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When I went off to Bible college, all I wanted to do was serve God – in youth ministry or as a missionary, or (if I was lucky) by landing a contract with a contemporary-Christian-music label as a singer. Eventually, as I fell in love with biblical studies, theology and philosophy, I began to envision myself as an educator – teaching the Bible and theology in the university. But it was in college that I also began to receive mixed messages. My theology professor and adviser painted visions of me returning to the college as its first female faculty appointment in the department. But my revered (and feared) Greek professor warned that I would be sinning, violating God’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2, were I to pursue a career teaching theology at the college level – unless, of course, it was at a girls’ school or a very liberal university. According to his logic, it was better to have a woman teaching orthodox theology at a liberal school than a man teaching heresy. Apparently the best I could hope for was a career of lesser evil.

This did not sit well with me. I would not be content to serve God as a lesser evil. I had thought that Christian service was a virtuous pursuit. I had yet to learn that some virtues were reserved for men.


When did gender become associated with virtue? It is hard to say, but the association goes back a long way, at least in the Western tradition. In his Timaeus, Plato argued that women came into existence after men failed to cultivate reason and virtue. These lesser men – souls that had failed to develop the mind in order to control the passions of the body – were reincarnated as women. Of course Plato would argue that if women cultivated virtue they could hope to be reincarnated as men and if they continued on the virtuous path could eventually hope to escape the body (with its sex) and be reunited with the eternal forms. Aristotle, scientist that he was, made his case from the particulars of the body. He believed that the weakness of women’s bodies was evidence of the weakness of women’s souls. And because, in his mind, the soul is the form of the body and the seat of reason, women’s lesser bodily strength was assumed to correspond with lesser strength of soul or mind. Thus Aristotle surmised that on account of their physical and rational powers, men were suited to rule over women (and children, foreigners, and slaves; Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: The Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud [Harvard, 1990]).

Self-control was believed to be a masculine virtue, a power visible in the hardness of men’s bodies.

These notions of gender were not unique to Greek culture. They were repeated in the Roman empire and could be found even in explanations about the development of the Latin language. Lactantius, a 4th-century writer and tutor of Constantine I (who ruled the Roman Empire from 306 to 337), preserved what Matthew Kuefler calls “a well-known, if invented, etymology”:

Thus man (vir) was so named because strength (vis) is greater in him than in woman; and from this, virtue (virtus) has received its name. Likewise, woman (mulier) … is from softness (mollitia), changed and shortened by a letter, as though it were softly (mollier). (Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity [University of Chicago Press, 2001])

Virtue is from vir (the man) because men have vis (strength). To be soft or effeminate was to be weak, not only physically but morally.  In the Roman world, Kuefler points out, women were caricatured as “carnal, irrational, voluptuous, fickle, manipulative and deceitful.” In The Perfect Servant (University of Chicago, 2003) Kathryn Ringrose points out that women, girls, and effeminate men (including boys, eunuchs and the androgynous) “were assumed to lack the ability to control their physical, emotional and sexual appetites.” Self-control was believed to be a masculine virtue, a power visible in the hardness of men’s bodies. And just as strength must be cultivated so it is not lost, so virtue (i.e., manliness) must be cultivated lest men lose their strength and become “womanish,” losing their place as  what Peter Brown calls “the unruffled master of a subject world” (The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity [Columbia University Press, 1988]).

Many contemporary readers will recognize the ironic reversal in these stereotypes. Men today are regularly excused for their lack of self-restraint. High levels of testosterone responsible for greater muscle mass are offered as excuses: After all, “boys will be boys.” But the history of gender studies reveals that this reversal is a very recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that the virtues began to be divided between the sexes – with certain virtues (e.g., courage) associated with men and other virtues (e.g., self-control) granted to the “softer sex.”


As a Christian theologian, I would love to present a contrast between the sexism of pagan philosophers and the equanimity of the early leaders of Christianity. Alas, Greek and Roman prejudice against women was baptized by too many of the fathers, who traced the weakness of women to Eve, who was responsible for throwing not only herself but all women and the rest of the human race under the power of the devil (Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women 1.1). Reading Genesis through the lens of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (Paul’s instructions to restrict the teaching of women), Chrysostom wrote,

A woman once taught and overturned everything. For this reason, he said: “Let her not teach.” What then about the women coming after her, if she incurred this? By all means [it applies to them]! For their sex is weak and given to levity. For it is said here of the whole nature. For he did not say that “Eve” was deceived, but “the woman,” which is a term for her sex in general…. (in Patrologia graeca 62:545)

Despite the weakness of women’s sex, the church fathers had no doubt that women could move up the ladder toward perfection. But when they did so, they were venerated in manly terms. Thus Melania the Younger was celebrated as one “who performed ‘manly deeds’ and was received by the Fathers of Nitria ‘like a man’ because ‘she had surpassed the limits of her sex and taken on a mentality that was manly, or rather angelic’” (Gillian Cloke, quoting the Life of Melania the Younger  in “This Female Man of God”: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450 [Routledge, 1995]).

