Is It Really True That Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus?

In the 1990s, John Gray made at least a small fortune with his book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The book was on best-seller lists for years and was discussed on almost every talk show. It also fed some of the prevailing myths about women and men. Was that book on target? Are men and women from different planets?

When we look at some of the recent popular literature, we may conclude that John Gray was right. Both Christian and secular writers appear to have accepted his basic premise. For example, in Men and Masculinity, British evangelical leader Roy McCloughry concluded that “all conversation between men and women is cross-cultural conversation.”1 He later elaborated by quoting Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. Tannen makes the point that men and women use conversation for different purposes: Women use conversation to seek confirmation, to make connections, and to reinforce intimacy; men, on the other hand, use conversation primarily to protect their independence and to negotiate status.2

If, in fact, there is truth in these conclusions, the task of preaching to mixed audiences may be far more complicated than most preachers know. It is possible that the way a doctrine is taught or an illustration is selected can actually backfire on half (or more) of an audience, simply because we think that men and women hear the words we have spoken in the same way. Is it possible that men and women in the same country, in the same town, in the same church could actually move within different cultures? If so, what are the implications for the preaching task?

Anthropologist and missiologist Paul Hiebert discusses culture as the way in which ideas, feelings, and values are shared by a group of people.3 In normal use, the word culture refers to any group’s “way of life” – how people act based on what they believe, feel, and value. Churches have their own cultures – their shared beliefs, feelings, and values. Ethnic groups have their own cultures – their shared beliefs, feelings, and values. Nations have their own cultures – their shared beliefs, feelings, and values. It may be that men and women in North America have subtly different cultures, with somewhat different sets of shared beliefs, feelings, and values.

We tend to think that “all Americans” or “all Methodists” (or Baptists or Pentecostals or whatever) would hear messages in similar ways. Yet it takes only a few minutes of reflection to recognize that deep divisions exist even within our ethnic or denominational subcultures. That should alert us to the possibility that men and women may actually live in different worlds of ideas, feelings, and values.4
Historian Anne Firor Scott tells us that our culture grinds the lens through which we view reality.5 A lens that allows us to see one thing clearly may also make other things fuzzy, impossible to see. Anyone who wears bifocals understands how that works: A near-sighted person needs one lens for reading and a separate lens for seeing anything more than a few feet away. Is it possible that men and women have different cultural “lenses” that cause them to look at reality in differing ways?

• Our culture shapes our ideas, our cultural knowledge.6 Cultural knowledge is not only the categories we use to sort out reality but also the assumptions and beliefs we have about reality – the nature of the world around us and how it works. Our culture provides us with the basic building blocks of our thoughts, so we must ask if there is a separate male culture that provides men with ingredients for their thoughts that are different from those provided to women. Perhaps no. Perhaps yes. But it is a question we must ask.

• Our culture shapes our feelings about things – our attitudes, our notions of what is beautiful or ugly, our tastes in food and dress, how we like to enjoy life, how we experience sorrow or joy. Clearly, women have cultural permission to feel and express emotion in ways different from those of men.

• Our culture shapes our values, which help us judge which things are moral and which are immoral. Many women would assert that men have a different moral code with its own culturally defined sins – not identical to the moral code that defines sin for women. Men and women do not always agree on which acts are righteous and which are immoral.

It may be easier for us to grasp the reality of cultural difference in terms of different generations. When I am with any of my six grandsons, I hear them speak a language different from my own. Yes, they use words that are in my vocabulary – words such as cool or awesome or radical – but they do not attach the same meanings to them. So I might ask Chris, “When you say that Eric is cool, what do you mean? What’s cool about Eric? He seems pretty warm to me.” I listen to the vast array of inflections used in the ways my grandsons pronounce a word such as cool, and I know that it is an important word with many meanings and many uses. I just don’t speak that language.

But if my husband, Randall, and I sit sipping coffee together after breakfast, chatting about our family, our work, and the day ahead of us, I can easily assume that he and I speak the same language. After all, we have lived together for more than half a century! But once in a while he says something that reminds me that we are not always speaking the same language. For example, though we both grew up during the Great Depression and share conservative attitudes about the way we use money, we do not talk about money in the same way. His father lost his job in 1933 and was unable to support the family. My father had work throughout the Depression, and though we were poor by today’s standards, we never went hungry. As a result, I tend not to worry about losing everything we have in the same way Randall does. He is more cautious about spending than I am, coming out of a life experience that is different from mine. Thus, the words save and spend carry different freight for him.7

The same thing happens countless times between the pulpit and the pew. When a pastor steps into the pulpit on Sunday morning, the odds make it likely that nearly three out of every four adults waiting to hear the sermon are women, although the ratio will vary from church to church. But the reality is that most pastors speak to more women than men every Sunday. It is this reality that makes it practical and logical to think about women as listeners:

• What kind of word from God do you think today’s woman may be listening for?
• What kind of word from God do you think she might be hearing, regardless of what you are saying?
• What preoccupations does she have that you must break through?
• Does she differ from men in the audience in significant ways?
• If so, what are the implications for your preaching each week?

