We are now seeing seismic shifts in perception about sex, gender, and marriage.
You might think this has been occurring for some time now, and you wouldn’t be wrong about that. But, granting that as truth, the shift seems especially pressing in the last several years where fundamental, traditional assumptions about these issues are being reinvisioned.
The plausibility structure of the gender binary is losing its grip on contemporary consciousness. And, it’s not just in contemporary culture writ large, but we are seeing and experiencing shifts in the Church. For these reasons alone, we ought to pause and think afresh about a couple of things: 1. What does it mean to be gendered and how is this related to sex? 2. How do these views impact our life? Otherwise, we come closer to abandoning traditional belief altogether.
If you doubt that massive shifts have and are occurring, then just consider a few things with me. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a bit of healthy skepticism about cultural shifts both in and outside the church, but it is a problem when those shifts are staring us in the face, out in plain sight, and, as you may have heard, hidden in plain sight.
Consider the shift in perceptions about the nature of marriage since 2015 with the Federal legalization of marriage between same-sex couples. Consider also the uptick in discussions about polyamory (not polygamy mind you, but polyamory really is just an egalitarian version of what ancient civilizations once considered acceptable). Consider, even more, the uptick in discussions about sexual plurality. This isn’t just occuring in contemporary culture, either. It’s also occurring in the pews and longstanding liturgical practices. In a recent study, the laxity on pornography use has expanded, but, more surprising, is that the perception on pornography use between couples has become almost normalized amongst many couples who profess Christian belief.
You might think that gender and sexual practice are not strictly related, but the demand and attention simultaneously suggest that both are related. And, that shouldn’t really be all that surprising, as historic practice has often tied sexual practice to gender expression in the context of definitions about marriage. They are interrelated, and cannot be cleanly separated.
More fundamental still, many are even beginning to wonder if there is anything to be made of the traditional view that genders are fixed in any way. I recall a conversation several years ago with a theology professor of one of the most prominent evangelical schools confessing some confusion about gender fixity of being either male or female. I realized quite pointedly then that this wasn’t going away. You’ve, no doubt, probably heard of the discussion on transgenderism on the famous Dr. Phil show where Matt Walsh challenges gender fluid advocates with one simple question: What does it mean to be a woman? This is now a live discussion in our culture, and it has made its way into the church.
Holding such views has impacted our society in a variety of ways. We can’t, as a result, avoid it.
Judith Butler once famously stated: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender.” I wish I could say that this statement would be met with looks of perplexity by the common man on the street, but there appears to be a growing number of people for whom this statement seems so obviously true that it cannot be denied. To deny it is tantamount to oppression. In other words, it is harmful both to believe and practice the fact that there is a gender binary (i.e., male and female). In varying ways, challenging gender essentialism is becoming quite common in Christian circles, despite its permanence in most of Church history. Others will go so far as to claim that science settles the fact that gender has no fixed connection to biology, but, unfortunately for gender activists, this has not been accepted science. If you are a Christian, then a commitment to the essential nature of being both male and female is part of a package. To deny it is to effectively lose our grip on essential Christian doctrine.
It is important, then, to get a grasp on definitions. If you are familiar with the commonly used Genderbread, then you will know that there are distinctions made between gender, biological sex, and orientation. A typical assumption in the use of this tool is that these distinctions are fluid and not necessarily related or biologically rooted. Gender essentialism, on the other hand, contradicts the fluidity of our gender, and, instead, roots our gender in biology (which is basically a fixed and stable feature of persons). Allowing for distinctions at the level of discourse, gender essentialists recognize the fact that there remains something stable about the human race. Gender is an essential feature of the human race (i.e., it explains something necessary about it). Gender non-essentialism, to the contrary, asserts that there is no stable grounding for gender. On one view, gender is purely a social construct of cultural perceptions regarding the behavior of being male or female. Such a view, however, doesn’t seem to hold up under careful examination of the basic sources of Christian knowledge. For even if we accept that gender is partly stable and partly a result of our cultural conditioning, we must accept that performance and social behavior are tied to our biology, which the Scriptures, and Christian tradition, reflect.
An intuitive read of Scripture implies that we are in fact male and female. When we consider the basis of God’s covenantal relationship to human beings, we see that the imago Dei is comprised of both male and female. Genesis 1:28 affirms that God made them (referencing humans as image bearers) as male and female. And, while some are committed to this as an accidental feature of Scripture, it actually becomes the ground for God’s ongoing gift of life and the basis of his blessing for the world through his covenant people. The institution of marriage as the foundation for family is predicated on the complementarity of similarity and difference, which is the productive union for fruitful living (see Genesis 2:24 on the ‘one-flesh’ union). But, this theme is carried along in the wisdom literature, particularly in the Song of Solomon, picked up in the prophets like Malachi 2:14-16, which Christ re-affirms when he teaches on marriage in Matthew 19.
The fact that we are essentially male or female is an important part of the Scriptural teaching on humans. The narrative of Scripture is carried along by way of God’s covenant with Israel through the institution of marriage as the permanent, comprehensive union between males and females. More importantly, there is a theological cost to excising the gender binary as essential to what it means to be human. Our beliefs about Christ and his Bride captured at the end of time in Revelation 22 and Ephesians 5 are predicated on the gender binary in human marriage (explicated and alluded to by Paul in Ephesians, when he describes the mystery of the “one-flesh” union pointing us back to the creation narrative as a blueprint, a pointer, or, greater still, a sacramental type of Christ and his Bride).
The complementarity of similarity and difference in the male/female union provides the lens for Christ and his Bride—the Church. It is the performative act of marriage that begins with the similarity in difference that is reflected in virtually all historical liturgies. The teaching that prefigures the great marriage in Revelation 22 is found in human marriage, which gives us access to that which transcends human marriage. As Ephesians 5 picks up on the ‘one-flesh’ union of Genesis 2:24, it is this union that points us to the ‘mystery of Christ’. The similarity and difference features of the male and female gives us access to the similarity and difference in Christ and his Bride.
