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Published Date: August 12, 2015

Published Date: August 12, 2015

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Biological Determinism and the “Oughtness” of Manhood

“You are nothing but a product of your biology.”

I’ve heard this statement in different forms over the years, from popular media to large volumes of scholarly work, from the progressive left and the traditionalist right, from scientist and non-scientist alike. The specific mode of thinking—that your genes ultimately determine your identity, and your future, is known as biological determinism. It is a popular idea that has been around for quite a long time. The advent of molecular biology in the latter part of the twentieth century has only given it impetus. Importantly, I have also heard modifications of this statement in the church—percolating from the pulpit to the pew, supported through sermon and song, and legitimized through liturgy and “leadership.”

And it has to stop.

If the eligibility criteria for church leadership includes possessing a Y chromosome, then we have already bought into the notion that our genes determine who we can and cannot be in the body of Christ.

Mary Farrar laments the loss of biological determinism in her book, Reading Your Male: An Invitation to Understand and Influence Your Man’s Sexuality.[1] “Men want to be manly,” she urges her readers. “It resonates with their innate design.” Just what does this design entail?

Farrar quotes Stephen B. Clark’s book Man and Woman in Christmen are designed with “the drive to be physical and aggressive, to overcome fears, play rough, take risks, and step into confrontation.”[2]

Personally, I’m all for overcoming fear and stepping into confrontation when an injustice is committed.

But physical and aggressive? I prefer cerebral and calm.

Playing rough? I’d say playing fair is better.

Taking risks? Umm… I’d rather not. I like my job, even though it doesn’t pay much.

So that’s two out of five—which means I’m embracing only 40% of my masculine design according to Farrar and Clark. Not bad at all!

More seriously, this biological determinism, which is implicitly assumed by organizations such as the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) ignores a whole group of men—those with intellectual and physical disabilities.

This is what Gavin Peacock, director of international outreach at CBMW wrote in an official blogpost titled “Building a Marriage Culture”:[3]

“Work hard and aim to be the main breadwinner. There may be a temporary season, if you’re studying or in transition, where that is not so. Or you may be physically disabled, which prevents this permanently. But the desire and aim should still be there.”

So, the “desire and aim” to “be the main breadwinner” should “still be there,” even though a genetic condition left you paralyzed waist down. Worse, Peacock declares:

“A husband is no man if he lets his wife defend the home…”

Pause for a moment.

And think about how dehumanizing that is—the claim that if a male cannot perform a certain “manly” function contingent upon a certain physical ability, then that man is not really a man.

According to a 2012 report by the United States Census Bureau, prevalence of disability among respondents aged fifteen and older was as high as 21%.[4] When you go to church every Sunday and look around, how many people with disabilities do you see? At least two out of ten? If not, why are they not there? This is a question every church should ask itself. And as a rule, I believe we should start with Scripture and theology.

Blogger Sarah Arthur recounts a particularly poignant story of a college panel discussion she attended where a Bible scholar was making the case for child-bearing as God’s plan to save women (1 Tim 2:15).[5] A teary graduate student then stood up and asked the question, “I have just learned that I can never have children. Where is there room in your gospel for me?”

The panelist replied after a very long pause, “I don’t have a theology for that.”

For far too long, this has been the answer that men and women who don’t fit a certain biological ‘design’ have received regarding their place in the church. The theological lacuna surrounding women who cannot bear children is one that is also shared with men and women with physical disabilities. In our cozy little world of normal ‘design,’ there is no place for the “design rejects,” the exceptions, the outliers, the others. They unsettle us and disturb our neat little theological boxes. But do we realize that the very fact that we think of them as “they” rather than “us” is evidence that our theologies fall short?

If we honestly believe, like C.S. Lewis did, that “Theology is like a map,” then why is the cartography skewed towards an able-bodied contour of Scripture?[6]

Richard C. Senelick, a neurologist and author, speaks of the ground-shaking consequences of a spouse’s onset of disability:

“Disabilities break down the basic structures of relationships. Roles may be reversed overnight with the woman becoming the bread winner or the man becoming the homemaker. These are traditional roles and it can easily be the opposite where a woman is forced to put a career on hold or abandon it altogether.”[7]

A theology which prescribes a stereotype of manhood and womanhood based on certain narrow bodily and genetic constraints has no place in the big, beautiful church that draws strength from a God who offers his broken body and blood.

Rather than imposing a certain biological and physical standard on men, women, boys, and girls, the church needs to be in the science and business of ontology. You see, ontology goes beyond biology. Rather than just dealing with materiality, ontology deals with the nature of being.

John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, discussed gender identity in Genesis 2 in his fascinating new book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve.[8] In it, he meticulously explains how, rather than the popular assumption that the creation of Eve involved God performing a surgical procedure on Adam’s side while he was in a ‘deep sleep,’ the text in Genesis 2:21 actually depicts a vision that Adam experiences where Eve is revealed to be made from his half—literally, his other half. Walton then goes on to say:

“Genesis 2:24 is responding to the question of why a person would leave the closest biological relationship (parents to children) in order to forge a relationship with a biological outsider. The answer offered is that marriage goes beyond biology to recover an original state, for humanity is ontologically gendered. Ontology trumps biology” (emphasis mine).

