30 Nov 2016
On May 13, 2016, many were surprised to learn that the federal government issued a directive, concerning transgenderism, to schools receiving federal Title IX grants. The directive said that schools must allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room that match their gender identity. A confusing issue on a personal level became even more confusing as it developed into a public policy issue.
The emergence of public scrutiny over gender raises questions in the minds of many Christians: Why would someone identify as transgender? What do we mean by gender? Is it possible that there are more than two genders, male and female? How does Scripture call Christians to interact with transgender individuals?
These questions and the various answers given have sparked tremendous confusion and even, from some, hostility over what many see as another example of society going off the rails. It has become crucial for Christians to know how to reason through these issues on gender. With opinions on gender coming at us from all directions, we must find clarity to both understand and respond—intelligently, and with Christ-like compassion.
How do we understand what gender is?
What is a traditional understanding of gender? To understand what is revolutionary about current gender politics, a quick look at how gender has been viewed historically, across all cultures, is necessary. For the whole of human existence, society, with few exceptions, has affirmed a male-female binary regarding gender. In other words, an individual’s [given] physical sex at birth revealed and determined which gender the person was, however those gender roles of being a man or woman were expressed in one’s given cultural time period.
In the twin areas of sexuality—sexual behavior and gender identity — the church is experiencing tremendous pressure to change its understanding of what Scripture says about personhood and identity—and to subsume its authority to that of the individual.
This view of gender understood that for a very few number of individuals (about one in every 1,500 births, or .007% of the population), this binary classification was not clear at birth. A condition known as intersex, formerly known as hermaphroditism, occurs when an individual is born either with genitalia of both sexes or with ambiguous genitalia. This poses tremendous challenges for these children and their parents regarding what gender they will live out. We ought to give much understanding and compassion for these difficult situations. However, intersex conditions have not been viewed historically as evidence of multiple genders, but rather as disorders of sexual development. Like someone born without the ability to use their legs to stand or walk, such a condition does not argue that there are multiple views about what legs are for.
What is the new cultural understanding of gender? In simple terms, it’s this: Instead of possessing one of two fixed genders for life, the new understanding is that gender is fluid. Gender exists not as two permanent, fixed points, but rather on a continuum ranging from male to female. One’s experience of gender is no longer one gender or the other; instead, it can be entirely opposite from one’s biological sex, or one can switch back and forth between two genders. The goal of this cultural redefinition of gender is to ultimately do away with even the categories of male and female. Gender doesn’t matter in understanding what it means to be human.
A second element of this new cultural understanding is that gender is not innate, but acquired. While a child is born with male or female genitalia, that child does not develop his or her sense of gender identity until well after birth, according to psychologists. In most individuals, psychological gender is congruent with physical sex. However, in some cases, this is not so. Hence, it is possible to have an individual born with genitalia associated with one gender, but to have a psychological conception of one’s gender that is incongruent with one’s physical sex.
Transgender is a blanket term applied to a person whose subjective experience of gender is incongruent with his or her physical sex. Because of this perceived discrepancy, a transgender individual may elect to live out his or her gender in any number of ways. One might choose to identify as a particular gender different from his or her physical sex but never take measures to surgically or pharmacologically alter his or her physical sex. Someone might go through a process of using certain drugs to alter brain chemistry and hormone levels to develop physical characteristics of his or her preferred gender. Or one might elect to undergo gender reassignment surgery. These last two processes are known colloquially as transitioning.
Gender matters to God, and as his image bearers, it should matter to us as well.
This particular cultural concept of gender is new and itself in a state of evolution. In 2012, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association categorized the aforementioned types of gender incongruence as a psychiatric condition: Gender Identity Disorder (GID). Just four years ago, the psychiatric community would have counseled the GID-presenting patient to accept his or her physical sex.
When the DSM-IV was updated in 2013 (DSM-V), the diagnostic criteria for GID changed, so that most people who were previously diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder are now diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria—a perceptual problem, as opposed to a disorder. Now the goal of the therapist is to help patients accept their perceived or preferred psychological gender.
What is the problem with transgender? Essentially, this view of sex and gender makes the individual’s experience and feelings primary about what it means to be a person. Who I am and what I am are grounded in what I feel or believe about myself. Everything else—whether Scripture, or physical reality, or millennia-old social understanding—becomes secondary to my understanding of personhood. So if I feel as though I am another gender—whether male, female, or something in-between—that is who I actually am.
This radical view of personhood and identity comes out of the movement toward deconstructing gender and sex (as they have been traditionally and historically understood), which is the fruit of the sexual revolution that began more than half a century ago. Sexual boundaries and gender understanding are seen as social constructs, imposed by tradition (religious and civil) and by those in power. Viewing the issue from that worldview, the individual is elevated above society and is now seen as self-determinative and authoritative, able to choose what best fits their own perception of reality. The result of this worldview disallows any kind of objective truth from God—that the world he created has a particular design and a particular purpose within which people find God’s plan, his purposes, and themselves.