The problem with gender non-essentialism is crystalized when we consider recent revisions to the liturgy of marriage. They fail to capture complimentary as well as the similarity and difference of male and female in the Old Covenant as the image of that similarity and difference between Christ and his Bride. Just consider the revisions in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship and the ‘Celebration and Blessing of Marriage’. Both replace the traditional language of male and female with gender neutral language, but, here’s the problem—when one understands the central fixture of Christ and his Bride in traditional marriage ceremonies, there is a loss of the similarity and difference of which life and blessing were originally based. The parallel of ‘partner’ to ‘partner’ (as we find in some expressions) falters in relation to Christ and his Bride, and this is a significant loss.
We are, it seems, losing our grip on what it means to be human.
In an age where all aspects, once cherished and considered sacred, fundamental to our humanity are fuzzy shadows of our parent’s outdated ideas, we stand to lose something central to human flourishing.
All of this points to the simple fact that gender matters and it is not lost on a robust understanding of males and females as a central fixture of the Scriptural story. Without it, we will lose our grip on the essential Christian doctrine of Christ and his Bride—the Church.
What seems to be missing in most discussions on gender is the consistent recognition that gender and biological sex are 2 distinct entities. The former exists in the social-psychological realm while the latter does so in the physical-biological realm. And the most common mistake made is to conflate the two.
On the one hand, those who believe in gender essentialism make biological sex the sole factor in gender identity. The LGBT community, for the most part, sees one’s gender identity being able to override and deny the state of one’s biological sex. Neither group asks how something that is biological can be conflated with something that is social-psychological.
We should note that some Native American tribes recognized more than 2 genders. Some recognized up to 5 genders. Though their approach to more than 2 genders does not necessarily transfer well over to how the LGBT community regards gender identity, it does provide some light on our current situation. In those tribes, the women who identified more with men fought with the men and the men who identified more with the women would do domestic work with the women. And those Native American tribes honored those people. In that sense, we see a biblical example of such gender identity in the person of Deborah.
Though, for the most part, we need to treat our biological sex like discrete math objects, gender identity exists on a continuum. And thus some of the roles that men and women have in society and the home are interchangeable, are shared. Some of our traits are shared. And which parent a child most identifies with will also complicate the matter. And it is only with that in mind that we then start defining what should be exclusively male and what should be exclusively female for those members of the Church. And then we let society go its way while sharing what the Scriptures say about gender identity.
As a woman and a mother, I think it is vital to point out that while not all aspects of cultural “Gender” are rooted in biological realities regarding sex, many of them are, and recognizing that is vital to creating societies and communities where people can thrive (especially female people, who generally have greater needs for communal support and physical protection than male people).
Women have babies. Our bodies – including our brains – are organized completely around this reality. Even women for whom medical conditions have rendered them infertile. Even women who choose not to have children. If you are a biologically female human, you are an organism who has, through millions of years of mammalian evolution, developed to have, nurse, and care for babies.
Men impregnate and compete for females. Their bodies and brains are also organized around this. They are bigger, stronger, more aggressive, more promiscuous, etc.
Denying this embodied reality, and shaping our cultural institutions around that denial, has major negative social, safety, and mental health consequences for both men and women.
Watching society talk about “Gender Inequality” – aggregate pay gaps between men and women, the huge disparity between who takes parental leave and who doesn’t, the consequences of promiscuity, etc – as if these are just culturally conditioned and can be changed with even more cultural conditioning is like watching a mental patient bang their head up against a padded cell.
You cannot separate cultural “gender” from biological “sex.”
However, are there people who don’t completely fit the cultural or physical mode normally associated with their sex? Of course there are. In some areas (like physical strength and ability) that minority is very small. In others, like certain career interests or fashion choices, the minority of non-conformers is bigger.
And that is OK. Exceptions can exist and be tolerated along with an acknowledgement that the binary exists in general, and is a good thing.
I think an ideal situation would be one where we are free to openly acknowledge and organize society around the following:
a) Men and women are different biologically.
b) These biological differences are substantial, consequential, and the source of most cultural gender norms and/or the legitimate justification for them. For example, we don’t let men into women’s locker rooms for the same reason a farmer doesn’t put stallions out the same pasture as mares – because male mammals are sexually aggressive and can hurt and forcibly impregnate females when left alone with them. Women generally are the parent to stay home with babies because we are female mammals and our physical bodies – brains included – are literally organized around caring for infants.
c) These differences, both biological and cultural, are also GOOD. They are creative, life giving, and are a source of human flourishing. For example, family life is generally founded on this binary, along with much of the great music and literature around romance and love, and even the religious passion of the mystics in many traditions.
d) Some differences are more substantial than others. For example, the bell curves for physical differences are a lot farther apart than the bell curves for personality traits.
e) We can affirm the legitimacy of people who fall outside of or at the extremes of the spectrum of “gender” while acknowledging that exceptions do not negate the general rule. For example, a free society can make room for lesbians and gay men and their right to have legally protected families, or for big strong women who want to be combat soldiers, or for stay at home dads with GirlBoss wives, while also acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of people are straight, most women probably have no place in a combat zone, and most women want a well resourced man who can support them so THEY can stay home, or at least home more often, with their babies.
You can have generally acknowledged norms while also allowing *some* people to break those norms when it promotes their flourishing and helps them contribute to society. I don’t think, for example, that either individual gay men or lesbians would be well served by being forced into the closet or denied legal protection for their committed relationships and families, nor would society benefit from a promiscuous gay culture untethered from family life. Civil gay marriage is an example of something which is outside the general norm, but which very much serves both the individual flourishing of people and the general stability of society.
