I recently spoke with a friend who denied binary gender. The working assumption in his worldview was that gender is fluid, and it is important to discover who you are in and of yourself. These discoveries should not be limited in definition by what is deemed ‘orthodox’ or ‘mainstream.’ Still, according to my friend, the scope of these discovered identities is not infinite. I’m not a universalist, he said. Not everything goes.
Without worrying too much about where the boundaries are drawn within the modern movement toward gender fluidity, I want to address the church and the challenge it faces. The challenge lodged at classical Christianity by those who reject binary gender is fairly simple: the church is wrong about gender. At the risk of being labeled a liberal and losing readers two paragraphs into the post, I would like to agree with this challenge. So, I speak directly to the church when I say,
You’re Wrong About Gender.
By this, I don’t mean that the postmodernists are right about gender, either. In fact, in my discussion with my friend, I found myself often disagreeing fundamentally with his claims. Still, I also found myself agreeing with his assertion that the church’s discussion of gender is largely misguided and often harmful for the development of a human being (both spiritually and practically). I see this, however, as less of a problem for the church and more of an opportunity. As history goes, heresy has often helped the church to crystallize and strengthen its positions. As with Arius, who gave Christians the opportunity to boldly assert the Christology handed down from the Apostles, this new movement gives the church a chance to delve deeper into Scripture and recover a truly biblical and beautifully freeing understanding of gender. In this way, orthodoxy is crystallized in response to heresy rather than being created in opposition to it. So far, the church has yet to do this in a unified fashion in response to this new movement. Nevertheless, I am optimistic.
But what has the church said about gender? Well, not a lot, actually, other than dogmatic assertions of unfounded opinion. The church’s response to this rising challenge has been little more than circular reasoning:
The reason for there being only two genders is because God made it that way. God made it that way because that’s just the way it is. Why is that just the way it is? Because God did it that way.This kind of baseless identity makes any kind of ethic arbitrary! This reasoning reduces the God of Christianity to a cruel tyrant who operates on any arbitrary whim that comes His way. But I am convinced that the God of the Bible is purposeful and that His commands and creative activity flow out of His character. Under this conviction, nothing is arbitrary, and everything is sanctified with divine importance.
We can learn a lot about gender from this new movement. It has offered a critique of the church that is largely valid and can be used as constructive criticism:
- Gender is a complicated issue. Given the brokenness and the far reaching effects of the Fall, it should not surprise us that all areas of identity are coming under question. Our first parents questioned their role in the world and it has muddied the waters of existence, purpose, and identity. I am certain that we have yet to see the extent of our crisis. With materialism reaching a record height of influence and science calling into question our assumptions of sex and sexuality, it is natural that gender should find itself in a skeptical spotlight.
- Gender is a painful issue. There may be no question that strikes closer to home than the question of identity. Taking the form of Who am I? and What am I?, these questions trouble us so deeply because they breed doubt about ‘I,’ whom we have known much longer and more intimately than ‘not-I.’ When who we are is no longer certain, when we doubt ourselves and–more painfully–do not know ourselves at all, our sense of belonging is replaced by profound loss and sadness. Add this to the fact that alternative gender-identities often fall under opposition and rejection by loved ones and peers, the gender question is often one of the most painful to ask and answer.
- The church has failed to provide rich and engaging answers to this issue. As aforementioned, those who reject binary gender are right about the church: we haven’t done a good job at engaging. We have been hateful, mean-spirited, and dismissive in offering our shallow answers to deep questions. We cling to a book we don’t understand and rip absolutes from its rich narrative and use it to condemn the world that Christ came to save. Were Jesus on earth today, He would probably critique the church just as harshly as the postmodernists, and He would do so with the authority of God.
This post has little to do with marriage (that’s another post entirely, one I hope to pen later). It has to do with gender identity in the whole of creation. The gender question is a complicated, painful issue, and the church at large has offered nothing more than baseless identity-constructs severed from the narrative of the Bible. At best, this is unhelpful; at worst, this is harmful. It voids the church of any right to engage in the culture. Thankfully, the church has gotten it wrong. The Bible’s answer to the gender question is much more rich than the divorced morality of modern Christianity.
That aside, we move to the question at hand. What does the Bible say about gender?
To answer this, we turn first to Genesis. Being as this is a blog post and not an article or a book, I will be brief. We learn first that God is the ultimate source of everything. All of reality finds its origin in Him. It follows, then, that the goodness of creation reflects the goodness of God. As the climax of the Creation Event, God creates mankind–both male and female–in His Image, in order to reflect more than anything else in creation the character and nature of the Creator. In fact, God even says that man is not good alone. In other words, Man is not good enough to reflect God’s Image in the world! This is a profound realization that while the stars, the moon, the earth, and the animals and plants are good, man–by himself–is not. Of all of creation, only man alone is called “not good.” It takes both genders to reflect the goodness of God, and one without the other is incomplete. (I mean this not in the sense that the single life is any less fulfilling or sanctified than the married life, but only to say that women became a part of creation because humanity was incomplete without the feminine component of the Imago Dei.)
At this point, an objection might be raised by the Christian proponents of gender fluidity. Genesis, it may be asserted, speaks of sex, not gender. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, sex refers to the physical component of identity, whether someone is male or female. The term gender, then, attempts to get at the more fundamental question of ontology, or who you really are. This category, according to gender fluid metaphysics, includes man, woman, two-spirit, genderqueer, bigender and others.