Human perfection, indeed Christian perfection, was conceived as a hierarchical ladder of ascent toward manliness. Given this hierarchical understanding of human nature (and all reality), Thomas Laqueur has argued that there was only one sex recognized in the ancient world, the male, and that a true male was a rare specimen. Most people existed as more (or less) perfect males – in other words, more (or less) perfect humans. Aristotle’s famous dictum that a woman was a “misbegotten” or “mutilated” male supports such an argument, as do classical anatomical texts. Laqueur shows how medical texts from the ancient world all the way up through the Renaissance maintained that female reproductive organs were simply the inversion of male organs (Making Sex, 96). Women were men turned inward, physically and socially, anatomically and morally.

While there are many troubles apparent in this sliding scale of sex and gender, one benefit of the model is the recognition that there are more than two ways of being in the world. There are manly men and effeminate men. There are feminine women and manly women. And there are people who exist in between men and women – naturally born eunuchs, barren women and hermaphrodites. While contemporary Christians are often surprised to discover the existence of intersex persons – persons with mixed-sex bodies – ancient Christians were not unfamiliar with the facts of intersex. Augustine speaks rather casually about androgynous persons in his City of God:

Although androgynes, whom men also call hermaphrodites, are very rare, yet it is difficult to find periods when they do not occur. In them the marks of both sexes appear together in such a way that it is uncertain from which they should properly receive their name. However, our established manner of speaking has given them the gender of the better sex, calling them masculine.

We now know that hermaphrodites – now called intersex persons, or persons with “disorders of sex development” or the less pathological label “differences of sex development” – are not as rare as Augustine thought (Heather Looy, “Male and Female God Created Them: The Challenge of Intersexuality,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 21 [2012]). Nevertheless, these discoveries have not always led to greater acceptance of people whose bodies fall in the middle of this sliding scale of sex/gender difference. In the ancient world, hermaphrodites and naturally born eunuchs were believed to be imperfect men (and imperfect inverted men – i.e., women). They suffered the same aspersions of character associated with women, being morally dangerous because of their sexual allure and inferior because they were unable to attain full masculine perfection of body, mind or virtue. Despite their inferior status, we can appreciate the fact that, at the very least, their presence in the ancient world was known – there were laws governing hermaphrodites and eunuchs, monasteries established for them, even official positions within in the Byzantine court. Of course, when the Reformers inveighed against priestly celibacy and monastic vocations, their emptying of the monasteries eliminated one of the few safe places that still existed for these liminal bodies in the late Middle Ages.


In the Reformed period, Martin Luther argued against the Greek and medieval assumption that women were morally inferior and lesser images of God. Still, he maintained, “there is a great difference between the sexes. The male is like the sun in heaven, the female like the moon. … Therefore, let us note from this passage (Gen. 1:27) that it was written that this sex may not be excluded from any glory of the human creature, although it is inferior to the male sex” (“Lectures in Genesis”). While Luther had a fairly high view of female education, possibly due to his marriage to an educated nun, Calvin believed that “oral instruction in the catechism was enough for women” and that female teaching was out of the question (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace [InterVarsity, 1990]). “[Woman] by nature (that is, by the ordinary law of God) is formed to obey; … accordingly, he [Paul] bids them be ‘quiet,’ that is, keep within their own rank” (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon).

Even though the Reformers raised the status of women’s work, giving it religious value, their elimination of religious orders removed the only way available to women who wanted to give themselves fully to the work of God and acquire a religious education. By eliminating the monasteries and arguing for the normativity of marriage, the Reformers effectively kept all women at home under the rule of husbands with a strict division of labor and eroded the safe spaces created by and for eunuchs and persons of mixed sex during the Middle Ages. This theological and political move laid the groundwork for a shift away from the sliding scale of gender toward a hardening of sex differences, the elimination of a third sex and the doctrine of separate spheres that would come to full flower in the Victorian era thanks to the Industrial Revolution.