(As an aside, I do support the Catholic Christian teaching on the gendered nature of the *Sacrament* of Matrimony, which for Catholics is defined separately from the legal institution.)
Cultural gender norms generally evolved to serve the real needs of biologically embodied persons. For the persons who are exceptions, who are not well served by those norms, and for whom breaking the norms won’t tank the overall functioning of society, we can find ways to be tolerant and make exceptions.
I get that it is easier to be black and white about the issue – either “The binary must be destroyed” or “The binary must be enforced without exception.” But I don’t think either ideological extreme serves either society or the needs of actual humans.
I’m not sure if you really understood my response. I am not defining a new normal and I am not trying to separate biological sex from gender identity. My point is that one cannot conflate two either. That there are other factors involved, in addition to biological sex, that determines one’s gender identity. Thus we cannot say that biological sex is the only factor in determining gender identity nor can we allow gender identity to deny what one’s biological sex is. I am saying that the current practice by some to identify with a different gender than their biological sex has a context. That context includes past persecution and oppression. And it will take us all a while to see what the best path in society is.
Of course, the Church’s path is set by the Scriptures. But society’s path can’t be set by that because society consists of both believers and unbelievers.
So I guess we will be seeing some changes in society, some for the good and some not for the good. We will see what people decide. The reason why we will see both good and bad is because not all past gender norms were good.
I don’t see what principle is guiding your optimistic perspective that gender norms will improve. All the reasons in the article suggest otherwise.
Overcorrection is nothing more than an overreaction. And many overreactions need time to be corrected. No one can guarantee how much correction to the overreactions will take place. But we should note that some overreactions are not sustainable. And we see some overreactions being correct by a few on the Left–See Robert Jensen’s comments on the subject of transgenderism.C
Ahh I see where you are coming from now. Jensen.. that is more complicated, but it still doesn’t supply much by way of principles or guides for how.. why be so optimistic that society will move and has moved in the right direction? I don’t see a good reason why that would be the case..
Jensen is one sign for hope. But the reason for hope for undoing the overcorrection has more to do with the fact that the current overreaction to real past oppression is not sustainable.
That’s interesting you say that. That would take us down a long conversation about traditional, hermeneutical and cultural assumptions. I’m not sure what you mean by overreaction but it sounds like there is a lot on the background that would need a bit of the dialectic.
To overreact when responding to long standing social injustices is quite natural. That is because not only do people want to undo the social injustices, but they want to prevent them from occurring again. And in wanting to prevent them from occurring again, the same kind of thinking employed in phobias is used in preventing the reoccurrence of a given social injustice. That kind of thinking is an all-or-nothing type of thinking. And usually causes its own problem so that eventually the response to the social injustice is revisited and adjusted.
Again, I’m not sure what you mean by overreaction. You keep asserting the same thing without a mechanism.
But, that doesn’t demonstrate your point. Maybe in another time and place, we could have a real discussion.
I just explained what causes the overreactions and I did so clearly. I stated in my very first comment that the conflation of biological sex with gender identity is the problem, is the overreaction. I said that clearly
So if this is not clear enough for you, so be it.
I agree that you cannot separate biological sex from gender. But it doesn’t follow necessarily from that fact that there is a gender binary. Biological sex influences a number of traits that go into our cultural notions of gender. But those traits are influenced by other factors too. This leads to diversity in a number of these traits, even among those of the same biological sex. It’s a clustered diversity, but it’s still a diversity. Moreover, this diversity opens up the possibility that some females may tend to be more like most males concerning a particular such trait.
I don’t understand why this is so controversial. We have long used the term “tomboy” to refer to females who have some traits that are more typical of males. Regardless of how persuasive the author’s purely textual argument may seem, it is contradicted by what we see every day around us. We simply don’t observe a gender binary, unless one has redefined gender to reduce it to a stand-in for biological sex. Even so, such casuistry doesn’t erase the reality of diversity.
Sometimes it’s better to be clear than to be right. But when you’re opting for clarity over precision, you need to be clear about the choice you’ve made. At its heart, this is a discussion about whether and to what degree society should coerce conformity to certain plausible gender roles, as well as whether certain gender roles are socially plausible or not. I agree that that’s a discussion that we should have. And my positions on those questions probably lie closer to the conservatives than to the liberals. But it makes it harder for us reality-based conservatives to counter progressives if religious conservatives persist in proffering positions that fail to comport with the everyday observations of even the most casual observer.
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It’s hard to know how to respond to this piece because there’s such a sloppy use of terms. It helps to be more clear about terms because it better equips us to counter some of the nonsense coming from the left.
The term “sex” generally refers to biological sex, namely whether one is male or female. This is determined by the chemical makeup of one’s allosomes (the lone pair of sex chromosomes). There is essentially a binary when it comes to sex, as the occurrence of departures from XX and XY are no more than about 1 in 2500 and probably even more rare than that. There is a trend on the left to adopt a less precise definition of sex, but that effort thankfully hasn’t succeeded.
The terms “man” and “woman” often refer to biological sex, but do not do so exclusively. These terms have no single meaning and never have. The phrase, “He’s not a man,” after all, is not an assertion about someone’s chromosomal composition. The meaning of these terms has always depended on the context of their use. So, Matt Walsh’s comments (and Senator Blackburn’s questioning of Judge Jackson last week) don’t prove much. They’re demanding that someone provide a single context-free definition for a word whose common usage reflects multiple different meanings. Only a fool would find Walsh’s and Blackburn’s stunts to be persuasive in any way. And Walsh and Blackburn are no fools. Instead, they’re bullies who are trying to use their power to obfuscate truth.
The term “gender” is a bit more contested. Most people without an axe to grind generally use it to refer to the range of plausibility structures (or range of identities) that a particular culture at a particular time has deemed acceptable for males and females. It is difficult, therefore, to suggest that there is a “gender binary,” unless these plausibility structures are defined exclusively by one’s role in reproductive sex. Our culture has never imposed such a limited approach. That’s especially true for conservatives. And although concepts of gender vary from culture to culture and over time, biology still plays a strong role. One’s allosomal composition has a dramatic effect on a wide array of human characteristics. Thus, males are typically better suited to certain roles in a society, and females are typically better suited to others.
