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Being raised on a diet of superheroes, Power Rangers, Starfleet officers and—my shameful confession—Planeteers, this conclusion does not come naturally to me. Thanks to cultural conditioning, drawing on generations of feminism, my intuitions about women’s roles are way off what Scripture and nature say they should be. And because of my affinity with certain geek subcultures, I have strong affective reasons to turn a blind eye on the matter; who wants to be that guy who says Wonder Woman and Buffy and Peggy Carter and Supergirl are detestable to God?
Well, maybe Supergirl.
I like many of these shows and movies and characters, and I don’t want to give them up. And I am not the only one; all the conservative, complementarian Christians I know see nothing wrong with kick-ass, bad-ass, and whatever-other-kinds-of-ass female characters in popular media. When even small-town, frozen-chosen baptists who recently voted against deaconesses think you’re an extreme fundamentalist nutjob when it comes to gender roles…
Nonetheless, an extreme fundamentalist nutjob I appear destined to be, because the evidence of both nature and Scripture looks pretty clear if you care to examine it.
Women should not assume roles in society which involve upholding justice through force. Two paradigm cases of this would be soldiers and cops; but this prohibition extends to superheroes and slayers too.
We can apply much of my reasoning below, with minor adjustments or extensions, to also show that women ought not to be judges or rulers or ambassadors, nor firemen or astronauts or MMA celebrities. I am choosing a more modest thesis here for two reasons: Firstly, it is shorter, and brevity is a virtue; Secondly, because this is such a counterintuitive and offensive notion to our modern sensibilities that adjusting to it requires baby steps.
Let’s now canvass the broad strokes of the evidence for this thesis, which comes in two basic kinds: the evidence of nature, and the evidence of Scripture.
1. The evidence of nature
Although we have to be careful with natural theology, since our intuitions are easily affected by cultural or personal factors, it remains that God expects us to recognize certain facts of creation as obvious (e.g., Romans 1:18ff). This is because he has built into us at least two intuitions which can be straightforwardly applied to mankind itself:
i. Design follows teleology
Put more simply, form follows function. I would hope this is an uncontroversial principle for Christians. I would hope that we’d all agree men are designed for protecting and providing, and women for nurturing and caring; and we infer this not because the Bible explicitly says so—to the best of my knowledge it does not, in as many words—but because God made us to intuit our functions from our forms. The reason the Bible is not explicit on this point is precisely because it is presupposed as innate knowledge.
It isn’t terribly difficult to see how this works with regard to men and women’s roles; you just have to be willing to notice it. The fact that, generally speaking, God created men with strong muscles and agonistic instincts, while he created women with weaker muscles and conciliatory instincts, is neither an incidental curiosity, nor a hurdle for women to overcome in their struggle for equality. The fact that men respond to sudden stress with anger and aggression, while women respond with fear and flight, [ Daniel Dashnaw, Startling Differences Between Men and Women (February 2017).] is not an odd quirk to be corrected; it is a central reason to believe that men were created for combative roles and women were not. God created Adam to exercise dominion by going out and subduing the world piece by piece. Adam needed a helper, not because he required backup in this agonistic task, but because the task itself was pointless if there was no one to then stay in each subdued area to make it home.
There is a reason that men are not generally attracted to forceful, aggressive women, and why women are not attracted to deferent, delicate men. Despite every effort of feminism, it is very hard to override our created natures to think of commanding women as capable rather than bossy; or of compliant men as respectful rather than feeble, because we instinctively know that what is virtuous in one sex is gross in the other. A manly woman has not added extra virtues to her femininity; she has destroyed her femininity by becoming butch. An effeminate man has not layered feminine virtues on top of his masculinity; he has defiled it by joining the ranks of the malakoi (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9, KJV).
Not being a woman, I can only observe the effects that adopting masculine roles has on women. It’s all rather theoretical. I therefore think it’s valuable to get a woman’s personal perspective on this, to help drive the point home more forcefully. One Reformed woman kindly shared with me her frank and eye-opening testimony of how military and police work badly damaged her femininity. [ Nicole Leaman, Why One Woman Quit the Police Force on The Reformed Conservative.] It’s worth reading.
ii. It is wrong to make a thing serve the opposite of its natural function
This principle flows from the first. The Bible takes it for granted in many places, and having discussed it before I shan’t repeat myself here. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, A brief theology of kink, #2: the natural order of things (January 2018).]