Caution: Myths Abound

What are little girls made of?
Of sugar and spice,
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.
What are little boys made of?
Of snips and snails,
And puppy dog tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.

If we trust nursery rhymes for the truth about gender, we might arrive at the conclusion that males and females differ in their very essence. There is no overlap between “sugar and spice and everything nice” and “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.” But we do not look to nursery rhymes to answer the question of what it means to be a man or a woman.

Yet even without the nursery rhymes, the moment the subject turns to possible differences between men and women, it is necessary to flag the potholes in the road before us. Gender differences provide fertile ground for the stuff of myths. The first gender myth is a two-headed Hydra.8 One head is the tendency to exaggerate the differences between men and women. The other head is the denial of any differences between men and women (beyond physiology). Both lead us away from the truth about gender as God’s good gift to humanity. When differences are exaggerated, people are often reduced to sets of roles and are denied their full personhood. When differences are denied, God’s purposes in creating humanity as male and female may be thwarted.

It is easy to exaggerate differences. For example, some writers draw up lists of characteristics for men and for women. When the categories in such lists are exaggerated to the point of being mutually exclusive, social scientists call this type-A error or alpha-bias. Type-A error strikes daily in many contexts. For example, on the nightly news a politician exaggerates the difference between the positions of two parties on a bill before Congress. During television commercials, a drug company exaggerates the benefits of its medication over those of competitors in the market. Advertising people constantly look for the real or imagined “edge” they can play up by exaggerating a product’s difference from its competitors. Whether the players are politicians, drug manufacturers, or preachers also looking for the “edge” that will make a sermon memorable, a listener must be alert to the exaggeration of differences, simplified to the point of becoming simplistic – and untrue.

Any time a list sets up an extreme comparison, excluding groups of people from one or the other category, type-A error may be present. For example, a list that states that men are cognitive and women are emotional, or that men are active and women are passive is guilty of alpha-bias. Women as well as men may be cognitive, and men as well as women may be emotional. Women as well as men can be active, and men as well as women can be passive.

On the other hand, because some people simplistically exaggerate differences, others end up denying all differences. This is called type-B error or beta-bias. Because exaggerated differences are often exploited in hurtful ways,9 some people choose to discount any legitimate difference that exists. The temptation is strong either to exaggerate differences or to deny them. Both are errors. Both lead to myths that, in the area of gender, do not accurately reflect men’s and women’s realities.

G.K. Chesterton compared orthodoxy to a narrow ridge between two chasms.10 The truth about gender difference is also a narrow ridge between the chasm of alpha-bias (exaggerating the difference) and beta-bias (denying the difference). Many books about men and women totter on the brink of or fall into one or the other chasm. In some churches, the difference between men and women may be grossly exaggerated. In fact, it is often stereotyped. On the other hand, many voices in the wider culture call for unisex, declaring that there are no differences between men and women. But the reality is that both are chasms sloping away from the narrow ridge of truth about gender difference.11

All of this warns us that it is a complex task to sort out gender issues that impact ministry. We have to monitor ourselves for either alpha-bias or beta-bias. We want to stay on the narrow ridge of the truth about gender and avoid the chasms on either side of us as we explore how gender touches ministry, particularly in the area of preaching.

A second myth – especially when we read popular articles or books about gender difference – lumps all men into one category and all women into the opposite category. It turns out that there is as much diversity within a group of women or within a group of men as there is between men and women. This has been shown to be true in studies of math skills, verbal skills, aggression, and spatial abilities. The between-group difference is smaller than the within-group difference. One reason for this is that within any general category of difference, other variables factor in. For example, in controlled studies, men in general have better spatial abilities than women. It turns out, however, that gender is not the only factor involved in spatial ability. People who have lived in wide open spaces appear to have better spatial abilities than people who have grown up in confined areas.12 When it comes to spatial abilities, therefore, gender matters, but environment matters more. And the environment that appears to matter most of all in gender issues is the social environment in which men and women interact.