Walton’s analysis of Genesis 2 reminds us of two important things:

  1. Men and women are created as equal bearers of the Imago dei.
  2. There is an ontological reality about us that far outweighs any ‘innate’ biological design in how men and women relate to each other, especially in the context of marriage.

This means that ‘design’ is not a limiting factor in determining the purpose of every human being under Christ—with disabilities or without.

In his short story, Leaf by Niggle, J.R.R. Tolkien describes the life and work of an artist, Niggle, who devotes an extraordinary amount of time painting a large tree with a dense forest in the background.[9] Niggle obsesses over his painting of this tree to the point of taking all his other paintings and sticking them onto the canvas of the tree painting. Funneling all his energies into this one project of the tree in the forest, Niggle meticulously works on his painting, making sure every tiny detail, including the leaves, is perfectly and beautifully formed in ultra-high resolution.  But Niggle is unable to give his life’s defining work due attention, as mundane chores and duties steal him away from his grand project. As a result, the painting of the great tree in the forest remains incomplete.

Niggle also realizes that he has to make a trip which he just cannot get out of. Eventually, Niggle starts out on this important trip. His journey ultimately leads him to a far country where he sees a tree and a forest, just like in his painting. Except that unlike his painting, this tree in this country is the real thing that he was only able to vaguely capture on his canvas. This tree is literally the realization of his grand vision. This is what his painting ought to have captured. Just like Niggle’s painting, our human bodies are real, but vague glimpses into what life ought to be—into what God intends it to be. A disability does not change the true nature of who we are any more than a body without a disability changes us.

Rather than building our theologies on genetic or even environmental factors, on nature or nurture, the church should offer a compelling vision of what our relationships ought to be. Our reality should be grounded in Christ. For only in Christ can all of the complexities of our physical struggles be contained. However, we should not commit the error of making Christ in our image. Most “authentic manhood” church programs commit this error.

The late English evangelical theologian, John Stott astutely observed that every era tries to define the Jesus of the gospels to suit their own tastes.[10] There’s Jesus the cosmic Christ—created by Byzantine church leaders to defeat the attacking barbarians, Jesus the teacher of common sense—created by the enlightenment and popularized by Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s, Jesus the freedom fighter—created by Fidel Castro to advance a communist revolution, Jesus the capitalist—created by T.N. Carver to propagate the ideas of a modern economic system, and finally, Jesus the founder of modern business—created by Bruce Barton in his then-bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows. This last Jesus is especially relevant to this discussion. You see, Barton didn’t particularly like the Jesus that he was taught about in Sunday school. To him, this Sunday school Jesus would pass off as the class sissy. Instead, Barton made Jesus into a high-achieving business guru who was popular not just because of his friendly and outgoing personality, but also because of his muscular, chiseled body. I think the time is right in this age to create a UFC Jesus—the undefeated fighting machine. “Authentic manhood,” indeed!

In a “Desiring God” video, John Piper poses a question to egalitarians, asking, “What does it mean to grow up and be a man and not a woman?” prefacing his question with the charge, “The church needs an answer.”

I have often thought about that question, and wondered, is this a question that the Bible asks or answers? And it has since dawned upon me that Scripture neither asks that question nor attempts to answer it. Instead, what we find in the New Testament are the fruits of the spirit that are common to both men and women, with disabilities or without—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). These are not generic human virtues, rather these are the effects of the spirit’s work in us through Christ. So, rather than asking what it means to be a man or a woman, I think the more pressing question before us is, “Are we going to let our biology define our relationship with Christ or is Christ going to define our ontology?”


[1] Farrar, Mary. Reading Your Male: An Invitation to Understand and Influence Your Man’s Sexuality. (David C. Cook, 2012).
[2] Clark, Stephen B. Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences. (Servant Books, 1980).
[3] Peacock, Gavin. “Building a Marriage Culture: Husbands, Love Your Wives.” CBMW, 2015
[4] Brault, Matthew W. “Americans with Disabilities: 2010.” edited by U.S. Census Bureau, 70-131. Washington DC, 2012.
[5] Arthur, Sarah. “Are Women Really Saved through Childbearing?” In her.meneutics: Christianity Today, 2013.
[6] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. (Harper San Francisco, 2015).
[7] Senelick, Richard C. “Would Your Relationship Survive a Disability?” In The Blog: The Huffington Post, 2011.
[8] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. (IVP Academic, 2015).
[9] Tolkien, J.R.R. Leaf by Niggle. (Trinity Forum, 1964).
[10] Stott, John. The Contemporary Christian. (InterVarsity Press, 1995).