A few weeks ago, in sharing about speaking at a women’s retreat, I used the term “female heart.” Some comments on the post suggested concern about this phrase which I had used rather innocuously. A few friends I consulted privately about it did think clarification could be helpful. Apparently the term could imply that maybe I was suggesting an inferiority to men, or a different essence of soul than a man’s, or a certain traditional lifestyle expected for women. Certainly this was not my intent. That would have been too dangerous a thing for me to do with my wife present!
I thought using this phrase, in speaking to women, was simply a way of addressing the inner deliberations and orientations of a female. After all, when someone says “the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” I do not view this as a slight on the male’s Imago Dei or as suggesting that obviously with a heart like that the man is inferior to the cook (who is presumably female when this phrase is used). In conjunction with the female organizers, I purposefully sought in the talks to develop the idea of femininity without always talking about it with reference to the roles of wives and mothers. I was stressing that a woman is a woman before she is those things, and even if she does not become those things. Since I stayed away a great deal from addressing those roles, I thought the least of my worries was using the term “female heart”!
In even having to explain the use of this phrase, I recalled what I read a while back in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (pp.394-395) that Elisabeth Elliot said:
Throughout the millennia of human history, up until the past two decades or so, people took for granted that the differences between men and women were so obvious as to need no comment. They accepted the way things were. But our easy assumptions have been assailed and confused, we have lost our bearings in a fog of rhetoric about something called equality, so that I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to belabor to educated people what was once perfectly obvious to the simplest peasant.
In other words, Elliot is saying it is a sign of our sad times that so much gender suspicion and confusion are in the air. The modern Western desire to flatten us into an amorphous unisex in order to bring unity defeats its own purpose. So at the risk of being further misunderstood, I still want to offer clarification. As Al Mohler and others have shown, the church needs to speak clearly about sexual identity in this age.
Both men and women are made in the image of God. As such, they both clearly possess a heart (Proverbs 31:11; Acts 16:14). Biblically, the heart refers to the seat of one’s “emotions and passions and appetites (Gen 18:5; Lev 19:17; Ps 104:15), and embraces likewise the intellectual and moral faculties” (ISBE). The heart is the center of one’s conscience. Men and women are equal in their essence in that we all share human hearts and have contained within those hearts the same faculties for intellectual processing, moral decision-making, and passion-experiencing.
However, “God created man…male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Is there not some manner of intrinsic distinctions in males and females that extend beyond their physical differences? Is there not something within our hearts in which, though each sex possesses all the qualities inherent in bearing God’s image, we have a maleness and femaleness in our constitutions that give differing levels in some of our propensities? For instance, think of these two words: leadership and nurture. Neither word is a completely distinct female or male quality. In certain realms and times men have to exercise nurture and women have to lead. Deborah lead Israel and Paul said he nurtured the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 2:7). Yet that having been said, still there are natural dispositions of heart that make those words more associated with the one sex than the other. Deborah was an exception rather than a rule, and in telling Barak in his fear the honor of battle would fall to a woman she was not complimenting him. To describe his nurturing care Paul employed a female metaphor in saying he was like a nursing mother. As Sharon James says (note her use of the word mind):
How glorious that he carefully planned the female body and mind for successful nurturing, and the male body and mind for successful leadership. (God’s Design for Women, p.59)
God made mankind in the two sexes, a wondrous and mysterious equality of essence yet with distinct and complementary propensities. In doing so, the Lord did not first form our clearly different men and women’s bodies, then drop a bland unisex soul into each one. He placed within our hearts abilities, yearnings and desires that are to find fulfillment through our respective male and female bodies and roles. Moreover, our natural physicality reveals to us the heart inclinations and purposes we are to have. At the retreat I quoted Elisabeth Elliot in her book Let Me Be a Woman, who said to her daughter:
Yours is the body of woman. What does it signify? Is there invisible meaning in its visible signs – the softness, the smoothness, the lighter bone and muscle structure, the breasts, the womb? Are they utterly unrelated to what you yourself are? Isn’t your identity intimately bound up with these material forms? Does the idea of you – Valerie- contain the idea of, let’s say, ‘strapping’ or ‘husky’? How can we bypass matter in our search for understanding the personality?
As I noted in my comments in the earlier post, I found that John Frame stated something similar to this and even used the same words I had in my retreat theme when he said:
“The body of a godly woman often serves as an appropriate accompaniment to her personality, reinforcing our impression of her inner meekness and quiet strength.” (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 232. Note: I did not get my title for the conference from this quote as I had settled on that with the organizers before I read this.)
Again, Sharon James concurs when, speaking of Adam and Eve, she says:
Their bodies were amazingly designed to fulfill and delight each other physically, but that only mirrored the deeper ways in which their psychological and emotional qualities complemented each other. (God’s Design for Women, p.54)
We recognize that objects in creation can share the same essence but have a stress on certain qualities over others. For instance, consider plants. A vine bearing fruit and a cedar both have the ultimate essence as trees or plants, but certain intrinsic qualities that distinguish them. Those qualities do not make a vine or cedar better than the other, but beautiful and useful in differing ways that flow from their essence and display the glory of the Triune God who displays unity with diversity. Is it not similar, though in a much more mysterious way, for men and women? After all, the Scriptures do use plants to refer to men and women, with both sexes being referred to as either vines (Psalm 80; John 15) or trees (Psalm 1, 92; Jeremiah 17:7-8). Yet is there not also a Scriptural emphasis when stressing the femininity of a woman that goes more toward the vine imagery (Psalm 128; Song of Songs 7) because of her beauty, fruitfulness, sensitivity, nurture, etc.? Making this distinction was what I meant when I spoke of a “female heart.”
So let me conclude with a few closing remarks:
- Men and women should learn in Christ to delight in both the similarities and the variations between them. For instance, my wife is fully my co-heir in the gospel. In Christ there is not male or female as we stand at the foot of the cross together. Yet I thank God for how He has used and will keep using her qualities that I possess very poorly, such as her sensitivity, graciousness, and kindness, to teach and sanctify me further in my holiness in those areas.
- Women should be encouraged in their natural roles but not be stereotyped by them. While affirming godly motherhood, Rebecca VanDoodewaard warns against the new “mommy literature” that elevates motherhood and family to unhealthy levels. The church is not to be as Mormon women who are idolizing family. It bears repeating. A woman is a woman before she is a wife or mother.
- The church should be the place where this equal but distinct nature with its ensuing roles is most clearly witnessed. Men should be encouraged to lead and be gentleman, treating all woman as mothers and sisters in Christ (I Timothy 5:1-2). Though ordained leadership is prohibited to them, women should delight in the way the church provides innumerable opportunities for them to serve in ministries, mercy, and missions.
- In the church, let us not get so sensitive that we walk on eggshells about these distinctions. If Jeremiah can use gender distinctions to taunt the Moabites about “being womanly” by saying such things as “So the hearts of the mighty men of Moab in that day will be like the heart of a woman in labor ” (Jeremiah 48:41), then in proper ways we can use them as well.
- To this gender confused world, where horrible experiments are being done to raise boys as girls or as having no gender at all, the church must affirm again God’s revelation in nature. Confused men and women must be told by the church that regardless of how much they change their outer appearance by clothes or surgeries, their unchanged chromosomes found in every cell of their bodies still cry out as to their appropriate inner gender identity. Chaz Bono may have changed the outer wrappings, but her heart, as confused as it is in her sinful state, is still that of a woman’s. She and others need with gentle compassion to be told of a Savior who can redeem and restore them fully, in heart, mind, body and soul.