The right and the left make two key mistakes in this debate.
Many on the right, like the author, say that there is a gender binary. If you’re using the definition of gender I provided above (or some variant of it), it’s utter foolishness to suggest a gender binary. In every culture throughout human history, notions of manhood and womanhood have depended on a number of characteristics that are not directly and unambiguously controlled by one’s allosomal composition. In most cases, these assertions concerning a gender binary result from defining the term gender to have the same meaning as sex. But such chicanery doesn’t solve the debate. The issues concerning social role performance remain. If you don’t want to use the term “gender” to refer to those issues, then suggest something else. You can’t solve a problem simply by redefining the word people generally use to discuss the problem.
On the left, the tendency is to minimize or eliminate the effect of biology. One’s allosomal composition has a dramatic effect on a wide array of human traits. That’s why I prefer to describe social plausibility structures instead of identity. Not everything is plausible, as there tends to be a noticeable correlation between certain traits and one’s allosomal composition. And even if certain males and females depart from that correlation in certain respects, it isn’t always plausible for a culture to accommodate rare departures from the correlative trend. The left envisions a world of infinite identities where everyone can claim a unique identity with its own pronouns, and the like. Gender may not be binary, but, when one looks at the collection of traits that tend to vary between males and females, one sees two clusters with only a small degree of overlap. Take height, for example, where the curves for male and female height cross at a z-score of -1 for the make curve and a z-score of +1 for the female curve. Thus, 85% of males are taller than the tallest females, and 85% of females are shorter than the shortest males. One sees similar results on the curves for a number of other traits. So, while gender isn’t binary, one nevertheless observes two broad clusters where only about 15% of the people fall into the overlap region on any given trait.
In short, conservatives err in denying the reality that about 15% of people probably fall into an overlap zone on some traits that our culture uses to define manhood and womanhood. That said, about 99% of males and females fall within the middle of their respective clusters (and not in the overlap zone) on most traits. Progressives err in denying the reality that the overlap zone on any given trait is as small as 15% and that it’s extremely rate that someone falls into the overlap zone on most relevant traits. In other words, it frustrates conservatives that the overlap zone isn’t 0%, and it frustrates progressives that it’s not 100%.
So, when someone claims to be transgender, I take that as a statement that that person falls into the overlap zone on so many of the culturally relevant traits that this person feels more comfortable adopting a social identity that our culture would normally associate with people of the opposite sex. Statistics suggest that a small number of such people exist.
I honestly have no idea what to make of the rest of the leftist junk. It seems trendy these days to say that you’re “gender non-binary.” My response is: “Yeah, you and everyone else.” After all, no one can argue seriously that gender is binary once one considers what gender is. Within any society those who fall in the overlap zones on certain traits will feel social pressure to suppress one’s tendencies on those traits (if possible) and to move to the center of the cluster. But that’s something we all experience. After all, societies cannot function with an infinite range of plausibility structures.
On the right, I suspect that the issue is less about promoting gender binaries and more about controlling what traits constitute manhood and womanhood. After all, these are the traits on which those falling into the overlap zone are going to feel a feed to suppress their own tendencies in favor of social conformity. But gender roles don’t make the social and economic order; the social and economic order makes the gender roles. Besides, most social conservative grievances on these questions are just disguised grievances about the post-1980 economic order in which “real man” in the vein of John Wayne became less relevant. In a world governed by technocrats, the nature of manhood has changed and the status of “tough men” has declined in many sectors of life. Worry not. The technocracy will fade too, and probably within the next decade.
It is hard to know how to respond to this response. The terms used in the original article are used carefully as sufficient designations for real referents. The piece is intentionally quite short in a way that will motivate a wide readership and do so without getting bogged down in some of the technical items that were introduced in a response that presents itself as sophisticated but misses the deeper point in the article. The Scripture nor tradition have a substantive or ontological place for the “gender non-binary”. Unfortunately, that name (and, honestly, gender is introduced much later in history). To say: “the term gender is more contested,” is plain, but that doesn’t undermine the original article. The meaning of “gender” is contested. Of course it is! I say that to say this: gender, as a notion, is certainly present if we want to understand that as basically biological sex or social performance. We must, however, understand the tight and intimate relationship that the Scriptural story gives to both as understood with reference to the human reality of two distinct ontic domains that have a real connection to God’s design of humans as well as a higher-order reality (of which there are distinct ways of fleshing those notions out) in the context of human union with God. The deeper point that the author points the reader to is the fact of a teleological connection between biological reality that must be understood in the context of marriage to that higher-order (i.e., transcendent, sacramental, supernatural or what have you) reality. The teleology, if we want to use that term (and it seems fitting), in Scripture and Christian tradition is grounded in the ontological reality of a binary. That much is clear. If the respondent wishes to quibble over terminological differences (of which I am aware of these in the literature) or attempt to complicate the issues using genetics, biology, sociology etc, then feel free, but these are dressings to the fundamental issues of which the article points transparently. Biology as presumed in Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5 will not find sufficient designation there and these realities (particularly as it concerns the one-flesh union) cannot be understood in a biologically or genetically reductive way, but, in fact, do and will have implications for social performance, behavior, activity (i.e., gender, otherwise we might as well throw out the term as ambiguous to such an extent that is is not useful). These other ambiguities do not establish substantive or ontological reality (nor do the statisticallly small number of people who exhibit biological ambiguity). Biological ambiguity does not establish a wholesale category distinct from that which is fundamental–as described already. They may point to an epistemic challenge in some cases or degrees of ambiguity, but this fails to establish a fact of the matter. And, if one wishes to point to scientific “consensus” (whatever that means) that will not help because there is no consensus on the terms gender and a whole host of other terms presented as complicating factors. Instead, the recent studies advanced by the New Atlantis support many traditional notions and comport quite well with others that are traditional but are difficult (maybe impossible) to establish solely by the empirical sciences. In this way, the “conservatives” are certainly closer to the Kingdom with their emphasis on the biological as establishing a distinct ontological reality. In the end, the responder is playing a silly game of dress up by presenting ideas and terms as a way to complicate ontology that is central to the gospel story–without which we might as well give up trying to ascertain the ‘mystery’ St. Paul goes on about. I am not willing to do that. So, feel free to replace the term ‘gender’ above with ‘sex’ (as biological category) so long as that is understood in a non-reductive ontological sense that has a real reference with teleological depth. I leave the job of obfuscation to the responder.
