Published on November 10th, 2018 | by Josiah Batten1
God and Gender
Target allows people to use the bathroom of their choice. The Boy Scouts expand their inclusion of girls in their programs and change their name, and the Girl Scouts subsequently sue them. The Obama Administration instructs schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. The Trump Administration revokes that guidance, and questions whether transgender people should serve in the US military. Jordan Peterson ignites a firestorm for refusing to call students by their preferred gender pronouns.
Whatever you think about transgender issues, it cannot be disputed that we are having a significant cultural moment regarding our understanding of sex and gender. As Christians, our scholars are busy addressing issues related to sexual orientation that our society was addressing 15+ years ago. The bottom line is we missed the discussion on sexual orientation, and we are at risk of missing it on gender identity. As someone with a master’s degree in apologetics, I am aware of exactly one chapter in one book in the field of apologetics published in the last decade that focuses exclusively on addressing transgender issues (there may be more, but I have not found them, and not for a lack of trying).
My purpose in this post is to present, at least in outline form, a cohesive Christian evaluation of transgender theory. I hope to provoke more Christian thinkers to address this issue with the seriousness that it deserves, and to equip fellow Christians with clear answers on this difficult topic.
As with any serious issue, we must start with definitions. But unlike other issues, the definitions are part of the debate. To define “gender” and “sex” in a particular way is to pick a side. That is because gender constructivism claims that gender is a social construct, the composition of attributes such as the association of blue with boys and pink with girls. On gender constructivism, sex is biological, while gender is sociological. In contrast, gender essentialism says that sex and gender are related in their essence, to be a particular sex is to be a particular gender. That relationship may be biological, physiological, psychological, philosophical, anthropological, theological, or some combination of some or all of those things. But on gender essentialism the relationship between sex and gender is related to the very essence of both of those things in some way. Thus, gender essentialists typically hold there are universal attributes of males and females that apply to all people universally.
From a biblical point of view, I think gender essentialism is closer to the truth than is gender constructivism. Yet I also believe gender essentialism creates a truncated view of the relationship of sex and gender. Biblically it is clear God created male and female in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). It is also clear God establishes certain roles for each sex, and those roles are related to being a particular sex (Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Timothy 2:11-15).
This sounds like gender essentialism, right? Well, almost. The biblical and philosophical problem with gender essentialism, as I see it, is gender essentialism makes gender entirely contingent on sex. I believe the biblical picture indicates that gender is the end to which biological sex is the means; or speaking more metaphysically, gender is the essence (or form) and biological sex is the matter.
I say this is biblical because it is possible for a biological male to not live up to biblical standards of masculinity (1 Corinthians 6:9); and it is possible for a biological female to not live up to biblical standards of femininity (2 Kings 11). Biological sex does not make a man masculine or a female feminine. But it does give a man the tools to reach the goal of masculinity, and a female the tools to reach the goal of femininity.
We can go further than this, however. From a natural law point of view, being a biological male creates the moral imperative to pursue masculinity, and being a biological female creates the moral imperative to pursue femininity. According to the natural law we ought to do what is good for us. And what is good for us is indicated by our nature. The biological nature of men and women differ, this is a scientific fact (brain development over the lifespan is different for males and females, to say nothing of differences related to sex organs). Thus, basing what is good for us on our nature, it follows that men and women would be oriented toward different goals in some respects.
However, because we are in sin, we (un)naturally rebel against these evident truths. Our society does not want maleness and femaleness to exist as distinct categories. It does everything it can to ignore and deny the reality of masculinity and femininity. As salt and light in our society, we must remind people of these evident truths.
Further, we should point out that while biological development, psychology, physiology, and anatomy can render insight into the nature of men and women, these insights are not definitive. By themselves they give us pointers, but not the entire picture. As Christians we insist the whole big picture of masculinity and femininity is revealed to us by God, both in nature and in Scripture. Men should take sacrificial responsibility because that is the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Women should be helpfully submissive because that is the example of the Church to the Lord Jesus Christ. Take offense if you are a rebellious pot, but that is the picture the Potter reveals in Ephesians 5. And if you think this offers any justification for abuse or demeaning women, you know nothing of Christ and His Church. Many people in our society do not like it, but outside of a calling to celibacy, being a good husband or wife, a father or mother, is sex realized, natural ends fulfilled, gender achieved.
Now that we’ve laid out the basic philosophy, how do we apply this? What do we make of a boy who insists he is actually a girl and vice versa? Truth refers to a real state of affairs. Sex is biological, as everyone agrees. The disagreement comes with what to do when biological sex and gender seem not to line up. The biblical answer, complemented by the natural law, is to align your pursuit of gender with the indication of your biological sex. Men should strive to be masculine, and women feminine. If a male thinks he should be feminine, we should defer to biological reality over individual perception.
It seems particularly damaging to me, and perhaps logically contradictory, for gender constructivists to seek to re-align biological sex to match gender. Gender is, on their point of view, a social construct. If sex and gender have no essential relationship, it makes precious little sense to demand sex conform to a social construct. Further, despite claims to the contrary, it is not the case that sex change as a clinical procedure is definitively effective or helpful. It is controversial to be scientifically objective in matters like this, but the research exists regardless of whether our society likes it (and it doesn’t, on the whole).
What I would say to any transgender person is this: You are created in God’s image, you are fully and equally human. Everyone should respect your dignity and rights. Our society says because your sex and gender don’t seem to line up that your sex is a mistake. I would humbly ask you to question that line of thinking, at the very least consider the alternative points of view.
Hopefully I did not mess this all up too badly. As I said, resources on this topic are scarce. I hope I made some progress in articulating a biblical and natural law point of view on this important topic, and I hope our discussion of this can move forward to meaningfully engage the culture.
Soli Deo Gloria,