us much about how men can behave unrighteously.

There are other narratives which tell us how men can behave righteously, for instance, Mordecai counseling Esther without coercing her; how he informed and encouraged her, but let her make her own decisions.

And there are narratives that show women behaving wickedly: e.g. Jezebel engineering the takeover of Naboth’s vineyard and later on seeking Elijah’s life; Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph.

And there are narratives which show women behaving righteously: Abigail taking the initiative to go against her drunken foolish husband’s orders — which saved the entire household and saved David from shedding more blood in battle. The Hebrew midwives defying Pharoah’s orders. Rahab lying to conceal the whereabouts of the spies. Pilate’s wife warning him not to condemn Jesus.
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