Thanks for the response.
My point is simply to distinguish between biology and cultural expectations of social performance based on that biology. If one avers that there is a gender binary, then it’s essential that one define what “gender” means. If you’re using it as a synonym for biological sex, then I agree that there is a gender binary. If, on the other hand, you’re referring to how one situates oneself with respect to cultural expectations of social performance, then there is no binary. That’s because cultural expectations of social performance involve far more traits than those that are directly and unambiguously controlled by biological sex. And because those other traits vary across a continuum among members of the same biological sex (and often overlap to a degree with those of members of the biological sex), there can be no binary in terms how people situate themselves with respect to the plausible expectations for social performance within any given culture. Even on this front, I agree that we observe something akin to a pseudo-binary, with two broad clusters that overlap to a degree.
But your interpretations of Scripture and your manufactured teleology cannot supplant reality. Never mind that neither Paul nor the postexilic scribes who composed the Genesis narrative had these sorts of matters in mind. In this sense, you’re simply reading your own self-serving personal views into Scripture and coercing the text to say something that it doesn’t.
I agree that the gender ideology that has gained prominence on the left is silly and non-sensical. But you’re not going to counter it with self-serving shibboleths disguised as teleological or ontological mandates. I agree that, in the main, traditional family structures are beneficial to the flourishing of most people in the present day. That’s likely why most Western elites, despite their social libertarianism, adopt such structures for themselves (and thereby elect voluntarily to suppress certain biological tendencies that may run counter to their social performance). But such voluntary suppression doesn’t erase those tendencies. And such a willingness of many to conduct their affairs in that way doesn’t erase the reality that some small number of people are biologically wired in such a way that makes the plausible social roles for the opposite sex easier for them to adopt than those that have evolved for their biological sex because doing so involves a lesser degree of suppression of biological tendencies. Statistics suggest that such people should exist, probably at a small rate (probably less than 1 in 250).
Creating and sustaining social plausibility structures requires a social cost. So, there is a relevant question concerning the degree and manner in which a culture should be expected to accommodate those very small number of people fall into this category. I’d suggest that, in certain cases, the costs aren’t justified. But, in my view, that’s a more honest approach than constructing a manufactured teleology that suggests that such people simply don’t exist. If your teleology doesn’t comport with observed reality, then it’s likely that your teleology is wrong. After all, in this eschatological age, we see through a glass dimly. And we are prone to cloak that which comforts us socially with diving aegis.
It’s not hard to conceive of different genders having different traits. Traits are rather contingent and somewhat malleable. It doesn’t follow that that is synonymous with gender or that gender by implication is also malleable in the same way.
You haven’t actually engaged with the article or the passages that yield a clear synthetic teaching on gender. Simply pointing out the distinction in biology and social behavior doesn’t establish a norm. Traits, if they can be said to have a feminine or masculine base, do not establish a new category. If they are as fluid as you suggest then they are useless in establishing ontology. You need sufficient designations, but you haven’t supplied them. Biological sex can be sufficient so long, once again, it’s not taken in a reductive way. Without it you have little ground to stand. If you are challenging a deeply central belief in Scripture then just say so, but at the moment you’re muddying the waters in a way that is dressed in sophisticated clothes but crumbles because you lack sufficient designators.
You suppose a need for a singular norm and suppose that you have the ability to know that norm. In that sense, your argument rests on a supposition that epistemological and ethical idealism are warranted. As an epistemological and ethical realist, I reject both such suppositions. In my view, we can do no more than observe and describe that which is normal. And we can draw judgments from observation as to whether certain normal practices are more beneficial than others. It’s what the writers of the Proverbs refer to as acquiring wisdom. Protestants historically refer to this as learning of God’s will through observation of general revelation. (See Belgic Confession, Article 2.) And both Augustine and Calvin refer to it as reading the book of nature.
I didn’t engage the texts upon which you rely because I don’t accept the premise that those texts have anything to say about proper gender-role performance in America in the 21st century. Your principal error is that you assume that God owes you certainty and clarity and assume that Scripture is God’s rule book for affording you that certainty. I reject both assumptions. We’re far better off accepting Scripture’s silence on these matters, and committing ourselves to acquiring wisdom. I don’t have a neat theory to proffer because nature affords no such neatness.
I’m not suggesting that we’re entirely without light. God has knit a sufficient degree of divine wisdom into the created order to permit us to observe nature and human interactions and judge whether certain practices are better (or more true) than others. We are pilgrims and aliens living in a contingent order in which God gives us enough light to see the a few yards ahead and no more.
I suppose because it is Scriptural. The binary deeply permeates the whole story. It is also something that is reflected in the broad confessional tradition of Reformed orthodoxy. See Westminster Longer catechism q 10. But there are many many other places. The onus is then on you to revise the tradition in some coherent way. But we are seeing that in liturgies, and, once again, it doesnt work! No wonder we are experiencing so much confusion at the intersection of sex, gender roles and marriage.
