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I’m currently doing a deeper dive into Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Even as I have some significant differences with Roman Catholic doctrine[1] and one of his foundational premises of marriage as sacrament, it is still a breath of fresh air from what is being taught about men and women in many Protestant circles because he highlights personhood and gift. The common thread that I have combatted recently from several parachurch organizations and not so secret Facebook groups is a subordinate ontology of woman and male ontological authority. I spoke to that a bit more specifically here. I then introduced a bigger picture and a need for a sexual revolution in the church here. Then I went back and wrote some on power dynamics and trust here. Now I want to go a little more big picture again, and show how this unbiblical ontological view among many in the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement is a rejection of the feminine gift and a rejection of the personhood of women.

Our bodies are theological. They are visible signs that tell us something about our God.

So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

Gen. 1:27

Many complementarian teachers want to tell us that the theology our bodies teach is that men are in authority over women. Somehow this is complementary. That’s the story. The gospel story. If you challenge that, you are a feminist.

Masculine and Feminine Gift

Pope John Paul II describes our two different ways of being human, male and female, as the gift of our sexual bodies that pictures Christ’s spousal love for his church. Or as Christopher West describes it, “God’s plan of love stamped in [our] sexuality.”[2] Now here is a gospel story! This word gift reveals so much. It reveals God’s incredible generosity. It even tells us something about authority, which I will get to. But it also shines a light to reveal our own gratitude, or lack thereof. Do we see our sexuality as gift? Do we see the sexuality of our brothers and sisters as gift? How does that change the way that we view ourselves and others? How does that change the way we treat others?

We live in a pornographic culture where sexuality is reduced and marketed for customer consumption. Christians know that is not the intent of this gifting. It denies dignity and personhood. While the biblical manhood and womanhood (BM&W) movement rejects this pornographic culture, it’s theology of man and woman falls into this same denial of personhood. Let me explain.

Our posture of gratitude reveals something about what we think about the Giver. Here’s something to consider that can be revealing: Is our gratitude something we practice within a community in response to our gratitude for God, or is it more an individualistic means to experience our own personal fullness?

Christine Pohl discusses this some mentioning, “Centuries ago, Seneca wisely warned that ‘one should never accept a gift if one would be ashamed to acknowledge the debt publicly (Ben 2.23.1); a gift should be accepted only if the recipient is willing to ‘invite the whole city to witness it.’’”[3] How might this relate to our sexuality? How do we view the gift God has given us as man and as woman? Do we view others as gifts from God? And what does this gift then authorize us to do? Our gratitude should shape how we orient our desires in love and how we receive the gifts of male and female personhood at home, church, and in society.

Reciprocal Enrichment

The creation account should provoke a sense of gratitude in recognizing the gift of sexual difference. John Paul II starts with creation itself as a gift of God’s Love (he capitalizes this Love). In the beginning, man is given this gift of life in the created world, but is in solitude and he sees there is no other like him. There is no community for him to practice gratitude in reciprocity. And in his solitude, man is unable to fully know himself as a person, because there is no other “I” before him. Personhood necessitates relationship. In God’s declaration that it is not good for man to be alone, and that he will make a helper for him (Gen. 2:18), Pope John Paul II sees “alone” and “help” as key for man to experience the essence of the gift for man and woman as “image of God.” Woman helps man recognize his own humanity, and gain a consciousness of reciprocal enrichment and the unitive meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity (TOB, 9:5, 10:2, & 12:3). Not only is she a gift, but she enables him to see himself as a gift.

  • In fact, the gift reveals, so to speak, a particular characteristic of human existence, or even the very essence of the person.
  • When God-Yahweh says, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18), he affirms that, “alone,” the man does not completely realize this essence. He realizes that it is only by existing “with someone”—and, put even more deeply and completely, by existing “for someone”…communion of persons means living in a reciprocal “for,” in a relationship of reciprocal gift. And this relationship is precisely the fulfillment of “man’s” original solitude. (14:2)

Adam’s singing proclamation reveals this:

  • When the “male” man, awakened from his Genesis sleep, says, “This time she is flesh from my flesh and bone from my bones” (Gen 2:23), these words in some way express the subjectively beautifying beginning of man’s existence in the world. (14:3)
  • Look, a body that expresses the “person”!…one can also say that this “body” reveals the “living soul,” which man became when God (Yahweh) breathed life into him (see Gen. 2:7). (14:4)

Man(kind) has moved through the depth of original solitude, where he had no corresponding strength to help him identify his own personhood. He then emerges not only to understand himself, but to a whole new “dimension of reciprocal gift, the expression of which—by that very fact the expression of his existence as a person—is the human body in all the original truth of its masculinity and femininity. The body, which expresses femininity ‘for’ masculinity and vice versa, masculinity ‘for’ femininity, manifests the reciprocity and the communion of persons” (14:4). We image divine love as mutual gifts to each other, through our masculinity and femininity.

Power to Express Love

But it’s even more than that, it’s a discovery of the spousal meaning of the body. We see this in what happens right after Adam’s proclamation—they were naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:25). Our bodies, our sexuality, are gift, given by God, with the power to express love: “precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence…man cannot ‘fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self’ [Gaudium et Spes, 24:3]” (15:1).

