Thursday, 18 June 2015

Gender confusion

The reality of gender confusion
In recent weeks Bruce Jenner, an Olympian, has featured on the cover of Vanity Fair as one Caitlyn Jenner. He’s become the most high-profile example of what people are calling a “trans-woman.” That’s someone who was “assigned male at birth” but whose gender identity is said to be “that of a woman.” But gender confusion doesn’t stop there. Facebook now lists 51 genders its users can choose from.

One explanatory article is helpful in understanding the thinking behind what’s going on. It distinguishes “sex” as a matter of biology, from “gender” which it says is “your personal sense of who you are.” It continues: “Most of us never question or think much about our gender, but it’s an essential part of our identity. And given the endlessly diverse ways people experience their gender, their bodies, and their masculinity or femininity, it’s a wonder there are so few words to describe it. Except there are actually (at least) dozens of gender terms, and Facebook is now offering its users numerous options to present their gender identity to their Facebook friends in the same way they do in the real world (or a different way – because, hey, it’s your gender identity and you can do what you want).”[1]

Some reasons for gender confusion
It’s a telling quote in all sorts of ways. And it highlights at least four reasons why gender is so confused in our day:

1) Our rebellion. Difficult as it might sound in our day even to Christians, you cannot just “do what you want” with your gender. It is given us by God. To think we can displays our sinful desire to be God, and so determine who we really are (Gen 3v5-6).

2) Our confusion. The Bible tells us this rebellion leads to us being foolish in our thinking and subject to all sorts of wrong feelings (Rom 1v21-27, Eph 5v17-29). So we find ourselves unable to understand who we are properly. Rather than assess the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity by scripture, people feel if they don’t fit that they belong to a different gender and may then seek biological change.

3) Our naivety. Not acknowledging how sin has led to a confusion of our thinking and feeling, it is assumed that if we think or feel we are a different gender then that is trustworthy, and that is who we really are. More than that, sin has fractured the natural order, including our bodies. So people termed “intersexual” are actually born without clear biological gender (Rom 8v20). Biblically that should be seen as a deformity. But our culture has no recognition that we and our world are broken, and so what seems natural or right is assumed to be so.

4) Our dualism. Rather ironically in a culture that is so concerned with the physical environment, people see their humanity as divided. The physical body is just a shell, whereas the inner person, or soul, is the trustworthy bit that defines who we are. If we feel we are something other than our biological gender, this is therefore assumed to be the real us, and our body something we can just change to fit. This view may stem from the influence of eastern religion. But contrasting it, the Bible presents us as a unified embodied-soul. Who we are is defined both by the physical body God has given us as well as our inner self. This is seen most clearly in the fact that our final state isn’t to be a disembodied spirit, but to be resurrected in a new body.

Gaining gender clarity
In the light of all this, it is critical that we understand what it is to be male and female. And there are two essential truths that are paramount.

1) Gender is not defined by character or personality.
I can see nowhere that the Bible defines masculinity as being particularly sporty or brave or direct or rational or liking the colour blue; nor women as particularly sensitive or nurturing or emotional or creative or with a preference for pink.

Of course we don’t know how sporty Jesus was, nor what colours he favoured. But he was certainly all these other things! Our identity as men and women is as sons and daughters of God who were all made to image him and be restored into that image. So true masculinity is to be biological male and like Christ, and true femininity, to be biologically female and like Christ.

That’s not to deny there are attributes that are more dominant in particular genders. Our biology, the impact of sin, and the presuppositions of our culture may lean us towards certain traits. But despite that, what the Bible does teach is that if you are a sensitive man or a more direct woman, you are no less male or female. In fact, if you are an insensitive man, you are lacking in your maleness because that is an aspect of God’s image you lack. And if you lack directness as a woman, you are lacking in your femaleness as that is an aspect of God’s image you lack too.

