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Published Date: September 5, 2015

Published Date: September 5, 2015

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Puzzling Reflections: What It Means to Be Male and Female Humans

Eight boys and three girls played in the cul-de-sac where our family used to live in the Pacific Northwest. Add the numbers, weigh the ratios (8:3; 3:8), and imagine the drama. I’m not one to stereotype, but boys in baseball caps frequently ran around shooting homemade toy guns, and girls donning fairy wings often retaliated with glittery wands. Boys seemed prone to scuffles; girls tended to avoid them. Boys excluded girls from street hockey. Girls shut boys out of makeshift clubhouses.

“Boys are better than girls,” echoed off the pavement.

“No way! Girls are better than boys,” reverberated through the streets.

When joining forces, boys and girls accomplished questionable feats such as painting a garage door yellow in the nanoseconds when no parent was looking. Boys and girls blamed each other, and parents imagined the boys boosting the girls and their paint-tipped brushes. Everybody reaped the consequences.

The neighborhood drama reopened questions that I’d pondered since studying psychology and theology: How different are men and women, really? To what degree are those differences hardwired? Are there limits to what science can tell us? What is the significance of God making humans male and female?

Scientific Research Is Right and Wrong Before It Changes

Despite appearances, I have learned that there’s more to differences between men and women than sex (biology). Nurture and environment also contribute, shaping gender. Research shifts between the latest conclusions and reevaluations as the scientific process repeats itself with new conclusions. Sometimes biases, faulty scientific practices, and misinterpretations influence the outcomes. For example, German neurologist Paul Julius Möbius once discovered that a man’s skull has an 8% larger capacity than a woman’s skull of equal age and height. “Women are “physiologically weak-minded,” he erroneously concluded in a book about sex differences in the human brain.

Science has since proven that female brains, although smaller, have more densely packed neurons (the brain’s primary functional units). Despite other structural differences, often overstated by the media, male and female brains show equal capacity for intelligence, and research has yet to demonstrate that differences cause male versus female behavior.1 It is a human brain.

In 1873, Harvard professor Dr. Edward Clarke wrote a popular book asserting that if young women studied too much, they would divert blood from the uterus to the brain, rendering themselves “irritable and infertile.” He concluded that women should not attend college. Incidentally, the study appeared one year after the Women’s Education Association of Boston sought for Harvard to enroll women (1872). And Harvard President Charles William Eliot and the Harvard Corporation were “deeply opposed” to allowing women to attend. Science has since disproven the erroneous connection between a female’s brain and uterus. Harvard, and other educational institutions, eventually enrolled women.

Research continues “proving” and “disproving” certain female and male differences. Clearly men and women differ—chromosomes determine our biological sex (XX or XY), relating to our body and physiology. Males tend to be larger with more muscle mass while females tend to be smaller with wider hips. Women give birth and men do not. Women lactate and men do not. Differences become less distinct when turning to other characteristics.

Discussions of hormones are controversial. Scientists debate the significance of differing types and levels of hormones in male and female. We hear a spectrum of responses to questions: Are females better equipped for caring for a home and children? Are males better equipped for professional work outside the home? Are females wired to be more compliant? Are males wired to be more aggressive? Questions about gender identity and purpose are countless, and science paints an untidy picture, with fewer extremes, than most of us know.

For example, Dr. Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan University demonstrates that men experience floods of oxytocin and prolactin when picking up a newborn baby, rewiring men’s brains, making them more empathetic. Likewise, men and women experience circulating levels of androgens,2 including testosterone, when engaging in sports, fighting, and other non-stereotypical situations. Men and women demonstrate similar levels of aggression, though men more commonly employ physical aggression,3 possibly because they are larger and stronger. Contrary to popular thinking, research has not proven that testosterone causes aggression (it’s complex).4 Levels, patterns, and impacts of hormones vary more from individual to individual than according to sex. And other factors, such as genetic predispositions, expectations, and beliefs, can—to yet unknown degrees—engender the brain. We do not have time to dig into this vast and complex body of research.

Overall, science continues uncovering an iceberg. Research supports sex differences and diversity of individual—male and female—personalities and behaviors. Continuing questions and studies lead to new conversations about what it means to be male and female humans.

God Made Men and Women Human

Contrary to popular discussions of sex and gender explaining that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, God refers to male and female with one name, Adam, emphasizing their commonality as humans:

When God created human beings he made them to be like himself. He created them male and female, and he blessed them and called them “human.” 5 (Gen. 5:1b–2 NLT)

Names in the Old Testament carry important clues about identity and purpose. God leaves no question about their mutual human purposes: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28 NRSV) It’s a big deal that God named us humans. It sets us apart from animals and the rest of creation. Male and female share the same substance (human) as one-of-a-kind persons.

