A Time of Confusion about the Basics
What is a Christian response to people who no longer know their left hand from their right (Jonah 4:11)? Or, in our case, their men from their women? The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling recently that redefines the term “sex” in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include “sexual orientation.” Cases pressing this issue are daily being argued, bubbling up inevitably to their Supreme Court destination. A Texas high school wrestler is being sued by a competitor because, though she was born a girl, she has been taking testosterone to transition to being a male while still wrestling as a girl. Our country now gropes in confusion about some fundamentals of humanity.
Underneath it all, our culture has come to a conviction: gender is not real. When articles like these appear in National Geographic, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, the matter is held in high relief. The conviction comes through pretty clearly. Because masculinity and femininity are believed to have no real meaning outside of cultural conventions, people are free to redefine them, and assume them, as they wish. Who is to contradict them?
I think that most Christians feel intuitively that there is something wrong with this. They recall Genesis 1:28, how God created us male and female. But they are unequipped to explain how that fact relates to gender, and to respond to legitimate objections about how men and women are perceived and explained.
The Two Elephants in the Room
Two basic questions are the elephants in the room. They are the two questions that desperately need to be answered, to decide the court cases, to make medical decisions, to conduct our relationships, even to raise our children. They demand our attention. But they are the very two questions that will not be faced. They are the two questions that Diane Sawyer will never ask Bruce/Caitlin Jenner. The questions are: “What is a man?” and “What makes a woman?”
But these are not easy questions to answer. Think about what you, in private, would say makes a real man. Try to say to yourself, what a true woman is. (E.g., women are nurturing, men lift weights). Then ask yourself, do these beliefs come from the Bible? Where exactly? When long-held traditions about men and women, or prejudices from our own social group, are examined in light of Scripture and the counter-examples in people we meet, the problems start to become clear. Often it is not so very evident that we are made differently, since secondary sexual traits overlap. Some women are taller than some men. Some men hate football. So we are often at a loss in conversation with our friends to explain what God created, the essence of manhood, and the real heart of womanliness.
On the other hand, you may think gender is genitals. Those body parts are what make us men and women. But chemical treatments and radical surgeries are getting quite good. Although significant health problems still attend these medical interventions, and they are quite expensive, the results can be convincing. If surgery can change the genitals which define gender, it would mean that a man really can change his gender. If a woman can modify enough of her body to remove traces of her femaleness, why hasn’t she become a man?
Christians need to face the gender questions. The Bible has the answer, showing us how manhood and womanliness are defined in relationship with the opposite gender (think, for example, of Ephesians 5:23-33, 1Corinthians 11:11, and 1Timothy 2:8-15), and how our bodies are signs to teach us truth about our souls. Both Catholic and Protestant theologians have done foundational work on the meaning of gender in the twentieth century. To serve Christ in this cultural situation, we must reckon with this teaching of the Bible about ourselves. But do we live the truth enough about these two questions (what makes a man and a woman) to understand it and so preach it?
The Third Question: Addressing the Outlier
There is then a third question the culture no longer knows how to answer: How to help an outlier? What counsel and support can we give to one who doesn’t fit in the regular categories that make the rest of us feel genderly comfortable? I am speaking of the boy who does not feel like a boy by cultural measures; the guy with no interest in video games but who favors flower arrangement; the girl who finds herself more at home with boys on the baseball diamond or at the rodeo than shopping for accessories; the man who has an eye for interior decoration or the woman who loves rugby.
Even if you find your conviction concerning male-female distinction in our chromosomes, you still do not have a complete or useful answer. This chromosomal confidence gives no guidance on how to help those who feel a true inner alienation from their bodies, or how the rest of us should live our lives.
Again, the Bible’s answers about true masculinity and femininity provide deep wisdom for such folks. This counsel is surprising and challenging. Because the Scriptures do not talk about essential characteristics but about gender as a calling in relationship, we can provide relief and hope for people. They really can fulfill who they are. They, and we, can come to celebrate the priceless gift of our differences.
But to our culture, adrift and blown about without any anchor of truth, the most plausible solution for the outlier is to sexualize the desire for one’s own gender, or to modify one’s body by changing clothes, altering hormones and then submitting to surgery.
Traveling Into Nineveh
How then can we address a people who can no longer handle these basic questions, who no longer know their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11)? Well, what God asked of Jonah was mercy in his heart and a willingness to travel three days into the heart of Nineveh, the culture’s capital. We similarly need to travel deeply into the culture of gender fuzziness to preach well to it. And we need to bring compassion with us.
My prayer is that we would be equipped to do just that, to do as Jonah (eventually) did.
How are you doing on those three questions?