Having said all this, although the Bible rejects cultural stereotypes regarding character and personality as defining one’s gender, it is quite clear that distinction between the genders should be upheld according to cultural norms with regard to appearance. So it forbids cross-dressing and commends arranging one’s appearance in a way that is common to one’s gender (Deut 22v5, 1 Cor 11v2-16). The reason for this is the importance of affirming the difference between the genders for the sake of clarity with respect to their different roles within marriage (1 Cor 11v7-12). This leads to our next point.

2) Gender is defined by role and biology.
This is the key. In making humanity in his image, why did God create woman as a distinct gender? Because Adam didn’t have a helper suitable for helping in him in his task (Gen 2v18-25). So the differences in the genders flows directly from the different roles God intended for them in creation. And so men and women are created different for the sake of (1) the particular task of filling and subduing the earth (Gen 1v28), and (2) the further task of imaging God in how they do this – most especially by picturing his relationship with his people (Gen 1v27, Eph 5v22-33).

About women
In terms of “filling the earth,” women are therefore biologically created for bearing children, making nurturing of younger children their primary role (Gen 3v16, 1 Tim 2v15). And we should note that throughout most of history, the vast majority would have been married and this would have dominated their lives. They would have breastfed their children until 2-3 years old, by which time another child might have been born. It is for this practical reason that women’s sphere is portrayed as predominantly that of the home. Nevertheless, we should note men are also expected to raise their children (Eph 6v4) and engage in domestic life (Gen 18v3-8).

About men
In a general sense men were biologically created stronger so that they could engage in manual labour in order to provide for their wife and children and so enable women to fulfil their particular role. Providing for his family is therefore man’s primary role in scripture (Gen 3v17-19, 1 Tim 5v8). In this the husband is to picture how God in Christ gives himself up for the good of his people (Eph 5v28-29). If there is an option, the husband should therefore remain the primary provider, not only freeing his wife to use her time for the children and so organising things at home, but for other service in the church and community she might choose to engage in as well (1 Tim 5v9-14). This is why, in “subduing the earth,” men have historically dominated outside the home. But, again, this has not been to the exclusion of women. Eve was to help Adam in caring for the garden and so to some degree "enter the workplace" to provide for their children too (Gen 2v15-24, also Prov 31v13-18, 24).

About roles
For the sake of orderly marriages then, God has ascribed the role of primary provider and head of the family to husbands. This is so that they can take responsibility for the ultimate oversight and care of the family, leaving their wives free to focus on their particular role of childrearing. For this reason, the role of wives is that of primary nurturer and helper. However, these roles are not absolute. Women are commended for working to provide for their families and managing their households under their husband’s oversight (Prov 31v10-31), whilst husbands are called to raise their children in the faith and serve their wives (Eph 5v25-6v4). The picture is of a wonderfully harmonious team in which the genders compliment rather than compete with one-another, agreeing how to best use their time and gifts to contribute to society and raise godly children, whilst having particular roles assigned so that wives are properly cared for and children flourish. 

Gender cannot be divorced from an understanding of these roles. Rather it is defined by them. In short, there are only two genders – male and female, which are evident in the biological differences necessary for humanity’s great tasks of filling and subduing the world and picturing God’s relationship with his people. Certainly, not all men or women will marry and so engage in these roles. And outside the family of the home and of the church all are free to follow any vocation that is not sinful. Nevertheless, because these tasks are the reason for humanity being created in two genders, the limit to two genders remains for all.

The cultural challenge today
At their most basic, these differences were pretty self-evident until the industrial revolution. What has changed since then is that technology has given men greater choice over their vocation. This has made work for many more a joy than burden, which understandably exacerbates any sense of drudgery their wives might feel in their particular role. At the same time birth-control has meant that women have not been so bound to child-bearing, whilst the diversification of labour has increased the amount of jobs women might engage in too. Moreover, in making people more self-sufficient we have become more individualistic. And this individualism lays great stress on being, doing and achieving whatever one wants in life, often irrespective of others or the wider community.

It is no great surprise that feminism appeared in this environment. It sought to free women from what was sometimes little more than domestic slavery, which women could not previously escape because of their dependence on the provision of men. Feminists recognized this could entail a sort of prostitution, where a woman has little choice but to be married off to a man who would pay her with his provision whilst requiring her sexual services and the raising of his children in return. Feminists wanted women to have equal opportunity to find their own path in life, without requiring them to marry and have children, and without limiting them in the job they might have. The advances of the modern era made all this possible.

