Men and women cannot be fully themselves without one another. 

Don’t get me wrong; I love my alone time. I am “me” when I’m by myself. But Genesis 1:27 complicates my idea of myself by saying that God created humankind in his image, as male and female. Somehow, by myself I’m not enough. It takes both men and women to fully express the divine image. 

This turns out to be a hugely important truth not just for my self-understanding, but for our relating as men and women in the church (note: this is not an article about marriage!) The foundational text comes in Genesis 2:

Then the Lord God built the rib he had taken out of the man into a woman, and he brought her to the man. The man said, 

“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ‘woman’,
for out of man was this one taken.”

That is why a man forsakes his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 

(Genesis 2:22–24, my translation)

Before this, God had been forming animals out of clay and bringing them to the man. The man was learning that, even surrounded by all the animals, he was still alone. And so God puts the man to sleep and does something completely new. He does not form another creature from clay; he “builds” a woman from the man’s flesh. She is like him: human. 

Before she was made, the man was complete. But to build her, God removed a part of the man, and he is no longer complete. He and the woman must reunite to become whole again. So basic is this reunion that Genesis 1:27 speaks of humankind in God’s image as “male and female”.

This explains the “one flesh” reunion that is marriage. Marriage is relevant because Gen 1:28 has commanded us to “increase in number”. And yet Genesis 2 does not mention children. “One flesh” simply points back to what God did to the man and shows him made whole again. Marriage is a unique way of achieving this wholeness, but the text does not present it as the only or even the best way.

So, if not sex or children, what is it that makes this rejoining so special? Let’s return to the man’s speech. It’s poetry, elevated and emotional. Three times he says, “this one”, as if his words are directed to God but his eyes are fixed on her. He is captivated. He has just named the animals, so when he says, “at last” he means, “a creature like me!”. He is looking at an other, but he sees himself looking back. She is a mirror of his heart, and by looking at her he learns who he is. 

God did not bring her to him so he could name her. “She shall be called” is an act of recognition. He recognises her because her name, her identity, is his, too. And so he “forsakes” and “clings” (very strong words). The strength of this attraction is not sex, or her potential as a wife. It is herself as woman, her bone-and-flesh relationship to him, that stirs him to poetry – not her beauty or her fertility. Each of them is a full human being, but they must come together to know themselves and to be themselves. 

Without him she can begin nothing; without her he can finish nothing. Together, it is “good” in a way it never could have been when the man was alone (Gen 2:18) . There is a “we” at last, and God is no longer the only one who can say, “Let us make”.

What does this mean for us, especially if we’re not married?


Maleness and femaleness are creational gifts

Let’s begin with spiritual gifts. The Spirit gives gifts to every Christian (1 Corinthians 12). A gift is something you are given that others are not given. You receive it so that you will have something to give others, something they would not otherwise have. This enables you to give yourself in love to build others up. The love that consists in mutual giving and receiving is a love that characterises the union of God himself as Father, Son and Spirit (1 Cor 12:4-6).

Gender as a creational gift has the same purpose. God makes men and women different from one another so that they can love one another out of that difference. Femaleness is a gift by which a woman can show a man the world through her eyes, let him see himself and God through her eyes, and help him become a whole person through the insight her eyes provide. It’s a creational gift because she was made that way. Femaleness is something a female possesses by nature; it is not a set of behaviours she must learn. Societies create sets of traits labelled “femininity”, that many females look at only to say, “That’s not me”. The same goes for maleness and “masculinity”. 

Not that maleness and femaleness are interchangeable! Beyond the obvious reproductive differences, we possess many sex-typical traits, most of which reflect the effects of sexual hormones on physical and mental development. But these traits are not the measure of a man or a woman – it’s the other way round. When a woman is strong, or a leader, or a protector, that does not make her masculine. Because she is a woman, she cannot help but do all those things as a woman, as expressions of her femaleness. In the same way, when a man is gentle (it’s a fruit of the Spirit!), nurturing, or emotionally expressive, he is giving expression to his maleness whether or not it conforms to popular notions of masculinity. 

Of course, we should seek to honour the respective roles given to men and women in the biological and spiritual family as God’s wisdom for our flourishing. But at the same time the church should be a place where every male and every female can live out their particular maleness and femaleness in self-giving love. These “creational gifts” enrich every relationship, not just marriage.


The church is where men and women can draw close

What God did in Genesis 2 has made us into people who can’t bear being alone. This is not just about marriage. Some people live lives of lonely isolation within their marriages, while many unmarried people share relationships that fulfil their need not to be alone. But Genesis 2 suggests that, whether married or single, we are truly being ourselves when we enjoy a deep communion with the opposite sex. 

This is a challenging idea, because most of us wrestle with wrongly directed desires, and are rightly concerned to flee sexual temptation. However, the church is the one place where it should be safe for men and women to join together in mutual enrichment. The church is something quite new:

The biological family is the foundational institution of human society; but Christ’s church is a new type of family. Jesus said that anyone who loses a biological family for his sake will receive in this age a hundred times as many brothers, sisters, mothers and children (Mark 10:29-30; cf. Acts 4:32-35).

Marriage involves sexual union; but Christ’s church is a new type of union. In Eph 5:31-32, the “profound mystery” of Genesis 2 is that the one-flesh union of man and wife is an image of Christ and the church. The church’s one-flesh union joins every male and female saint into one, whole, body with Christ as its head (Eph 4:15-16).

In this life our maleness and femaleness is unavoidably sexual; but in Christ’s church there is a new type of male and female, defined not by what we are but by what we shall be. Christ was raised bodily, as a man, and we, too, will be raised as male and female. But we will not experience sexual desire, because “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matt 22:30). Sex is a gift for enriching marriage, but the ultimate purpose for sexual desire is procreation and, in the world to come where there will be no death, there will be no birth either. So, although we still live in sexually desiring bodies, in Christ our maleness and femaleness is no longer defined by those desires.

In short, the Christian family should be a place where we seek out godly and loving ways to come together, non-sexually, as male and female, that we may display Christ’s perfect humanity to the glory of God.


Where to from here? 

These truths about our humanity touch almost every part of our life together. For a start, let’s discuss how to raise boys and girls who do not need to measure their maleness and femaleness against a set of stereotypes; how to create more-than-nuclear families that embrace every member of the body; how to draw women and men together in contexts where our misdirected desires can be governed, rather than segregating ourselves lest we sin. 

But I want to pick another “how to” as my closing example, because it involves all of the above: how to join with our brothers whose sexual desires are not for women and our sisters whose sexual desires are not for men.

The path of faithfulness for these dear sisters and brothers is one of unfulfilled desires and much suffering. The church has too often failed to be the family that it needs to be for these saints, a family whose embrace feels like a hundred mothers and brothers and sisters and children. Even worse, we have compounded their suffering by viewing their humanity through the lens of their desires, even though Christ has redeemed their humanity just as he has redeemed ours. 

What if we remembered that sexual desire is temporary, but maleness and femaleness are forever, and asked what gifts these our brothers and sisters might have to share out of the way they are created and constituted as men and women, quite apart from sexual desire? Gifts of seeing the world, gifts of creating community, gifts of empathy and compassion born from the hardships they have borne. 

God calls people to himself whose sexual orientation is different from mine but, like me, their sexual desires do not define their maleness and femaleness in Christ. I need them to help me see myself and my God more truly. We need them to help us become more like our Saviour, the truest of humans. 

In the body of Christ, it takes all of us to be ourselves.


The Rev Dr Andrew Shead is head of Old Testament and Hebrew at Moore Theological College.