A Review of Michael Clary’s God’s Good Design
The author of a new book on human sexuality knows what time it is in our culture. Michael Clary, lead pastor of Christ the King Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the author of God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality (Ann Arbor, MI: Reformation Zion, 2023).
Clary’s thesis is that God’s design for sex is true, good, and beautiful. Embracing God’s design should delight you, not frighten you.
What is actually frightening is how the world has twisted God’s design by means of Gnosticism (which undergirds the modern idea that a person’s sex and gender may be different), feminism and androgyny (which pressure women to try to act like men), contraception (which encourages casual sex by separating marriage, sex, and childbearing), so-called gay marriage (which reduces marriage to a legal sex contract), and transgenderism (which is the offspring of feminism that is now devouring its mother). “The sexual revolution is like a runaway train that has no breaks” (p. 17). Next up: pedophilia, polygamy, polyamory, and bestiality.
Clary develops his thesis in eleven chapters:
1. The human household is a copy of the cosmic household of God the Father. God reveals himself in Scripture as masculine: “The Bible never describes God’s being with feminine language. God may do things that seem more feminine, but God’s being is never described that way” (p. 34, italics original). “Headship is masculine,” and it’s good for both men and women (p. 38).
2. God beautifully designed men to have male bodies with masculine souls and a masculine nature, and he beautifully designed women to have female bodies with feminine souls and a feminine nature. A woman is a potential mother—physically and expressed in other ways.
3. Stereotypes recognize patterns, and it is wise to recognize that men and women are different. Men are better equipped to lead and provide and protect, and women are better equipped to help and nurture and refine. That doesn’t mean that men don’t help or nurture or refine or that women don’t lead or provide or protect. It simply recognizes that men are better at structuring society and that women are better at domesticating and beautifying. It’s in their DNA. For example, a woman’s “entire body is designed for and oriented towards reproduction. Her brain, hormones, joints, bones, cardiovascular system, immune system, breasts, and reproductive organs are all designed for the bearing and nurturing of children” (pp. 74–75).
4. Modern industrial households are very different from older agrarian ones. In Bible times, a household consisted of several generations living together who worked together within a community. A husband and wife worked as a team with the man tending toward outward “forming” tasks (like subduing the earth) and the woman tending toward inward “filling” tasks (like child-bearing and managing a household, which was no small job). Men can relate to others in the household in four ways—as sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. And women can relate as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers.
5. The way men and women sin and express virtue are not identical. Men sin and express virtue as men, and women sin and express virtue as women. The world (and even some Christians) encourages men to behave in more characteristically feminine ways and encourages women to behave in more characteristically masculine ways. “For example, strong-willed, independent, truth-oriented, and direct-speaking men are often considered arrogant, whereas passive, compliant, and egalitarian men are considered more Christlike” (p. 107). Masculine virtue includes courage, and feminine virtue includes giving life. Masculine vice includes exaggerating masculinity (e.g., using strength to oppress others) and diminishing masculinity (e.g., failing to use strength properly and instead being passive and effeminate). Feminine vice includes exaggerating femininity (e.g., using sexual desirability to manipulate men, immodesty, playing the victim) and diminishing femininity (e.g., grasping for power, lesbianism).
6. Pursuing a common mission is what holds a household together and makes it productive. People in the industrial world typically think of work as something you do away from home, which is a place to retreat and relax. Before the industrial revolution, the household and work were inseparable. We shouldn’t idealize the past as if the Amish way is the godly way, but “it is arrogant to regard the modern world as more advanced, liberated, and enlightened than previous generations” (p. 148).
7. Fathers are critically important to the health of a home. According to modern sociological studies, “The single biggest indicator of adult success is growing up with an intact family” (p. 166). A boy becomes a father by maturing in strength, leadership, courage, and wisdom and by marrying a virtuous woman who will help him accomplish his mission.
8. Our culture conditions us to devalue motherhood and to more highly value a woman who pursues a successful career outside the home. Feminists “asserted that the key to overturning the oppressive family structure was to dismantle marriage, separate sex from procreation, and promote sex as recreation” (p. 194). But nature is a stubborn thing. God designed women to instinctively want to be a mother—physically and metaphorically. That’s why struggles with infertility can be so crushing for a woman. Homemaking is a list of chores that you can outsource, but mothering requires a mother’s nurturing presence. A woman may work outside the home, but home should be her primary domain. Clary shares, “As a pastor, I offer this simple counsel: households should prioritize the mother staying home with her children as much as possible, especially when they are very young. But if this is not possible, it is not a sin. It is a sin, however, for a mother to neglect her household because she’s pursuing personal fulfillment in a career or working to have a more lavish lifestyle. … I recommend this as a rule of thumb for families with young children: mothers should work outside the home only as much as her income is needed for the family to be financially secure” (pp. 209–10). When it comes to preparing a girl for becoming a woman, the world tends to focus entirely on her future career. Wise parents and teachers won’t neglect to prepare them to become wives and mothers.