While you may reject both suppositions, you replace an understanding with a term that has fuzzy boundaries that you suppose is categorical but you provide no reason. This, then, becomes the basis for your supposed critique.
If you don’t accept that those texts have anything to say about gender roles behavior etc then your either ignoring the context about leadership, roles that are explicit in the passages, especially Ephesians 5. You’re not rejecting me but the passages explicit details that have numerous implications. You’d need a hermeneutic that bypasses much of the ethics, behaviors and roles laid out therein. Scripture doesn’t seem to be very clear or useful on your view. Unfortunate.
It is foolish to say we are without light both in nature but especially in Scripture concerning the redemptive category of Christ and his Bride. You have the Scriptures and all of tradition!
What your challenges here seem to be saying is that you are more interested in using the Scriptures and the Standards to dictate to people what their reality is and thus feel no need to listen to them and their experiences. And in so doing, you are ignoring the temporal causes for what we are seeing in the world.
That is not to say that the Scriptures are not important here, they are. They are ultimate standard for life. But understanding temporal causes helps us to apply the Scriptures to people’s everyday lives. Understanding temporal causes helps us to see the already existing connections between us and those we are critiquing or interacting with.
Also, we need to draw a sharp distinction between our confessions and the Scriptures. For unlike the Scriptures, all of the confessions used in religiously conservative churches were written by flawed people whose flaws negatively affected what they wrote. Yes, the Scriptures were also penned by flawed people, but because the words were God-breathed, their flaws were prevented from introducing errors in the text of the original manuscripts.
I’m not sure I completely follow your response here. I am not ignoring the “experiences” of others but situating them in the richness of theological sources of knowledge that ground us as human beings. The binary is a given parameter within Scripture that cannot be revised without doing damage to the text, the story, and the shape of both creation and redemption. Looking at a web of beliefs, the idea is so central that to eliminate it would effectively undo the web. To do so is what the Proverbs would deem as foolish. On your proposal, the eyes are not trained by the givens of Scripture that are taken up into redemptive reality. This concerns both the temporal and the transcendent for which Scripture and tradition give expression. The two are not sharply distinguished. By doing so, you effectively make the Scriptures into a wax nose of your own devising and you place individual experience in a relative place grounded firmly in thin air. This is so because individual experiences have no grid or ground. They have no generalables (or determinables) that provide parameters for understanding and imply ethical imperatives. The sort of framework you provide actually furnishes the context for extreme expressivism and a plurality of expressions problem. You actually help the case of the original article.
The binary was given in the original design of nature and the binary exists in biological sex, not in gender identity. If you would really listened to to those who are telling you their stories or to history, you would understand that. And if you listened to them, neither would you say that individual experiences have no grid or ground, as you just wrote. And by writing that you contradict the 2nd sentence of your last comment to me. You really don’t listen to individual experiences because they have nothing to teach you.
But rather, you have your theological black box machine all of the answers you could want. And part of the inner workings of your black box you have scriptures, the standards, and the writings of others which all calculate an easy answer for you. But people’s experiences are saying something else because nature is fallen. It is no longer what it was designed to be.
In terms of gender identity, doesn’t Deborah from the Old Testament fit outside of the binary? For if she was a member of one of those Native American tribes that recognized up to 5 genders, she would not be in the binary in terms of gender identity because her identity did not match her biological sex.
And, btw, even biological sex is not binary. We do have people who are not clearly defined biologically as either being male or female. We also might add that there are around 1,500 species in which homosexuality’s practiced and its practice brings positive benefits to members of some of those species. Are those examples of expressive individualism or of nature?
Here is what we religiously conservative Christians have to reconsider. It’s not whether we accept homosexuality and transgenderism in the Church. The Scriptures are clear against doing that. It is whether we will support full equality for the LGBT community in society including supporting same-sex marriage and transgenderism. That isn’t necessarily supporting an expressive individualism as it is refraining from oppressing those who are different from us. The New Testament doesn’t tell the Church to oppress such people. Rather their place in any society that consists of unbelievers and believers is assumed. And much of the conflicts we see now about homosexuality and gender identity have much more to do with both eliminating and preventing the reoccurrence of oppression more than anything else.
That’s a strange response. You are wrong in your accusation that I have nothing to learn from people who struggle. What I said was: they do not have the right or the ontological wherewithal to establish gender plurality or ambiguity. And you certainly haven’t established that in anything you’ve said!
Who said you had the right to establish plurality? You are not the issue. Plurality has already been established in society and it has already been decided for the Church. The question for us Christians is whether we have the obligation to recognize it in society.
BTW, as for what I wrote about you, it was supported by this quote from you:
This is so because individual experiences have no grid or ground. They have no generalables (or determinables) that provide parameters for understanding and imply ethical imperatives.
It is also supported by your responses to Ryo D. His argument was based on observation and you shot it down immediately. Depending on the context, that is not listening. If the context is what is acceptable in Church or in evangelism, then you are correct. But if the context includes what should be allowed in society, then you have disregarded experiences.
On the other hand, you claimed that I make the Scriptures into a ‘waxed nose’ and so forth. So you too have made accusations. The problem with your accusation is that I have clearly stated that the the Church cannot accept homosexuality or transgenderism in its ranks because of the Scriptures. We could add to that that the Church cannot condone homosexuality or transgenderism in its evangelism because of the Scriptures. My point is that society is not to be governed by the Scriptures. That is where we need to give a great deal of weight to the experiences of others.
We should also note that what we see in nature regarding homosexuality complicates Paul’s argument using nature in Romans 1. That is because of what I mentioned about the prevalence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. What we see in nature requires us to use nuance when discussing Paul’s point.
And for how some regard gender identity, we could add examples like Deborah from the Old Testament. And then there are those Native American tribes that have recognized up to 5 genders. What did you learn from that other than that what they recognized does not fit in the parameters of the Scriptures.
