The Beauty of Complementarity Goes Beyond Gender

As much as contemporary Western culture tries to suggest otherwise, the difference of male and female exists and matters.

When God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18), he did not just just create a clone of Adam. He created a complement. God’s solution to Adam’s “not good” problem was not two of the same flesh, as if company was all Adam needed. It was a one-flesh union, two distinct halves together making a whole.

 

We didn’t have a #genderreveal moment on social media.

But my wife and I did plan a private celebration to mark the day we found out our baby’s gender.

We had picked two restaurant options where we would have dinner, depending on what the ultrasound revealed. If our baby was a boy, we would celebrate at the local artisan sausage and beer hall. If a girl, we planned to dine at our favorite all-vegetable restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

We did not have vegetables that night.

A few months earlier, we were in a Vancouver restaurant enjoying an amazing porchetta sandwich. The doors on this restaurant’s restrooms struck me as subversively old fashioned. Instead of plain white triangles or “all gender” notations, these two washrooms had two different labels. One said “meat” and the other said “bread.”

Is food gendered? It sounds ridiculous. But what does it mean that my wife and I immediately knew that brats and fries for dinner were more appropriate to celebrate our baby boy than kale and candied beets? What does it mean that everyone in that Vancouver restaurant knew which bathroom to use, simply by the “meat” or “bread” signs on the door? Why is it that meat and bread—or meat and vegetables—pair so well together?

It’s because they are not the same. They are different—beautifully different—in ways that enhance and bring the best out of the other. They are dignified, not diminished, by their complementary differences. They are part of a ordered cosmos of binaries—man and woman, light and dark, land and sea, salty and sweet—that bring structure, coherence, and irresistible beauty to life.

Not Clones. Complements.

When God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18), he did not just just create a clone of Adam. He created a complement. God’s solution to Adam’s “not good” problem was not two of the same flesh, as if company was all Adam needed. It was a one-flesh union, two distinct halves together making a whole.

As much as contemporary Western culture tries to suggest otherwise, the difference of male and female exists and matters. And it is not just random difference, but complementary difference—a difference that indicates the two were made for each other. Woman and man are sort of like a lock and key. A lock and a key are meaninglessly different unless they are made to go together. But when together, their difference opens something up, unlocking something fuller and deeper about the human experience.

The male and female in Genesis 1–2 point to a creational design for humans that is not just relational in a general sense, but relational in a complementary sense. As Todd Wilson contends in Mere Sexualitythe male and female sexes “don’t simply fit side by side, like peanut butter and jelly; they fit together in an interlocking pattern like puzzle pieces. They have been created for each other, to complete each other in the most profound sorts of ways.” This is a relational dynamic that includes marriage but extends beyond it, Wilson argues:

We need opposite-sex relationships not only to complement and strengthen the other sex but to learn more about our own sex. . . Karl Barth put it brilliantly: ‘It is always in relation to their opposite that man and woman are what they are in themselves.’

We see the beauty of male-female complementarity not only in marriage but also in how the two sexes interact in other relationships, whether in the church, workplace, community, or extended family. As Barth suggested, there is a sense in which the fullness of being “male” is realized only in relationship with “female,” and vice versa. Marriage is a powerful way this fullness is manifest, but it is not the only way.

Male and female are not fluid, easily interchangeable constructs we fashion from below. Rather, they represent a complementary unity from above: one that goes beyond bodily or even gendered polarity. It is a complementary unity that reflects the structure of the wider world and the God who created it.

Male and female are, after all, not the only complementary polarities in God’s creation sequence in Gen. 1-2. There is also light and dark, evening and morning (1:3-5), waters above and below (1:6-8), land and sea (1: 9-10). As N. T. Wright has pointed out, these polarities show up consistently in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation:

The binaries in Genesis are so important. . . It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

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