No behavior, including behavior relating to gender, exists independent of the social context in which it occurs. It is true that if we know the sex of the listener, we know something important. That is good news. As we understand something about the differences and similarities of men and women, we can be more effective preachers. But the bad news is that in considering gender, we can never consider gender per se alone. Gender is rarely, if ever, the only variable we need to take into account if we are to increase the power of God’s Word in people’s lives.

Ministers who seek to be more effective in sharing God’s Word with women face two types of challenge. First, they must understand, at least in part, the experience of women as women. Second, they must also understand that the women who listen are not simply generic “women.” Each woman is an individual who may be a woman and a business executive, or a woman of color, or a single woman living at home and caring for aging parents, or a woman who is divorced and receiving public assistance. She may be a stay-at-home mother with five children. Women are never generic; they are individuals with gender in common but with enormous differences between them. For a preacher, therefore, these differences are as significant as gender in the way each woman will hear the message being preached.

A third myth is that gender is the only factor that matters. Gender matters, but paying attention to gender does not automatically erase the other social factors that, in turn, impact the ways in which women hear a preacher’s voice. As a case in point, suppose you are a young, white, unmarried male pastor of an affluent suburban church. A colleague is ill and has asked you to step in and speak to a MOPS13 group consisting of African American women from an inner-city church in an economically deprived neighborhood. The group includes single mothers receiving public assistance, grandmothers who are primary care givers of young grandchildren, and young married women working night shifts in order to stay home days with their children. Who is your audience? Women. But is gender the only factor you must consider in answering that question? What is the significance of ethnicity? Of economics? Of marital status? Of age? Of your ethnicity? Your economics?

Your marital status? Your age? Gender matters, but we are closer to the truth in almost every instance if in sharing good news from God, we act on the basis that gender is not the only thing that matters. Many times it may be the least relevant factor to be considered.

When researchers set up a study, they must identify and control all the variables they think might influence the results. For example, if a medical school wants to study the interaction of a particular drug with a specific disease, it is not enough simply to study the drug and the disease in a certain number of infected people. A host of other variables can skew the results of the study unless they are taken into consideration: the patient’s age; other medications being used; family history; usual diet, sleep, work, and play habits; addictions; and on and on. Any one of these factors (and others) can mislead researchers if ignored and left out of the study. It is the same when we talk about gender differences. We must nuance carefully what we say about women and men in the pew. There are many variables at work in their lives. Often within-group differences are greater than between-group differences. This should caution us about assuming the myths that may lie behind the assertion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

Some Truth about Differences between Men and Women

This leads to the question whether there really are any differences between men and women that matter when a preacher steps into the pulpit. To attempt to answer that question, we must distinguish between two interactive parts: our sex and our gender. They are not synonyms. Sex is the biological part of us. It includes all the differences in male and female reproductive structures, the differences in chromosomes (women are XX and men are XY), the differences in hormones (the balance of testosterone and estrogen, for example), and the differences in physical features such as body hair, muscle mass, skin tone, and strength. Gender, on the other hand, refers to everything we associate with being masculine or feminine – the ways we think, feel, and behave that express femininity or masculinity in culturally accepted patterns. As a general rule, therefore, sex refers to what is biologically determined and gender refers to what is socially learned – the things we have picked up since our infancy about the attitudes and behaviors that are appropriate to being male or female.

Yet there is a strong interaction between our sex and our gender. Look at the role played by essential physiological differences in our reproductive systems. A woman has a uterus and breasts and thus, in most cases, can conceive, give birth to a baby, then nourish that infant. Such abilities have all kinds of ramifications for difference. There is no doubt that women experience physiological events associated with reproduction that have no counterpart in male experience. There is no male corollary to menstruation, pregnancy, parturition, lactation, and the physiology of menopause. Nor do women experience these events only physically. They also experience them emotionally. These events in a woman’s body are not just biological. They are integral to the way a woman sees her body and, in many cases, her self-worth and her sexuality.

Does that force us to agree with Sigmund Freud that “biology is destiny”? Not necessarily. Ruth Bleier tells us that “biology defines possibilities but doesn’t determine them.”14 Biology is never irrelevant. But neither is it determinant. For each person – male and female – body, mind, behavior, history, and environment interact in unique ways. No two people emerge with exactly the same gender identities.