Jesus told his disciples that if people did not listen to their preaching, to move on. Jesus told his disciples not to ‘lord it over’ other as the gentiles do. Paul states at the end of I Cor 5 that his concern is not for the purity of society, but for the purity of the Church. So is the binary parameter in the Scriptures to be forced on society or merely preached to society? I ask that a question because I believe we agree that the Scriptures are the ultimate guide for the Church and for what we preach. But they are not the ultimate guide in society where we have both believers and unbelievers. Such would have no New Testament precedent nor encouragement.
You raise three issues as I can surmise from your post. First as regards society, my article is primarily aimed at Christians, which does presume an ontology of nature that is implicit in both creation and redemption. With that said, I do not see your point. Second, what you raise about observations in nature is not supported by scientific consensus, so I am not sure what you aim to prove. Third, your use of the ‘Deborah’ case doesn’t prove a gender norm beyond gender binary. No one in Jewish theology, historically, would buy your ‘suggested’ point.
Finally, I would point out that warrant is not found in preference, feltness, or media. Warrant is found, for those who are Christians, in their basic sources of knowledge. In this way, you have not supplied much beyond suggestions and sentiments found in recent contemporary culture that are reducible to preferences, inward sentiments, feltness etc. What have I learned from these individual cases? All sort of things. Phenomenology can be an important guide to signaling malfunction, trends, desires unmet etc. For these reasons, it seems you have quickly dismissed what was known throughout most of history and represented in clear Scriptural appropriation for something else. The onus is then on you to give a compelling revisionist case. This is where epistemology becomes important.
I will add one more comment here having realized that I didn’t adequately answer the last part of your last comment and then I will be done even though you have not posted the last comment I wrote. I do apologize for the number of rapid responses, I know that can be a pain. That won’t happen again.
You stated that the burden of proof is on me for showing how we need to depart from history on this issue. You then mentioned that epistemology then becomes important here.
First, as I pointed out before, there is history supporting non-binary gender, it just isn’t western history. And in my last comment, I pointed out where history has been wrong before. But what about my case here?
First, stop with the x_ologies. If we wish to talk with unbelievers, we need to avoid the technical jargon from our theologies. I learned from seminary that our job is to translate theology spoken in technical terms with fellow theological technicians into the languages used by our different audiences. This is why I first responded to your notes to Ryo D.
My point is about neither phenomenology or epistemology. To insist otherwise is to work with a model of thought that doesn’t account for the problems that the historical approach to both homosexuality and transgenderism have brought about. My points are that supporting full equality in society for the LGBT community has everything to do with democracy and the effects of the old status quo has on both Christians and the reputation of the Gospel.
Democracies are more than a set of procedures for picking leaders and for leaders determining what laws and policies our nation will have. We’ve seen plenty of nations with democratic processes that are not real democracies. One of those examples just invadef Ukraine. We need to see democracy as a state of being for a nation. That a democracy is where everyone, regardless of the ethnic or class group they belong to, have equal ownership, not of wealth, but of the nation. That rules out any ethnicities, and religion is an ethnicity, gaining privilege so it can have a place of supremacy over the other ethnicities in running the government and writing the laws of the nation. That is so one can avoid what Thomas Jefferson wrote about in his first inaugural address–that though we depend on majority rule, we must take care not to oppress any minority group. The same applies to control over the government by a specific economic class.
So with regard to equality for the LGBT community, we see that history, which in the West was dominated by a form of Christianity which was socially conservative, we see great oppression on that community. And that domination by a socially conservative Christianity has shown, among other things, that we don’t have a real democracy here. And if that doesn’t bother you, then be up front and say that you believe the Christianity should rule over society to some extent.
But there is another problem with that oppression of the LGBT community. It is putting Christians in the dilemma of having to choose between staying faithful to the Scriptures in matters of homosexuality and transgenderism or opposing that oppression while knowing, from Post Modernism, that the oppression is wrong.
Thus the oppression of the LGBT community is not only unnecessarily splitting churches, it is causing believers to compromise what the Scriptures say regarding homosexuality. That is further accentuated as our becoming adult church members meet and become friends with homosexuals at work or school. The denial of same-sex marriage implies that both homosexuality and same-sex marriage is a threat to society. I hear too many fellow religiously conservative Christians cite the sexual immorality of same-sex marriage should prohibit same sex marriage. But we have sexual immorality involved in some heterosexual marriages and yet we allow them.
In the end, and your reference to history indicates this, the Christian resistance to and complaints about same-sex marriage is an understandable reaction to the changing times. But is resistance to the legalization of such a marriage in society, not in the Church, supported by the New Testament? Or is such resistance more a product of our theologies?
I largely agree with your comments above. Thanks for the input.
One problem with this piece is a problem that Hunter identified in To Change the World: It wrongly assumes that idealism—an ideology-driven approach to changing the culture—is effective. Hunter explains why such an approach is ineffective. The reasons mostly relate to the fact that cultures are complex and are affected by a number of factors that have nothing to do with what ideas are percolating in people’s heads. In most cases, ideology is more descriptive than prescriptive. So, you can’t change the culture merely by promoting an alternative ideology to the emergent cultural ideology. You have to look at the complex mix of factors that have led to the change. Those factors have much more to do with economic and technological change than anything else.
In many ways, one could construe much of evangelical social engagement as an attack on the values that have emerged with the rise of the technocracy. But ideology didn’t produce this rise. Rather, it was the result of a host of economic and technological factors that emerged in the late 1970s. I agree that those social values don’t work out so well among those who inhabit a more agricultural-industrial subculture. So, there needs to be some sort of practical rebalancing.
I don’t see where Scripture has much to say about gender-role conformity in 21st century America. I agree that certain principles of the “biblical manhood” movement reflect a degree of practical wisdom, especially for those who do not inhabit the technocracy. But in a country as varied and complex as the US, we can likely make accommodations without affecting the central theme. What accommodations to make and to what degree we make such accommodations is mostly a matter of practical wisdom.