Suffice to say that the defining function of a woman is to give life. This is obvious from her design, but cf. also Genesis 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:15. Her special place as homemaker (Proverbs 31; 1 Timothy 5:14–15) is a natural extension of this. That is why God cursed Eve’s child-bearing, just as he cursed Adam’s defining functions: managing the earth and providing for his family. This being so, women carrying the sword as a matter of general principle inverts their natural function. Even if they did have the disposition and physique for it, their very nature is to create and nurture life, not to threaten and end it. For this reason also, it is a detestable thing for a woman to bear the sword. (Note that when I speak of carrying or bearing the sword, I am alluding to Romans 13:4; I don’t mean it absolutely literally.)
A third argument can be added as an extension of this: a woman bearing the sword may unknowingly be pregnant, thus placing an innocent life at risk in addition to her own, which is an avoidable injustice.
2. The evidence of Scripture
We should expect nature and Scripture to teach the same things, and they do. Our second line of evidence is therefore exegetical. Although there are many passages we could examine and synthesize, one in particular is instructive for serving as a clear instance of our general principle. This is Deuteronomy 22:5:
A woman shall not wear men’s clothing, neither shall a man put on women’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to Yahweh your God. Deuteronomy 22:5
Although translations typically say that a woman should not wear a man’s clothing, nor a man the clothing of a woman, the vocabulary is actually more specific in the first half of the verse. The second part, speaking of how men are not to wear the garments of women, does indeed use the standard term silmat for clothes, and ishsha for woman. But the first part, speaking of what manly things women are not to wear, does not use silmat; neither is man ish. Rather, the terms keli and geber are used.
This lack of symmetry is conspicuous considering the Hebrew tendency to rhyme ideas. What is the difference of terminology intended to convey?
Geber appears only here in Deuteronomy, out of the hundreds of times men are talked about; it derives from gabar, meaning strong or mighty (cf. gibborim; mighty ones in Gen. 6:4; Ex. 12:37; Josh. 10:2; 2 Sam. 1:25 etc). While it can indeed refer just to a man, as ish does, it carries a specific connotation: of “man as strong, distinguished from women, children, and non-combatants whom he is to defend.” [Brown-Driver-Briggs, geber.] Given its completely unique usage here, we certainly should expect that this specific connotation is intentional.
This is confirmed by its coupling with keli rather than silmat, referring not to clothes, but to articles or equipment (e.g. Isaiah 54:16). Keli is a general term whose meaning is typically inferred from the context. For instance, in the context of picking fruit it refers to a basket or bag (Deuteronomy 23:24), while in the context of embarking to battle it refers to combat gear (Deuteronomy 1:41).
Geber + keli
Coupling keli with geber therefore makes Deuteronomy 22:5 much more specific than mere garments. Some translations recognize this: the KJV walks a decent neutral road by saying, “that which pertaineth unto a man,” which at least makes clear that there are specific things a man wears that a woman should not. The ISV renders it similarly: “what is appropriate to a man.” Other translations like the LEB take a stab with “apparel of a man,” but this is rather too weak. To translate geber keli accurately, we should keep the generic nature of the words intact, but also recognize the contextual cues when selecting the best English rendering. What the passage is saying, in fact, is that it’s detestable for women to don the gear of men.
What would that refer to contextually? Obviously things like armor, helmets, swords and bucklers. When women’s apparel is rhymed conceptually with men’s, the difference in word choice is natural, because men’s apparel in a nation about to take the promised land by force included plenty of elements that women’s did not.
Older exegetes note the significance of the vocabulary used (Gill for example, and rabbinical exegetes as well). [While very poorly written, this paper competently marshals the relevant sources and arguments: Ovidiu Dascalu, The rationale of the ban on cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22,5 (2014).] Many academic sources also note the lack of parallel vocabulary and speak to its import. For example, “Warfare, Ritual, and Symbol in Biblical and Modern Contexts” observes:
Interpreting גבר כלי as battle gear rather than “man’s apparel” (NRSV) was proposed by Cyrus H. Gordon (“A Note on the Tenth Commandment,” JAAR 31 : 208–209) and finds precedent in the Talmud (b. Nazir 59a) and Tg. Onkelos (see B. Grossfeld’s translation … “A woman should not wear a man’s armament”). The verse is situated in a chiasm that spans Deut 19:1–22:8 and is the structural counterpart of the warfare laws of 20:1–18 … Deuteronomy 19:1–22:8 applies the prohibition of murder (5:17) to various life-and-death situations, including warfare … [ Warfare, Ritual, and Symbol in Biblical and Modern Contexts, eds. Brad E. Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob L. Wright (SBL, 2014), 95 n. 35.]