At issue here is the ongoing debate about gender difference between those who believe that the differences between men and women are innate and those who believe that the differences are the result of life experience. But when we examine a wide range of data, we find that it is not a question of all nature (biology) or all nurture (socialization). There is an interaction between the two in all of us. Some people want to exclude nature entirely and insist on 100 percent nurture. Others want to exclude nurture entirely and insist on 100 percent nature. The truth is somewhere in between. Gender differences do exist. The roots of those differences, however, lie in some combination of nature, nurture, and the environment in which the interaction occurs.

There is a danger in exaggerating the role of nature in the difference. For example, some Christian writers state that God created men to be initiators and women to be responders.15 If God created men and women thus, then any deviation from that norm in the behavior of a man or a woman is a deviation from God’s creational intention. Yet there are Christian men who are uncomfortable in the role of sole initiator, and there are Christian women who do not fit easily into the passive mode of a responder. This is important for you as a preacher to appreciate. If you accept that the differences between men and women are inherent (whether by God’s design or biology), you may create great inner conflict and guilt in well-meaning people who do not conform in every way to the model being held up to them as godly or inherent in their being.16 You do not preach to a few stereotypes. You speak to individuals in a given social context. To be true to your calling in sharing the Word of God effectively, you must see your listeners as individuals beyond the stereotypes.

Alice Matthews is Lois W. Bennett Distinguished Professor of Educational Ministries and Women’s Ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA.

Taken from Preaching that Speaks to Women by Alice Matthews. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Copyright 2003. Used with permission.

1 Roy McCloughry, Men and Masculinity: From Power to Love (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992), 208.
2 Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation (London: Virago, 1991), quoted in ibid., 210.
3 For an excellent extended discussion of culturally relevant ministry, see Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985).
4 Elizabeth Aries raises important questions about this “two-culture” approach to gender, noting that it fails to recognize the importance of sexual inequalities at a societal level. I have chosen to acknowledge her concern for power inequalities between men and women but not make that a part of this article. For her discussion of this issue, see Elizabeth Aries, Men and Women in Interaction: Reconsidering the Differences (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 195ff.
5 Ann Firor Scott, “On Seeing and Not Seeing: A Case of Historical Invisibility,” The Journal of American History 71, no. 1 (1984): 7, 19.
6 This is not the same use of the word knowledge as that of philosophers.
7 This is not to say that gender explains all the difference between my husband and me! We were both shaped by our families of origin and by our diverse experiences as adults in our social context.
8 In Greek literature, the Hydra was a mythical monster with nine heads. As Hercules attempted to slay this beast by lopping off a head, two heads would grow in its place unless the wound was immediately cauterized. The hydra came to symbolize any multifarious evil, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2d ed. (Springfield, Mass.: G & C Merriam Co., 1949).
9 Studies of ethnic prejudice have clearly identified the strong tendency for “difference” to become the basis for discrimination against the one who is different.
10 Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1909).
11 There are some strange bedfellows in the gender wars. Many conservative Christians and some radical feminists (such as Dr. Mary Daly) both tend to exaggerate the difference between men and women.
12 Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 34-36.
13 MOPS is the acronym for a Colorado-based national parachurch ministry, Mothers of Preschoolers.
14 Cited in J. Williams, Psychology of Women: Behavior in a Biosocial Context, 3d ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 97.
15 For example, see Elisabeth Elliot, “The Essence of Femininity: A Personal Perspective,” chapter 25 in John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 397.
16 More dangerous is that such teaching opens the door to a sociobiological view of gender differences that sees such differences as biological and thus irreversible. This creates the possibility of a victim mentality: One can argue that he or she bears no responsibility for outcomes that are the result of something “biological.” A rapist actually pled “not guilty” in a court of law on the basis that he was a victim of his testosterone. God holds us responsible for actions, which a victimization theory of gender would not allow. If, on the other hand, differences between men and women stem from an interaction between our sex and our gender (learning), we can evaluate which of them might be immutable and which may need to be changed.