In the twin areas of sexuality—sexual behavior and gender identity—the church is experiencing tremendous pressure to change its understanding of what Scripture says about personhood and identity—and to subsume its authority to that of the individual. While the world sees this process as freedom and finding authenticity of self, Scripture views it as the outworking of sin and rebellion that is the result of the brokenness of life. The last line in the book of Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” aptly describes our world of increasing chaos and brokenness.
What is God’s view of gender?
Understanding the narrative of Scripture when it discusses human beings, made in the image of God, as either male or female, will give us a critical starting point for entering into this discussion.
Scripture is the starting point for how Christians ought to think and live. God’s Word has much to say regarding gender and makes the following especially clear:
- It identifies two (and only two) genders in creation, with no distinction between biological sex (male and female) and gender (being a man or a woman)
- It describes the brokenness of creation in the Fall, from which gender confusion results
Scripture identifies two (and only two) genders in creation
We see this plainly when God establishes two genders—male and female—by decree in Genesis 1:27:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
God created men and women specifically for a particular kind of relationship with one another: The covenant of marriage, where the creation of children, leading to the development of both family and society, is a major reason for our sexuality. Sexual activity is connected to humanity’s purpose in life—a purpose that God mentions in Genesis 1:28 to manage the earth and make it a place of bounty and beauty. Creating life is an essential part of this.
But the Genesis story, as the anchor for our understanding of sexuality and gender, doesn’t limit gender differences only to reproduction. Male and female reflect God’s image to the world, and particularly so when a husband and wife join together in marriage. The narrative in Genesis hints at how gender differences profoundly shape humanity and our relationships. When Adam first sees Eve, he speaks of both similarity and difference, and between them a relationship develops where intimacy, transparency, mutual love, and unity grow in a way unlike any other human relationship (Gen 2: 21-25). Eve’s designation as Adam’s “helper” speaks of a relationship of unity and shared purpose (and not, as some erroneously think, that woman is inferior to man).
The importance of gender is not relegated only to marriage, either. A single man or woman also lives out their unique identities and personalities in the context of their malenesss or femaleness. All relationships are structured and enhanced through how we relate to one another as gendered beings.
So, God has established two genders—male and female—generally, in creation. But, we must note that he has also established these genders particularly in the lives of each individual. That is to say, God has assigned one of the two genders to each person at his or her birth. Scripture declares that God has planned out our unique identities, which includes the biological sex with which we were born.
The Psalmist in Psalm 139 says clearly that God designed each person before he or she existed:
- “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
- “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139:15)
- “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” (Psalm 139:16)
God both declares and foreknows the gender he has given to us. Examples of this are found throughout Scripture: Hagar is told she will bear a son who is to be named Ishmael (Genesis 16:11); Abraham and Sarah are told that Sarah will bear a son, and they are to name him Isaac (Genesis 17:19); the angel of the Lord tells Manoah that his barren wife will soon bear a son (Judges 13:3); and Mary receives the startling news, as an unmarried woman, that she would bear a son, Jesus, who would be the Messiah (Luke 1:31).
These key redemptive-historical acts, while they only mention the birth of sons, nevertheless establish the fact that it is God who ordains who we are as either male or female, as either sons or daughters.
Scripture describes the brokenness of creation in the Fall, from which gender confusion results
Christians do not live in a perfect, transcendent world; they share in the extensive brokenness of all creation. In the area of sexual behavior, the numerous prohibitions in the Old Testament regarding particular sexual acts is telling. The reason why God had to spell out one sexual prohibition after another was not because he views sex as intrinsically evil (as some think Christian doctrine teaches), but because our fallen, sinful hearts are capable of doing evil even with the good things God has created.
Though God’s order for creation exists in fractured form, it still remains. It still matters that we live according to it. Regarding gender confusion or fluidity, in Deuteronomy 22:5, the Lord tells his people that to live as if you are someone of the opposite gender is sin. For many years, Deuteronomy 22:5 was used as a proof text against transvestitism, but its meaning goes far beyond simply wearing the clothes of the other gender. The verb-object clause used in the verse means to “put on the mantle” of the opposite gender—in other words, to live as though you were of the other gender.
The entire narrative of Scripture, including this passage, proclaims that God created all individuals to be either male or female, and to live as a man or woman in harmony with their physical sex. (As mentioned earlier, special consideration should be given to those who are born with intersex conditions, for they will require difficult decisions that are made for the benefit of the child; but these rare non-binary situations, which some proclaim as evidence of a “third” gender or sex, are evidence that God’s original design is broken and not that he intended multiple forms of gender.)
Gender matters to God, and as his image bearers, it should matter to us as well. To alter one’s birth gender or to live as a member of the other gender is therefore sin—as it is a repudiation of God’s will and intent for the particular creature.
One is reminded of the Lord’s words to his rebellious people in Isaiah 29:16:
You who turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?
To live outside of his design and purpose is to engage in rebellion against him, even if that rebellion is the result of confusion and personal pain. The confusion about gender is the result of our world moving away from an acceptance of God as both creator and ruler. The implications for the individual in distress, and for society as a whole, are enormous. It is right and good and necessary that we proclaim a true view of human personhood and the benefits that come from embracing it.