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Female Heart

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.
12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow! You had to go into all of that just to explain “female heart,” Barry!? That’s painful. Good theology lesson though. In view of all I know about what homosexuality and sexual confusion from all my political and Biblical worldview work, I’m afraid I have little other than contempt and anger for the egalitarian spirit in the church. It’s an abusive ideology which leaves real human victims in its wake. I don’t think its trail of devastation is any less harmful than an unbiblical authoritarianism in the home is. Yet even in RP circles, when people don’t seem to feel comfortable that they hold a Biblical view, I find they seem to prefer to err on the side of egalitarianism. I think that is more a reflection of the spirit of the age than a Biblical disposition towards gentleness. There’s nothing gentle about feminism or egalitarianism at large. We should just work harder to be Biblical.

    I’m facilitating an excellent study through Eggeridges new Love & Respect study. He’s not reformed but I think his work is excellent, and with his Pink and Blue language, he provides some very helpful teaching on the positive and important innate differences between men and women and the implications of these differences in marriage. I have run into some objections to his work, but nothing substantive. The essence and main points of what he teaches are very consistent with the nouthetic counselling material I am listening to these days from Lou Priolo.

    November 11, 2011
  2. Tim: Thanks for your comments. Three response thoughts:

    1) Just as one must strive against both legalism and antinomianism, so in gender matters we must strive against both authoritarianism and egalitarianism.
    2) Gentleness should never be confused with compromise. A true Christian gentleman protects women from all forms of suppression, including those under the guise of granting equality even as they diminish feminine identity.
    3) We had a marriage class that used the Love & Respect study and we felt the same as you expressed. We had a great time learning and laughing together as couples.

    November 11, 2011
  3. “Women should be encouraged in their natural roles but not be stereotyped by them.” This seems to me to be a good way of putting the tension we often find in thinking properly about these matters. I appreciate your addressing this question in a sensitive manner, and not simply brushing it off. I’m afraid the way some of us think and talk about the differences between men and women seems to be more prevailingly shaped by a sense of cultural and social nostalgia (which can be seen in the new mommy literature Rebecca VanDoodewaard critiques) than by something robustly Biblical. It occurs to me, though, that the egalitarian idea you describe so well of gender as purely and only a matter of our physical bodies seems to suggest an almost platonic devaluing of the material. I suppose it’s more likely a result of modern materialistic philosophy influencing modern feminism to frame sex as a matter of pure biology and gender as a mere social construct. Rather than seeing humans being either as souls imprisoned in bodies or as soulless animals, we need to see human beings as psychosomatic unities created by God in the image of God. Unfortunately, in response to egalitarians, some “complementarian” Christians, at least on a popular level, will speak about manhood and womanhood as if they were two halves of the puzzle that makes up the imago Dei. We don’t want that either, because each man and woman is made in the image of God, not in part of the image of God.

    November 11, 2011
    • Steven: Thanks for your thoughts and keen insights. I agree about the overemphasis well-meaning complementarians can make. So much of what is addressed only concerns roles, which addresses the important economic side of the gender discussion but often not the vital essential side of it.

      November 11, 2011
  4. Rose #

    God created all the animals male and female as well. I don’t think that tells us anything about their souls. I am trying to see how you see the quote from Jeremiah as a taunt. It seems to me rather a lament and a reflection upon the great travail women often experience in giving birth. Otherwise, all you offer is non-authoritative and presumptuous. It reasons in circles. Was there something the smoothness of Jacobs body teaches us about his personality in contrast with Esau’s? Is there something that Saul’s appearance told us about his inner person in contrast to David, or are we cautioned that man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart? With all respect to Elisabeth Eliot, what she says to her daughter is not sound study.

    November 12, 2011
    • Rose: As I said before, we will have to disagree.

      However, just to clarify please note animals do not have souls; taunts and laments are not mutually exclusive (Micah 2:4); and though comparing the outer appearance of two men is far different than the comparison I was making and you cannot draw hard lines, a careful reading of Scripture does indicate quite often an association of appearance with personalities. After all, smooth-faced Jacob was at home with his mom while hairy Esau was out hunting which his dad favored.

      November 15, 2011
  5. Teresa #

    ” … their unchanged chromosomes found in every cell of their bodies still cry out as to their appropriate inner gender identity.”

    I want to make the point that there is not one defining element of a person’s body that can be used conclusively to determine whether someone is “truly” male or female. There are a number of developmental disorders in which chromosomes and sex organs do not match and/or do not make it clear a person’s sex. For instance, individuals with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) look like and are raised female but have male chromosomes. Their bodies are “insensitive” to the hormones needed to masculinize the body, and their bodies instead take the default developmental path which is the female body type. These women typically only realize that they have such a condition when they do not begin to menstruate during puberty (and are often, in fact, never told their condition by their doctor). Should these women instead identify as men simply because of their chromosomes? What if a person with this condition does identify as male? Should they be allowed to “transition”? Is this person’s condition more legitimate than a transgendered person who does not have a clearly identifiable medical condition yet experiences very strong “anatomical dissonance”?