Although many less technical commentators (along with translators) gloss over the distinction between geber and ish, and between keli and silmat, keli is never used of clothes in the Old Testament, and geber is unique in Deuteronomy. Words mean things, their connotations mean things, and the choices Moses made about which of them to use mean things.
The application for today is surely straightforward. Inasmuch as the same fundamental gear is still used for the same fundamental purposes, it is offensive, detestable, abominable to God that women should aspire to don it. The apparel itself is not what concerns God; rather the transgression of gender roles. [I.e., it is the function of the genders which forms the basis of this command; seeing it as a matter of mere form, viz. cross-dressing, leads to absurdity. See D. Bnonn Tennant, Applying torque to opposing corners of my Bible (June 2018).] Men are not to behave as women; women are not to behave as men. As the CEV puts it,
Women must not pretend to be men, and men must not pretend to be women. The LORD your God is disgusted with people who do that. While popular culture shrieks in outrage at the very notion of a “man’s job,” God is outraged at the very notion of a woman doing a man’s job by transgressing the strict boundaries he built into creation.
Women donning fatigues, helmets, sidearms or riot shields is disgusting to the Lord. In fact, it is often disgusting even to acculturated men when it happens in real life, because without the gloss of a sexy actress dressed up in clothing designed to augment her attractiveness rather than her combat ability, and whose physical incapability for the task is hidden by stuntwork, it’s simply ugly.
For those who are inured, or wont to deny that ugliness reflects anything deeper, or triggered at my mere use of that term, the only plausible option for disagreeing with the Bible on this point looks to be cultural relativism. That was then and this is now. Roles change depending on society. It’s progress baby.
But this obviously begs the question against the principles of natural function I have already adduced, while also having no hermeneutical principle to justify it. A feminist might be cool with that, but no Bible-believing Christian should be willing to dismiss this instance of gender roles as culturally-conditioned while simultaneously insisting that other gender roles in the family and church are not. What is the principle on which we can say that the role of carrying the sword was culturally relative, but the role of ruling a family or assembly was not? It’s so obviously ad hoc—especially when we realize that the sword is the key instrument of rulership in the civil domain.
There are many Christians who would say, on the basis of (radical) two kingdoms theology, that gender roles do not apply to the civil domain. There is much I could say about this, some of which I already have, and some else of which I someday will. Here, let me make four observations: (1) Such a view fails to deal with natural law arguments like the ones above; (2) It is obviously ad hoc, driving a wedge between society and the families comprising it, while destroying any underlying principle on which gender roles rest; (3) It is patently unscriptural since Deuteronomy 22:5 is a civil law that clearly reveals the heart of God, and was given for the benefit of all other nations (Deut. 4:8); (4) It is not the historic Reformed position.
Thus, Deuteronomy 22:5 is a useful case that proves the broad principles of men and women’s roles. There are created distinctions between us: we are meant for different roles, exemplified in different virtues. Masculine virtues are exemplified in things like being alert and courageous, to engage in conflict and exercise strength against opposition (e.g. 1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Samuel 4:9); feminine virtues are exemplified in deference, gentleness and quietness (e.g. 1 Peter 3:3–4). And as Peter immediately goes on to illustrate in that passage, men and women are therefore subject to different vices also: men to being overbearing and contemptuous (v. 7); women to being vain and fearful (vv. 3, 6). Elsewhere, other tendencies are also addressed—for instance, men must resist being too hard on their children (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21); women must resist idle socialization lest they become gossips and busybodies (1 Timothy 5:13). The virtues and vices we are inclined to are different because they reflect the functions we are made for, which are different.
By way of closing, one final thought: if a man’s function is directed toward protecting women and exercising authority, then a woman carrying the sword is not merely detestable because she is violating her intended purpose; it is detestable because it cannot happen except by a man first violating his intended purpose. To carry the sword is by nature to put oneself in harm’s way. Therefore, it is not just women who sin when they do this, by rebelling against their created design; it is men also, by failing to prevent women putting themselves into the kind of danger that men were designed for. Western culture is thus subject to double condemnation. How shall we escape it?
The evangelical way of preaching the gospel has not succeeded here; indeed, it has adopted feminism enthusiastically. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, Evangelical complementarian leaders mostly just teaching feminism (January 2017).] To restore God’s design for the sexes in the world, we must first restore God’s design for preaching his gospel as a message of the triumph of his chosen king over the world. We must start treating the great commission as a directive to conquer.