It would be wrong to criticise feminism in its entirety, and certainly to criticise all with feminist sympathies. Indeed, where Christians failed to confront the oppression of women from the scriptures, we could perhaps say that God providentially used feminism to give them a much needed voice. Nevertheless, unless checked by scripture, you can immediately see the damage feminist assumptions can do. First, they can lead to a resenting of the God-given role of childrearing and of unborn children themselves. Pregnancy is seen as a way women can become enslaved to men or to domesticity. And so some feminists have strongly argued for a woman’s right to abort her children and leave her newborn children with others so that she can enter paid work as soon as she can. Second, feminist assumptions can lead to the undermining of marriage too. We’ve seen that marriage is intended to operate as a team of two where the wife does depend on her husband to provide so that she can devote herself to her responsibility in childrearing. Outraged at how this has been abused, some radical feminists have challenged the differences between men and women that are reflected in these roles, declared that marriage and the family should be eradicated, and commended same-sex relationships to avoid any sense of dependence between the sexes. (This is important background to the gay rights movement and its own attack on the traditional family.) Third, although there will be other causes, it is not hard to see how the assumptions of feminism can therefore lead to just the confusion over gender that we see today. With fewer people marrying or having children, more opting for careers rather than the roles inherent with marriage, and a general undermining of the biological difference between genders, people are more likely to consider that biological difference as malleable. Moreover, societal views of masculinity and femininity are then likely to be exaggerated as men and women look for other ways to mark their difference. And this may well lead those who do not fit these societal norms to question their gender. Furthermore, the breakdown of marriage, the lack of role models due to parental absence, and the confused portrayal of gender in society, must only confuse things further.

Of course, the abuse that feminism reacted to is a far cry from the biblical ideal, when rightly understood. In scripture women are commended for business, industry, and leadership in society (Prov 31v10-31, Acts 16v14, Jud 4v4), and to be loved and cherished by their husbands (Eph 5v22-32). Indeed, the many stipulations for fathers regarding their daughters and husbands with their wives were intended to protect women against being used, abused and discarded in the very ways that many women suffer today, having been told it is liberating to enter relationships with men without the protection of marriage commitments, societal pressure to keep them, or the oversight of parents.

Lessons for gender confusion
1)          We can see then that what people have started terming “gender” (“your personal sense of who you are”) cannot be divorced from “sex” (your “biology”). The two are actually one and the same. And there are and can only be two true genders.

2)          We must accept, however, that because of sin everyone is to some degree broken, confused and lacking in terms of gender as in all other areas. It should therefore be no surprise, if we experience feelings of confusion or alienation in this area, especially as we grow up in a particularly broken and confused society.

3)          We must feel great pity for the very few who due to the fractured nature of the created order are born “intersex” – ie. without a clear biological gender. They are perhaps like those Jesus taught were born as eunuchs and so unable to marry (Matt 19v12). They are likely to be deeply confused about their gender, and will need much support as they hopefully wait in Christ for resurrection in a perfected body. However, my understanding is that many if not all such people may have a clear chromosomal gender, with their bodily uncertainty down to hormonal issues. If so, an operation at a suitable point might be appropriate to bring the body inline with their innate gender.

4)          Those who identify with a different gender to their biological sex must be viewed differently. We must certainly feel great compassion for all who struggle with respect to their gender. But the fact that the bodies of these people do not display any problems with regard to determining gender means that their problem must lie within. And gender identity is formed in all sorts of complex ways as one grows up and is influenced by one’s family, society etc. But changing the gender of the body is therefore likely to make the struggle worse rather than better. Instead, what such people need is help in not basing their gender identity on past experiences or societal stereotypes, but on accepting their biological gender and seeking to become like Christ with the whole range of human characteristics. In this, they should also be discouraged from aligning themselves with the opposite sex in clothing and appearance.