Are Gender Roles a Social Construct?

by Steve Golden on July 6, 2012
Featured in Feedback
Also available in Español

The biblical understanding of gender roles stems from the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; however, cultural justification is sometimes used to support unbiblical behavior.

I recognize this may not fit the nature of AiG’s particular areas of study, but I was wondering if you had any resources regarding studies done on the supposed inherent nature of gender roles, both/either in Biblical terms and scientific study. From the limited studies I have done - reading books and other observations - it seems very clear to me that these gender roles are not mere social constructs as many claim. While there may be particular expectations per culture, the general trend leans towards a natural aspect, according to my understanding so far. Is there any way you might be able to help me refine and/or support my theories on this matter?

Hello, and thank you for your great question and comments. I’d like to address each area you mentioned and offer some resource options to use as you continue your research on gender roles.

In one sense, you’re correct: gender as a “social construct” is not an issue that Answers in Genesis deals with regularly. However, the biblical understanding of gender roles stems from the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If we misunderstand what the Bible says about gender, then we will misunderstand issues like homosexual behavior, the roles of husbands and wives, and what it means to be male or female. However, cultural justification is sometimes used to support unbiblical behavior, and the Bible is sometimes used incorrectly to justify a variety of insupportable concepts about gender roles. Since we seek to apply the Bible as the starting point in every area of our thinking, it is reasonable to address some of these issues here. I have some resource suggestions for you at the end of this article.

Before we jump to books, observations, and any scientific studies, we have to start with the Word of God. Space does not allow me to give a thorough analysis of every aspect of these issues, but what follows is a cursory glance. In Genesis 1:27 we read that God created man with distinct differences in the sexes:

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

God created man male and female—Adam and Eve—and He made males and females different physically and distinct in their roles. Genesis 2:18 makes Eve’s role clear: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Eve was from the bone and flesh of Adam, meaning she is equal in her standing before God and yet distinct from man (Galatians 3:28).1 But God gave Adam the authority not only to name the animals but also to name his wife, indicating that she does not share equal authority with her husband. In the Bible’s wording, she is his helper.

If God’s creation of Eve, a female, as a helper and companion for Adam, a male, is not clear enough to defend marriage as being reserved for a man and a woman, Genesis 2:24 clears up any confusion:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

From the very beginning of God’s Word, He makes no allowances for “alternative” lifestyles such as homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy, and so on.2

A final point regards the Curse in Genesis 3. Here we see that Adam and Eve already had distinct roles, but as a result of the Curse, their roles became toilsome and painful. In verse 16, God graciously allowed Eve (and her female descendants) to bear children, but childbirth would be associated with a good deal of physical pain as well as concerns about bringing a child into this cursed world.3 Additionally, God tells Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).4 Christians differ over what this verse means, but two likely interpretations arise: (1) Eve will try to usurp her husband’s role as head, but God is requiring Adam to keep her from doing so, resulting in conflict; or (2) Eve will try to usurp her husband’s role as head, and he will exercise unbiblical male domination over her.5

So what does gender as a social construct have to do with any of this? Gender theory was my area of study for my master’s degree in English. People who specialize in the area of gender theory typically make it their aim to justify sexual and gender-related behavior that the Bible condemns as sinful.

Gender theory argues that men and women are different only on the physical level; in other words, they have the exact same capacities for everything except reproductive functions, such as childbearing (though there are increasing attempts among secularists to make it possible for men to carry unborn children). Gender theory further holds that any distinctions between males and females (e.g., men acting as heads of their households, dressing in ways that are socially appropriate to one’s gender, and so on) are “constructs” that society forces them to abide by. If they “transgress” (gender theorists love that word) those social boundaries, the gender theorist argues, they are ostracized and punished.

Many gender theorists will even go so far as to say that a person may be a man on the physical level, but if he feels like he is actually female, then he may identify as female. Gender theorists argue that he then should be able to live as his chosen gender, even down to using the women’s restroom, dressing in women’s clothing, and being referred to as she/her.

The natural outworking of all this gender confusion is complete distortion of what the Bible says about the roles of men and women and about marriage. If there is nothing that requires a man to identify as male or a woman to identify as female, why maintain a rigid definition of marriage? “Marriage between a man and a woman” only matters if the definition of man and woman matter. If two men “get married,” but one identifies as a female, society has simply tried to find a way around God’s design for marriage by making male and female meaningless words.6

However, there is strong scientific evidence that the differences between men and women run deeper than basic anatomy. Dr. Gregg Johnson, professor of biology at Bethel University, wrote a detailed article on gender differences. He explained that males, among other things, are often more dominating, more goal and rule oriented, and have bodies and nervous systems that are built for long hours of physical toil. Women, on the other hand, demonstrate more care-giving behaviors, are more in touch with social dynamics, and have bodies that favor fat storage, which aids in pregnancy.7

In fact, Dr. Johnson concludes, “Sex differences present in all the organ systems across various mammalian species go far beyond the superficial anatomical characteristics necessary for reproduction. These differences are direct responses to the levels of circulating hormones, which differ significantly between the sexes.”8 Under the localized influence of hormones and the DNA blueprint, certain embryonic tissues are formed into either male or female structures and other tissues regress. Later, at puberty, increasing amounts of testosterone and estrogen prompt maturation of these sexual differences.

So, generally speaking, if you’re born a male, there’s no way to truly change that.9

This is consistent with Genesis 1:27; God has made us male and female. Psalm 139:13–14 explains that our biological development is marked by the hand of God:

For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

In light of passages such as this, we should desire to embrace our role as a biblical man or woman, rather than trying to change ourselves into the opposite of what God intended.