    I realize that intersex and transgender cases are in the minority of a culture that struggles with gender identity/roles as a whole, but I’ve come to think that how we respond to these issues as Christians reveals a tremendous amount about our overall understanding of gender, body, and soul. I’m certainly still challenged by these issues myself, which is why I want to make the case that sex and gender is not always so black and white in a creation which groans under the weight of the fall.

    November 15, 2011
    • Teresa: Thank you for your insightful thoughts. Just a three-fold brief response

      The statement you quote was of course one made to the public in the general sense of what we find in nature. It was not meant in a technical, scientific sense. Knowing your scientific background, may I ask if my understanding from my study of biology (admittedly limited and long-ago!) would still be correct in that the vast majority of men and women do have gender-identifying chromosomes?

      Secondly, do not the exceptions help establish the norm? In other words, you recognized above that those with androgynous traits, be they hormonal, chromosomal or some other type of disorder, are caused by the fall. They are disorders caused by the effect of sin, not the order originally established by God. We are able to see the tragedy inherent in a person who is not easily gender-identifiable because there is this previous order established by God.

      Finally, I am in complete agreement with you that those whose gender is confused by developmental disorders need to be treated case-by-unusual-case with great compassion, appropriate medical assistance where possible, and Biblical counsel. As I sought to stress, regardless of what gender they may ultimately be, they are still an image-bearer of God. And as I also stated in my last sentence, even those who have sinned in rejecting their clear gender must be called with compassion to Christ.

      November 15, 2011
      • Teresa #

        Thanks for your response, Barry: I do understand that you were talking mostly in generalities, and I realize I picked up on a sort of tangential point to the thrust of your article (sorry!). I was simply concerned with an application of generalities to exceptional cases (such as intersexed or transgendered people). It seems to me as if those cases are where technical details are most important. I agree with your response, that it’s a complex matter and should be handled with care.

        You’re absolutely right that women are typically ‘XX’ and men are typically ‘XY’. And I wholly agree with you that God’s original order was to have two sexes and that sex or gender confusion or mismatch is a result of the fall (not a result of culturally forced binaries). Though bringing around my side point to your main one, it doesn’t seem as if we really can make a lot of “prescriptive” conclusions from what we find in nature, exactly because of the fall. I did enjoy your article and I think it’s especially encouraging for men and women who need to be reassured that it is okay to be “masculine” or “feminine”. But for those people who don’t already naturally fit with the tendencies of their own gender, I don’t know that they should be concerned or are called by God to change. (You’re the expert here, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like male and female roles are basically *prescribed in relation to families and church and simply *described in other contexts.)

        November 19, 2011
  6. Rose #

    Not wanting to argue, but I was reminded of this discussion on coming across Psalm 48:4-6 “For, lo, the kings were assembled, they passed by together.They saw it, and so they marvelled; they were troubled, and hasted away. Fear took hold upon them there, and pain, as of a woman in travail.”

    I’m still not seeing the “taunting” element of Jer. 48. Is it somehow “unmanly” to have a heart like a woman in childbirth? In fact, the passage seems to establish that the heart of a man acts the same way as the heart of a woman, though he might in his pride think otherwise.

    November 29, 2011
    • Rose: The use of the metaphor “like a woman in labor” is used quite often in Scripture to denote a sudden pain and panic brought on by the judgments of God. I was not suggesting that it’s every use is implying unmanliness for, as you indicate, pain and fear are common to men and women. Having witnessed my wife give birth to our six children, this metaphor is a powerful one to me as it reminds men and women alike that we should all fear the Lord who can come suddenly in His justice.

      However, in the context of Jeremiah 48, the prophet is clearly forecasting the ruin of the proud, arrogant nation of Moab (verse 29). Moab is being taunted by the Lord Himself (verses 25-26). So in the verse under question, to tell the “mighty men of Moab” their hearts would be like that of women in labor, I have to agree with Calvin when he states:

      “The heart, he says, of the men of Moab shall become effeminate in that day, softer than the heart of a woman, when oppressed with evils. It might have appeared a complete comparison, when he said that the men of Moab would be soft and effeminate; but he wished to express something more, and hence he added, that they would become softer than women when in great trouble. And by these words he intimates, that it is in God’s power to melt the hearts of men, and to break down their fierceness, so that they who were like lions are made like does.”

      November 30, 2011
  7. Rose #

    I have given a fair bit of thought to what you and Calvin are saying, and I simply can’t see my way around the conclusion that Calvin, and you following him, took liberties with this passage. Perhaps it is a problem with translations, either French or Hebrew, but what I am reading does not say anything about “softer.” There isn’t any comparative. I realize that the word “effeminate” might have meant something different to Calvin, but there isn’t anything there in the passage to suggest that the men would be unmanly. That they would be shattered, broken, terrified, that they would be ashamed and their pride brought down, that they would be objects of ridicule like the drunk wallowing in vomit, yes. But not that they would no longer be masculine and would be feminine instead. As you have said, we will just have to disagree.

    December 4, 2011

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