In Genesis 2:18, God designates the woman a helper corresponding to the man. This means she is like him in substance (physiology, intellect, emotion) yet unique. Her position is before him, face to face, not behind or under him. Together, the man and woman reflect the multipersonality of God as Creator, Word, Spirit.

While men and women differ physiologically, we are made for the purpose of completing each other in a unity (Gen. 2:24). Stamped with the image of God, you and I have equal dignity with equal rights and responsibilities. God equips us to thrive while caring for each other and the earth (Gen. 1:26–28).

We Are More Than Products of Biology

Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.  —Martin Luther, Table Talk

Throughout history, even well-educated, well-meaning people have fallen into defining men and women strictly according to their sex (biological determinism). Consequent human perceptions and expectations have limited opportunities of many in society, especially women. Biological determinism limits women and men to roles determined by their sex, often hinging on marriage and procreation, although God created male and female to multiply and subdue the earth and have dominion (including children). This is a painful reality for many women and men whose personalities, vocations, choices, and circumstances do not fit common prescriptions for gender.

Research since the late 1960s has uncovered more complex facets to humanness—male and female—than biological destiny. Processes of gender socialization start when parents prepare to have a child—will the baby be a boy or a girl? Those who study gender development measure how parental thinking and behaviors toward children differ depending on sex. For example, studies show that parents tend to play more aggressively with baby boys than girls (reinforcing aggression in boys).

Scientists measure origins of gendered behavior and thinking and changes over time. When do children form negative attitudes about the other sex? How do cultural gender norms shape children’s thinking and behavior? How are individuals, relationships, and social institutions affected? The scope of this article cannot address these questions. More than biology plays into human development reflecting a spectrum of male and female individuals.

Jesus, the Human, Redeems Men and Women

God didn’t name the first woman Eve. The first man named her Eve, meaning “mother of all living.” Prior to that, God had invited the man to name the animals, an act of jurisdiction. God never instructed the man to name his wife, much less to have jurisdiction over her. The act defied God’s intention for male and female to share one name: Adam, meaning Mr. and Mrs. Humankind. It signified humanity breaking apart.

The Old Testament traces what happens as a result of humans abandoning God’s purposes. Attitudes of superiority play into devaluing others through stereotyping, minimizing, competitiveness, withholding resources, dominating, etc. Scripture and history testify to the devastating affects it has on human relationships and the world (Rom. 3:23). Sin leads to sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of systemic inequality. Biological determinism contributes to the thoughts and beliefs of some who disrespect and oppress others. As a result, many experience less-than-human treatment, especially women and children.

The New Testament writers carefully refer to Jesus as a human (anthropos); he is God wrapped in human flesh. In him, men and women have hope for salvation from sin and age-old human conflicts (Eph. 2:4–9). In him we are restored to rightful status as humans created in the image of God. In him, we rise above attitudes of superiority that result in stereotyping, minimizing, competitiveness, withholding resources, dominating, etc. His Spirit enlivens us to lift others up—male and female—to God’s glory. True and lasting freedom comes as we incarnate Jesus together—loving our neighbors as much as ourselves.

Today our family has relocated from the Pacific Northwest to Florida. My daughters play with boys and girls in our new neighborhood, and little has changed. Boys tend to run around with homemade guns, stirring up scuffles. Girls tend to retaliate while avoiding altercations. One of my daughters has since become quite good at hockey. My husband and I continue encouraging both our daughters toward healthy ways of working out differences with boys (an ever-evolving process). The neighborhood kids haven’t painted any garage doors although they have gotten into other mischief. Knowing that the spirit of Jesus is involved in the development of our children, and the process of working out the most human versions of ourselves—male and female—I think less about sex and gender differences and more about being one in Christ.

I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. (John 17:22–23)


  1. See Melissa Hines, Brain Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) and Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, 2nd Edition (New York: The Guilford Press, 2012).
  2. Hines, Brain Gender, Chapter 7, “Androgen and Aggression.”
  3. Craig A. Anderson and L. Rowell Huesmann, “Human Aggression: A Social-Cognitive View” in The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology, 1st Edition, eds. Michael Hogg and Joel M. Cooper (London: SAGE Publications, 2003).
  4. Hines, Brain Gender, Chapter 7, “Androgen and Aggression.”
  5. “Adam” is a collective noun, derived from adamah, meaning “ground;” denoting that the first person came from the earth. “Adam” refers to people.