  • The human body, oriented from within by the “sincere gift” of the person…reveals not only its masculinity or femininity on the physical level, but also reveals such a value and such a beauty that it goes beyond the simply physical level of “sexuality.” (15:4)

Pope John Paul II goes onto explain that when we welcome this gift, it affirms the value of the other as a unique and unrepeatable person. “The ‘affirmation of the person’ is nothing other than welcoming the gift, which, through reciprocity, creates the communion of persons” (15:4). This is both an external expression of the body as well as an internal intimacy and knowing.

In marriage, we see the great mystery of Christ’s spousal love for his church. I’ve written about how our sexual distinctions as male and female represent this order of love. But our sexuality as gift goes beyond erotic one-flesh love in marriage. This is something I’d like to explore more and write more about. Recognizing others as gift orients the way that we love and the way that we exercise our responsibilities in our relationships and communities as receivers.

Woman Without Personhood

The very definition of “mature femininity” according to the complementarian BM&W movement—where woman’s femininity is measured by how she affirms, receives, and nurtures strength and leadership from worthy men[4]—does not delineate woman as gift. Rather, she is parasitic to male authority. It’s the other side of the same coin of how the porn culture views women. She has no dignity of personhood in the definition. BM&W’s ontology of male authority and female subordination rejects the feminine gift. Where is there room for her freedom here? How can there be a free, sincere gift of self when there is no self? And when there is no agency to give it? Where is her dignity and uniqueness of personhood? You cannot receive from woman if you do not SEE the gift.

There’s no welcoming of her gift. No reciprocity. No dynamism. No true communion of persons. As Virginia Woolf put it, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man twice its natural size.”[5] And this philosophy shows up all over the place in the teaching that is saturating our churches. Femininity is not seen as a gift, but as a threat that needs to be managed. Her “role” is to puff up the man. Follow his decisions. Sit in the passenger seat. There’s nothing unique or unrepeatable about her. She can’t freely give of her self.

BM&W talks much about male authority and female submission to it. And their usage of the word authority denies the feminine gift. Yes, when you receive a gift, that authorizes you. It’s not his ontology that gives man authority, it is his receiving the gifts of creation and of woman. What is man authorized to do? He is authorized to sacrifice his very body in loving her. He is authorized to welcome her—first and last as sister. It is not an authorization to tell her what to do or rule over her. That is a description of the fall.

BM&W teaches the opposite of Adam’s first expression towards woman, which is echoed by the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs: “You have ravished mt heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song 4:9). When Adam sees woman for the first time, he sees the eschatological beauty of the telos of man and woman, the union of Christ with his bride and communion of the saints. As God gives man woman, and woman man, they are both authorized to promote the holiness of the other in their aim for eternal communion with God and his people. And man, created first, is authorized to be the first to love, the first to sacrifice, the first to serve, the first to give power *to*, not to exercise power *over*. We see this distortion of the gift as the effects of the fall, described in Gen. 3:16. But the bride’s response in the Song of Songs reveals desire restored in Christ, “I am my love’s and his desire is for me” (Song 7:10). That is true freedom in belonging. That is the story we tell as men and women.

Joy in Receiving the Gift

Our bodies, our whole selves as men and women, tell the story of the great joy in which Christ received his gift of his bride, the church. He is bringing her to the holy of holies, having taken on flesh and penetrated behind the veil securing communion with his bridal people in sacred space. He gave himself as the ultimate Gift and he loves us to the end.

Our bodies tell the story of the power to love. Pope John Paul II describes love itself as a power—to share, by the Holy Spirit, in rejoicing in the truth and in the value of God’s creation and redemption. Christ, our true gift, rejoices in his bride. And she rejoices in him. Does the church make this story visible to the watching world? Or do we contradict ourselves when we uphold distinction between the sexes and yet reject the feminine gift?

How we treat our women reveals our eschatological anticipation of joy. The bride is a gift. And sisters are a gift. Like Christ to his sister, his bride, women in the church should be invested with power to—power to freedom in belonging; power to wear, fructify, and return Christ’s love; power to be a corresponding strength for their brothers. Does the church publicly welcome this gift, or are their women looked at as subjects to fulfill individual men’s concupiscence, promote their masculinity, and follow their “loving” orders? What does our affirmation of the gift of femininity look like?

Because God’s whole design of men and women is evangelical. And Christ says to his bride, “Companions are listening for your voice; let me hear you!” (Song 8:13).

Rejecting the feminine gift is actually a rejection of the authority of God, the Gift-Giver. It is an act of authority to give. And in God’s act of giving, the receiver is authorized to reciprocally give love.

[1] Aside from some of the more obvious doctrines that contrast with Protestant theology, also his teaching on the “divinization” of the body and “participation” in the eternal life of God.

[2] Christopher West, Our Bodies Tell God’s Story, 53.

[3] Christine Pohl, Living Into Community, 40.

[4] John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Piper and Grudem, 35–36

[5] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harvest, 1989), 35.