9. When you talk about marriage and parenting so positively, the question arises, “But what about singles?” There are a lot of unmarried people because an increasing number of people are avoiding marriage. Further, some people deeply yearn to be married but have not found the right match yet. While there’s a growing market for Christian resources to address singleness, “there’s also a bizarre trend of speaking of marriage and motherhood as ‘idols.’ While it is certainly possible for Christians to idolize family life, it could hardly be said that this is a significant problem in the modern church” (p. 217). It would be a mistake to downplay marriage and elevate singleness. Unfortunately, Christians often do that by highlighting how painful and difficult marriage can be and by obscuring its beauty and glory and joy. As a general rule, most Christians should pursue marriage, and those who are single but desire to be married should think of their situation as a difficulty to faithfully endure rather than as God’s call to celibacy.
10. Men and women are interdependent. The natural family needs a father and a mother to fulfill God’s creation mandate, and the church needs spiritual fathers and mothers to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. It is incorrect to think that the church most values women by making them elders. Headship is masculine, and the church will not reproduce strong, godly men with women pastors.
11. Sex is like fire in that it can delight or devastate. It depends on whether you use it properly. So we must flee immoral sex. That includes so-called “same-sex attraction,” a label that gives positive associations to what is sinful. (We don’t describe a greedy man as “attracted to money” or a liar as “attracted to deceit.”) The label “same-sex tempted” is more accurate. We shouldn’t equate sexual desire with personal identity.
I’ll share two small objections:
1. Chapter 3 relies heavily on an unpublished paper by Michael Foster. Those helpful insights are filled with common sense and wisdom, but the arguments would be even weightier with more sources.
2. Chapter 11 assumes that in 1 Corinthians 6:18 Paul means that sexual immorality is uniquely against one’s body (pp. 280–81). The ESV translates it, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” On that reading, Paul divides sin into two categories: nonsexual sins (outside the body) and sexual sins (against a person’s own body). I have argued elsewhere that 1 Corinthians 6:18 does not prove that immoral sex is uniquely against one’s body. (I think the middle part of 1 Corinthians 6:18—“Every sin, whatever a person commits, is outside the body” [my translation]—is a Corinthian slogan.) Immoral sex may uniquely defile the body and may be qualitatively worse than other sins, but I don’t think that 1 Corinthians 6:18 supports that.
Here are four specific strengths I appreciate about the book:
1. Clary explains how men and women are different. Have you ever been part of a church gathering on Mother’s Day that seemed to emphasize sympathizing with women who are not mothers more than it honored women who are mothers? That’s the sense I get when I hear some people address how men and women are different. They acknowledge that there are some obvious biological differences, but they emphasize that men and women are actually very similar and that stereotypes are unreliable: “I know a girl who is six and a half feet tall” or “I know a girl who is very strong and aggressive” or “I know a guy who is very nurturing and empathetic.” Clary’s book isn’t like that. He emphasizes complementary differences in line with reality based on what God has revealed in Scripture and nature. His counter-cultural common sense is refreshing.
2. Clary values virtuous stories. He writes, “Since these are the culture shaping stories forming our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, what sort of society will we become? We become less virtuous. Women abandon the glory of a house filled with children and exchange it for the glory of a cubicle and an apartment filled with cats. Men likewise abandon the glory of laying down their lives to raise up a godly seed and exchange it for the glory of a self-indulgent virtual war on a video game console. We need better stories” (p. 111).
After I read that, I watched a thirty-second video featuring Rachel Zegler, the lead actress in Disney’s new live-action remake of Snow White, an animated film from 1937. When a reporter asks her how she brings a modern edge to the famous story, she says, “I just mean that it’s no longer 1937. … She’s not going to be saved by the prince, and she’s not going to be dreaming about true love. She’s dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be and the leader that her late father told her that she could be if she was fearless, fair, brave, and true. And so it’s just a really incredible story for young people everywhere to see themselves in.”
Yeah, we need better stories.
3. Clary explains how men and women flourish when they live according to God’s good design. This is insightful: “Men are prone to certain vices that are curbed by social relations with women. … Women have the power to help men become the best version of themselves. … Women have a different power than men. A woman’s presence can catalyze male virtue and direct his masculine strength toward her desires. Put simply, masculine virtue can flourish under feminine influence because masculine strength was given for the protection and provision of a woman. Men tend to be at their best when their masculine energy, strength, and independence is channeled for the benefit of the women (and children) who are depending on them” (pp. 227–28). It has been said that men are like pickup trucks—they drive smoother and straighter with a heavy load.
4. Clary values being a wife and mother as a high calling. As the father of four daughters, I appreciate this emphasis. We are going against the grain of our culture when we try to raise daughters who value being a wife and mother as a high calling.
My oldest daughter was recently talking to a married couple in our neighborhood. They asked her, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” My daughter cheerfully replied, “I want to be a wife and have lots of children.” The neighbors started laughing because they thought she was joking. They expected her to say something like, “I want to be a brain surgeon.” They mocked the idea that an intelligent and energetic teenage girl would aspire to be a wife and mother. I’m glad that my mother didn’t think that way, and I’m glad that the mother of my children doesn’t think that way.
Overall, Clary’s book is timely, faithful, courageous, accessible, and inspiring. He warns against harmful error, and he builds us up with the truth. (I recommend listening to Chase Davis interview Clary about the book on a recent episode of Full Proof Theology.)
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