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Generally speaking women are generally speaking! It’s hard for us to stop and let someone else have a turn! But Sunday by Sunday we do stop and let the preachers — generally, a man — speak to us.
Please make sure you arrest our attention, challenge our spirits, address our attitudes, and fill our souls with singing. And how are you supposed to do that? “Well,” you may reply, “by exegeting the Scriptures. That is what we went to seminary to learn.”
Well now, while you were there, did anyone ever explain half the human race to you? Most of you have more of us looking at you and listening to you on a Sunday than our male counterparts. Many of us run the program of the church, care for the children of the church, polish the woodwork of the church, sing in the choir of the church, cook the potlucks for the church (in fact, the pots would have no luck at all without us) and generally ‘do’ the work of the ministry. We need you to feed us as thoroughly as you need us!
To do this you have to know where we’re coming from. For example, where have we been on a Sunday morning before you ever see us sitting in a pew? By the time we sit down our minds are often hectic, our spirits frantic, and our souls arctic. By 9:00 a.m. we already have journeyed (in our minds) right through the day. We’ve had our Sunday — this day of rest (the wicked and women being exempt from the rule).
For some of us that are married, plans have to be made to feed more mouths than on any other day of the week, to juggle the ever-present necessities of home life more artfully than on any weekday, and gear up for more family fights than usual.
Realize we sit there trying to corral our thoughts. First of all, our children didn’t want to come to church with us. “The preacher preaches too long, Mom!” We sit there worrying about all this while our husbands are somehow able to put it on one side and deal with it later. And just what are our little horrors doing to their Sunday School teachers, we worry next! You can see you have quite a job on your hands to chase our minds back to the Scriptures!
Many of us work outside the home as well as within it. What do you know about our world? Hopefully more than your sermon shows! Do you listen to us regularly as we try to explain what it’s like for a woman out there? Have you any idea what it feels like, for instance, to go up for a job with a man of equal merit, get the job, and then receive less pay for it? Let us tell you about that!
Do you ever have a group of us women round to the parsonage and just listen to us so you can see where we are coming from? Some of us love it and some of us hate it out in the marketplace; and more and more of us need encouragement to catch the vision of evangelism, rather than feeling added guilt about working.
Women are practical creatures — geniuses with schedules – keeping all parts of a dinner hot, dispatching three kids or more in as many different directions at once, and feeding them all by the next ‘gathering’ time. Maybe you could be more ‘practical’ in your applications of the truth for us. Tell us the steps 1-2-3 to achieve the principles you pray about so eloquently. Men, we understand, work in broad concepts in the board room. They debate philosophy and work with goals. We need you to tell us the way your sermon can put boots on and walk into our kitchen, living room, bedroom and office!
Women are relational creatures. This is where we live our lives, dream our dreams, move and have our being. How our ears prick up when you investigate Abraham’s relationship with Lot, Jacob with Rachel, Sarah with Hagar, Mary with Elizabeth. Now we are at home in your talk. Now the principals stretch out their hands and we are captivated. You have won our hearts.
This is not to say women are not intelligent creatures. Even though we like you to spend some time being practical for us, we aren’t afraid of a Greek word, a lofty phrase, a ‘nuance’ of a verse. We’ll reach, stretch, risk the query at the end of a sermon if we don’t quite know what you were saying, and even read a theology book if you lend us one! Don’t insult us by forbearing to challenge us to wrestle with a current theological issue — but please be sensitive to our feelings about it and reactions to it.
Women are spiritual creatures. Some of us do not share some of your theological views about us. It’s hard to hear our gifts discussed from the pulpit and well nigh impossible to divorce it from our femininity. When I hear a preacher say, “Women must not ….” I tell myself he’s saying, “Jill must not.”
How can we avoid personalizing it all? So please, be gentle. That’s our gift you are debating. The future of our ministry in your church is in your hands. Men are making the decisions for us. I think that should be cause for pause!
The same sensitivity would be helpful for those who have had an abortion, as we hear you speak eloquently about the right to life movement, or those regrettably single again as we hear about the ills of divorce (we could preach ‘that’ one for you!). But sometimes the shame creeps into the pew and sits hard by our side and we can’t listen as well as we should if we feel you haven’t spent enough time face to face with some of us to catch our heartbeat, feel our anguish, and share our tears.
Women are struggling to find identity today; don’t laugh at us while we discover ourselves. It’s been a long dark road into the light and laughter of full womanhood. The subject of self-image sells books, fills seminars, counseling offices, mental homes. If we are made in the same image of God as you are, it would be such an encouragement to hear it from the pulpit.
Lastly, how about some illustrations from our world!
By all means, tell us stories about sports, but remember not too many of us get the point if we aren’t sports buffs like our men folk. Take time to explain why half the congregation is laughing their heads off at the joke! We’d like to join in and appreciate it, too.
Think of us as you prepare your messages. We love the Lord and we love the church; we love you and we want to work our heads off for the kingdom, laughing at the devil and making waves for God. But we need equipping for the task. We need to feel you know us, appreciate us, and understand us! (It can be done!)
We’ll surely pray for you and commit ourselves to doing our part as you preach to us.

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