Scripture has norms and expectations for men and women as well, particularly focused on modesty. While Scripture does not clearly outline a dress code for us, we are given guidelines. For example, 1 Peter 3:1–5 tells women to dress modestly and to place their primary focus on their spiritual development. Ephesians 4:17–19 tells the people of God not to be like unbelievers, who engage in lewdness. Romans 12:1 makes clear that we are to present our bodies as holy and acceptable before God—which we can hardly do if we refuse to live modestly or within the male or female boundaries God formed in us.

With regard to cultural expectations, Scripture seems to indicate that we should dress not only modestly but also in ways appropriate to our gender in whatever culture we live. A prime example is in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul addresses the issue of head coverings in the church. Of course, textual details and history are far too unclear to give a definitive answer as to what the head coverings represented (and indeed, commentators vary in their interpretations), but suffice it to say, head coverings were clearly intended for women, at least in that congregation:

Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. (1 Corinthians 11:4–6)

While some Christians would argue that this passage applies to women in the church today, others believe the text indicates it was a culturally specific issue. Whether the head coverings are meant to indicate that the woman is married (as in some countries today) or something else, Paul was writing about a symbol that may not carry the same meaning today. The custom was that women either cover their heads or cut their hair short—but it was considered “disgraceful” in that day for a woman to do the latter.

What does that tell us? Paul is advising women to—within the bounds of modesty—adhere to cultural expectations of femininity. On the same front, Paul indicates that if a man wears a head covering, which was meant for a woman, it is dishonoring. Here, too, Paul seems to be indicating that men, within the bounds of modesty, should adhere to cultural expectations of masculinity. But what is significant is that men were barred from wearing head coverings—and if a man did, there would certainly be a question as to why he was adorned with something intended for a woman.

The same logic should carry over to our culture today. If a man dons what is typically considered female clothing, we have to ask the question, why is he doing such a thing? Has the culture determined that it is now masculine and appropriate? Likely not. Is the man trying to be subversive and get a reaction out of people? Possibly. Has the man decided he would rather identify as a woman, which could lead to more extreme measures, such as sex reassignment surgery? If that is the case, he is clearly trying to change how God created him, as though he can do a better job.10

When a person expresses the desire to live as the opposite sex and takes measures to do so, he or she could very likely be experiencing some sort of gender confusion—and many secularists would agree. The difference is in how we would approach the situation—they would encourage him to embrace his perceived “identity,” while the believer should seek to share the gospel with him and to teach him God’s design for men and women.

There is much more that could be said about this issue, but this should be enough to introduce you to the issues. There are a number of great resources available on the topic of gender roles and biblical masculinity and femininity. John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited a series of essays in the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway 2006). Piper’s essay from that series is available for free as a PDF. This is one of the best resources available on biblical gender roles. And, of course, your best resource is Scripture, particularly Genesis 1–3, which provides the basis for what marriage is, what godly masculinity and femininity look like, and how Christian men and women should live.


  1. “Evangelical feminists” often cite Galatians 3:28 to support their idea that the New Testament removed gender roles. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” However, to rip this verse from its context is a deeply flawed hermeneutical practice, and the evangelical feminist’s interpretation of this verse forces numerous contradictions in the New Testament. For example, Galatians is generally regarded as Paul’s earliest canonical letter. So if Paul was saying that there is no longer any distinction between these groups, then it is rather strange that he continued to make distinctions for many years between Jew and Gentile (Romans 1:16–17; 11:25–28; Acts 18:1–6), slave and free (1 Corinthians 7:17–24; Ephesians 6:5–9; Colossians 3:22–4:1), and male and female (Ephesians 5:21–33; Colossians 3:18–19).
  2. While Abraham, David, Solomon, and others in Scripture did practice polygamy, they were not pursuing God’s original design for marriage, and their polygamous relationships should be viewed as examples of conduct Christians should not engage in. For more information on polygamy in the Bible and the disastrous consequences of these relationships, see Roger Patterson, “What About Polygamy in the Bible?,” also available as a chapter in Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge, gen. eds., How Do We Know the Bible Is True? Volume 1 (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2011).
  3. Obviously, due to the fact that we live in a fallen world, some women are unable to bear children. For further information on childbirth and pain, see Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell’s articles, “Is It Wrong to Interfere with the Pain of Childbirth?,” “The Evolution of Childbirth?,” and “Understanding the Answer in Genesis 3:16.”
  4. For further information on how God worked through Eve, see Dr. Georgia Purdom’s presentation, Hope Amid Despair.
  5. Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1–3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006), p. 108.
  6. Since marriage is defined in the Bible as being strictly between a man and a woman, two men or two women or any other formulation of a “marriage” is outside of God’s design and therefore not a true marriage.
  7. Gregg Johnson, “The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006), pp. 282–284.
  8. Ibid., p. 284.
  9. This is not to say that there are not exceptions to the rule. Hormone levels vary, and not every man or woman will exhibit every characteristic Dr. Johnson describes. However, generally speaking, these differences are readily apparent in men and women, and they are based on God-given hormones that correlate to gender.
  10. Regarding hermaphrodites (those who are born anatomically both male and female), I am not advocating that nothing be done for their condition. Humanity is marked by the Curse, and with that comes a marring of God’s design for us. In those rare cases, in which there are physical and social issues and challenges that must be dealt with individually, wisdom should be exercised in determining how to handle the situation so that the outcome is God honoring. For more on this, see Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell’s article, “Feedback: Hermaphroditism.”


Get the latest answers emailed to you.

I agree to the current Privacy Policy.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA, and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390