But practical wisdom loses its cultural force when we dress it up in ideological drag and start using it as a weapon to justify the social marginalization of others. That tends to yield blowback. I’d like to see more evangelicals take the path of David French, who’s done a good job of trying to create mutual understanding between the denizens of the technocracy and the deplorables. I grew up among deplorables, and my cultural tastes still trend that way. I like to hunt, fish, and do multi-day backpacking trips. I like to wear flannel shirts and boots. Even so, I’m gay and am a member of the technocracy. I’ve got a foot on both sides of the culture war. We’re only a few decades into trying to figure out how to bridge this cultural gap. And I agree that much of the technocratic arrogance is annoying and unwarranted. I’d rather see the church take a more active role in promoting cultural peace and mutual self-understanding. As it is, too many Christians have concocted theologies to convince themselves that God is in agreement with them.
I appreciate all the ideas you list here. As for your point concerning history, you cite the Native Americans and the fact that they had a place for up to five genders. That is an interesting claim, but it requires a bit more than a simple assertion to make good that that is actually the case and that that is so apparent as to not need any further justification. That, however, would take us down a deeper discussion about what they intended and if it was more than dressing up. I realize that is a common card played by those in the LGBT community but that requires quite a bit more discussion that is somewhat peripheral to the issues at hand. That said, I am looking into that more and chatting with a colleague who is well respected in the Native American community about the claim. But that takes us into a more specific discussion that is relevant to the original claim of the article and that requires a deeper discussion about ontology because that’s what the article is about! You may desire to talk about something else concerning rhetoric, evangelism or how it is that we ought to engage unbelievers or those living a certain lifestyle but that too is peripheral to the original article. And, you do not have the authority to tell me to stop talking about x_ology When the original claim is about x_ology. Further, when you are making claims that presume something more substantive then a response about some ology issue is relevant and appropriate. This is not an academic blog, it is true, but it is addressing substantive and intellectual issues for a broader Christian audience, which is the aim of the article. In other words, x_ology is not only relevant and fair, it is the primary subject!
My comment about phenomenology was a response to your accusation that I’m not willing to learn anything from gender plurality advocates, but I was showing otherwise.
Concerning the role of theology and politics or social issues or social engagement, that seems to occupy the remainder of your latest response, but those are, again, peripheral to the article and it’s main point. They are important and interesting but not directly relevant in a way that would permit us to go into a sufficiently deep discussion about them. I do believe that theology should be public and even appropriated in political contexts but how and to what degree is more complicated and only indirectly related to the original article. Here in the US we are not a pure democracy, although we seem to be moving in that direction at times, but rather a constitutional republic which has implicit in it certain theological assumptions that make these sorts of discussions about theologies role in politics important, but, again, that takes beyond the pale of the article and the main point there.
Your point about oppression is confusingly situated in a discussion that you are having but is peripheral and seems to be a red herring.
We are having different discussions that only overlap indirectly.
I was thinking back to this discussion while reading Douglas Murray’s most recent book over the weekend. The book is an excellent critique of the illiberal left and its program of seeking to upend the social and economic order along the lines of a kind of soft totalitarianism. The aggressive promotion of certain ideologies around gender identity is part and parcel of that project.
But the line of argument proposed by the author here is just the flip side of the same illiberal coin. He uses different terminology than that used by the illiberal left. And the argument is framed differently. But it’s essentially an illiberal argument. It ignores the fact that biological sex does not exert complete control over the traits that tend to contribute to our notions of gender. Of course, biological sex does influence most of these traits. But it doesn’t exert complete control over them.
We observe this every day. It should be uncontroversial. The binary of biological sex does not lead to a corresponding gender binary. Even so, it does lead to something that we could call a pseudo-binary, as biological sex has an influence many of the traits that go into defining gender.
On the left, observable facts are cast aside in favor of people’s subjective expressions of their “lived experiences.” They feel themselves to be victims of discrimination, and so construct identities that reflect this perceived victimhood. The ordinary pressures to conform, which are present in any social order, are now construed as unjust and a cause to burn everything down.
But what the illiberal right proffers isn’t too different. Their “lived experience” is that there is a strict gender binary and that things like transgenderism and homosexuality simply can’t exist. The fact that they do exist, albeit in small numbers, is of no moment. Faced with a reality that doesn’t conform to their ideology, they too would have us burn everything down. See, for example, the recent writings of Sohrab Ahmari, Rod Dreher, and the like. They would have us avoid leftist totalitarianism by adopting rightist authoritarianism. Of course the illiberal right often eschews explicitly authoritarian language, preferring instead to make religion or tradition the apparent advocated of their cause.
In my view, the rise of the illiberal right tends to provide some justification for the proposals of the illiberal left. And, because I think it’s more likely that we become a pink police state than something authoritarian, I tend to see the illiberal right as undermining any strategy for defeating the illiberal left.
As a conservative who still believes in the liberal order, I’d prefer that we address issues like transgenderism, homosexuality, and the like, within a framework of accommodation. Instead of lurching towards illiberal ideologies that justify ignoring the the social issues presented by these phenomena, I suggest that it makes more sense to discuss what reasonable accommodations we can make.
I say this as a gay conservative who has little regard for the LGBTQ+ movement. In my view, the movement consists mostly of illiberal leftists who saw the plight of gays in our society as a suitable vehicle for their political goal of burning down the liberal Western order. We gays picked up some ancillary benefits, but few of us were interested in the movement’s broader goal. We simply wanted to be accommodated in a reasonable way. It is the refusal of many on the right to entertain any possibility of reasonable accommodation that gave unearned credibility to the movement and its broader political goals. Now the movement has moved onto to gender identity and transgenderism. And many on the right falling into the same illiberal trap again, and lending undue legitimacy again to the illiberal left.