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.