Only after the Industrial Revolution did Christians begin to redefine their concepts of the differences of the sexes. Once men were removed from the home, the home was left devoid of their governance, their moral influence, their modeling of perfect humanity. They were not there to supervise women and children (and servants). Female heads of house needed to do the supervising. But according to the classical Greek model and medieval and Reformation theology, women were not capable of ruling. Their minds, bodies and moral sensitivities were weak. Women were irrational and unspiritual. How could they be left alone to raise children, instructing them in such important matters as right doctrine? How would women be able to rule the servants and manage the house without their husbands? The Victorian/Romantic reconfiguration of gender would provide the answers by taking the virtues once ascribed only to men and distributing them between the sexes.

It is during this period that we find the association of morality and spirituality with the home, the private life, the feminine. Rather than associating mothers with matter (that which is opposed to the soul/the spiritual/the divine), Victorians held up women as “angels in the home” who maintained a private sphere of virtue, a “haven” apart from the hostile, secular world of men (Christopher Lasch, “The Family as a Haven in a Heartless World,” Salmagundi [Fall 1976]).

In some ways this was an improvement for women. At least now women were seen as having virtue as women. They no longer needed to become men to be considered virtuous or holy. Still, this was nothing like equality, and in some ways it excluded women from certain areas of influence that they had previously. Women’s particular virtues were interpreted as making them suitable only for the private sphere, caring for children and working in the church (though not in any sort of leadership capacity). This historical change has also been labeled the “feminization of the church” – because if spirituality is a female quality, then men’s masculinity is threatened when men are religious (James B. Nelson, “Male Sexuality and the Fragile Planet: A Theological Reflection,” in Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities [Westminster John Knox, 1996]). On the other hand, this division of the sexes also opened the door to another interpretation. Women gained courage in their new status as “moral standard-bearers” and argued that if they really were responsible to uphold Christian virtue, then men needed them, not just in the home but also in the public sphere to make the wider world more Christian. Thus, the feminist movement of the 19th century, headed by evangelical women, often drew upon this new ideology of gender. Here we find women becoming involved in suffrage, the abolition of slavery and temperance movements on the basis of their unique feminine virtues.

Another result of the Victorian revolution was the virtual elimination of a third gender option. Public debates over the natures of the sexes – the assumptions that women and men have their own particular virtues associated with their separate spheres – added political pressure to clearly categorize anyone who blurred these important distinctions (Alice Domurat Dreger, “Doubtful Sex: The Fate of the Hermaphrodite in Victorian Medicine,” Victorian Studies [Spring 1995]). Once medical technology became available to impose surgeries on children whose bodies did not fit the standard, this elimination would be complete – or so it was thought (Katrina Karkazis, Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience  [Duke University Press, 2008]).

Thus we find ourselves in a very different place from that of our ancient Christian forebears – no longer holding to a sliding scale of human perfection with manly men at the top (the physically and morally strong), feminine women (and children) at the bottom (the physically and morally weak), with a range of bodies (and levels of virtue) occupying the middle. Nevertheless, we are still working to untangle this legacy of gender and virtue.


It might very well be that virtue was conflated with vir in the ancient world in order to shame men into better behavior by accusing them of being or becoming effeminate. Unfortunately, it is a rhetorical device still employed today. Although arguably effective, the conflation of virtue with manliness replaces the gospel of holiness and maturity with a hierarchically gendered system of oppression – shaming men into virtue instead of encouraging all people to grow in holiness, being conformed to the image of God in Christ.

Although the maleness of Jesus was at one time considered proof of the hierarchical scale of masculine perfection, women are no longer called to become masculine in their imitation of Christ. Men are not offered Jesus as a model while women are given Mary. Even those traditions that value the imitation of the mother of Jesus counter this misunderstanding by insisting that as each of us emulates the obedience of Mary we are thus led to imitate Christ her Lord.

Christ Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and all Christians – male, female, intersexed – are “being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). All Christians are to model his victory (1 Cor. 15:54-57; Eph. 6:10-17). All Christians receive his inheritance as sons (Gal. 3:26–4:7). All Christians become his bride (Eph. 5:25-27). These mixed metaphors illustrate the universal call of conformity to Christ and challenge the ways in which Christians throughout history have struggled to reconcile the call of the gospel with the pressure to conform to culturally formed gender norms.

Therefore, … let us throw off everything that hinders [including gender norms that keep us from growing in virtue] and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith [the image of God into whose image we are being remade]. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Gender conformity is not a virtue, but if we are willing to follow Jesus we can rest assured that we are on the right path.

Megan K. DeFranza is the author of Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). Portions of this essay are derived from the book and are used here by permission.

Photo: Jason Regan, Wikipedia, under CC by 2.0 license.