The above objection is a fair one and deserves to be noted, but ultimately misses the point of the passage. For starters, we do not find the same dichotomy between sex and gender in the Hebrew culture. To be man is to be male, and to be female is to be woman (it may be said that this is an inadequate view of gender, but that is nonetheless the gender conception of ancient Hebraic culture).
Furthermore, insofar as the passage deals with the reflection of the Image of God, it deals with metaphysical foundations of identity rather than physical anatomy. Unlike in LDS theology, which asserts that God has a body of flesh and bone, the God of the Bible does not have a physical body. God is spirit, independent of matter, and so “image” and “identity” is independent of matter. Because the term ‘sex’ refers to physical makeup, we are left with gender. So, the two genders found in Genesis–man and woman–represent the complete and perfect reflection of the Image of God in humanity.
So yes, Church, the Bible does isolate two genders, but the reason is not simply ‘because God said so.’ It is not enough to simply point at the Bible and say, See! There’s no such thing as genderqueer! Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve! You’re wrong! This is not only ineffective; it is also an ignorant and unfounded statement. What the bigot in our example is doing is ripping ethics and identity away from its purpose, rendering it valueless, powerless, and void. Such a statement is worthless on almost every front. The truth claim only has meaning if it is rooted firmly in the biblical narrative, giving it purpose. Why did God make humans? To bear His image perfectly. Why did God make multiple genders? To bear His image perfectly. God created two genders in order to create a perfect and complete picture of His nature. He could have created three, or five, or twenty, but for whatever reason He instilled in the two genders a complete picture of His Image. Insofar as the picture is complete, it cannot be added to, only twisted or denied.
So, the Bible asserts that the scope of possible gender is binary, but this brings us to another question. What does the Bible teach about the nature of the genders?
We have already seen that both genders are incomplete parts of a picture and that the creation of humanity is incomplete without both. Men are not good enough alone, and women are not good enough alone. (Again, I cannot stress enough that I do not mean this in a romantic way. Not everyone will get married. It is not the ultimate goal of a Christian woman to find a husband.) To reiterate this point, God says in Genesis that in creating woman He is creating a ‘helper’ for man. Now, this word has been the source of many feminist critiques of the bible and vehement shouts of misogyny and patriarchy, but this can only be from a gross misunderstanding of the biblical text. The word for helper, עֵזֶר (e.zer), is used in the Hebrew Bible 20 times, and refers to two people: Eve and God.
The term God gives to Eve is a term He applies to Himself. עֵזֶר does not refer to a subordinate luxury, someone who cooks, cleans, and prepares 5 o’clock martinis. When referring to an עֵזֶר, we are speaking of a vital piece of the puzzle, someone without whom the job cannot get done. As Israel is worthless and useless without God, humanity is worthless and useless without women. Man cannot do the job of filling the earth, stewarding creation, and bearing God’s glorious Image without the glorious feminine touch. There is a divine nobility wrapped up in the spirit of a woman, the helping image of our helping God.
God, in His loving kindness, desired for humanity to bear His Image. Because one gender (man) was not enough to be a perfect representation of His character, He created woman, because man couldn’t get the job done by himself. Without two genders, humanity could not fill the earth and keep it as bearers of the Divine Image. As such, each gender carries with it a divine nobility and blessing, bearing God’s Image as part of the complete creation.
Now, this does not mean that the traditionally held gender markers are infallible. Men are not confined to chopping wood and mowing the lawn while being barred from the kitchen. Women are not prohibited from joining the workforce and they are not confined to baking and knitting. While there are gender roles (which may be discussed in a different post), the gender markers of clothing, behavior, and mannerism are fluid. While distinction remains, the distinctions shift from culture to culture, time to time, and fashion trend to fashion trend. Men can wear skinny jeans; women can wear basketball shorts. Guys can bake; women can build houses.
The question may be asked: When does the blurring of gender markers go too far? While this is an underdeveloped point, I believe that the line is drawn in intent. I wear tighter jeans, but if I were to wear tight jeans in an attempt to identify as a woman, I would be doing more than challenging a gender marker; I would be challenging a gender.
A few final concluding remarks are in order. Remember that this post has been more of an indictment of the church than an attempt to engage with the current cultural movement of gender identity. Such an attempt would require a much longer discussion. No, this is addressed to the church. We must reclaim our focus on the narrative of Scripture in our discussion of all morality and identity. Divorcing these discussions from the Scripture narrative voids us of any right to engage, because our ethics will be baseless and unwarranted.
This post has not answered every question. It has not answered the question of intersex identity, for starters. Furthermore, it has not answered the question of biblical gender roles and the difference between the genders. The point of this post has not been to answer every question, but was to ground us again in the narrative of Scripture, without which Christians have no right to wield the Bible as a viable option in the public sphere.
In interacting with the world, the church, being grounded in the narrative of Scripture, must remember that the world does not believe in the same narrative we do. Both sides of any debate must understand where the other is coming from, and so it is with the gender debate. Until the world ascribes to our narrative, they have no reason to adhere to our views of identity and morality. Our interaction must be first on the foundational level, not on the practical. Instead of shoving our severed absolutes down the throats of a hurting world, we must connect them to the narrative from which our meaning and identity springs: the glory of God and His purposes in creation.
Above all else, remember that as we speak the truth, we must speak it in love. For we, too, twist the Image of God.
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