Is there really anything new in the evangelical gender debates? That was my question recently as I prepared to teach a Sunday school class at church on a theology of gender. What I found, to my surprise, was the most helpful books I read were not the ones written directly to address the gender debates. By coming at the question of gender from wider lenses like natural law, biology, and history, they offered new insight when I returned to the key biblical texts.
These five books may help fellow pastors or Sunday school teachers who are trying to faithfully navigate the Bible’s teaching on gender.
1. Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield (Yale University Press, 2007)
The title may give away its subject, but it’s not what you’re expecting. Harvey Mansfield is a Harvard professor who works on political theory. The latter part of the book is about politics, at which point I began to skim. But I still recommend this book because of how shrewdly Mansfield explains a masculine characteristic that’s an embarrassment to our “gender-neutral society.”
By coming at the question of gender from wider lenses like natural law, biology, and history, these books offered new insight when I returned to the key biblical texts.
Manliness can be defined briefly as confidence in the face of risk. His examples range from Teddy Roosevelt to Margaret Thatcher, Tarzan, and Plato. Mansfield’s simple definition allows him to discuss topics that often aren’t covered in evangelical debates about manhood.
For Mansfield, manliness comes in degrees, can be used for good or ill, and can be exercised by women too—yet it’s pursued far more by men. This last point is crucial because it runs counter to a gender-neutral society. Efforts to deny manliness or shame it out of existence won’t work long term. The question is how to best cultivate manliness and channel it to good ends.
Mansfield’s book isn’t simplistic. Don’t confuse it with popular-level “art of manliness” books or red-pill YouTuber content. Mansfield makes a subtle, informed case that ranges widely across disciplines.
2. On the Meaning of Sex by J. Budziszewski (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014)
If Mansfield’s book was unexpectedly helpful, Budziszewski’s book was expectedly helpful. The author is a Catholic philosopher and former atheist who’s best known for his work on natural law. This book is written for college students lost in a world that simultaneously says sex is everything and nothing. By “sex” he means the act and the biological category, with chapters that explain why we know sex matters, how the two sexes differ, why that’s good, and why we should pursue sexual purity as a result.
The book’s greatest strength is the crisp defense of how the Christian sexual ethic follows from the nature of men and women, and, along with that, how difficult it is to deny this in the long run. Wonderfully written, the book combines brevity and humor with accessibility and deep wisdom.
3. Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman by Steven Lopes and Helen Alvaré (eds.) (Plough Publishing House, 2015)
This short book contains 16 presentations from a 2014 conference called by Pope Francis. The presentations were given by a wide range of religious leaders (from Russell Moore to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). And while the different religious views represented create some moments of dissonance, the larger harmony powerfully demonstrates the significance and beauty of sexual difference.
Three essays worth highlighting are Prudence Allen’s summary of key points from her massive study of the Western conception of “woman,” N. T. Wright’s reflections on the way the coming together of male and female in marriage reflects the coming together of heaven and earth in redemption, and Rick Warren’s practical steps toward renewing appreciation for marriage.
4. T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us by Carole Hooven (Cassell, 2021)
This book is the oddball of the group. The author is an endocrinologist (an expert in hormones) at Harvard and has been in the news occasionally for her willingness to challenge core tenets of transgenderism. It’s clear from this book that she’s no social conservative, but she’s also committed to science regardless of whose ideology it serves. T is about that tiny chemical messenger, testosterone, that creates significant differences between male and female bodies.
Males, typically, have 10 to 20 times the testosterone of women, and it affects them from womb to tomb. Testosterone produces, as Hooven says, a clear binary. She shows how important testosterone is in understanding male aggression, male interests, male sexual attraction, and male bodies. Her chapter on sports is worth the price of the book.
Hooven convinced me to abandon the term “intersex” because it lumps together widely differing medical conditions that are better described as sexual development disorders. People with these conditions are not between (inter-) male and female. These medical conditions, therefore, do nothing to disprove sex is a binary; if anything, they confirm it.
5. When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe by Steven Ozment (Harvard University Press, 1985)
The last book isn’t biological, philosophical, or theological but historical, and it’s the oldest of the bunch, published almost 40 years ago. Steven Ozment, who died in 2019, was a professor of European history at Harvard and wrote extensively on the Reformation. This book surveys family life during the period and was written to dispel “the commonly held notion of fathers as tyrannical and families as loveless.”
The general impression one gets today is that the history of men stretches back across a long, dark line of increasing oppression of women followed by a final, if painful, dawning of the light that dispels the dreaded patriarchy. Ozment shows that while men ruled the home in the Reformation, their position came with responsibility for care and protection and with accountability for not abusing their power.
From examining a tiny hormone discovered in the last century to exploring the vibrant life of Reformation families, from philosophers to biologists (Christian and non-Christian), each book contributed something to my understanding of God’s design for the relationship of the sexes.
He writes, “The man of the house was expected to be steady, a model of self-control, and able to moderate his own appetites and drives” (50). A husband who hit his wife was the very definition of a bad husband. Wives were far more than maids and enjoyed a position of “high authority and equal respect” to husbands, who were told to use their authority in a way that benefits both and leaves them happy and content (54). If this is “the patriarchy,” maybe it isn’t so bad after all.
None of these books is written to address the latest volleys of the evangelical gender debates, and that’s what makes them helpful. They shed light on our sexual differences and how we might honor them.
From examining a tiny hormone discovered in the last century to exploring the vibrant life of Reformation families, from philosophers to biologists (Christian and non-Christian), each contributed something to my understanding of God’s design for the relationship of the sexes. Each left me more confident that the Bible’s complementarian theology is not only right but good.